Monorepos

A Monorepo, is a specific Trunk-Based Development implementation where the organization in question puts its source for all applications/services/libraries/frameworks into one trunk and forces developers to commit together in that trunk - atomically.

Google has the most famous monorepo and they do the above AND force teams to share code at source level instead of linking in previously built binaries. Specifically, they have no version numbers for their own dependencies, just an implicit ‘HEAD’. Indeed, because of lock step upgrades for all, releases from their monorepos mean ‘HEAD’ is their effective version number. Third-party libraries (like JUnit) will be checked into the repo with a specific version number (like 4.11), and all teams will use that version if they use it at all.

The deployment and/or release cadences for each application/service/library/frameworks will probably be different as will the team’s structures, methodologies, priorities, story backlogs etc.

The name ‘monorepo’ is a newer name for a previously unnamed practice that is more than a decade old.

Monorepo implementations deliver a couple of principal goals:

  • Acquire as many third-party and in-house dependencies as possible for a build from the same source-control repository/branch, and in the same update/pull/sync operation.
  • Keep all teams in agreement on the versions of third-party and in-house dependencies via lock-step upgrades.

And some secondary goals:

  • Allow changes to common dependencies to via atomic commits.
  • Allow the extraction of new common dependencies (from existing code) to be achieved in atomic commits.
  • Force all developers to focus on the HEAD revisions of files in the trunk

Google and Facebook are the most famous organizations that rest development on a single company-wide trunk, that fits the monorepo design.

Risk of chaotic directory layout

Google’s co-mingled applications and services site within highly structured and uniform source trees. A Java developer from one project team instantly recognizes the directory structure for another team’s application or service. That goes across languages too. The design for the directory layout needs to be enforced globally. You can see that in the way that Buck and Bazel layout trees for production and test code. If you cannot overhaul the directory structure of your entire repository, you should not entertain a monorepo.

Lock-step deployments?

OK, so it is really important to note in a monorepo, that you don’t have to do a lock-step deployment of a buildable/releaseable thing just because a dependency was upgraded. What is certain is the next deployment of that application/service will contain the new dependency. “Next” is still a concern of the development team in question. Monorepos only say “what” will be released, not “when”.

Third-party dependencies

With the monorepo model, there is a strong desire to have third-party binaries in source-control too. You might think that it would be unmanageable for reasons of size. In terms of commit history, Perforce and Subversion do not mind a terabyte of history of binary files (or more), and Git performed much better when Git-LFS was created. You could still feel that the HEAD revision of thousands of fine-grained dependencies is too much for a workstation, but that can be managed via an expanding and contracting monorepo.

Note: Python, Java, C++ and other SDKs are installed the regular way on the developer workstation, and not acquired from the source-control repository/branch.

In-house dependencies

It could be that your application team depends on something that is made by colleagues from a different team. An example could be an Object Relational Mapping (ORM) library. For monorepo teams there is a strong wish to depend on the source of that ORM technology and not a binary. There are multiple reasons for that, but the principal one is that source control update/pull/sync is the most efficient way for you to keep up with the HEAD of a library on a minute by minute basis. Thus MyTeamsApplication and TheORMweDepOn should be in your source tree in your IDE at the same time. Similarly, another team that depends on TheORMweDepOn should have it and TheirApplication checked out at the same time.

Directed graph build systems

To facilitate monorepos, it is important to have a build system that can omit otherwise buildable things/steps that are not required for the individual developer’s current build intention.

The general directory structure for directed graph build systems is like so:

root/
  prod_code/
    build_file.xml
    (source files)
    a_directory/
      build_file
      (source files)
      another_directory/
        build_file.xml
        (source files)
    yet_another_directory/
      build_file.xml
      (source files)
  test_code/
    build_file.xml
    (source files)
    a_directory/
      build_file
      (source files)
      another_directory/
        build_file.xml
        (source files)
    yet_another_directory/
      build_file.xml
      (source files)

Obviously, YAML, JSON, TOML or custom grammars are alternatives to XML, for build files.

Contrived example

Two examples:

  • I want to run impacted tests locally, relating to the hair-color field I just added to the person page of MyTeamsApplication
  • I want to run bring up MyTeamsApplication locally, so I can play with the hair-color field I just added to the person page

Not only do you want to omit unnecessary directories/files from your build’s activities, you probably also want to omit them from your IDE.

