Friday, February 7, 2014

Getting started with bug-squashing for Firefox

See also: Tips and Tricks For Fixing Your First Bug by Saurabh Anand

So over the past few months I've been trying to contribute a bit to Mozilla (mainly Firefox). Last August there was a MozBoot session at IIT Bombay which helped me get over the learning curve.

First off, a big thanks to @Debloper (and @hardfire) for showing me the basics. The process is intimidating, though once you've done it with help, it becomes pretty natural. These Mozilla reps got me past that intimidation point, so I'm really grateful for that.

This post is basically an tutorial on how to get started. It's basically an in-depth version of this tutorial, which I feel misses a few things.

Note that I am still a beginner at this, comments on how to improve this post/my workflow appreciated.

Ok, let's get started.

Step 1: Identifying a bug you want to fix

Firstly, make an account on You'll need it later. Browse the bug lists on the site, looking for bugs that seem fixable. Look for bugs marked as "good first bug", which have a status of "NEW".

Of course, this is a bit cumbersome to do and there are a lot of  bugs which are nontrivial or have a lot of discussion baggage which you may not want to go through. Fortunately, there are some tools out there that greatly help in searching for bugs.

Firstly, there's What Can I Do For Mozilla?. This is an interactive questionnaire that helps you find out which portions of Mozilla or Firefox you may be able to comfortably contribute to. Note that this is not just Firefox, though if you select the HTML or JS categories you will be presented with the Firefox subcategory which contains various entries.

This doesn't help find bugs as much as it helps you find the areas of the codebase that you might want to look at.

However, there is a different tool that is built specifically for this purpose; to look for easy bugs given one's preferences and capabilities. It's called Bugs Ahoy, and it lets you tick your preferences and programming languages to filter for bugs. It also has two insanely useful options, one that lets you filter out assigned bugs, and one that tells it to look for "good first bugs" ("simple bugs"). "Good first bug"s on Bugzilla are easy bugs which are kept aside for new users to try their hand at. There is a mentor for these bugs, who is a very active community member or employee. These mentors help you through the rest of the process, from where you need to look in the code to how to put up a patch. I've found that the mentors are very friendly and helpful, and the experience of being mentored on a bug is rather enjoyable.

Make sure the bug isn't assigned to anyone, and look through the comments and attachments for details on the status of the bug. Some bugs are still being discussed, and some bugs are half-written (it's not as easy to use these for your first bug). If you need help on choosing a bug, join #introduction on There are lots of helpful people out there who can give feedback on your chosen bug, and help you get started.

Step 2: Finding the relevant bits of code

If this is a mentored bug, you usually can ask the mentor in a comment on the bug for help. Be sure to get it assigned to you! If the mentor doesn't respond in a few days, use the needinfo box at the bottom of the page:

Type the username (usually preceded by a colon somewhere in the full name string), and a suggestion box should pop up with various users. Pick your mentor out from the list, and ask for help in the comment box.

If you want to look for the code yourself, Mozilla Cross-Reference is a great tool. For Firefox, you probably want the mozilla-central subtree. With MXR, you can easily search the codebase for text, variable names, and regexes.

For most UI changes, you can track the code down by first looking for nearby strings.  For example, if you want to look at the code for the where-do-I-save-downloads preference which is preceded with the text "Save files to", the search result leads to a dtd file, which defines the entity saveTo.label as the string. (Remember, all displayed strings will be in a localization file). Searching for saveTo.label turns up main.xul. Now that you've found this, you can dig deeper by looking at the event handling and figuring out where the relevant javascript is, or you can look around this same file and figure out how it works, depending on what you want to fix.

I've not really made any changes to the C++ yet, only the toolkit and UI javascript, so I can't comment on how one can find the C++ code relevant to a bug. But you can always ask around in IRC or ask your mentor (if any) for help.

Step 3: Downloading and building the code

Not all bugs need a build. Some are quite easy to do without having a full copy of the code or a build, and while you'll eventually want to have both of these, it is possible to hold this off for a while, depending on the bug. While it's easier to create patchfiles when the system is all set up, I will address patching without the full code in the next section.

Downloading can be done in two ways. Both require Mercurial to be installed (sudo apt-get install mercurial works).

One way is to simply hg clone This will download the full repository. However, if you don't think your internet connection will be stable, download the mozilla-central bundle from here and follow the steps given there. Note that Mercurial is a bit different from Git, so you may wish to read up on the basics.

To build firefox , you first need to setup your build environment. If you already have Mercurial and Python installed on Linux/OSX, the build environment setup is simply ./mach bootstrap, run from the root directory of the cloned repository. For setting it up on Windows or for other corner cases, go here.

Once done, go to the root directory of the firefox code and run ./mach build. After your first build, you can run incremental builds (that only build the files you ask it to, and rebuilds any files depending on it) by using ./mach build <list of filepaths>, eg ./mach build browser/components/preferences/. You can specify both folders and files to the incremental build.

