Tag Archives: CI

Taking curl documentation quality up one more notch

Tldr; test and verify as much as possible also in the documentation.

I’m a sloppy typist. When I write several words in a row, like for example when creating complete sentences for something like a blog post, one or two of the words end up slightly misspelled.

Sure, many editors and systems have runtime spellchecks these days and they make it easy to quickly fix typos, but not all systems are like that and there are also situations where there are many false positives due to formatting or just the range of “special” words. They also rarely yell at me when I overuse the word “very” or start sentences with “But”.

curl documentation

I work fiercely on making the curl and libcurl documentation top-notch state of the art good and complete. I want my users to feel that. Everything is documented; clearly and with details and examples.

I want and aim for libcurl to be the best documented software library in the world.

Good documentation does not come for free or easily. It requires dedicated work and a lot of effort put into it.

This is of course a never-ending effort as things change over time and we have an almost ridiculous amount of options and details to document.

The key to improve ourselves is of course two good old classics: tests and CI jobs. This works great even for documentation, and perhaps in particular for technical documentation that includes lots of symbols and name references that need to be correct.

As I have recently worked on tightening some bolts and made it harder to land typos, I wanted to take the opportunity to describe some of our ways.

symbols-in-versions

Early 2009 I had some interactions with people in the git project and we discussed their use of libcurl. As we introduce new features to curl over time, users who build with curl may want to write their code to conditionally use the new stuff if they have a new enough libcurl installed, or just skip those features if the installation is too old. git is an application like that. They use libcurl a lot and they offer to build with libcurl installations that are maybe a dozen years old.

I then created a file in the libcurl git repository that I named symbols-in-versions. It lists all publicly provided curl symbols and in which libcurl release they were introduced. A good resource for libcurl users. It took quite an effort to figure them all out after the fact.

Over time, the number of entries in this file has grown significantly.

Tests

Of course, in order to do good CI jobs, they need to have tests to run so we start there.

I will mention some test numbers below. The test numbers in curl do not have any inherent meaning, they are just unique identifiers. To help us find the test source files and refer to tests and their failures easily.

Test 1119

Test 1119 was introduced in November 2010 as I realized I needed to make sure that symbols-in-versions (SIV) is kept up-to-date. It will be a useless document if it lags behind or misses symbols. It needs to include them all and the info needs to be correct.

I wrote a script that extracts all globally provided symbols in some curl header files and then verifies that they are all listed in SIV.

This test now made it very clear when we forgot to add a name to SIV, and it also pointed out if one of the names in SIV for example had a typo.

Test 1139

Scan SIV, figure out all existing options provided for three key libcurl functions: curl_easy_setopt, curl_multi_setopt and curl_easy_getinfo. Then verify that they all are mentioned in the respective “main” man page (curl_easy_setopt.3 etc), where they refer to the individual separate page for the option.

This test also verifies that the curl tool’s man page (curl.1) lists exactly the same set of command line options as is listed in the tool’s source code file tool_getparam.c and that is shown in the tool’s --help output. Consistency is king.

Test 1167

To make sure the symbols we provide in libcurl header files all use the correct name space we created test 1167. Using the correct name space in this context means that all publicly provided symbols need to start with curl of libcurl, case insensitively. It is important for several reasons, first of course because a good library does not pollute the name space to risk collisions and problems, but also using the correct prefix is important so that test 1119 finds all the symbols correctly. So they need to use the right prefix, and when they do, they are scanned and verified correctly.

Test 1173

For libcurl we have several function calls that take options. In some cases these functions accept a very large amount of different options. Every such option is documented in its own dedicated man page. Over time, with lots of contributors working on the project, the different man pages were not all including the same information in the same order and a huge portion of them even missed one of the most important details in programming documentation: examples.

Test 1173 checks all libcurl man pages and verifies that they have the eight mandatory libcurl sections present (NAME, SYNOPSIS, DESCRIPTION etc) and that they all are in the right order and that there is an example section that is more than 2 lines.

This test also does basic nroff formatting verification so that we know the page will look decent in a man page viewer too.

Helps us greatly – especially when we add new man pages.

Proselint

The tool that taught me to stop using the word “very” also finds a lot of other common bad takes on English is called proselint. Since a while back we run a CI job that runs proselint on all markdown files in the curl git repository. It helps us detect and edit away some amount of bad language.

Spellcheck

At the time of this writing, there are 482 individual libcurl related man pages and there is a total of around 85,000 lines of documentation in the project. I decided we should run a spellcheck on these man pages in an attempt to reduce the number of typos and mistakes.

