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Why Semantic Versioning Isn't

Spurred by recent events (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8244700), this is a quick set of jotted-down thoughts about the state of "Semantic" Versioning, and why we should be fighting the good fight against it.

For a long time in the history of software, version numbers indicated the relative progress and change in a given piece of software. A major release (1.x.x) was major, a minor release (x.1.x) was minor, and a patch release was just a small patch. You could evaluate a given piece of software by name + version, and get a feeling for how far away version 2.0.1 was from version 2.8.0.

But Semantic Versioning (henceforth, SemVer), as specified at http://semver.org/, changes this to prioritize a mechanistic understanding of a codebase over a human one. Any "breaking" change to the software must be accompanied with a new major version number. It's alright for robots, but bad for us.

SemVer tries to compress a huge amount of information — the nature of the change, the percentage of users that will be affected by the change, the severity of the change (Is it easy to fix my code? Or do I have to rewrite everything?) — into a single number. And unsurprisingly, it's impossible for that single number to contain enough meaningful information.

If your package has a minor change in behavior that will "break" for 1% of your users, is that a breaking change? Does that change if the number of affected users is 10%? or 20? How about if instead, it's only a small number of users that will have to change their code, but the change for them will be difficult? — a common event with deprecated unpopular features. Semantic versioning treats all of these scenarios in the same way, even though in a perfect world the consumers of your codebase should be reacting to them in quite different ways.

Breaking changes are no fun, and we should strive to avoid them when possible. To the extent that SemVer encourages us to avoid changing our public API, it's all for the better. But to the extent that SemVer encourages us to pretend like minor changes in behavior aren't happening all the time; and that it's safe to blindly update packages — it needs to be re-evaluated.

Some pieces of software are like icebergs: a small surface area that's visible, and a mountain of private code hidden beneath. For those types of packages, something like SemVer can be helpful. But much of the code on the web, and in repositories like npm, isn't code like that at all — there's a lot of surface area, and minor changes happen frequently.

Ultimately, SemVer is a false promise that appeals to many developers — the promise of pain-free, don't-have-to-think-about-it, updates to dependencies. But it simply isn't true. Node doesn't follow SemVer, Rails doesn't do it, Python doesn't do it, Ruby doesn't do it, jQuery doesn't (really) do it, even npm doesn't follow SemVer. There's a distinction that can be drawn here between large packages and tiny ones — but that only goes to show how inappropriate it is for a single number to "define" the compatibility of any large body of code. If you've ever had trouble reconciling your npm dependencies, then you know that it's a false promise. If you've ever depended on a package that attempted to do SemVer, you've missed out on getting updates that probably would have been lovely to get, because of a minor change in behavior that almost certainly wouldn't have affected you.

If at this point you're hopping on one foot and saying — wait a minute, Node is 0.x.x — SemVer allows pre-1.0 packages to change anything at any time! You're right! And you're also missing the forest for the trees! Keeping a system that's in heavy production use at pre-1.0 levels for many years is effectively the same thing as not using SemVer in the first place.

The responsible way to upgrade isn't to blindly pull in dependencies and assume that all is well just because a version number says so — the responsible way is to set aside five or ten minutes, every once in a while, to go through and update your dependencies, and make any minor changes that need to be made at that time. If an important security fix happens in a version that also contains a breaking change for your app — you still need to adjust your app to get the fix, right?

SemVer is woefully inadequate as a scheme that determines compatibility between two pieces of code — even a textual changelog is better. Perhaps a better automated compatibility scheme is possible. One based on matching type signatures against a public API, or comparing the runs of a project's public test suite — imagine a package manager that ran the test suite of the version you're currently using against the code of the version you'd like to upgrade to, and told you exactly what wasn't going to work. But SemVer isn't that. SemVer is pretty close to the most reductive compatibility check you would be able to dream up if you tried.

If you pretend like SemVer is going to save you from ever having to deal with a breaking change — you're going to be disappointed. It's better to keep version numbers that reflect the real state and progress of a project, use descriptive changelogs to mark and annotate changes in behavior as they occur, avoid creating breaking changes in the first place whenever possible, and responsibly update your dependencies instead of blindly doing so.

Basically, Romantic Versioning, not Semantic Versioning.

