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mugwumpjism (1871)

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Journal of mugwumpjism (1871)

Monday August 14, 2006
01:33 AM

What people Love about their VCS - Part 3 of 4. git

[ #30615 ]

It is clear that the earlier posts in this series are light on details and teasers, whereas this post goes into much detail on each new feature. For this bias I offer no apology. There is no mistaking that within the period of one year, I have gone from being an outspoken SVK advocate to extolling the virtues of the content filesystem, git. And I am not alone.

Content Addressible Filesystem

There are many good reasons that super-massive projects like the Linux Kernel, XFree86, Mozilla, Gentoo, etc are switching to git. This is not just a short term fad, git brings a genuinely new (well, stolen from monotone) concept to the table - that of the content addressable filesystem.

In this model, files, trees of files, and revisions are all hashed with a specially pre-seeded SHA1 to yield object identifiers, that uniquely identify (to the strength of the hashing algorithm) the type and contents of the object. The full ramifications of this take some time to realise, but include more efficient delta compression¹, algorithmically faster merging, less error prone file history detection², but chiefly, much better identification of revisions. All of a sudden, it does not matter which repository a revision comes from - if the SHA1 object ID matches, you have the same object, so the system naturally distributes by model, with no requirement for URIs or surrogate repository UUIDs and revision numbers.

Being content-keyed also means you are naturally transaction-safe. In terms of the core repository, you are only ever adding new objects. So, if two processes try to write to the same file, this will succeed because it means that they are writing the same contents.

It also makes cryptography and authentication easy - you can sign an entire project and its revision history just by signing text including a commit ID. And if you recompute the object identifiers using a stronger hash, you have a stronger guarantee.

The matter of speed

The design of the git-core implementation is very OS efficient. People might scoff at this as a key feature, but consider this performance comparison;


wilber:~/src/git$ time svk sync -t 11111 /pugs/openfoundry
Retrieving log information from 1 to 11111
Committed revision 2 from revision 1.
Committed revision 3 from revision 2.
Committed revision 4 from revision 3.
Committed revision 11110 from revision 11109.
Committed revision 11111 from revision 11110.
Committed revision 11112 from revision 11111.

real    227m36.096s
user    3m47.281s
sys     5m0.577s

That's 13,656 seconds to mirror 11,111 revisions.

Compare that to git :

wilber:~/src$ time git-clone git:// git.git
Checking files out...
100% (688/688) done

real    1m54.932s
user    0m2.825s
sys     0m0.468s

That was 115 seconds to mirror 6,511 revisions. The key bottleneck was the network - which was saturated for almost all of the execution time of the command, not a laborious, revision by revision dialogue due to a server protocol that just didn't seem to think that people might want to copy entire repositories³. The server protocol simply exchanged a few object IDs, then using the merge base algorithm to figure out which new objects are required, it generated a delta-compressed pack that just gives you the new objects you need. So, git does not suffer from high latency networks in the same way that SVN::Mirror does.

But it's not just the server protocol which is orders of magnitude faster. Git commands overall execute in incredibly short periods of time. The reason for this speed isn't (just) because "it's written in C". It's mainly due to the programming style - files are used as iterators, and iterator functions are combined together by way of process pipelines. As the computations for these iterator functions are all completely independent, they naturally distribute the processing, and UNIX with its pipe buffers was always designed to make mincemeat of this kind of highly parallel processing task.

There is a lot to be learnt from this style of programming; generally the habit has been to try to avoid using unnecessary IPC in programs in order to make best use of traditional straight line CPU performance, where task switching is a penalty. Combining iterative programming with real operating system filehandles can bring the potential of this speed enhancement to adequately built iterative programs. I expect it will only be a matter of time before someone will produce a module for Perl 6 that will automatically auto-thread many iterative programs to use this trick. Perhaps one day, it will even be automatic.

But that aside, we have yet to touch on some of the further ramifications of the content filesystem.

