Developers new to peer review via the Pull Request workflow supported by hosting providers like GitHub, GitLab, etc., may not appreciate the impact of the size of the Pull Request on overall productivity of the team. This article outlines some issues and provides some links to several supporting articles about the impact of Pull Request size on productivity.
By now, most HPC/CSE'ers are likely familiar with pull requests (PR). That is GitHub/Bitbucket parlance (GitLab uses merge request) for a batch of related code changes on one branch of development submitted for review prior to merging into another branch. For example, a PR might include all the changes necessary to fix a bug or add a new feature. A key word in the preceding and a key aspect of PRs is review. In fact, another way to think about the PR acronym is that it stands for peer review.
When you are developing code, how often do you consider the impact on reviewers in your design and development processes? How often do you wind up adjusting the way you are changing a code base primarily to accommodate the review process? Do you often wind up breaking a group of related changes across multiple PRs and subsequently planning and executing associated development far differently than you might have if you had treated them all in a single PR? If your answer to any of these question is not often or not ever, you may be creating PRs that are by industry standards and practices too large.
The size of a PR10 is typically measured in terms of number of files and/or lines of code (the sum of counts of deleted lines, modified lines and added lines). Some research11 suggests that more than 400 lines changed is considered too large for a single review. Other research,1,2,3 suggests an inverse correlation between PR size and defect rate. Reviewers suffer one or more of the following consequences the larger a PR is...
- ...the more work reviewing the PR involves.
- ...the more difficult it is to divy up review work among multiple reviewers.
- ...the more difficult it is for reviewers to schedule time for review.
- ...the more likely reviewers will put off even starting the review.
- ...the more likely a first reviewer will give only a cursory review.
- ...the more likely second (and later) reviewers will either merely rubber-stamp an already approved PR or not bother to start a review if changes have already been requested.
It is a best practice11 to keep PRs small. The smaller the better. This is particularly true in high churn12 code bases. A first commandment in this enterprise is to never mix unrelated changes in the same PR. When many related changes are necessary as part of a major feature enhancement or maybe a large refactoring effort, a second commandment is to split the changes4,5,6 over multiple PRs, each one representing an independently useful, value-added contribution to the code base and which builds towards the ultimate enhancement or refactor goal.
Consider the changes to migrate a large code base from VTK-6 to VTK-8. When this was undertaken in VisIt in 2018, 450K lines of code across 2,000+ files13 were changed all committed in a single merge operation to the main development branch. To split this massive change across multiple PRs and branches (note: binary content in VisIt's Subversion repo at the time14 would have made this impractical), the team could have agreed to a period of transition where both VTK versions were allowed to temporarily coexist or where portions of the code base were temporarily disabled or broken much like portions of a building or roadway system are closed during remodeling or construction.
Experience with Functional (or Feature) Breakdown Structure (FBS)15 (the cousin to Work Breakdown Structure16 and which might also be thought of as code pre-factoring as opposed to refactoring) and stacked pull requests7,8,9 are useful skills in breaking large changes into smaller, manageable steps. In addition, learning to use an integration branch17 workflow may be useful. But, planning and implementing large software changes in small increments is not always practical. Even when it is, it is important to keep in mind that there is a balance of productivity concerns to manage here.
Always maximizing productivity for reviewers and the review process may create unwelcome productivity issues for other developers and collaborators submitting PRs. So far, we've focused on the productivity of the PR review process and what submitters can do to minimize review effort. However, there are productivity costs for submitters too.
First, strict adherence to avoiding mixing unrelated changes in a single PR may simply discourage some good housekeeping (while I am here fixing problem A, why don't I go ahead and also fix problem B). There is just a lot of overhead associated with splitting changes over multiple PRs including creating branches and PRs, running and waiting for CI in each PR, ensuring each PR is reviewed and merged in logical order and possibly having to apply each PR's changes to multiple branches (e.g. release candidate and main).
In addition, when splitting large changes over multiple PRs, there can be some amount of transition-specific software engineering required (design and coding work devoted solely to holding things together during a major transition) which is later removed. This effort is needed only to support the software through multiple stages of a major transition which would have otherwise been unnecessary. So, it represents extra work.
The point is, productivity for the project overall requires balancing all these concerns.18 In some cases strict adherence to the principle of not mixing unrelated changes in a single PR may outweigh the benefits of splitting such work across multiple PRs. In other words, for very small bits of work (e.g. fixing a typo in a document), there may be a minimum size PR below which the overheads of just managing the PR process become the key productivity concern. Still, this should be something that is discussed with the team ahead of submitting the changes.
The upshot is that keeping PRs as small as reasonably practical is a best practice. Investing time up front to decide how to split large changes into manageable PRs that can be quickly integrated into a large code base is as important as the design and coding work that goes into the bug fixes and feature enhancements the changes are proposed for to begin with.
Some literature uses the notion of a reviewable unit of work19
to separate the concept of code review from how it is practiced in any particular tool.
A reviewable unit could be a
PR, a commit, or a single file's patch/diff.20
In fact, long before GitHub introduced pull requests in 2008 (which was
in turn based on Git's
seasoned software professionals engaged in the conceptually equivalent processes using a
patchwork of approaches and tools22
(or using something like CodeStriker23) designed specifically for
code review) which often even included emailing around patchfiles.
Finally, some commercial companies such as Google claim not to use the branching mechanisms in version control systems to manage code review. Instead, most new features and changes in behavior are managed on a single, monolithic line of development23,24 (e.g. trunk or mainline) using workspaces (akin to a Subversion working-copy or a Git clone). Both new and old code paths often coexist in the one and only main line of development simultaneously, controlled by toggle flags, a practice that facilitates accepting large changes in small, incremental steps. In all likelihood there are exceptions to this practice for large and/or automated refactorings.