3 Effective Techniques For Software Versioning

Software version numbers are all over the map. At present, my system reports the following versions of various installed software:

1.5.11 (1635)
Mayan Apocalypse (96)
3.7.1 (M20110909-1335)
7.0 (Build 201104080000)  

As you can see, there is no concrete pattern here. The most common theme seems to be:


To be fair, there have been some attempts to standardize version numbers such as Semantic VersioningApache APR, even the older Apple Standards. However,…..

Not all software is created equal:

We have a wide variety of software from libraries and frameworks, to complex server software to simple mobile applications. Some software is characterized by a high build rate (e.g. few times a day) whereas on the other end of the spectrum, it’s easy to find cases where a release every few months or even years is common practice. Some software is released to the public, other stays in-house. It is hard to define a single universal scheme that works for all kinds of software. So let us divide software into the following three broad categories:

  1. Libraries and Frameworks
  2. Public Software
  3. In-house or Hosted Software

Libraries and Frameworks

For library components and frameworks, which define their own API, Semantic Versioning (SemVer) looks promising. It requires that the software must define a public API to be able to use it. From their webpage:

“A normal version number MUST take the form X.Y.Z where X, Y, and Z are non-negative integers. X is the major version, Y is the minor version, and Z is the patch version. Each element MUST increase numerically by increments of one. For instance: 1.9.0 -> 1.10.0 -> 1.11.0.”

Web based frameworks like Express (for Node.js), Ruby On Rails, can benefit from it.

Public Software

When it comes to public software, things get complicated. Let’s take a moment to ask yourself why your users would ever use the version information? The only answer that comes to my mind is that’s how they decide if there’s a newer version available for purchase or not. Back in the day when I was using Windows 95 and heard about this fancy new thing called Windows 98, I knew it was time to upgrade.

Here’s the deal: your users don’t really care about cryptic version numbers. The only time detailed version information such as 4.1.2222A would come handy is when the user is experiencing issues and is on the phone, the support guy would want to know exactly what version of the software they are using right down to the build number.

Therefore, it is a good idea for public software to have a dual versioning scheme: The first version is a user-friendly name that is easy to remember and use in casual discussions, e.g. Lion.  The second is the detailed version to be used in times of crisis, e.g. 10.7.5 (11G63), such as when browsing the Internet for known vulnerabilities or calling Apple for support.

Microsoft seemed to have invented or at least popularized the dual versioning system with Windows 95. Windows 95, the immensely popular successor of Windows 3.1x, was actually called Windows 4.0. Windows 98 was 4.1. Apple picked this idea up starting from OS X 10.0 and started naming major releases after cats (Cheetah, Jaguar, Panther, to the latest Mountain Lion). You can apply your creative juices when coming up with a user-friendly versioning scheme and even involve the marketing group in the process.

For detailed versioning scheme, I personally prefer <major>.<minor>.<revision>.<build>. You could use <major>.<minor>.<revision>.<date>. For example:
1.0.3 (December 21, 2012)

Embedding the date in the release is actually a very good idea. It conveys time the build was generated. Others prefer appending build Ids generated by build management systems such as SVN, Git or Mercurial. At my work, I use the following rules:

  • Major: This is usually done at the end of full release cycle; the resulting product is a major upgrade. All stakeholders (Managers, VPs, Marketing Directors) are informed of the major increment and is usually followed by press releases and marketing.
  • Minor: When additional functionality or new features are introduced. Software Development managers or Senior Developers typically approve such increments.
  • Revision: Bug fixes, ad-hoc patches, any minor change. Developers increment this number each time they make a minor change or fix a bug.
  • Build: This is the only component of the version that is automatically generated. There is a python script that generates this using the Git commit SHA every time the software is built.

