Home > Articles

This chapter is from the book

Item 12: Set Up a Tinderbox

Tinderbox is a tool that was developed initially at Netscape, but that is now open source software maintained by the Mozilla project. Tinderbox is designed to manage the complexity one encounters when developing software, especially in terms of large-scale cross-platform software that involves a widely distributed team of developers. Tinderbox is particularly useful in cross-platform projects, as you will see. Coupled with a system known as bonsai, the goals of Tinderbox are fairly simple:

  • Communicate any and all changes made over time to the source code repository to the entire development team, in a centralized location, as soon as the changes have been made.
  • Communicate the overall health of the repository by continually pulling and building the source code on each supported platform. For each pull and build cycle, a pass/fail status is reported to a centralized location. This allows developers to determine when they should update their local trees to avoid pulling source code that will not build (or run) correctly.
  • Combining the above, Tinderbox can be used to assign accountability of the health of the tree to specific individuals and/or changes to the repository. Knowing this information helps get problems solved as quickly and accurately as possible.

Basically, Tinderbox is a group of machines that continually pull and build the contents of a CVS repository (see Item 13), and a server that retrieves and reports the status of these builds on a Web server that everyone in the organization can monitor. Tinderbox is currently supported as three versions. Version 1, perhaps the most widely used, was developed by Netscape/Mozilla, and is still in use by mozilla.org. Tinderbox 2.0 is a rewrite of version 1, providing essentially the same feature set. The goal of Tinderbox 2.0 was to essentially clean up the implementation of version 1. Both Tinderbox 1 and Tinderbox 2 are available from mozilla.org. Tinderbox 3 is a more recent version, available as a tarball from John Keiser, an ex-Netscape developer. Tinderbox 3 adds a number of desirable features, and strives to make Tinderbox easier to set up and administer.

Figure 3-7 illustrates the Web page displayed by a Tinderbox server. (You can access a large number of live Tinderboxen by visiting http://Tinderbox.mozilla.org.)

Figure 3-7

Figure 3-7 Tinderbox

The Tinderbox in Figure 3-7 illustrates the state of Mozilla's Seamonkey reporting the health of some of the "port" platforms that are defined by the Mozilla project. (Seamonkey was the code name used by Netscape/Mozilla during the development of the Mozilla browser suite. A port is a platform that is not considered to be tier-1 by Mozilla.)

The use of Tinderbox is pervasive in the software development community. Not only is it used by mozilla.org, but by other open source projects (for example, OSDL) and in commercial development (AOL, for example). Tinderbox is particularly well-suited to cross-platform development, as we discuss later.

The Tinderbox Web page consists of a table viewed as a series of mutually exclusive columns that are organized from left to right. In the first column (Build Time), each row contains a timestamp that can be used to identify the time associated with events that are represented in the remaining columns of the table. The second column identifies each check-in made by developers; the time of these check-ins can easily be determined by looking at the corresponding row in the Build Time column. The remaining columns each represent a specific platform that is being reported on by the Tinderbox. (An organization may have several Tinderboxen, each reporting a specific group of builds. You can see an example of this by visiting http://tinderbox.mozilla.org/showbuilds.cgi.)

Any given column represents a build machine, and a platform, and contains a series of colored boxes. Green boxes indicate a successful build of the repository for that platform on that machine. Conversely, a red box indicates a failed build, and a yellow box indicates a build that is currently in the process of being produced. Furthermore, the lower edge of any of these boxes represents the start of a pull and build cycle, and the upper edge represents the time of completion. The time corresponding to both of these events, for a particular colored box, can be determined by looking at the timestamp at the same row in column one as the upper or lower edge of that box. For example, the uppermost failed build in Figure 3-7 (Linux balsa Dep (static), represented by column four of the table) was started at about 13:07, and failed about five minutes later, at about 13:12.

Let's take a closer look at this failed build, and see what we can infer about it. It is clear that the check-in by sspitzer at 13:09:41 did not result in the failure of the build for two reasons. First of all, the Linux balsa Dep build was already burning prior to sspitzer's check-in. (See the red box in the same column that completed around 12:00, and also notice how the lower edge of the uppermost red box is lower than the entry for sspitzer's check-in.) Another piece of evidence that sspitzer is not the cause of the problem is that each of the other Linux platform builds are green. (Generally, one finds that Linux builds of Mozilla are generally are either all red at the same time, or all green.) Finally, and perhaps most important, we can see that the build was previously red at noon (12:00), and had not gone through a green cycle since then. (Gray portions of the Tinderbox indicate no build was in progress, or the progress of a build was not reported to the Tinderbox server.)

For largely the same reasons cited previously for sspitzer, we can also infer that mozilla.mano is not to blame for the redness of the build, either. The tree was already red prior to his or her check-in, and the other Linux builds were not affected.

Let's say I am not entirely sure that sspitzer is not to blame, and want to take a closer look at what the exact cause of the broken build might be. There are several other facilities provided by Tinderbox that you can use to drill down for further information. The L (or L1) link inside of the red box can be used to obtain a log of the build; this log contains compiler and perhaps linker output that should identify what caused the build to break. Clicking the L1 link gives the result shown in Figure 3-8.

