Dependency Disaster

Over the last few weeks and months, the nightmare that is WordPress plugin dependency hell has waxed and waned with the ire of a thousand burning suns. It flared up when I, perhaps naively, posted a reminder of a rarely called upon guideline to not submit Frameworks for hosting on WordPress’s official plugin repository.

This brought up the perfectly valid arguments that these repositories are useful as they allow for deployment and updates that were hitherto unavailable when rolled up into one package. And at its heart, I understand their point and agree with them as to the benefits. But since WordPress core doesn’t have true plugin dependencies at this time, it’s exceptionally complicated and a hassle to include them.

Personally, I feel that the NPM or Composer style development of plugin is the way to go. Development. Not deployment. With few exceptions, I feel the best way to release a plugin is all in one, rolled up together. The exceptions are, of course, plugins that are add-ons to others, like a plugin that adds a new email integration hook to MailChimp, or a new payment gateway for WooCommerce.

The rest of our plugins should be self contained, reliant on naught but ourselves. I have two plugins which contain the same AWS SDK libraries, written in a way to check if the library is already loaded and to make sure it only loads what’s needed. Why did I do that? Because then someone can have one or the other or both without conflicts.

The user doesn’t have to care about dependancies. They are invisible. That is as it should be. Users don’t have to care.

But there’s also a danger with dependancies, as recently came to light in the JS world. Azer Koçulu liberated his modules from NPM after the threat of a trademark based lawsuit had NPM remove one of his projects.

Sidebar: Open Source has no right to impinge on trademark law. Period. However some lawsuits are frivolous and daft and should be contested. Sadly most communities (NPM,, etc) do not have the money or resources to fight that battle for a developer. If you chose to fight, please contact the EFF.

As is his right, Azer pulled all his packages from NPM. The fall out from this package removal is that a lot of automated builds failed. This has to do with the way Composer is often bundled. Instead of a wrapped up package like an exe or a dmg, it’s a stub that reaches out and downloads all its requirements on the fly. Just like the TGM Plugin Installer. Right? And what happens when those requirements are missing? The build fails.

Perhaps worse, by unpublishing the name slugs used can be taken over by anyone else, and used to push more nefarious code. This did not happen. NPM checked everyone and verified they were as decent as one can before handing over the old names to new owners.

My first thought was “Could this happen to WordPress?”

Yes and no. First up, we don’t reuse names. If you have the plugin ‘foobar’ and ask to have it closed, the name is still reserved. In extremely rare cases we’ve turned over names to trademarked owners (like how Facebook owns the facebook slug) but always with communication of both parties and always with awareness to how many users might be impacted.

But could we pull a plugin for trademark infringement and screw up package dependancies? You bet your ass.

We’ve been lucky that all legal parties involved in similar arguments have been accepting of the ‘grandfathered’ ruling. That’s why we still have plugins with slugs like ‘google-analytics-by-joe’ out there. But it’s also why we don’t allow any more. And yes, when a plugin with a unique name is submitted, we do take the time to check if it’s already trademarked. To spare people this drama.

But yes. It could totally happen. And since we have to name our dependancies and rely on those slugs, there’s no easy way out.

I suggest reading the Hacker News thread on the matter. They weigh both sides of the issue, and show you how the pros and cons make this even more complex.