Managing oss contributions with Git and Ruby Gems

Once you start using opensource at your day job you are going to want to improve it. Many improvements are going to be generally useful and should be contributed back to the community. A few of these changes may be quite specific and of no value to the community at large.

Changes that are generally useful should be contributed back to the community. This will help the community and help you. Every change to an opensource project you maintain raises the cost of keeping your modified variant current. Once a change you need is in the mainline project your company no longer has to maintain it alone.

Regardless of the generality of the changes you are going to want to put them in production quickly. Waiting for a change you’ve made to be integrated and released by the opensource project before putting it in production is probably not going to be an option. What ever problem caused you to make the change needs solving and soon. It could take weeks or months before even a good change is merged in to the mainline of an opensource project.

Ruby, gems and git

A distributed version control system is key to the approach i use. Git is my preferred tool, but any DVCS would work. GitHub really makes this a lot easier than it would be otherwise.

I work mostly in Ruby so i am going to describe that workflow. Gems, particularly with the introduction of the new, really lower the bar for releasing Ruby software. The low effort required to do so can really make managing your corporate opensource contributions easier. A similar approach could be made to work for other release mechanisms.

What you will need

Making changes

Before getting started on the actual change there are some setup steps you need to perform. Namely, creating a version of this project specific to your company and a repo that allows you to publish the changes back to the community. These steps only need to be done once per opensource project.

Create a public repo for your changes

  1. Fork the canonical repo of the opensource project into your Github account.

  2. Clone your fork onto your machine

    $ git clone {private URI of your repo}

Create a company specific version of the project

  1. Fork the canonical repo of the opensource project into your companies GitHub account.

  2. Add yourself as a contributor to your companies repo.

  3. Add an ‘foocorp’ remote to you local repo pointing to your companies fork of the opensource project.

    $ git remote add foocorp {private URI of your companies repo on github}
  4. Create a ‘foocorp-stable’ branch.

    $ git checkout -b 'foocorp-stable'
  5. On the ‘foocorp-stable’ branch, change the name of the gem to ‘foocorp-projname’.

    $ (edit gemspec or gemspec generator)
    $ git commit -m "Company specific Gem name"
    $ git push foocorp foocorp-stable

You have created a version of this project whose gem has your companies name prepended. This will be useful later as a way to release the changes you need before they have been integrated into the opensource project. However, this change is only your companies stable branch. This branch will never be integrated into the opensource project.

Making the change

  1. Create a feature branch for your change in you local repo.

    $ git checkout -b 'super-feature'
  2. Implement the wicked new feature/fix the bug.

    $ (do work)
    $ git commit -m "my feature is super"
  3. Push the feature branch to your GitHub repo.

    $ git push origin super-feature
  4. Push the feature branch to your companies GitHub repo.

    $ git push foocorp super-feature
  5. Merge your feature branch into the ‘foocorp-stable’ branch.

    $ git checkout foocorp-stable
    $ git merge super-feature
  6. Push ‘foocorp-stable’ branch to you companies GitHub repo.

    $ git push
  7. Bump the version number as appropriate.

  8. Build the gem from the ‘foocorp-stable’ branch.1

    $ rake build
  9. Push the gem to

    $ gem push pkg/{gem file}
  10. Change your application to require the ‘foocorp-projname’ gem instead of ‘projname’.

  11. Send pull request to the opensource project for you feature branch.

The end result is that you have a published gem with the changes you need to support you application. This gem can be installed using the normal gem command. Your new gem boasts a name that will keep it from being confused with the original. The changes you implemented are available to the opensource project for the benefit of the community at large.

Once your changes have been integrated into the opensource project and released you can revert your application to depend on the canonical variant rather than your custom version.

Q & A

Why use two separate repos on GitHub (your’s and your company’s) to manage changes?

Your companies GitHub account will probably have it’s email address setup to point to a distribution list. Getting a change integrated into an opensource project can take some back and forth. By default, responses to a pull request go to the email of the account that sent to pull request. This means that your whole team will be getting these emails. As the original author of the change it is your responsibility to shepherd it through the integration. Preferably without barraging the rest of your team with emails they don’t care about.

Why create a feature branch?

Because it is a lot easier for maintainers to merge a feature branch containing a limited cohesive set of changes. It is a little bit more of a pain for you but your changes will get integrated faster and more reliably. The opensource maintainers will thank you.

What about non-generic changes?

Follow the same process above except don’t send the pull request. If you ever want changes from the mainline opensource project you will need to merge those into your companies stable branch explicitly. However, this is pretty easy to do with Git.

What if the opensource project adds a change i want before my changes are integrated?

Just merge the opensource project’s release tag (or any commit-ish for that matter) containing the change you want into your companies stable branch. You can do this as many times as needed.

Why not modify the version of the gem rather than the name?

You could distinguish your custom gem by appending suffix to the version. For example, ‘1.2.3.foocorp’. However, doing so would prevent you from pushing your gems to because someone else already owns that gem. It also prevents rational versioning for your gem. The versioning issue is important as you might want to make multiple independent changes to your gem.


Using the technique described above you can very effectively manage changes to opensource projects that are required by your applications. Contributing your changes back does require maintaining and merging multiple code streams. This can be somewhat convoluted at time but DVCSs allows a much more efficient approach than has ever been possible before.

  1. This example assumes you are using jeweler. If the opensource project is not using jeweler build the gem in whatever way the project supports.