All that said, okay, okay, fine — Underscore 1.7.0 can be Underscore 2.0.0. Uncle.

(typed in haste, excuse any grammar-os, will correct later)

@twome
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twome commented Sep 2, 2020

Bad take.

@tzimpel
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tzimpel commented Sep 10, 2020

A common misunderstanding is that semantic versioning is meant to be used for software version numbers. It's not.

Semantic versioning is used for packages / libraries that have a public API that is consumed by other software (and used by their respective developers). And it was never intended to do anything else.

Only in the context of an API, SemVer has any meaning at all:

  • Bugfix version increase -> It fixes bugs. It does not add features. It does not break backwards compatibility in any way.
  • Minor version increase -> It might fix bugs. It does add new features or extend existing features (and the corresponding API), but still allows it to be used in the same way as before (but without the new functionality). It might deprecate functionality without actually removing it.
  • Major version bump -> It might fix bugs and/or add new features. Whatever it does, it breaks backwards compatibility with the last version in at least one aspect of the public API.

For everything besides APIs, either use romantic versioning, marketing version numbers, code names, or whatever you see fit. If you have a software product that offers an API to connect other systems to it next to a UI that is consumed by actual users, you might just as well use a marketing version number for your software, while using SemVer to version the API - I've actually seen quite a few products do just that.

@martins-1992
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martins-1992 commented Mar 19, 2021

IMHO:
Changing an API in an backwards incompatible way is something completely different to breaking someones code that has this dependency.
One can occur without the other and this relates to both.
Semantic Versioning does only state, when an backwards incompatible change is present and when there is a new feature, nothing else.

From my point of view, the author is mixing (planned/intended/documented) API changes and actual implementation changes.
I consider this something completely different.

I also do not see the point, regarding the resoning, that some projects do not use SemVer.
If a project in question does not use SemVer, than you do not interpret its versioning as SemVer.
To expect that a project's versioning represents SemVer, if it is not stated or when it is actively not complied to,
does not make any sense to me.

@kyleerhabor
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Rich Hickey, the creator of Clojure, talked about this in his spec-ulation presentation, which was created two years after this gist. He talks about similar issues with semantic versioning and the general way we convey change, stating that we should value accretion over breaking changes and properly manage location for when deprecation is necessary (from variables up to namespaces/modules).

I think it's an excellent talk that conveys the issues with semantic versioning in better detail and an alternative to it.

@pmonks
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pmonks commented Aug 16, 2021

@KyleErhabor as a Clojure developer myself, I reluctantly find myself scratching my head a bit with Rich Hickey's views in this area (despite also encouraging everyone to check out his presentations).

Yes it is self-evident that we should all aspire to only accrete, relax, and fix our libraries (and a majority of the time that's indeed entirely reasonable), but in my experience, in any non-trivial, long-lived codebase there almost always comes a time where something has to change in a way that will break consumers, and can't simply live on in perpetuity as a deprecated, but still functional, feature. Typically this is ultimately because something in the real world changed in a backwards incompatible way; a standard, a human process, a third party system, a business priority, legislation, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

Semantic versioning at least gives us a standardised way to identify different classes of change (even if it's far from perfect).

@kyleerhabor
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@pmonks thanks for the response. Rich Hickey's presentation is one of his most controversial, some of it I even find confusing. Often, the real world and other dependants get in the way of the "accretion without breakage" philosophy. Rich doesn't talk about it in his presentation, but he does mention other examples with solutions.

For example, if your software is not used by a third party (e.g. a client hitting the endpoint), you don't have to apply any of Rich's principles since you're free to modify in a fixed environment. However, if it is, it depends on how it's used. Are you running a public web server, or providing a public library? You can still apply the principles in both environments, but there are some cases where deletion is the only option (last case scenario).

Software should be designed to support these changes by not coupling too tightly. If you hit POST /articles with a new article and a new field is required, a new endpoint POST /articles2 could be created while sharing logic in the presentation layer (GET articles/...). However, if an external force prohibits you from maintaining your stack, deprecation arrives. In serious cases, deletion arrives (e.g. you were storing something but now you can't). In a library, when a breaking change is necessary, deprecation or even a new namespace can be a solution. When the whole library needs to be refactored, a new library may satisfy.

