Alfresco Community Edition needs sensible version labels

See if you can answer this question: What is the current stable release of Alfresco Community Edition?

Some of you probably blurted out “5.0”. But that’s not specific enough. Alfresco Community Edition releases have letters as part of the release name. Did I hear someone say “5.0.c”? That is certainly the latest version but is that the current stable release? I would argue that it’s not and that the correct answer to the question is actually “4.2.f”. That’s the newest version I would recommend to anyone wanting to run Community Edition in production.

The problem is that you can’t actually tell what is supposed to be the stable release by looking at the version labels like you can with virtually every other open source software project. Hindsight is actually the only tool we have. The reason 4.2.f is the latest stable release is because it was the last release in the 4.2 Community Edition code line. We won’t know which 5.0 release is the stable one until Alfresco stops creating 5.0 releases!

Really, 5.0.a, 5.0.b, and 5.0.c should be labeled 5.0-RC1, 5.0-RC2, and 5.0-RC3. I’m using RC for “Release Candidate” here because that’s basically what they are, but “snapshot” or “milestone” could also work. We just need something that indicates that, eventually, we’re going to see an end to the iterations and finally arrive on a stable release and that you should really wait to deploy to production until that stable release comes out.

If you look at 4.2, I think 4.2.e was the “final” release and then 4.2.f was a special release to address a serious security vulnerability. So 4.2, a, b, c, and d should have been “release candidates”, 4.2.e should have just been 4.2.0, and 4.2.f should have been 4.2.1. I wouldn’t expect the third digit, which normally signifies a “service pack” to be anything other than 0 for the vast majority of Community Edition releases. The 4.2.f release was an exception to the norm which is that Alfresco doesn’t provide service packs for CE.

The reason an easily identifiable release label is important is because today people in the community are going to the Alfresco download page and assuming that what they are downloading is a stable release. They are then installing and running that release in production. This leaves those people disappointed down the road when they find out they installed software with numerous known issues or partly-implemented features (I know those issues are often documented in the release notes and in Jira). The point is that downloaders, particularly newcomers, don’t have (and shouldn’t need) the insight that Alfresco releases don’t really settle down until the fourth iteration or so. That should be explicit.

The reason Alfresco doesn’t use “stable” to describe the release is partly commercial. The thinking is that doing so makes running the freely-available Community Edition in production seem less risky or even encouraged by the company that depends on revenue from the paid edition.

The other challenge is about process. I don’t think engineering always knows that a given Community Edition release is going to be the last one until after the fact.

Both of these could be addressed with a mindset change. Instead of “Let’s iterate on release X.0 until we’re ready to work on the next major release” the thinking ought to be, “Let’s drive toward a stable, production-ready X.0 release and once we think we have it, let’s call it that”.

I’ve heard chatter that Alfresco might, at some point, consider offering support for those running CE. Based on the number of SMB’s who have told me that Alfresco One is out-of-reach for them financially, there ought to be a strong demand for a low-priced subscription around Community Edition. If that happens, I assume both the mentality and the process around CE version labels will get cleaned up. But I hope we don’t have to wait.