Jim Bird

About Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.

This is how Facebook Develops and Deploys Software. Should you care?

A recently published academic paper by Prof. Dror Feitelson at Hebrew University, Eitan Frachtenberg a research scientist at Facebook, and Kent Beck (who is also doing something at Facebook), describes Facebook’s approach to developing and deploying their front-end software. While it would be more interesting to understand how back-end development is done (this is where the real heavy lifting is done scaling up to handle hundreds of millions of users), there are a few things in the paper that are worth knowing about.

Continuous Deployment at Facebook is not Continuous Deployment

Rather than planning work out in projects or breaking work into time boxed Sprints, Facebook developers do most of their work in independent, small changes which are released frequently. This makes sense in Facebook’s online business model, everyone constantly tuning the platform and trying out new options and applications in different user communities, seeing what sticks. It’s a credit to their architecture that so many small, independent changes can actually be done independently and cheaply.

Facebook says that they follow Continuous Deployment, but it’s not Continuous Deployment the way that IMVU made popular where every change is pushed out to customers immediately, or even how a company like Etsy does Continuous Deployment.

At Facebook, code can be released twice a day, but this is done mostly for bug fixes and internal code. New production code is released once per week: thousands of changes by hundreds of developers are packaged up by their small release team on Sundays, run through automated regression testing, and released on Tuesday if the developers who contributed the changes are present. Release engineers assess the risk of changes based on the size of the change, the amount of discussion done in code reviews (which is recorded through an internal code review tool), and on each developer’s “push karma”: how many problems they have seen from code by this developer before.

A tool called “Gatekeeper” controls what features are available to what customers to support dark launching, and all code is released incrementally – to staging, then a subset of users, and so on. Changes can be rolled-back if necessary – individually, or, as a last resort, an entire code release. However, like a lot of Silicon Valley devops shops, they mostly follow the “Real Men only Roll Forward” motto.

Code Ownership

A key to the culture at Facebook is that developers are individually responsible for the code that they wrote, for testing it and supporting it in production. This is reflected in their code ownership model:

Developers must also support the operational use of their software — a combination that’s become known as “devops.” This further motivates writing good code and testing it thoroughly. Developers’ personal stake in keeping the system running smoothly complements the engineering procedures and lets the system maintain quality at scale. Methodologies and tools aren’t enough by themselves because they can always be misused. Thus, a culture of personal responsibility is critical.

Consequently, most source files are modified by only a few engineers. Although at least one other engineer reviews all changes before they’re committed, a third of the source files have only been edited by one engineer, and another quarter by two. Only 10 percent of the files are handled by more than seven engineers. On the other hand, the distribution of engineers per file has a heavy tail, with the most widely shared file handled by no fewer than 870 distinct engineers. These widely shared files are predominantly library files and also include major configuration and top-level PHP files.

Testing? We don’t need no stinking testing…

Facebook doesn’t have an independent test team, because, they say, they don’t need one.

First, they depend a lot on code reviews to find bugs:

At Facebook, code review occupies a central position. Every line of code that’s written is reviewed by a different engineer than the original author. This serves multiple purposes: the original engineer is motivated to ensure that the code is of high quality, the reviewer comes with a fresh mind and might find defects or suggest alternatives, and, in general, knowledge about coding practices and the code itself spreads throughout the company

Developers are also responsible for writing unit tests and their own regression tests – they have “tens of thousands of regression tests” (which doesn’t sound like near enough for 10+ million lines of mostly PHP code compiled into C++, both languages which are easy to make coding mistakes in) and automated performance tests.

And developers also test the software by using the development version of Facebook for their personal Facebook use. According to the authors, “this is just one aspect of the departure from traditional software development”. But Facebook developers using their own software internally (and passing this off as “testing”) is no different than the early days at Microsoft where employees were supposed to “eat their own dog food”, a practice that did little if anything to improve the quality of Microsoft products.

Facebook also depends on customers to test the software for them. Software is released in steps for A/B testing and “live experimentation” on subsets of the user base, whether customers want to participate in this testing or not. Because their customer base is so large, they can get meaningful feedback from testing with even a small percentage of users, which at least minimizes the risk and inconvenience to customers.

Security???

While performance is an important consideration for developers at Facebook, there is no mention of security checks or testing anywhere in this description of how Facebook develops and deploys software. No static analysis, dynamic analysis/scanning, pen testing or explanation of how the security team and developers work together, not even for “privacy sensitive code” – although this code is “held to a higher standard” they don’t explain what this “higher standard” is. Presumably they rely on use of libraries and frameworks to handle at least some appsec problems, and possibly look for security bugs in their code reviews, but they don’t say.

There isn’t much information available on Facebook’s appsec program anywhere. The security team at Facebook seems to spend a lot of time educating people on how to use Facebook safely and how to develop Facebook apps safely and running their bug bounty program which pays outsiders to find security bugs for them.

A search on security on Facebook mostly comes back with a long list of public security failures, privacy violations and application security vulnerabilities found over the years and continuing up to the present day. Maybe the lack of an effective appsec program is the reason for this.

This is the way Facebook is Developed. Should you care?

While it’s interesting to get a look inside a high-profile organization like Facebook and how they approach development at scale, it’s not clear why this paper was written. There is little about what Facebook is doing (on their front-end development at least) that is unique or innovative, except maybe the way they use BitTorrent to push code changes out to thousands of servers like Twitter does, something that I already heard about a few years ago at Velocity and that has been written about before.

I like the idea of developers being responsible for their work, all the way into production, which is a principle that we also follow. Code reviews are good. Dark launching features is a good practice and has been a common practice in systems for a long time (even before it was called “dark launching”). Not having testers or doing appsec is not good. Otherwise, I’m not sure what the rest of us can learn from or would want to use from this.
 

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