Figure 3-8

Figure 3-8 L1 link output

Clicking View Brief Log results in Figure 3-9, which indicates a problem building libmozjs.so, the shared library that contains the implementation of the Mozilla Spidermonkey JavaScript engine (which is used in Trixul; see Chapter 9, "Developing a Cross-Platform GUI Toolkit in C++").

Figure 3-9

Figure 3-9 View brief log output

The other major source of input that I would want to consider is an understanding of what portion of the tree was impacted by sspitzer. If the check-in he made does not correlate to the error messages displayed in the log (Figure 3-9), I can eliminate him from the "blame" list and focus my search elsewhere. I can do this in two ways. First, by clicking the C link in the red box; this will display a list of checkins that were made prior to the start of the build. It is these checkins that likely would be the cause of any state change in the build (that is, going from red to green, or from green to red, which is not the case here since the tree was already red at the 12:00 hour). Figure 3-10 shows the result of clicking the C link.

Figure 3-10

Figure 3-10 List of checkins

This result clearly confirms that sspitzer is not on the blame list—and it also shows that the problem is not related to a check-in by mozilla.mano, because this change was made to a Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) source file that would have no impact on the JavaScript engine.

The final technique to eliminate sspitzer from the blame list (short of sending him an e-mail and asking him whether his check-in caused the build failure) would be to click the sspitzer link in column one and see what changes he made. Doing so gives us Figure 3-11.

Figure 3-11

Figure 3-11 List of checkins made by sspitzer

Once again, these are changes to Extensible Markup Language (XML) markup and JavaScript sources that have no bearing whatsoever on the stability of the JavaScript engine, the failure of which was clearly the cause of the red tree.

In terms of cross-platform development, it is best not to rely on a Tinderbox to find all of your portability problems. At Netscape, developers were required to ensure that any changes they were considering for checkin built and executed cleanly on each tier-1 platform, before submitting the changes to the repository (see Item 4). However, you can never be sure that all developers will follow this rule all the time, without exception. Because of this, having a Tinderbox monitor the health of the repository is an especially good idea. It isolates the problems in terms of change made, time of the change, and developer who made the change, focusing the area of investigation to a small fraction of the overall possibilities.

At Netscape, Tinderbox was a way of life (as it remains for Mozilla and many other development projects). The state of the tree was closely monitored, and acted as the focal point of development. If the tree was red, you could not checkin to the tree until it turned green. After you checked in your changes, you were added to a group called "the hook," and as a member of the hook, you were required to watch the Tinderbox and ensure that the your changes built cleanly (that is, were green) for each platform affected. (Obviously, if the change was only made to, say, Mac-specific code, you were only obligated to see the Mac builds go green.) If the tree affected by your changes was green when you checked in, and then it went red in the first build that followed, then, as a member of the hook, you were required to help identify and fix the problem.

In addition to the hook, a sheriff was assigned by Netscape (or Mozilla) to monitor the overall state of the Tinderbox monitoring the tier-1 platforms, and to ensure that the builds all remained green. We eventually rotated the responsibility of sheriffing inside of Netscape among the various development teams, one day the responsibility would fall to members of the mail-news team, on another, it was the responsibility of the IM team, and so on. Should a problem arise, the sheriff had the power to close the tree to all check-ins (this was communicated by a simple message at the top of the Tinderbox page), which was done in an attempt to aid those trying to isolate the cause of problems. The sheriff also had the authority to contact anyone on the hook, usually by e-mail, but by phone if necessary, should a diagnosis of the problem indicate that the person being contacted was to blame for the tree going red. As sheriff, I recall numerous times calling people by phone who had left the tree burning and had gone home for the night. Not everyone was happy about the policy, but it did cause people to be more careful about their work.

In a nutshell, Tinderbox plays an important role in cross-platform development because it forces developers to confront issues that affect the portability of code being committed to the repository. Although a responsible developer will try to determine the impact of changes on other platforms before landing code in the tree, this is not always done. Tinderbox acts as a backstop, ensuring that nothing slips through the cracks. And when problems are detected, either because of a red tree or a failed QA test the next day, Tinderbox can be used as an aid in determining which changes had been made that might be the cause of the problem.

Getting a green build on all the platforms is, of course, not the end of the story. A green build does not ensure that cross-platform feature parity is met for the platform, for example. A developer could implement a cross-platform feature and check in a full implementation for, say, Mac OS X and only stub implementations for Linux and Windows, and Tinderbox will not make this fact evident. What Tinderbox does do a good job of is ensuring that code shared among platforms builds everywhere, and that no one platform can hijack the stability of the tree (that is, leave the repository in a state such that it builds cleanly for only a subset of the supported platforms). As such, Tinderbox helps ensure that when platforms are worked on at the same time, the cross-platform train is moving ahead at the same pace for all platforms involved. This in turn helps ensure that the organization will be able to release a product to the market for all the supported platforms at about the same point in time, which is something that we strived for at Netscape. Remember, however, that Tinderbox is just an aid—only by testing the resulting builds carefully can you confirm that a product or feature has achieved cross-platform parity.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020