Streamlining throttled rollout of Firefox releases

When we ship new versions of Firefox we do our best to avoid introducing new bugs or crashes, especially those that affect large numbers of users. One of the strategies we use to accomplish this is to ship new versions to a subset of people before shipping to everyone. We call this a "throttled rollout", and it's something we've been doing for many years. The tricky part of this is getting the new version to enough users to have a representative sample size without overshooting our target.

Our current process for doing this is as follows:

  • Enable updates to the new version at a rate of 25% (meaning 25% of update requests will be offered the new version)
  • Wait ~24 hours
  • Turn the update rate down to 0%
  • Hope that we hit our target without going over

The rate and time period has been tuned over time, but it's still a very fragile process. Sometimes we get more or fewer update requests than expected during the 24h window. Sometimes we forget to set the rate back down to 0%. A process that's driven manually and dependent on guesswork has a lot of things that can go wrong. We can do better here. What if we could schedule rate changes to avoid forgetting to make them? What if we could monitor real-time uptake information to eliminate the guesswork? Nick and I have come up with a plan that allows Balrog to do these things, and I'm excited to share it.

Enter: Balrog Agent

The Balrog Agent will be a new component of the system that can be configured to enact changes to update rules at specific times or when certain conditions are met. We will allow users to schedule changes through Admin UI, the Agent will watch for their condition(s) to be hit, and then enact the requested change. For now the only condition we will support is uptake of a specific version on a specific channel, which we will soon be able to get from Telemetry. This diagram shows where the Agent fits into the system:

Once implemented, our new process could look something like:

  • Add scheduled change to enable updates to the new version at a rate of 25%
  • Add scheduled change to turn the update rate down to 0% after we hit our target uptake
  • Let the Balrog Agent do the rest

Unlike the manual changes in our current process, the creation of both scheduled changes is not time sensitive - it can be done at any point prior to release day. This means that humans don't have to be around and/or remember to flip bits at certain times, nor do we have to worry about tweaking the time windows as our uptake rate changes. It Just Works (tm).

As always, security was a concern when designing the Balrog Agent. We don't want it to have root-like access to the Balrog database, we just want it to be able to make the specific changes that users have already set-up. To satisify this requirement, we'll be adding a special endpoint to the Admin API (something like /rules/scheduled_changes) which can only enact changes that users have previously scheduled. When users schedule new changes through the UI, Balrog will ensure that they have permission to make the change they're scheduling. The Agent will use the new endpoint to enact changes, which prevents it from making changes that a user didn't explicitly request. As with other parts of Balrog's database, the history of scheduled changes and when they were enacted will be kept to ensure that they are auditable.

Because this is the first time we'll have an automated system making changes to update rules at unpredictible times, another concern that came up was making sure that humans are not surprised when it happens. It's going to feel weird at first to have the release channel update rate managed by automation. To minimize the surprise and confusion of this we're planning to have the Agent send out e-mail before making changes. This serves as a heads up us humans and gives us time to react if the Agent is about to make a change that may not be desired anymore.

We know from past experience that it's impossible for us to predict the interesting ways and conditions we'll want to offer updates. One of the things I really like about this design is that the only limit to what we can do is the data that the Agent has available. While it's starting off with uptake data, we can enhance it later to look at Socorro or other key systems. Wouldn't it be pretty cool if we automatically shut off updates if we hit a major crash spike? I think so.

If you're interested in the nitty-gritty details of this project there's a lot more information in the bug. If you're interested in Balrog in general, I encourage you to check out the wiki or come chat with us on IRC.


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