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Version control with Git: resources

If you are not using a version control system for all your software development, paper writing, research code execution and tracking of the generated results, you should. There is simply no excuse today for not using version control as a mechanism for tracking what you are doing with your source materials and data (be they programming language files, LaTeX/LyX files, plain text, even data results!). Using version control frees you from the madness of having directories with files named mypaper_version2_20100202_revisions_jim_v3_new_new2.tex, for one thing. It gives you a mechanism to synchronize your work with colleagues without tracking who attached what version when, and a way to seamlessly replicate your work, including its history, across computers. Using a version control system is much, much easier than you think, and today’s best systems are powerful, well documented and free.

This page isn’t meant to be a tutorial, but rather a summary of useful resources on using the Git software for version control. Of the systems available today (as of 2010) for version control, I only recommend people use either git or mercurial; I’ve personally chosen git and find it to be an extraordinary tool, though I have also used mercurial lightly and from what I see regarding its development and uptake it is also a very good system. Git and mercurial are ultimately quite similar in their architecture, and likely to become even more alike in everyday use over time, as each team learns from the other.

I will not go here into historical details about other version control systems, nor is this meant to encourage a comparison or discussion: I have extensive experience with CVS, SVN and Bazaar, and only use those systems today very reluctantly, when imposed by external constraints. Git is simply that much better for my needs. Should you feel the urge to comment on this, please send your message to one of the many online forums where debates on this vs that are welcome, not to me.

Introductory materials

I suggest you start with my interactive tutorial aimed squarely at scientists who want to collaborate with a few colleagues on a manuscript, grant proposal or data analysis project.

In addition, I would recommend the following ‘core’ reading list, and below I mention a few extra resources:

  1. The concise GitRef reference: written by one of the authors of the excellent GitHub.com site, it’s very compact but contains all the key ideas with the right approach. If you only read one document, make it this one.
  2. For a bit more detail, see the start of the excellent Pro Git online book, or similarly the early parts of the Git community book. Pro Git’s chapters are very short and well illustrated; the community book tends to have more detail and has nice screencasts at the end of some sections.
  3. For a different take, the Git parable is an easy read that walks you through how you would go about building a version control system with a little story. By the end of this gentle document, you realize that Git’s model is a very sound and clean one for the issues of source history control, management and collaboration.

If you are really impatient and just want a quick start, this visual git tutorial may be sufficient. It is nicely illustrated with diagrams that show what happens on the filesystem.

Understanding Git Conceptually is an excellent document that I found invaluable once I understood the basics. Git has a reputation for being hard to use, but I have found that with a clear view of what is actually a very simple internal design, its behavior is remarkably consistent, simple and comprehensible. The user interface can be sometimes opaque (though it’s getting better), but I think the problems most people have arise from thinking with a Subversion-type model and trying to simply find the corresponding mimicking commands in git. Since this often makes a mess, you will be far better served by understanding a tiny bit of the underlying ideas: a little time invested in this understanding will pay off in hassle-free work later.

For windows users, an Illustrated Guide to Git on Windows is useful in that it contains also some information about handling SSH (necessary to interface with git hosted on remote servers when collaborating) as well as screenshots of the Windows interface.

Other resources

Cheat sheets
Two different cheat sheets in PDF format that can be printed for frequent reference.
Git ready
A great website of posts on specific git-related topics, organized by difficulty.
QGit: an excellent Git GUI
Git ships by default with gitk and git-gui, a pair of Tk graphical clients to browse a repo and to operate in it. I personally have found qgit to be nicer and easier to use. It is available on modern linux distros, and since it is based on Qt, it should run on OSX and Windows.
Git Magic
Another book-size guide that has useful snippets.
The learning center at Github
Guides on a number of topics, some specific to github hosting but much of it of general value.
A port of the Hg book’s beginning
The Mercurial book has a reputation for clarity, so Carl Worth decided to port its introductory chapter to Git. It’s a nicely written intro, which is possible in good measure because of how similar the underlying models of Hg and Git ultimately are.
Intermediate tips
A set of tips that contains some very valuable nuggets, once you’re past the basics.

Collaboration: sharing repositories

While Git can be used strictly in ