Wandering Thoughts archives


Ways that I have lost the source code for installed programs

When I compared Go to Python for small scale sysadmin tools, I said that one useful property for Python was that you couldn't misplace the source code for your deployed programs. This property recently hit home for me when I decided that maybe I should rebuild my private binary of my feed reader for reasons beyond the scope of this entry, and had to try to find the source code that my binary was built from. So here is an incomplete list of the ways to lose (in some sense) the source code for your installed programs, focusing on things that I have actually seen happen either at work or for my personal programs.

I don't think I've ever lost source code by deleting it. This is less because I keep careful track of what source code we need to keep and more because I tend to be a software packrat. Deleting things is work, disk space is cheap, we might as well keep it around (and then at some point it's old enough to be of historical interest). We have deleted configuration files for a now-dead machine that were also being used by another machine, though, so we've come close.

The straightforward ways of losing source code by either forgetting where it is or by moving it from where it originally was to some 'obvious' other spot are two sides of the same coin and can be hard to tell apart from each other when you're looking for the source (although if you run 'strings' on an executable to get some likely paths and then they aren't there, things probably got moved). A dangerous and time-wasting variation on this is to start out with the source code in /some/where/prog, build it, rename the source directory to /some/where/prog-old, and reuse /some/where/prog for a new version of the program that you were working on but didn't install.

A variant of this is to wind up with several different source code directories for the program (with different versions in them) with no clear indication of which directory and version was used to build the installed program. If directories have been renamed, the strings embedded in the executable may not help. If you're lucky you left the .o files and so on sitting around so you can at least match up the date of the installed program with the dates of the .o files to figure out which it was.

Another way to lose source code is to start to change or update the code in your nicely organized source directory without taking some sort of snapshot of its state as of when you built the binary you're using. This one has bitten me repeatedly in the past, when I had the source directory I built from but it was no longer in the same state and I had no good way to go back. There are all sorts of ways to wind up here. You can be in the process of making changes, or you can have decided to merge together several divergent versions from different systems (with different patches and changes) into one all-good master version.

(Merging together disparate versions was especially an issue in the days before distributed version control systems. We had a locally written MTA that was used by multiple groups across multiple systems, and of course we wound up with a whole cloud of copies of source code, of various vintages and with various local changes.)

The final way of 'losing' source code that I've encountered is to have the unaltered source code in a known place that you can find, but for it to no longer build in a current environment. All sorts of things can cause this if you have sufficiently old programs; compilers can change what they accept, header files change, your program only works with an old version of some library where you have the necessary shared library objects but not the headers, the program's (auto)configuration system no longer works, and so on. In the past a big source of this was programs that weren't portable to 64 bit environments, but old code can have all sorts of other issues as well.

sysadmin/LosingSourceCodeWays written at 00:01:03; Add Comment

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