Bleeding edge or LTS - Which framework version to choose?
Starting a new software project is nice and the mythical green field project is usually able to bring joy to any developer. After planning what the application will do it is time to select the libraries and frameworks that will compose the stack of the new application. This task is usually done using the mindset of “what do I like better?” or “what am I comfortable with?” or even “what do I want to learn?”. Of course some options will be selected according to the type of software to be built.
We need one type of mindset when selecting the tools to develop an enterprise application that will live for years to come and another one for a promotional website that will live for a couple weeks or months. This post focuses more on the first case, when the application to be built will have to live for years to come and has to be reliable, maintainable and upgradable avoiding full rewrites using newer versions of the framework used.
In some way or another stacks get chosen and applications get built. But what happens down the line when the software is already build and has to be supported? If the code is coupled to the underlying framework it can get harder to upgrade to newer versions, specially when the newer versions break the compatibility. And let’s all be honest here, writing web applications completely decoupled from the framework is a hard task that most of us will fail at some point or another.
Another problem for applications that have to live longer is to keep the pace with the releases of the libraries/frameworks being used. Talking about PHP, for example, running a composer update may break things in unexpected ways, and depending on the level of stability needed, upgrading a library will spawn a full set of regression tests, being those tests automated or not.
What I’m trying to say here is that at some point you may spend more time keeping your stack up to date than building new features or fixing bugs. Your customer does not care if you are running the latest version of your stack, the customer cares about new features and less bugs.
To try to solve this issue some frameworks release Long Term Support (LTS) versions that are maintained for a longer time than the regular releases. Symfony for example is supported for 8 months after each regular release and for 3 years for the LTS versions, Laravel is doing the same releasing LTS versions with 2 years support and 3 years security fixes.
Using an LTS version has its pros and cons. On the pros side the team will have more time to focus on a stable product and to build features and fix bugs. Keeping everything up to date will be easier because the minor versions released on the LTS version will not introduce backward compatibility breaks. The team can get experienced with that given version and extract the most out it.
But not everything is shiny and nice on LTS. Updating to a newer version when the support time is gone can be complicated. That’s when the team will have to deal with backwards compatibility breaks and adoption of new ways to do things on an environment that used to be well known. Other problem is to stay behind the new features present on the regular releases.
I usually prefer LTS versions for software that will least for years but this is not a rule and it depends a lot on the team and its vision. A team of four developers who need to deliver new features and fix bugs constantly will probably have no time to upgrade to newer versions every couple months. On the other side a team with people dedicated to keep the stack up to date, clean and stable will be able to adopt new features more easily.
Sometimes we also see those small proof of concept projects that for some reason succeed and hit production. In such cases a major refactor/rewrite is recommended, but when it is not possible then I recommend following the regular releases until an LTS is out. Then it is possible to stay on the LTS if that is better for your team.
What about you? What do you usually prefer or what do you recommend for applications that will live a long time, LTS or regular releases?