The technique of numbering various software program versions for internal usage and release identification is known as "software versioning." It enables programmers to keep track of modifications made to the software and determine when they were implemented. Additionally, it makes it possible for potential buyers to become acquainted with the latest releases and identify upgraded versions.
Any software's lifecycle includes regular updates. The scope of the software expands as upgrades are made, new versions are developed throughout its existence, developers provide new features, and issues get fixed. Software versioning is, therefore, a crucial component of development.
In this guide, we will talk about the importance of software versioning, how the industry uses it, and the best practices developed to make it efficient and useful.
What Is a Software Version Number?
A software product will grow and alter over time as its creators put in their time and effort. It will get increasingly integrated with additional services, obtain new features, apply numerous design and security upgrades, and so forth. Simply put, your software product is dynamic.
Therefore, each release modifies your product in some manner, whether through a small bug repair or a completely new codebase.
And because of this, developers will unavoidably produce several versions of the product during its existence. Tracking such releases is challenging. That is where the software version numbers come in.
Who Should Care About Software Versioning?
As we have indicated, software versioning is a great way to identify which version of software you are using. It is always recommended to be on the latest version unless there are no extenuating circumstances to continue using older versions.
The best way to keep these versions straight for anyone who encounters the software is to have version numbers that a person can look up to see what changes have been made or to cross-check which version they're on.
So, who should care about software versioning? Let’s dive into that:
Developers have the arduous task of keeping a close eye on their software to discover vulnerabilities or opportunities requiring patches or updates. For developers, organizing the work, prioritizing patches and upgrades, collaborating with other developers, or simply tracking everything added to the software is crucial.
They use software numbers for both in-house identification and releases. The software versions communicate to the users which version they have. If, for instance, a patch is issued, developers can easily pinpoint the exact version of the software users need to update to be safe.
Project managers oversee the entire software product and are tasked with scheduling, planning, budgets, completion, and delivery of software. Their job is to ensure the successful completion of projects assigned to them. When it comes to software, they, too, need to keep track of any changes, major or minor, and even approve them for production.
To stay up to date with the latest changes, they rely on software versioning, which is not only an indicator of the current state of software but also where it has come from historically and where it could be headed to ensure its continued success.
While developers always need to know which version of the software they’re on to do their job properly, users have a much less intense need for software versioning. However, it is crucial, especially in communications from developers that require user action.
Take, for instance, the discovery of a flaw in software that allows attackers to manipulate devices it is installed on. Developers will have to identify the flaw, patch/repair it as needed, and then roll out the patch to protect users. The best way for both the developers to communicate which version is safe and for users to know they are using the right version is to leverage the software version number.
Businesses, both software makers and enterprise users, have a lot at stake. From the developer side, a business must be able to communicate changes made to the software to its users. If those users are enterprise users, the implications of vulnerabilities are more serious.
Using software versioning numbers, the developer business can easily communicate changes to their users, creating trust in the business and mitigating mistakes that could be costly if miscommunicated or misunderstood.
The enterprise users' admins rely on software version numbers to know when they need to upgrade and when they don’t (for organizational reasons), preventing any unforeseen consequences from poorly communicated changes or upgrades.
In the software world, there are people, both in sanctioned agencies and freelance, whose careers are built around spotting vulnerabilities in the software we use and warning developers and users.
They rely on software versioning numbers to identify which versions of the software have a problem, allowing users and developers to easily track any security flaws and know which versions are safest to use.
How Software Versions Are Named
Different developers use different versioning formats for their software, with semantic versioning as the most common system.
Whichever version a company chooses, one of the most important things to remember is to keep the same format for consistency. The most common software versioning formats include:
- Semantic numbering
- Date-of-release numbering
- Alphanumeric codes
- Unary numbering
- Sequential numbering.
Semantic versioning is the most common type, so let's discuss how it works.
Understanding Semantic Versioning
In semantic versioning, each software version is represented by three numbers, all in MAJOR.MINOR.PATCH order. The matching number is raised whenever a major, minor, or patch update is released.