Branching is more natural

Branches are much more natural - instead of telling the repository ahead of time when you are branching, you simply commit. Your commit can never be invalid (there is no "transaction out of date" error) - if you commit in a different way to somebody else, then you have just branched the development.

Branches are therefore observed, not declared. This is an important distinction, but is actually nothing new - it is the paradigm shift that was so loudly touted by those arch folk who irritatingly kept suggesting that systems like CVS were fundamentally flawed. Beneath the bile of their arguments, there was a key point of decentralisation that was entirely missed by the Subversion design. Most of the new version control systems out there - bazaar-NG, mercurial, codeville, etc have this property.

Also, the repository itself is normally kept alongside the checkout, in a single directory at the top called .git (or wherever you point the magic environment variable GIT_DIR at - so you can get your 'spotless' checkouts, if you need them). As the files are saved in the repository compressed via gzip and/or delta compressed into a pack file, with filenames that are essentially SHA1 hashes, the 'grep -r' problem that Subversion and CVS suffered from is gone.

It means that you can explain that to make a branch, you can just copy the entire checkout+repository:

$ cp -r myproject myproject.test

Not only that, but you can combine repositories back together just by copying their objects directories over each other.

$ cp -ru myproject.test/.git/objects myproject/.git/
$ git-fsck-objects
dangling commit deadbeef...
$ git-update-ref refs/heads/test deadbeef

Now, that's crude and illustrative only, but these sorts of characteristics make repository hacks more accessible. Normally you would just fetch those revisions:

$ git-fetch ../myproject.test test:refs/heads/test

Merges are truly merges

Unlike in Subversion, the repository itself tracks key information about merges. When you use `svn merge', you are actually copying changes from one place in the repository to another. Git does support this, but calls it "pulling" changes from one branch to another. The difference is that a merge (by default) creates a special type of commit - a merge commit that has two parents (a "parent" is just a SHA1 identifier to the previous commit). Thus, the two branches are truly converged, and if the maintainer of the other branch then pulls from the merged branch, they're not just identical - they are the same branch. Merge base calculations can just look at two commit structures, and find the earliest commits that the two branches have in common.

To compare the model of branching and merging to databases and transactional models, the Subversion model is like auto-commit, whereas distributed SCM such as git provides is akin to transactions, with the diverged branch's commits being like SQL savepoints, and merges being like full "commit" points.

"Best of" merging - cherry picking

There is also the concept of piecemeal merging via cherry picking. One by one, you can pluck out individual changes that you want instead of just merging in all of the changes from the other branch. If you later pull the entire branch, the commits which were cherry picked are easily spotted by matching commit IDs, and do not need to be merged again.

The plethora of tools

Another name for git is the Stupid content tracker. This is reference to the fact that the git-core tools are really just a set of the small "iterator functions" that allow you to build 'real' SCMs atop of it. So, instead of using the git-core - the "plumbing" - directly, you will probably be using a "porcelain" such as Cogito, (h)gct, QGit, Darcs-Git, Stacked Git, IsiSetup, etc. Instead of using git-log to view revision history, you'll crank up Gitk, GitView or the curses-based tig.

The huge list of tools which interface with git already are a product of the massive following that it has received in its very short lifetime.

The matter of scaling

The scalability of git can be grasped by browsing the many Linux trees visible on In fact, if you were to combine all of the trees on into one git repository, you would measure that the project as a whole has anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 commits every month. Junio's OLS git presentation contains this and more.

In fact, for a laugh, I tried this out. First, I cloned the mainstream linux-2.6 tree. This took about 35 minutes to download the 140MB or so of packfile. Then I went through the list of trees, and used 'git fetch' to copy all extra revisions in those trees into the same repository. It worked, taking between a second and 8 minutes for each additional branch - and while I write this, it has happily downloaded over 200 heads so far - leaving me with a repository with over 40,000 revisions that packs down to only 200MB. (Update: Chris Wedgwood writes that he has a revision history of the Linux kernel dating all the way back to 2.4.0, with almost 97,000 commits, which is only 380MB)

Frequently, scalability is reached through distribution of bottlenecks, and if the design of the system itself elimates bottlenecks, there is much less scope for overloaded central servers like Debian's alioth or the OSSF's to slow you down. While Subversion and SVK support "Star" and "Tree" (or heirarchical) developer team patterns, systems such as git can truly, both in principle and practice, be said to support meshes of development teams. And this is always going to be more scalable.

