Y U NO GEMSPEC!? Wednesday, March 14, 2012


  1. Team Nokogiri are not 10-foot-tall code-crunching robots, so master is usually unstable.
  2. Unstable code can corrupt your data and crash your application, which would make everybody look bad.
  3. Therefore, the risk associated with using unstable code is severe; for you and for Team Nokogiri.
  4. The absence of a gemspec is a risk mitigation tactic.
  5. You can always ask for an RC release.

Why Isn't There a Gemspec!?

OHAI! Thank you for asking this question!

Team Nokogiri gets asked this pretty frequently. Just a sample from the historical record:

Sometimes people imply that we've forgotten, or that we don't how to properly manage our codebase. Those people are super fun to respond to!

We've gone back and forth a couple of times over the past few years, but the current policy of Team Nokogiri is to not provide a gemspec in the Github repo. This is a conscious choice, not an oversight.

But You Didn't Answer the Question!

Ah, I was hoping you wouldn't notice. Well, OK, let's do this, if you're serious about it.

I'd like to start by talking about risk. Specifically, the risk associated with using a known-unstable version of Nokogiri.


One common way to evaluate the risk of an incident is:

risk = probability x impact

You can read more about this on the internets.

The risk associated with a Nokogiri bug could be loosely defined by answering the questions:

  • "How likely is it that a bug exists?" (probability)
  • "How severe will the consequences of a bug be?" (impact)


The master branch should be considered unstable. Team Nokogiri are not 10-foot-tall code-crunching robots; we are humans. We make mistakes, and as a result, any arbitrary commit on master is likely to contain bugs.

Just as an example, Nokogiri master was unstable for about five months between November 2011 and March 2012. It was unstable not because we were sloppy, or didn't care, but because the fixes were hard and unobvious.

When we release Nokogiri, we test for memory leaks and invalid memory access on all kinds of platforms with many flavors of Ruby and lots of versions of libxml2. Because these tests are time-consuming, we don't run them on every commit. We run them often when preparing a release.

If we're releasing Nokogiri, it means we think it's rock solid.

And if we're not releasing it, it means there are probably bugs.


Nokogiri is a gem with native extensions. This means it's not pure Ruby -- there's C or Java code being compiled and run, which means that there's always a chance that the gem will crash your application, or worse. Possible outcomes include:

  • leaking memory
  • corrupting data
  • making benign code crash (due to memory corruption)

So, then, a bug in a native extension can have much worse downside than you might think. It's not just going to do something unexpected; it's possibly going to do terrible, awful things to your application and data.

Nobody wants that to happen. Especially Team Nokogiri.

Risk, Redux

So, if you accept the equation

risk = probability x impact

and you believe me when I say that:

  • the probablility of a bug in unreleased code is high, and
  • the impact of a bug is likely to be severe,

then you should easily see that the risk associated with a bug in Nokogiri is quite high.

Part of Team Nokogiri's job is to try to mitigate this risk. We have a number of tactics that we use to accomplish this:

  • we respond quickly to bug reports, particularly when they are possible memory issues
  • we review each others' commits
  • we have a thorough test suite, and we test-drive new features
  • we discuss code design and issues on a core developer mailing list
  • we use valgrind to test for memory issues (leaks and invalid access) on multiple combinations of OS, libxml2 and Ruby
  • we package release candidates, and encourage devs to use them
  • we do NOT commit a gemspec in our git repository

Yes, that's right, the absence of a gemspec is a risk mitigation tactic. Not only does Team Nokogiri not want to imply support for master, we want to actively discourage people from using it. Because it's not stable.

But I Want to Do It Anyway

Another option, is to email the nokogiri-talk list and ask for a release candidate to be built. We're pretty accommodating if there's a bugfix that's a blocker for you. And if we can't release an RC, we'll tell you why.

And in the end, nothing is stopping you from cloning the repo and generating a private gemspec. This is an extra step or two, but it has the benefit of making sure developers have thought through the costs and risks involved; and it tends to select for developers who know what they're doing.

In Conclusion

Team Nokogiri takes stability very seriously. We want everybody who uses Nokogiri to have a pleasant experience. And so we want to make sure that you're using the best software we can make.

Please keep in mind that we're trying very hard to do the right thing for all Nokogiri users out there in Rubyland. Nokogiri loves you very much, and we hope you love it back.


tea42 said...

So how do you actually build it when the time comes for release ?

Mike said...

We use Ryan Davis's gem Hoe to declare the gemspec in our Rakefile:

- https://github.com/tenderlove/nokogiri/blob/master/Rakefile#L22-62

You can read more about Ryan Davis's hoe here:

- http://www.zenspider.com/projects/hoe.html