The CI job I created for this first strips out some sections from the man pages that we deem too hard to spellcheck: the SYNOPSIS and the EXAMPLES sections for example. The script also removes all names that look like public curl symbols, as spellchecking them with a normal spellchecker is just impossible and they need special treatment. See further below for that.

Finally, we convert the stripped man page versions into markdown – because we have no spellchecker tools for nroff – and then spellcheck those.

It took far many more hours than I had anticipated to eradicate all the spelling mistakes and we ended up with an custom dictionary with over 800 words that aspell does not like but that I insist are valid for us.

Verify curl symbols

As I mentioned above, we strip out the curl symbols to hide them from the spellchecker.

Instead I extended the test 1119 mentioned above to also scan through all the libcurl man pages and find every single mention of something that looks like the name of a public curl symbol – and then match those against the names present in SIV and output an error if a symbol was referenced that was not documented already and therefore not actually a public curl symbol. With this, no man page can reference a non-existing curl symbol. Every such typo is detected.

Links for reporting on docs bugs

No matter how hard we try, there will always be errors that sneak in anyway and there will be sentences and phrasing that might have felt good at the time of writing but later, in the view of someone else, do not communicate the right message or maybe mislead users to misunderstand functionality.

Bug reports on documentation is key to finding such warts so that we can correct them. In the curl project we make it as easy as possible to report bugs in documentation by providing direct links on virtually all man pages shown on the website. The link takes you directly to the “new issue” page with a template subject filled in with the man page’s name.

This convenience unfortunately leads to a certain amount of “issue spam” but I think that is still a fairly cheap price to pay.

Everything curl

The book is a treasure trove of additional and complementary curl documentation but it is actually written and maintained outside of the curl repository. It has its own set of CI tests, including proselint and spellchecks.

Further

All these tests have been added gradually and slowly over a long period. It gives us time to polish and work out possible flaws in the tests and lets us make sure the work as intended and don’t block development.

I don’t have any immediate pending new pull requests for checking the curl documentation but if there still are details in there that we can check that we currently do not, I am sure that we will find those over time and make sure we verify them too.

If you have ideas and suggestions, I am all ears.

Related

Making world-class docs takes effort

The Travis separation a year later

A little over a year ago, we ditched Travis CI as a service to use for the curl project.

Up until that day, it had been our preferred and favored CI service for many years. At most, we ran 34 CI jobs on it, for every pull-request and commit. It was the service that we leaned on when we transitioned the curl project into a CI-heavy user. Our use of CI really took off 2017 and has been increasing ever since.

A clean cut

We abruptly cut off over 30 jobs from the service just one day. At the time, that was a third of all our CI. The CI jobs that we rely on to verify our work and to keep things working and stable in the project.

More CI services

At the time of the amputation, we run 99 CI jobs distributed over 5 services, so even with one of them cut off we still ran jobs on AppVeyor, Azure Pipelines, GitHub Actions and Cirrus CI. We were not completely stranded.

New friends

Luckily for us, when one solution goes sour there are often alternatives out there that we can move over to and continue our never-ending path forward.

In our case, friendly people helped moving over almost all ex-Travis jobs to the (for us) new service Zuul CI. In July 2021, we had 29 jobs on it. We also added Circle CI to the mix and started running jobs there.

In July 2021 – a month after the cut – we counted 96 running jobs (a few old jobs were just dropped as we reconsidered their value). While the work involved a lot of adjusting scripts, pulling hair over yaml files and more, it did not cause any significant service loss over an extended period. We managed pretty good.

There was no noticeable glitch in quality or backed up “guilt” in the project because of the transition and small period of lesser CI either. Thanks to the other services still running, we were still in a good shape.

Why all the services

In the end of August 2022 we still use 6 different CI services and we now run 113 CI jobs on them, for every push to master and to pull-requests.

There are primarily three reasons why we still use a variety of services.

  1. load balancing: we get more parallelism by running jobs on many services as they all have a limited parallelism per service.
  2. We also get less problems when one of the services has some glitch or downtime, as then we still work with the others. The not all eggs in the same basket thing.
  3. The various services also have different features, offer different platforms and work slightly differently which for several jobs make them necessary to run on a specific service, or rather they cannot run on most of the other services.

It does not end

Over the year since the amputation, we have learned that our new friend Zuul CI has turned out to not work quite as reliable and convenient as we would like it. Since a few months back, we are now gradually moving away from this service. Slowly moving over jobs from there to run on one the other five instead.

Over time, our new most preferred CI service has turned out to be GitHub Actions. At the latest count, it now run 44 CI jobs for us. We still have 12 jobs on Zuul targeted for transition.