This post from Alex Collins explain the rules are incrementing each component:

“You zero digits to the right of any you increment, so if you fix a bug and introduce a new feature after version 5.3.6 then the new version is 5.4.0. Unstated digits are assumed to be zero, so 5.4.0 is the same as and…”

Bonus: I have written a Java class to hold Version information. It is available under the MIT license so you can freely use it. .NET users, have Version class which comes with the framework.

In-house or Hosted Software

For high rate builds using automated systems like Jenkins, it is a good idea to have versions automatically time stamped. Something like <year>.<month>.<day>.<time> is good for providing detailed information to support desk staff and for referencing build information to developers. E.g. 2012.12.29.0059 is the version of build generated on December 29, 2012 at 12:59 a.m.

Be Consistent

Whatever you do, please be consistent and stick to the system you pick. Sun Microsystems (acquired by Oracle), confused developers everywhere by changing their versioning scheme along the way.

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I'm Umer Mansoor , the author of this blog.

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6 comments on “3 Effective Techniques For Software Versioning
  1. Andrea says:

    Good points. I run a mISV and publish versions several times a week. I changed my version numbers and started using dates in them:

    The date is automatically incremented.

  2. Matthew White says:

    Dates can lead to confusion as well because different date standards are in use. For example 20130105 could be interpreted as January 5th, 2013 or May 1st, 2013, etc.

    • 10kloc says:

      I suggest using yyyymmdd. It is easy to see increments in the natural order this way as opposed to decreasing. For example version 20130228 is incremented to 20130301 (from Feb 28 to March 1, 2013). As opposed to 20132802 decreasing to 20130103 for the same dates which is guaranteed to confuse majority of users.

  3. CaldasGSM says:

    as a user, the lack of versioning numbers, make my task of deciding about a product or upgrade difficult.
    And I really don’t understand why companies are running away from it, more and more..

    In a time where everybody is used to versioning numbers.. (earing about web 2.0 and tv shows like jake 2.0) up to the point they incorporate them in their daily life (even as jokes..)
    And knowing that the consumer is always looking for the latest version of a product
    doesn’t the “2.0″ better convey the “new and improved” message?

    And as I said making sounding makes like “tiger” or “lion” may seem easier on the ears.. but by removing the munber your remove the comparison factor?
    which came first “Jaguar” or the “tiger”, what is the latest.. to which should I upgrade..
    Mot only that but some times even with mumbers that don’t make it easy.. nvidia released a new processor “GT 625M” but that already went up to “GT 650M”.. so did they released a new product that is worse that an already existing one?

    Some time I wish they would make it simple.. like in the time of windows 3.1

    • Riz Thon says:

      I agree on the Tiger VS Lion issue. I like the year.month naming of Ubuntu releases, and the fact that they always release new version on april and october, so you know that 11.10 is older than 12.04, and you even know there will be a 13.04. What I really don’t understand is why they also have to give some weird names like Warty Warthog, Hoary Hedgehog, Breezy Badger, Dapper Drake, Edgy Eft, Feisty Fawn, Gutsy Gibbon, Hardy Heron, Intrepid Ibex, Jaunty Jackalope, Karmic Koala, Lucid Lynx, Maverick Meerkat, Natty Narwhal, Oneiric Ocelot, Precise Pangolin, Quantal Quetzal, Raring Ringtail. How can anyone keep up with all those names? Definitely not normal users.

      • Chad3F says:

        Wow – you practically took the words right out of my mouth. Though, I was going to use the example DOS 2.x, 3.1, 3.3, 5.0 (before M$ went tangent and started with year based ones, then XP and Vista [what ever those mean] before resuming sequenced ones Win7/Win8). And also the android names.. forcing me to look up the version number somewhere when a tablet was only advertised with a “friendly” name.

        If people are going to use friendly names.. at least use something that has a clear (and well accepted) value scale, like bronze, silver, gold, platinum, unobtainum.. or paper, scissors, rock — scissors beats paper.. rock beats scissors.. paper beats.. uhh.. nevermind!

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