Revising patches, and uncommit

The ability to undo, and thus completely forget commits is sometimes scorned at, as if it were "wrong" - that version control systems Should Not support such a bad practice, and therefore that having no way to support it is not a flaw, but a feature. "Just revert", they will say, and demand to know why you would ever want such a hackish feature as uncommit.

There is a point to their argument - if you publish a revision then subsequently withdraw that revision from the history without explicitly reverting it, people who are tracking your repository may also have to remove those revisions from their branches before applying your changes.

However, this is not an unsurmountable problem when your revision numbers uniquely and unmistakably identify their history - and when you are working on a set of patches for later submission, it is actually what you want. In the name of hubris, you only care to share the changes once you've made them each able to withstand the hoards of the Linux Kernel Mailing List reviewers (or wherever you are sending your changes, even to an upstream Subversion repository via git-svn).

In fact, the success of Linux kernel development can also be attributed in part to its approach of only committing to the mainline kernel, patches that have been reviewed and tested in other trees, don't break the compile or add temporary bugs, etc. As they are refined, the changes themselves are modified before they are eventually cleared for inclusion in the mainline kernel. This stringent policy allows them to do things such as bisect revisions to perform a binary search between two starting points to locate the exact patch that caused a bug.

Before git arrived, there were tools such as Quilt that managed the use case of revising patches, but they were not integrated with the source control management system. These days, Patchy Git and Stacked Git layer this atop of git itself, using a technique that amounts to being commit reversal. In fact, the reversed commits still exist - it's just nothing refers to them - they can still be seen by git-fsck-objects before the next time the maintenance command git-prune is run.

So, Stacked Git has a command called uncommit that takes a commit from the head and moves it to your patch stack, refresh to update the current patch once it has been suitably revised, a pair of commands push and pop to wind the patch stack, a pick command to pluck individual patches from another branch, and a pull command that picks entire stacks of patches, which is called "rebasing" the patch series. And of course, being a porcelain only, you can mix and match the use of stgit with other git porcelain.

Far from being "so 20th century", patches are a clean way to represent proposed changes to a code base that have stood the test of time - and a practice of reviewing and revising patches encourages debate of the implementation and makes for a tidier and more tracable project history.

The polar opposite to reviewing every patch - a single head that anyone can commit to - is more like a Wiki, and an open-commit policy Subversion server suits this style of colloboration well enough. There is no "better" or "more modern" between these two choices of development styles - each will suit certain people and projects better than others.

Of course, those tools that made distributed development a key tenet of their design make the distributed pattern more natural, and yet it is just as easy for them to support the Wiki-style development pattern of Subversion.

In fact there are no use cases for which I can recommend Subversion over git any more. In my opinion, those that attack it on the grounds of "simplicity" (usually on the topic of the long, though able to be abbreviated, revision numbers) have not grasped the beauty of the core model of git.


Many people, especially those with time, effort and ego invested in their own VCS, judged the features of git in very early days. Without being able to see where it would be today, they each gave excuses as to why this new VCS git offered their users less functionality. So, a lot of FUD exists, a few points of which I address here.

  1. git does do delta compression to save space (as a separate step)
  2. git can track renames of files, though it does not record this in the meta-data, and pragmatically the observation is that this is, overall speaking, just as good, if not better, than tracking them with meta-data.
  3. git is not forced to hold the entire project history, it is quite possible to have partial repositories using grafts, though this feature is still relatively new and initial check-outs cannot easily be made grafts. Patches welcome ;-).
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