You are reading a development version of the Zulip documentation. These instructions may contain changes that are not yet present in a supported Zulip Server release. See documentation for the latest stable release.

Modify Zulip

Zulip is 100% free and open source software, and you’re welcome to modify it! This section explains how to make and maintain modifications in a safe and convenient fashion.

If you do modify Zulip and then report an issue you see in your modified version of Zulip, please be responsible about communicating that fact:

  • Ideally, you’d reproduce the issue in an unmodified version (e.g. in the Zulip development community or on zulip.com).

  • Where that is difficult or you think it’s very unlikely your changes are related to the issue, just mention your changes in the issue report.

If you’re looking to modify Zulip by applying changes developed by the Zulip core team and merged into main, skip to this section.

Making changes

One way to modify Zulip is to just edit files under /home/zulip/deployments/current and then restart the server. This can work OK for testing small changes to Python code or shell scripts. But we don’t recommend this approach for maintaining changes because:

  • You cannot modify JavaScript, CSS, or other frontend files this way, because we don’t include them in editable form in our production release tarballs (doing so would make our release tarballs much larger without any runtime benefit).

  • You will need to redo your changes after you next upgrade your Zulip server (or they will be lost).

  • You need to remember to restart the server or your changes won’t have effect.

  • Your changes aren’t tracked, so mistakes can be hard to debug.

Instead, we recommend the following GitHub-based workflow (see our Git guide if you need a primer):

  • Decide where you’re going to edit Zulip’s code. We recommend using the Zulip development environment on a desktop or laptop as it will make it extremely convenient for you to test your changes without deploying them in production. But if your changes are small or you’re OK with risking downtime, you don’t strictly need it; you just need an environment with Git installed.

  • Important. Determine what Zulip version you’re running on your server. You can check by inspecting ZULIP_VERSION in /home/zulip/deployments/current/version.py (we’ll use 2.0.4 below). If you apply your changes to the wrong version of Zulip, it’s likely to fail and potentially cause downtime.

  • Fork and clone the zulip/zulip repository on GitHub.

  • Create a branch (named acme-branch below) containing your changes:

cd zulip
git checkout -b acme-branch 2.0.4
  • Use your favorite code editor to modify Zulip.

  • Commit your changes and push them to GitHub:

git commit -a

# Use `git diff` to verify your changes are what you expect
git diff 2.0.4 acme-branch

# Push the changes to your GitHub fork
git push origin +acme-branch
  • Log in to your Zulip server and configure and use upgrade-zulip-from-git to install the changes; remember to configure git_repo_url to point to your fork on GitHub and run it as upgrade-zulip-from-git acme-branch.

This workflow solves all of the problems described above: your change will be compiled and installed correctly (restarting the server), and your changes will be tracked so that it’s convenient to maintain them across future Zulip releases.

Upgrading to future releases

Eventually, you’ll want to upgrade to a new Zulip release. If your changes were integrated into that Zulip release or are otherwise no longer needed, you can just upgrade as usual. If you upgraded to main; review that section again; new maintenance releases are likely “older” than your current installation and you might need to upgrade to main again rather than to the new maintenance release.

Otherwise, you’ll need to update your branch by rebasing your changes (starting from a clone of the zulip/zulip repository). The example below assumes you have a branch off of 2.0.4 and want to upgrade to 2.1.0.

cd zulip
git fetch --tags upstream
git checkout acme-branch
git rebase --onto 2.1.0 2.0.4
# Fix any errors or merge conflicts; see Zulip's Git guide for advice

# Use `git diff` to verify your changes are what you expect
git diff 2.1.0 acme-branch

git push origin +acme-branch

And then use upgrade-zulip-from-git to install your updated branch, as before.

Making changes with docker-zulip

If you are using docker-zulip, there are two things that are different from the above:

  • Because of how container images work, editing files directly is even more precarious, because Docker is designed for working with container images and may lose your changes.

  • Instead of running upgrade-zulip-from-git, you will need to use the docker upgrade workflow to build a container image based on your modified version of Zulip.

Applying changes from main

If you are experiencing an issue that has already been fixed by the Zulip development community, and you’d like to get the fix now, you have a few options. There are two possible ways you might get those fixes on your local Zulip server without waiting for an official release.

Applying a small change

Many bugs have small/simple fixes. In this case, you can use the Git workflow described above, using:

git fetch upstream
git cherry-pick abcd1234

instead of “making changes locally” (where abcd1234 is the commit ID of the change you’d like).

In general, we can’t provide unpaid support for issues caused by cherry-picking arbitrary commits if the issues don’t also affect main or an official release.

The exception to this rule is when we ask or encourage a user to apply a change to their production system to help verify the fix resolves the issue for them. You can expect the Zulip community to be responsive in debugging any problems caused by a patch we asked you to apply.

Also, consider asking whether a small fix that is important to you can be added to the current stable release branch (E.g. 2.1.x). In addition to scheduling that change for Zulip’s next bug fix release, we support changes in stable release branches as though they were released.

Upgrading to main

Many Zulip servers (including chat.zulip.org and zulip.com) upgrade to main on a regular basis to get the latest features. Before doing so, it’s important to understand how to happily run a server based on main.

For background, backporting arbitrary patches from main to an older version requires some care. Common issues include:

  • Changes containing database migrations (new files under */migrations/), which includes most new features. We don’t support applying database migrations out of order.

  • Changes that are stacked on top of other changes to the same system.

  • Essentially any patch with hundreds of lines of changes will have merge conflicts and require extra work to apply.

While it’s possible to backport these sorts of changes, you’re unlikely to succeed without help from the core team via a support contract.

If you need an unreleased feature, the best path is usually to upgrade to Zulip main using upgrade-zulip-from-git. Before upgrading to main, make sure you understand:

  • In Zulip’s version numbering scheme, main will always be “newer” than the latest maintenance release (E.g. 3.1 or 2.1.6) and “older” than the next major release (E.g. 3.0 or 4.0).

  • The main branch is under very active development; dozens of new changes are integrated into it on most days. The main branch can have thousands of changes not present in the latest release (all of which will be included in our next major release). On average main usually has fewer total bugs than the latest release (because we fix hundreds of bugs in every major release) but it might have some bugs that are more severe than we would consider acceptable for a release.

  • We deploy main to chat.zulip.org and zulip.com on a regular basis (often daily), so it’s very important to the project that it be stable. Most regressions will be minor UX issues or be fixed quickly, because we need them to be fixed for Zulip Cloud.

  • The development community is very interested in helping debug issues that arise when upgrading from the latest release to main, since they provide us an opportunity to fix that category of issue before our next major release. (Much more so than we are in helping folks debug other custom changes). That said, we cannot make any guarantees about how quickly we’ll resolve an issue to folks without a formal support contract.

  • We do not support downgrading from main to earlier versions, so if downtime for your Zulip server is unacceptable, make sure you have a current backup in case the upgrade fails.

  • Our changelog contains draft release notes available listing major changes since the last release. The Upgrade notes section will always be current, even if some new features aren’t documented.

  • Whenever we push a security or maintenance release, the changes in that release will always be merged to main; so you can get the security fixes by upgrading to main.

  • You can always upgrade from main to the next major release when it comes out, using either upgrade-zulip-from-git or the release tarball. So there’s no risk of upgrading to main resulting in a system that’s not upgradeable back to a normal release.

Contributing patches

Zulip contains thousands of changes submitted by volunteer contributors like you. If your changes are likely to be of useful to other organizations, consider contributing them.