Note that for some javascript files, you have to build their containing directory — so if your changes aren't getting reflected in the incremental build, try building the directory they are in.

Step 4: Getting a patch

So by this point you will have figured out the fix and modified the code so that you have a partial (for a multifaceted bug) or full fix of the bug. At this point you can submit the patch for review. For this, you need to have a patch to submit first!

Creating patches with hg

If you have the full cloned repository, first add these lines to your ~/.hgrc to enable the mercurial queues extension with the proper settings.

username = Firstname Lastname 

qnew = -Ue

mq =

git = 1
unified = 8
showfunc = 1

Once done, navigate to the firefox source tree and run hg qqueue -c somequeuenamehere. This will create a named patch queue that you can work on.

Now, run hg qnew patchname.patch and then hg qpush patchname.patch. This creates a new patch by that name in the .hg/patches-queuename folder, and pushes it onto the curretly applied stack of patches. You can update its contents with the changes made to the code by  hg qrefresh or simply hg qref.  This patch is the one that you can submit in step 5.

When you run hg qnew, it will ask you to enter a commit message. Write the bug name and a short description of the patch ("Bug 12345 - Frob the baz button when foo happens"), and add a ";r=nameofreviewer". In case of mentored bugs, the uername of the mentor will be your reviewer. If not, you'll have to find a reviewer (more details on this later, for now you may leave this blank and edit it in the patch file later). Note that the default editor for this is usually vim, so you have to press Ins before typing text and then Esc followed by a :x and Enter to save.

Advanced usage

In case of complicated bugs or bugs which already have a patch, you can queue the patches up. Simply use hg qnew to create patches and  hg qpush or hg qpop to move up and down the patch queue (this will change the code to reflect the currently active patch, and hg qref will update that same patch)

If you want to work on a different bug in parallel, you just have to pop all current patches out, and create a new patch queue with hg qqueue -c. You can then switch between the queues with hg qqueue queuename.

Creating patches without hg

Since the full repository takes a really long time to download and unpack, it's useful to have a different way of making patches so that the download doesn't become a blocking step.

For preliminary patches, with just one file

This is if you want to submit a patch that can be reviewed fr feedback but not checked in as a final patch. I wouldn't recommend using this method, but I'll keep these instructions here just in case.

If you're just editing one file, put the old version and the new version side by side, and run diff -u oldfile newfile >mypatch.patch in the same directory. Now, open the patch file and edit the paths to match the relative filepath of the edited file from the root firefox directory (eg if you edited main.xulold to main.xul, replace both names with browser/components/preferences/main.xul)

Proper patches

Put the files in a directory, and then run git init on the files. Now, git add *  and then git commit -m "commit message" to commit the files.

After this, make your changes to the files. Then, run git diff -U8 >output.patch . Edit the patch and change the a/filename and b/filename lines to be a/path/to/filename and b/path/to/filename. The paths here are relative with respect to the root directory.

Now, add the following to the top of the patch

# HG changeset patch
# Parent parenthash
# User Firstname Lastname>
Bug 12345 - Frob the baz button when foo happens; r=jaws
Set the commit message as described in the above section for creating patches with hg.

As for the parent hash, you can ignore and remove the line (or get it by going to the mozilla-central hg repository and copying the hash of the tip commit).

Step 5: Submitting the patch, and the review process

See also: Getting reviews

Now that you're at this stage, the rest is pretty smooth sailing. Find the "add attachment"  link on the bugzilla page:

Upload the attachment, give it a descriptive name ("Patch for barring the foo", though sometimes I just use "Patch 0.1"), and make sure the "patch" checkbox is ticked

Now, you also need to ask for review. Click the dropdown next to the review menu, and set it to "?" ("requesting review"). Put the username of your reviewer in the "Requestee" box (and use the autosuggest to get the email address). If you don't know who to ask for review:
  • If the bug is mentored, your mentor will be able to review your code. Usually the mentor name will turn up in the "suggested reviewers" dropdown box in bold, too.
  • If the bug isn't mentored, you still might be able to find reviewers in the suggested reviewers dropdown. The dropdown is available for bugs in most firefox and b2g components.
  • Otherwise, ask around in IRC or check out the hg logs of the file you modified (start here) to find out who would be an appropriate reviewer.
  • A list of module owners and peers for each module can be found here (the Firefox and Toolkit ones are usually the ones you want). These users are allowed to review code in that module, so make sure you pick from those. If you mistakenly pick someone else, they'll usually be helpful enough to redirect the review to the right person.

Usually, on the first bug, your review will be canceled ("r-"). This is nothing to be worried about, the mentors (and/or reviewers) are very helpful and will let you know exactly what can be improved in the process. This is one of the things I like about Mozilla; everyone's quite helpful!

Once you fix the nits and other changes requested from you, re-upload the attachment (mark the old one as obsolete).

At one point, the review will be granted, and the code will be checked in. Once that happens, the bug will get marked as resolved. And you're done with your first bug!

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