Our use of different CI services over time in the curl project

Services come and go. We have different ideas and our requirements and ambitions change. I am sure we will continue to service-jump when needed. It is just a natural development. A part of a software development life.

On flakiness

A big challenge and hurdle with our CI setup remains: to maintain the builds and keep them stable and functioning. With over a hundred jobs running on six services and our code and test suite being portable and things being networked and running on many platforms, it is job that we quite often fail at. It has turned out mighty difficult to avoid that at least a few of the jobs are constantly red, “permafailing”, at any single moment.

If this is stuff you like to tinker with, we could use your help!

Bye bye Travis CI

In the afternoon of October 17, 2013 we merged the first config file ever that would use Travis CI for the curl project using the nifty integration at GitHub. This was the actual introduction of the entire concept of building and testing the project on every commit and pull request for the curl project. Before this merge happened, we only had our autobuilds. They are systems run by volunteers that update the code from git maybe once per day, build and run the tests and then upload all the logs.

Don’t take this wrong: the autobuilds are awesome and have helped us make curl what it is. But they rely on individuals to host and admin the machines and to setup the specific configs that are tested.

With the introduction of “proper” CI, the configs that are tested are now also hosted in git and allows the project members to better control and adjust the tests and configs, plus that we can run them on already on pull-requests so that we can verify code before merge instead of having to first merge the code to master before the changes can get verified.

Seriously. Always.

Travis provided a free service with a great promise.

Promise from Travis website as recently as late 2020.

In 2017 we surpassed 10 jobs per commit, all still on Travis.

In early 2019 we reached 30 jobs per commit, and at that time we started to use and spread out the work on more CI services. Travis would still remain as the one we’d lean on the heaviest. It was there and we had custom-written a bunch of jobs for it and it performed well.

Travis even turned some levers for us so that we got more parallel processing powers than on the regular open source tier, and we listed them as sponsors of the curl project for their gracious help. This may or may not be related to the fact that I met Josh Kalderimis (co-founder of travis) in 2019 and we talked about curl’s use of it and they possibly helping us more.

Transition to death

This year, 2021, the curl project runs around 100 CI jobs per commit and PR. 33 of them ran on Travis when we were finally pushed over from travis-ci.org to their new travis-ci.com domain. A transition they’d been advertising for a while but wasn’t very clearly explained or motivated in my eyes.

The new domain also implied new rules and new tiers, we quickly learned. Now we would have to apply to be recognized as an open source project (after 7.5 years of using their services as an open source project). But also, in order to get to take advantage of their free tier being an open source project was no longer enough. Among the new requirements on the project was this:

Project must not be sponsored by a commercial company or
organization (monetary or with employees paid to work on the project)

We’re a small independent open source project, but yes I work on curl full-time thanks to companies paying for curl support. I’m paid to work on curl and therefore we cannot meet that requirement.

Not eligible but still there

I’m not sure why, but apparently we still got free “credits” for running CI on Travis. The CI jobs kept working and I think maybe I sighed a little from relief – of course I did it prematurely as it only took us a few days into the month of June until we had run out of the free credits. There’s no automatic refill but we can apparently ask for more. We asked, but many days after having asked we still had no more credits and no CI jobs could run on Travis anymore. CI on Travis at the same level as before would cost more than 249 USD/month. Maybe not so much “it will always be free”.

The 33 jobs on Travis were there for a purpose. They’re prerequisites for us to develop and ship a quality product. Without the CI jobs running, we risk landing bad code. This was not a sustainable situation.

We looked for alternative services and we quickly got several offers of help and assistance.

New service

Friends from both Zuul CI and Circle CI stepped up and helped us started to get CI jobs transitioned over from Travis over to their new homes.

At June 14th 2021, we officially had no more jobs running on Travis.

Visualized as a graph, we can see the Travis jobs “falling off a cliff” with Zuul rising to the challenge:

Services come and go. There’s no need to get hung up on that fact but instead keep moving forward with our eyes fixed on the horizon.

Thank you Travis CI for all those years of excellent service!

Pay up?

Lots of people have commented and think I’m “whining” about Travis CI charging for something that is useful and that I should rather just pay up. I could probably have gone with that but I dislike their broken promise and that they don’t consider us Open source anymore and I feel I have a responsibility to use the funds we get from gracious donors as wisely and economically as possible, and that includes using no-cost or cheap services rather than services charging thousands of dollars per year.

If there really were no other available and viable options, then paying could’ve been an alternative. Now, moving on to something else was the right choice for us.

Credits

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay