NOAH KANTROWITZ

The Chef Mailing List 2015-11-03

Recently the Chef community mailing list was migrated to Discourse. This caused some confusion and unhappiness in the community so I wanted to write up a quick overview of the situation as I know it.

Disclaimer

I do not work for Chef Software, nor was involved in most of the planning stages for this migration. I do not represent the views of Chef Software and am happy to correct any inaccuracies. Everything I did personally related to this migration (including writing this) has been unpaid labor and was not specifically requested by Chef Software. Nathen Harvey is, I think, still working on a blog post for Chef Software but I didn’t want to make the community wait for that given how long it has been.

Some History

In the deep, dark past of 2008, Adam Jacob and his co-founders at HJK Solutions started an open-source project called Chef. In keeping with usual open-source tradition they eventually created a mailing list for it. Being a scrappy young company they grabbed a server, installed some mailing list software, and were off to the races. Then some business happened. The larval HJK Solutions metamorphosed into Opscode. Chef took off, and with it a community blossomed.

Unfortunately that original mailing list software survived basically unchanged until last month. I don’t know if it was the same physical server, but the old lists.opscode.com has been carried around for quite a while. No one really wanted to touch it as the config was on the bespoke side and the software, Sympa, was a bit crotchety.

Why Migrate?

I am personally amazed that so many thousands of people managed to successfully navigate Sympa and sign up for the list. It had a terrible web interface, almost un-searchable archives, and terrible moderation tools. To be fair to the Sympa team, this is likely because Chef was running an unreleased version from 2007, which had never been upgraded because of a justified fear of breaking things.

In general the feeling from the Chef Software community team is that they didn’t want to deal with the ongoing hassle of running the mailing list and over the years there were several attempts to migrate off to various other services.

The RFC

In November of 2014 this was finally put down as a concrete plan in Chef RFC 28 This was discussed at several of the weekly community meetings and eventually accepted on November 13th. The original plan was to migrate to Google Groups, though as we’ll see that didn’t quite pan out. Since then the document has been updated to reflect the second attempt which used Discourse.

The First Migration

In February 2015 the first major attempt to migrate the list happened. It was well announced in advance, many conversion test runs had happened, and the process for the swap-over was clear to the whole community. The goal was to get everything moved over to Google Groups within a three hour window. Specifically this was going to use the Groups feature within Google Apps For Your Domain so that the mailing list addresses could stay the same. The migration was initially successful, with everything copied over and ready to go. Then some issues were found. The Apps mailing quota was counting every outbound copy of every message, so after only a few emails we had hit the daily maximum and Google was holding all further messages until the next quota reset. This was obviously going to be a problem, so the decision was made to roll back completely. MX records were updated back and we all continued on Sympa. the rollback was handled smoothly and communicated well as to it happening, if not exactly why.

After the rollback, there was more discussion in the weekly community meetings, and Discourse was pointed out as another possible migration target. The RFC was updated to reflect this.

The Second Migration

At 1:54PM on October 13th we all received an email titled “Welcome to Discourse!”. This heralded a complete migration to a hosted Discourse instance, discourse.chef.io. I can only relate second-hand as to the internal process within Chef Software, but from discussions with Nathen my understanding is that this was not announced within Chef Software either, and was being run as a personal project between Nathen and the Discourse team directly. This was also the day before the Chef Community Summit in Seattle, during which many people were away from their laptops for conference sessions or socializing with friends. From what I can tell reconstructing the history, the migration was almost entirely handled by the Discourse staff team, not Chef Software. Things had been in motion for some time, so the change on the 13th was requesting everyone pull their various triggers to finalize the migration.

As to why the decision was made to go forward with Discourse, I can’t say. It had been pointed out as a potential option after the previous migration, but it is unclear to what degree other options were considered and what the process was. I’m hopeful the forthcoming Chef Software blog post will have more information on this front.

What Went Wrong

Discourse is first and foremost a discussion forum, but they do have enough email integration to work as a mailing list too. However they have much less experience with this use-case so I want to be clear that I do not hold them at fault for the majority of these issues. The Discourse team has, in my opinion, gone above and beyond in trying to help out and have happily run with suggestions once they understood the use cases better.

The first and most notable problem was that when Discourse imported the Sympa archive, it created accounts based on who had sent email to the list. This had two notable consequences, people that had unsubscribed from the list at some point in the past were suddenly getting emails again and anyone subscribed but that had never sent an email was dropped from the user list. To try and stem the tide of unhappy users, at ~8PM the Discourse staff globally disabled email delivery for the whole instance. Around 10PM the staff team took the actual subscription list from Sympa and re-enabled email delivery for anyone that had actually been subscribed to Sympa at the time of the migration.

This still left anyone that had been subscribed but never participated in the list in limbo; this was addressed later by Chef Software sending all such users an email with information on how to sign up for Discourse. It also means that anyone who was subscribed to only one of chef or chef-dev is now subscribed to both (and the new Feedback category). I think a fix for this is in progress but I don’t know any details.

Initial confusion was magnified by the total lack of any announcements beforehand, and the fact that getting access to one’s Discourse account was somewhat non-trivial in terms of complexity. This, combined with the various subscription issues and general dislike of change by the Internet, led to an burst of unhappy emails to the list(s).

Beyond those issues, many configuration problems were present in the initial Discourse instance. While on my train from the airport I quickly asked Nathen for admin permissions in Discourse and set to work fixing up the config. Many of the default Discourse settings for things like email subject lines and context make more sense for forum-ish communities and less so for mailing lists. The fact that the site was initially branded “Chef Forums” magnified this confusion. I fixed up the config to more closely align with user expectations of a mailing list while trying to help keep things under control during the flood of unhappy users.

Another major problem was that after the migration was completed, DNS for lists.opscode.com was updated to point at an S3 bucket which redirected all HTTP requests to https://discourse.chef.io/. This both broke all existing links to the archives as well as removing any inbound mail delivery as S3 doesn’t relay port 25 for you. This was fixed (I think) the next day by reverting the DNS change and setting the mail server on the lists box to forward to a gmail inbox that Discourse polls for both new threads and replies. Unfortunately at this time Discourse only allows one incoming address per category, so while chef@lists.opscode.com works again, chef@lists.chef.io is non-functional. The latter was never publicized and almost never used, so this is probably not a big deal for the moment.

Incoming email still sees a notable delay as Discourse only polls for new email every few minutes, as opposed to more traditional push-based mailing list software which gets hooked in to the delivery process itself. It also strips attachments, including PGP and SMIME signatures, and generally has issues with email threading in a lot of clients.

What Has Been Fixed

There are now several people with moderation permissions to help with site operations. The site has been generally tweaked to be as close to a mailing list as possible within what is currently doable within Discourse. The Discourse project has made it very clear they would love improve to list-y support and are happy to accept patches, though at this time I don’t have anyone offering to fund such work on my end and I am unaware of Chef Software working on such patches. There is some contention about if keeping list-y behavior is even desirable, though I am firmly in the camp that says it is.

The old archive has been restored for now, though long term I think the plan is to work out a better way to redirect the archive links to the migrated Discourse threads so we can actually decommission Sympa.

Users seem to be successfully using the list at this point, so I am happy to call things stable for now. I’ve created an FAQ thread on Discourse to help explain things for new users, and will hopefully be able to update that as new issues arise.

How I Feel

I’m mad. I see this as a multi-faceted failure of the community. Communication about this migration, before and after, faltered. This is doubly frustrating given the excellent communication around the first migration attempt, showing that it could have much so much smoother. After the initial wave of frustration from users, there was a definite sentiment from some of “haters gonna hate”, which I feel masked legitimate issues in a way that was unnecessary. I feel like the migration was rushed and many issues could have been resolved before the migration had there been some kind of public beta test to gather UX feedback.

A mailing list is a resource often used as a last resort when a user is already feeling frustrated, lost, or confused. It is absolutely vital that these kinds of support channels (along with IRC, StackOverflow, etc) be welcoming and smooth. I think Discourse can absolutely improve that over the old system, but I am angry at level of disarray things were in. We need to ensure our community protects our most vulnerable, and often that is people looking for help.

The Future

As stated before, everything I’ve done so far has been unpaid labor out of a sense of obligation to the Chef community. I’ve mostly run out of energy to help further. I trust the Chef Software community team will continue improving the site. I think things are pretty stable overall, the site isn’t everything I would have wanted, but it is in a position for the community to move forward. I’ll keep a close eye on things as is my usual modus operandi, and am happy to do what I can with my remaining spoons.

Questions?

If anyone has questions about any of this, what happened, why it happened, and how to work with Discourse going forward, I am happy to answer to the best of my ability you can find me at noah@coderanger.net or on pretty much any Chef community resource as coderanger.


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