MAJOR denotes versions with incompatible API changes; MINOR denotes the addition of backward-compatible functionality; PATCH refers to backward-compatible bug fixes.
To make that make more sense, let’s use the Brave Browser’s version number at the time of writing this guide:
- Brave is at Version 1.45.133. That means it is on the 133rd patch of its first significant release.
Some businesses that produce new products frequently go even further with the numbering system. At the end of the normal semantic progression, they provide a qualifier. As a result, the software version releases would have four digits rather than a string of three.
Here’s an example:
- Brave is built on Chromium, which is at version 107.0.5304.141. As you can see, the version has one extra slot. These numbers denote MAJOR.MINOR.BUILD.PATCH., where the BUILD refers to a release candidate developed from the current (usually weekly for Dev channel release candidates). The ever-increasing number refers to a point in time in the Chromium cycle.
Both the BUILD and PATCH numbers are used to represent the code in a release canonically. The higher the BUILD number, the newer the code.
BUILD.PATCH is common term developers, and testers use to describe a product instance (such as Google Chrome or Chromium). It is the most concise, clear name for a build.
Complex numbers aside, developers follow some guidelines that make using versioning numbers easy. Let's talk about best practices!
Software Versioning Best Practices
These are some of the best practices in software versioning that make these numbers easier to use.
Let your users know which versioning system you use
You should let users know which type of software versioning you use, what it entails, and where they can learn more about it. This is crucial if your user base consists of technical and non-technical people.
The naming approach might not initially be as apparent to the less technical or casual user. Therefore, explain what it implies, why you're employing it, and what they might anticipate.
Create a consistent release schedule
Users would like to know what to anticipate from software upgrades and new releases. For instance, users eagerly anticipate Microsoft's big OS upgrades, which are released once a year, as well as patches from various big software players, released on Patch Tuesday.
Users would be bewildered and dissatisfied if these companies randomly delivered significant upgrades.
Inform users of all changes
Inform your users of every change, no matter how significant or minor. Share the fact that you are trying to maintain your users' satisfaction. Typically, software developers let their users know about the following:
- What has been fixed
- What has been improved
- What is new
- What has been deprecated
Highlighting your successes is a powerful technique to demonstrate to your clients how much you care about their progress. Regardless of whether they are IT experts or not, users should be able to understand this information.
Ask your users for feedback
Your users, not all of them, though, will have something to say about the software versioning system you use. If they understand and find it useful, you can keep it, but if they don't like it, you should hear them out at the very least.
Open up your lines of communication and get their feedback to improve the software for them. After all, feedback is the backbone of customer satisfaction, and they are the ones who interact with it regularly.
Is There an Easier Way to Do This?
Although version numbers are great for tracking and monitoring everything down to minute details, it is a little meaningless to users. What do we mean by that?
- Users usually don't even look at the version numbers. They might know what alpha or beta is, but the numbers mean very little unless they know how to look them up.
- Using a model and year is much easier to understand. Arbitrary numbers separated by decimal points are hard to understand. Other products successfully use a model and year designation, which is easier to understand.
- These version numbers stop meaning much once they leave the tens. It is good when you want to be meticulous, but stamping a date on it works much better.
Switching from version numbers to years, especially for users who only need to be sure they’re on the latest version.
Final Thought: Software Versioning Is Indispensable to Software Development
There is a dark and dreadful place in the software management industry dubbed "dependency hell." You are far more likely to eventually end up in dependency hell as your system expands and the more items you incorporate into your program.
Introducing new package versions in systems with many dependencies may rapidly become a headache. You run the risk of experiencing version lock if the dependency specifications are overly restrictive, given they make it impossible to upgrade a package without needing to release new versions of every dependent package.
If dependencies are defined too loosely, version promiscuity will ultimately haunt you. Before you even read the release notes, they explain how and to what extent your product has been changed.
The version number serves as more than simply a programming manual. Users may leverage it as a quick indicator to help you monitor your program throughout its lifespan, while developers can avoid going to hell (the dependencies kind).