Facebook’s Buck and Google’s Bazel

Google has Blaze internally. Ex-Googlers at Facebook (with newfound friends) missed that, wrote Buck and then open-sourced it. Google then open-sourced a cut-down Blaze as Bazel. These are the two (three including Blaze) are directed graph build systems that allow a large tree of sources to be speedily subset in a compile/test/make-a-binary way.

The omitting of unnecessary compile/test actions achieved by Buck and Bazel works equally well on developer workstations and in the CI infrastructure.

There is also the ability to depend on recently compiled object code of colleagues. The recently compiled object code for provable permutations of sources/dependencies, that is. And that code plucked from the ether (think of a LRU cache available to all machines in the TCP/IP subnet). That is in place to shorten compile times for prod and test code.

Recursive build systems

Java’s Apache-Maven is the most widely used example. It’s predecessor, Ant, is another. Maven more than Ant, pulls third-party binaries from ‘binary repositories’, caching them locally. Maven also traverses its tree in a strict depth first (then breadth) manner. Most recursive build systems can be configured to pull third-party dependencies from a relative directory in the monorepo. A binary dependency cache outside of the VCS controlled working copy, is more normal.

The general directory structure for recursive build systems is like so:

root/
  build_file.xml
  module_one/
    build_file.xml
    src/
      (prod source directory tree)
      (test source directory tree)
    module_two/
      build_file.xml
      src/
        (prod source directory tree)
        (test source directory tree)
  module_three/
    build_file.xml
    src/
      (prod source directory tree)
      (test source directory tree)
  src/
    (prod source directory tree)
    (test source directory tree)

Again, YAML, JSON, TOML and custom grammars are alternatives to XML for build files.

Recursive build systems mostly have the ability to choose a type of build. For example ‘mvn test’ to just run tests, and not make a binary for distribution.

The diamond dependency problem

What happens when two apps need a different version of a dependency?

For in-house dependencies, where the source is in the same monorepo, then you will not have this situation, as the team that first wanted the increased functionality, performed it for all teams, keeping everyone at HEAD revision of it. The concept of version number disappears in this model.

Third-party dependencies

For third-party dependencies, the same rule applies, everyone upgrades in lock-step. Problems can ensure, of course, if there are real reasons for team B to not upgrade and team A was insistent. Broken backward compatibility is one problem.

In 2007, Google tried to upgrade their JUnit from 3.8.x to 4.x and struggled as there was a subtle backward incompatibility in a small percentage of their usages of it. The changeset became very large, and struggled to keep up with the rate developers were adding tests.

Because you are doing lock-step upgrades, you only secondarily note the version of the third-party dependencies, as you check them into source control without version numbers in the filename. I.e. JUnit goes in as third_party/java_testing/junit.jar.

Clash of ideologies

Above we contrasted directed graph and recursive build systems. The former are naturally compatible with expandable/contractible checkout technologies. The latter not necessarily so.

Maven

Recursive build systems like maven, have a forward declaration of modules that should be built, like so:

<modules>
  <module>moduleone</module>
  <module>moduletwo</module>
</modules>

Presently, though, these build technologies do not have the ability to follow a changeable checkout that the likes of gcheckout can control.

Directories moduleone and moduletwo have to exist in order for the build to work. The idea of expandable/contractible monorepos, is that trees of buildable things are calculated or computed not explicitly declared. In order to deliver that, you would need a feature to be added Maven like so:

<modules>
  <calculate/> <!--or--> <search/>
</modules>

Or you could “hack it” and rewrite your pom.xml files after every expansion or contraction.

If you decide you do not want to do a monorepo

Then repository separation should be no more fine grained than things that have separate deployment cadence.

With micro services you traditionally get exactly that: a deployable micro service in its own repository. There is no reason why hundreds of microservices could not be in the same monorepo, but the microservices community has promoted the one repo per microservice for a while now.

References elsewhere

show references

09 Apr 2013, Blog entry
Scaling Trunk-Based Development
06 May 2013, Blog entry
Google's Scaled Trunk-Based Development
06 Jan 2014, Blog entry
Googlers Subset their Trunk
08 Jan 2014, Blog entry
Google's vs Facebook's Trunk-Based Development
10 Apr 2014, Blog entry
Continuous Delivery: The price of admission..
10 Oct 2014, Conference Talk
Trunk-Based Development in the Enterprise - Its Relevance and Economics
18 May 2015, Blog entry
Advantages of monolithic version control
20 May 2015, Blog entry
Turning Bazel back into Blaze for monorepo nirvana
27 Jan 2017, Blog entry
Maven In A Google Style Monorepo