Why people are almost never going to be reporting bugs upstream

October 3, 2014

In comments on my entry about CentOS bug reporting, opk wrote:

If it is essentially an upstream bug and not packaging I tend to think it's far better to wade into the upstream swamps as you call it. I once packaged something for Debian and mainly gave it up because of the volume of bug reports that were basically for upstream but I had to verify, reproduce, and forward them.

Then Pete left a comment that nicely summarizes the problems with opk's suggestion:

[...] But of course you have to commit to running versions with debugging and then of course there's "the latest" even for the 7. Due to the critical nature of my NM use, I had difficulties experimenting with it.

The reality is that upstream bug reports aren't going to work for almost everyone unless the project has a very generous upstream. The problem is simple: almost all Linux distributions both use old versions of packages and patch them. If your version is patched or not current or both, almost every open source project is going to immediately ask 'can you reproduce this with an unmodified current version?'

I won't go so far as to say that this request is a non-starter, because in theory it can be done. For some projects it is good enough to download the current version (perhaps the current development version) and compile it yourself to be installed in an alternate location (or just run from where it was compiled). Other projects can be rebuilt into real distribution packages and then installed on your system without blowing up the world. And of course if this bug is absolutely critical to you, maybe you're willing to blow up the world just to be able to submit a bug report.

What all of this is is too much work, especially for the payoff most people are likely to get. The reality is that you're unlikely to benefit much from reporting any bug, and you're especially unlikely to benefit from upstream bug fixes unless you're willing to permanently run the upstream version (because if you're not, your distribution has to pick up and possibly backport the upstream bug fix if one is made).

(Let's skip the question of how many bug reporters even have the expertise to go through the steps necessary to try out the upstream version.)

Because reporting bugs upstream is so much work, in practice almost no one is going to do it no matter what you ask (or at least they aren't going to file useful ones). The direct corollary is that a policy of 'report bugs upstream' is in practice a policy of 'don't file bug reports'.

The one semi-exception to all of this is when your distribution package is an unmodified upstream version that the upstream (still) supports. At that point it makes sense to put a note in your bug tracker to explain this and say that upstream will take reports without problems. You're still asking bug reporters to do more work (now they have to go deal with the upstream bug reporting system too), but at least it's a pretty small amount of work.

Written on 03 October 2014.
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Last modified: Fri Oct 3 23:56:29 2014
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