Distributed Bug Tracking

The free software/open source/software development world needs a distributed bug tracking story. Because the current one sucks.

The State of the Art

There are a number of tools written between 2006 and 2010 or so that provide partial or incomplete solutions to the problem. Almost isn't quite good enough. The "resources" section of this post, contains an overview of the most important (my judgment,) representatives of the current work in the area with a bit of editorializing.

In general these solutions are good starts, and I think they allow us (or me) a good starting point for thinking about what distributed bug tracking could be like. Someday.

Bug tracking needs are diverse, which creates a signifigant design challenge for any system in this space. There are many existing solutions, that everyone hates, and I suspect most would-be developers and innovators in the space would like to avoid opening this can of worms.

Another factor is that, while most people have come to the conclusion that distributed source control tools are the "serious" contemporary tool for managing source code the benefits of distributed bug tracking hasn't yet propogated in the same way. Many folks have begun to come to terms with the fact that some amount of tactical centralization is inevitable, required, and even desirable [1] in the context of a issue tracking systems.

Add to this the frequent requirement that non-developer users often need to track and create issues, and the result is that we've arrived at something of an impasse.


A distributed bug tracking system would need:

  • A good way to provide short, unique identifiers for individual issues and comments so that users can discuss issues canonically.

  • An interface contained in a single application, script, or binary, that you could distribute with the application.

  • A simple/lightweight web-based interface so that users can (at least) review, search, and reference issues from a web browser.

    Write access would also be good, but is less critical. Also, it might be more practical (both from a design and a workflow perspective,) to have users submit bugs on the web into a read-only "staging queue," that developers/administrators would then formally import into the project. This formalizes a certain type of triage approach that many projects may find useful.

  • To be separable from the source code history, either by using a branch, or by using pre-commit hooks to ensure that you never commit changes to code/content and the bugs at the same time.

  • To be editable, and to interact with commonly accessible tools that users already use. Email, command line tools, the version control systems, potentially documentation systems, build systems, testing frameworks and so forth.

  • Built on reliable tools. [2]

  • To provide an easy way to customize your "views" on bugs for a particular team or project. In other words, each team can freely decide which extra fields get attached to their bugs, along with which fields are visible by default, which are required, and so on--without interfering with other projects.

The Future of the Art

  1. We (all) need to work on building new and better tools to help solve the distributed issue tracking problem. This will involve:
    • learning from the existing attempts,
    • continuing to develop and solidify the above requirements,
    • (potentially) test and develop a standard (yaml/json?) based data storage format that is easy to parse, and easily merged that multiple tools can use.
    • Develop some simple prototype tools, potentially as a suite of related utilities (a la early versions of git.) that facilitate interaction with the git database. With an eye towards flexibility and extensible.
  2. While there are implications for free software hosting as well as vendor independence and network service autonomy (a la `Franklin Street Statement <http://autonomo.us/2008/07/franklin-street-statement/>`_.) I think the primary reason to pursue distributed bug tracking has more to do with productivity and better engineering practices, and less with the policy. In summary:
    • Bug database systems that run locally and are fast[3] and always available.
    • Tools that permit offline interaction with issue database.
    • Tools that allow users to connect issues to branches.
    • Tools that make it possible to component-ize bug databases in parallel with software


(With commentary,)

  • dist-bugs mailing list

    This is the canonical source for discussion around distributed bug tracking.

  • Bugs Everywhere

    This is among the most well developed solution speaking holistically. "be" is written in Python, can generate output for the web. It uses its own data format, and has a pretty good command line tool. The HTML output generate is probably not very fast at scale (none are,) but I have not tested it.

  • Ditz

    Ditz is a very well developed solution. Ditz: implemented in Ruby, has a web interface, has a command line tool, uses a basic YAML data format, and stores data in branch. Current development is slow, getting it up and running is non-trivial, and my sense is that there isn't a very active community of contributors. There are reasons for this, likely but they are beyond the scope of this overview.

  • pitz

    Pitz is a Python re-implementation of Ditz, and while the developer(s?) have produced a "release," the "interface" is a Python shell, and to interact with the database you have to, basically write commands in Python syntax. From a data perspective, however, Pitz, like Ditz is quite developed. Pitz while it stores data in-tree, I think it's important source of ideas/examples/scaffolding.

  • Artemis

    This is a really clever solution that uses Maildirs to store issues. As a result you can interact with and integrate Artimis issues with your existing email client. Pull down changes, and see new bugs in your email, without any complicated email and list server setups.

    The huge caveat is that it's implemented as a plugin for Mercurial, and so can't be used with git projects. Also, all data resides in the tree.

  • git-issues

    In most ways, git-issues is my favorite: it's two Python files, 1700 lines of code, stores issues outside of the source branch, and has a good command line interface. On the downside, it uses XML (which shouldn't matter, but I think probably does, at least in terms of attracting developers,) and doesn't have a web-based interface. It's also currently un-maintained.

  • Prophet/sd

    SD, which is based on a distributed database named Prophet, is a great solution. The primary issue is that it's currently unmentioned and is not as feature complete as it should be. Also a lot of SD focuses on synchronizing with existing centralized issue trackers, potentially at the expense of developing other tools.

[1]It seems that you want centralized issue databases, or at least the fact that centralized issue databases appear canonical is a major selling point for issue tracking software in general. Otherwise, everyone would have their own text file with a bunch of issues, and that would suck.
[2]Because I don't program (much) and it's easy to criticize architectural decisions from afar, I don't want to explicitly say "we need to write this in Python for portability reasons" or something that would be similarly unfounded. At the same time, adoption and ease of use is crucial here, both for developers and users. Java and Ruby (and maybe Perl,) for various reasons, add friction to the adoption possibilities.
[3]"Is Jira/Bugzilla/etc. slow for you today?"
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