Library Updating. Risk it Now, or Risk it Later?

Chances are your software depends on external libraries. What should you do, if a new version of such a library is released? Update immediately? But what if the library isn’t backward compatible? Should you swallow the pill immediately, and make the necessary changes to your system so that it can work with the new version? Or is it safe to wait for now, and avoid immediate cost and risk?

Together with Steven Raemaekers and Joost Visser (both from SIG), we embarked upon a reseach project in which we seek to answer questions like these. We are looking at library and API stability, as well as at the costs and consequences of library incompatibilities.

A first result, in which we try to measure library stability, has been presented at this year’s International Conference on Software Maintenance. The corresponding paper starts with a real life example illustrating the issues at hand.

The system in this example comprises around 200,000 lines of Java code, divided over around 4000 classes. The application depends on the Spring Framework, Apache Struts, and Hibernate. Its update history is shown below.

History of the system and the library it uses

The system was built in 2004. Third-party library dependencies were managed using Maven. Version numbers of the latest versions which were available in 2004 were hard-coded in the configuration files of the project. These libraries were not updated to more recent versions in the next seven years.

The system used version 1.0 (from 2003) of the Acegi authentication and security framework. In 2008, this library was included in Spring, and renamed into Spring Security, then at 2.0.0. As time passed, several critical safety-related bug fixes and improvements were added to Spring Security, as well as a number of changes breaking the existing API.

One might argue that keeping a security library up to date is always a good idea. But since the development team expected compatibility issues when upgrading the Acegi library, the update to Spring Security was deferred as long as possible.

In 2011, a new feature, single sign-on, was required for the system. To implement this, the team decided to adopt Atlassian Crowd.

Unfortunately, the old Acegi framework could not communicate with Atlassian Crowd. The natural replacement for Acegi was Spring Security, which was then in version 3.0.6.

However, the system already made use of an older version of the general Spring Framework. Therefore, in order to upgrade to Spring Security 3.0.6, an upgrade to the entire Spring Framework had to be conducted as well.

To make things worse, the system also made use of an older version (2.0.9) of Apache Struts. Since the new version of Spring could not work with this old version of Struts, Struts had to be updated as well.

Upgrading Struts not just affected the the system’s Java code, but also its Java Server Pages. Between Struts 2.0.9 and the syntax of the Expression Language used in JSP changed. Consequently, all web pages in which dynamic content was presented uinsg JSP had to be updated.

Eventually, a week was spent to implement the changes and upgrades.

The good news was that there was an automated test suite available consisting of both JUnit and Selenium test cases. Without this test suite, the impact of this update would have been much harder to assess and control.

This case illustrates several issues with third-party library dependencies.

  1. Third party libraries introduce backward incompatibilities.
  2. Backward incompatibilities introduce costs and risks when upgrading libraries.
  3. Backward incompatibilities are not just caused by direct dependencies
    you control yourself but also by transitive ones you do not control.
  4. There likely will come a moment in which upgrading must be done: To fix bugs, to improve security, or when the system’s functionality needs to be extended.
  5. The longer you postpone updating, the bigger the eventual pain. As your system grows and evolves, the costs and risks of upgrading an old library increase. Such an accumulation of maintenance debt may lead to a much larger effort than in the case of smaller incremental updates.

In short, not upgrading your libraries immediately is taking the bet that it never needs to be done. Upgrading now is taking the bet it must be done anyway, in which case doing it as soon as possible is the cheapest route.

Paper "Measuring Software Library Stability through Historical Version Analysis

The full ICSM 2012 research paper.

In our research project, we seek to deepen our insight in these issues. We are looking at empirical data on how often incompatabilities occur, the impact of library popularity on library stability, the effort involved in resolving incompatibilities, and at ways in which to avoid them in the first place. Stay tuned!

Should you have similar stories from the updating trenches to share with us, please drop us a line!