In Datomic, for example, you have excision, which is only used when you absolutely have to delete data (e.g. the GDPR's "right to be forgotten"). But often, these measures are inefficient. Not only for performance, but in actual deletion of the data. If you delete the data but have a backup, you've failed to acknowledge the user's request to delete the data. One solution is crypto-shredding where the data is encrypted and the decryption key is deleted so the data is locked forever.

Semantic versioning is popular since it models the real world but the cost to consumers can be very detrimental. In my opinion, like the author, it's not a great way to identify classes of change. Like Rich said, with patch and minor, you don't care. With a major change, you're screwed. What do versions 1.5.0 and 2.0.0 convey? Is it a small change or a complete overhaul? Will it take Sam 10 seconds to fix and Bob a week? Changelogs are answers to that, but the version itself doesn't say much. Accretion over breakage is not immune to the real world but is one solution to the problem. It does work in many applications but has mixed feelings. HTML, Unix, and Java to name a few. It requires a lot of discipline.

@pmonks
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pmonks commented Aug 16, 2021

Thanks @KyleErhabor - I assure you I have a solid understanding of the concepts. The reality is that unavoidable breaking changes, however rare, do happen, and the only practical solution I know of in such cases is to communicate those breaking changes as clearly as possible, and ideally with as much lead time to downstream consumers as possible.

Which gets us back to my original point: while it is clearly far from perfect, SemVer at least provides a standardised, machine-consumable, ordered (both in the sense of "sorting", and in the sense of "disciplined") way to communicate breaking changes. Simply coming up with a new name for something that's broken backwards compatibility doesn't even have those benefits; it's a "wild west" / "do whatever you want" solution that ignores the needs of downstream consumers.

@kyleerhabor
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@pmonks thanks - I only watched the talk recently, so there are certainly people who have a much better understanding than me. Unavoidable breaking changes can happen, but it depends on what the project is. If a project depends on a service that prefers breaking changes (let's say an API), then sure—accretion over breakage is not sustainable. However, many projects can use it instead of semantic versioning.

Underscore is, in my opinion, a perfect example of where accretion without breakage would've worked. Instead of changing an existing function, it could've been marked as deprecated and suggest users use a newer function with a different definition. It would've been feasible since it's a utility library for writing functional JavaScript.

But not all libraries get such luxury. A library that chooses accretion without breakage relying on another library that instead uses semantic versioning is a bit difficult. Semantic versioning dominates the game in many ecosystems. Node.js follows it (except with odd numbers) and so does npm, making it the de facto choice.

But not all ecosystems are like that. In Clojure, it's a mix between unclear versioning semantics and accretion without breakage. It's machine-consumable, ordered (many libraries include the number of commits in a component), and just requires not deleting or changing the meaning of a function. In Rust, although it uses semantic versioning, the compiler strives to be completely backward compatible and introduces minor hacks to get around accidental breaking changes. A program I wrote in 2016 Rust will compile in 2021 and gets around it by introducing editions to make breaking changes.

So, yes, I do agree that accretion without breakage is difficult for some projects today. I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all like semantic versioning is. However, it's an alternative to semantic versioning. It means upgrading a library version without worrying about the breaking changes it could've introduced because there are none. It means minimizing backward-incompatible changes and being explicit about what necessary changes were made (did 2.0.0 change one function or 100 of them?). It's not just about libraries and applications—it's about producers, too. APIs are capable of applying their principles as well. Incompatible changes will happen since we live in a stateful universe, but like how Clojure offers features to properly manage the transition between states, we're offered an alternative to semantic versioning and responding to breaking changes.

@pbodnar
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pbodnar commented Sep 22, 2021

@pmonks, sometimes renaming a library is IMHO the only reasonable way - look for example at the story of Apache Commons Lang 3. I think that this is what @KyleErhabor meant when writing about introducing a "new namespace".

@pmonks
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pmonks commented Sep 22, 2021

@pbodnar sure, though their solution is driven more by Java's lack of version-aware modularity than anything wrong with SemVer. In fact it's interesting to observe that not only did the authors of Apache Commons roll the version number in accordance with SemVer, their workaround to the problem I mentioned in the previous sentence involved duplicating the new major version number into the Java package names. One might argue that they doubled down on SemVer.

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