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Firefox Release Engineering

Who decides which languages we ship? First of all, localizers themselves nominate their specific changeset for a given release. The nominated changeset gets reviewed by Mozilla's localization team and shows up in a Web dashboard that lists the changesets needed for each language. The Release Coordinator reviews this before sending the "go to build" email. On the day of a release, we retrieve this list of changesets and we repackage them accordingly.

Besides localization repackages we also generate partner repackages. These are customized builds for various partners we have who want to customize the experience for their customers. The main type of changes are custom bookmarks, custom homepage and custom search engines but many other things can be changed. These customized builds are generated for the latest Firefox release and not for betas.


For users to be sure that the copy of Firefox they have downloaded is indeed the unmodified build from Mozilla, we apply a few different types of digital signatures to the builds.

The first type of signing is for our Windows builds. We use a Microsoft Authenticode (signcode) signing key to sign all our .exe and .dll files. Windows can use these signatures to verify that the application comes from a trusted source. We also sign the Firefox installer executable with the Authenticode key.

Next we use GPG to generate a set of MD5 and SHA1 checksums for all the builds on all platforms, and generate detached GPG signatures for the checksum files as well as all the builds and installers. These signatures are used by mirrors and other community members to validate their downloads.

For security purposes, we sign on a dedicated signing machine that is blocked off via firewall and VPN from outside connections. Our keyphrases, passwords, and keystores are passed among release engineers only in secure channels, often in person, to minimize the risk of exposure as much as possible.

Figure 5: Signing Firefox installers.

Until recently, this signing process involved a release engineer working on a dedicated server (the "signing master") for almost an hour manually downloading builds, signing them, and uploading them back to ftp.mozilla.org before the automation could continue. Once signing on the master was completed and all files were uploaded, a log file of all the signing activities was uploaded to the release candidates directory on ftp.mozilla.org. The appearance of this log file on ftp.mozilla.org signified the end of human signing work and from that point, dependent builders watching for that log file could resume automation. Recently, we've added an additional wrapper of automation around the signing steps. Now the release engineer opens a Cygwin shell on the signing master and sets up a few environment variables pertaining to the release, like VERSION, BUILD, TAG, and RELEASE_CONFIG, that help the script find the right directories on ftp.mozilla.org and know when all the deliverables for a release have been downloaded so that the signing can start. After checking out the most recent production version of our signing tools, the release engineer simply runs make autosign. The release engineer then enters two passphrases, one for gpg and one for signcode. Once these passphrases are automatically verified by the make scripts, the automation starts a download loop that watches for uploaded builds and repacks from the release automation and downloads them as they become available. Once all items have been downloaded, the automation begins signing immediately, without human intervention.

Not needing a human to sign is important for two reasons. First, it reduces the risk of human error. Second, it allows signing to proceed during non-work hours, without needing a release engineer awake at a computer at the time.

All deliverables have an MD5SUM and SHA1SUM generated for them, and those hash values are written to files of the same name. These files will be uploaded back to the release-candidates directory as well as synced into the final location of the release on ftp.mozilla.org once it is live, so that anyone who downloads a Firefox installer from one of our mirrors can ensure they got the correct object. When all signed bits are available and verified they are uploaded back to ftp.mozilla.org along with the signing log file, which the automation is waiting for to proceed.

Our next planned round of improvements to the signing process will create a tool that allows us to sign bits at the time of build/repack. This work requires creating a signing server application that can receive requests to sign files from the release build machines. It will also require a signing client tool which would contact the signing server, authenticate itself as a machine trusted to request signing, upload the files to be signed, wait for the build to be signed, download the signed bits, and then include them as part of the packaged build. Once these enhancements are in production, we can discontinue our current all-at-once signing process, as well as our all-at-once generate-updates process (more on this below). We expect this work to trim a few hours off our current end-to-end times for a release.


Updates are created so users can update to the latest version of Firefox quickly and easily using our built-in updater, without having to download and run a standalone installer. From the user's perspective, the downloading of the update package happens quietly in the background. Only after the update files are downloaded, and ready to be applied, will Firefox prompt the user with the option to apply the update and restart.

The problem is, we generate a lot of updates. For a series of releases on a product line, we generate updates from all supported previous releases in the series to the new latest release for that product line. For Firefox LATEST, that means generating updates for every platform, every locale, and every installer from Firefox LATEST-1, LATEST-2, LATEST-3, in both complete and partial forms. We do all this for several different product lines at a time.

Our update generation automation modifies the update configuration files of each release's build off a branch to maintain our canonical list of what version numbers, platforms, and localizations need to have updates created to offer users this newest release. We offer updates as "snippets". As you can see in the example below, this snippet is simply an XML pointer file hosted on our AUS (Application Update Service) that informs the user's Firefox browser where the complete and/or partial .mar (Mozilla Archive) files are hosted.

Major Updates vs. Minor Updates

As you can see in Listing One, update snippets have a type attribute which can be either major or minor. Minor updates keep people updated to the latest version available in their release train; for example, it would update all 3.6.* release users to the latest 3.6 release, all rapid-release beta users to the latest beta, all nightly users to the latest nightly build, etc. Most of the time, updates are minor and don't require any user interaction other than a confirmation to apply the update and restart the browser.

Listing One: Sample update snippet.

    <update type="minor" version="7.0.1" extensionVersion="7.0.1"
    <patch type="complete"
    <patch type="partial"

Major updates are used when we need to advertise to our users that the latest and greatest release is available, prompting them that "A new version of Firefox is available, would you like to update?" and displaying a billboard showcasing the leading features in the new release. Our new rapid-release system means we no longer need to do as many major updates; we'll be able to stop generating major updates once the 3.6.* release train is no longer supported.

Complete Updates vs. Partial Updates

At build time we generate "complete update" .mar files which contain all the files for the new release, compressed with bz2 and then archived into a .mar file. Both complete and partial updates are downloaded automatically through the update channel to which a user's Firefox is registered. We have different update channels (that is, release users look for updates on release channel, beta users look on beta channel, etc.) so that we can serve updates to, for example, release users at a different time than we serve updates to beta users.

Partial update .mar files are created by comparing the complete .mar for the old release with the complete .mar for the new release to create a "partial-update" .mar file containing the binary diff of any changed files, and a manifest file. As you can see in the sample snippet in Lis, this results in a much smaller file size for partial updates. This is very important for users with slower or dial-up Internet connections.

In older versions of our update automation the generation of partial updates for all locales and platforms could take six to seven hours for one release, as the complete .mar files were downloaded, diffed, and packaged into a partial-update .mar file. Eventually it was discovered that even across platforms, many component changes were identical, therefore many diffs could be reused. With a script that cached the hash for each part of the diff, our partial update creation time was brought down to approximately 40 minutes.

After the snippets are uploaded and are hosted on AUS, an update verification step is run to a test downloading the snippets and then run the updater with the downloaded .mar file to confirm that the updates apply correctly.

Generation of partial-update .mar files, as well as all the update snippets, is currently done after signing is complete. We do this because generation of the partial updates must be done between signed files of the two releases, and therefore generation of the snippets must wait until the signed builds are available. Once we're able to integrate signing into the build process, we can generate partial updates immediately after completing a build or repack. Together with improvements to our AUS software, this means that once we're finished builds and repacks we would be able to push immediately to mirrors. This effectively parallelizes the creation of all the updates, trimming several hours from our total time.

Pushing to Internal Mirrors and QA

Verifying that the release process is producing the expected deliverables is key. This is accomplished by QA's verification and sign offs process.

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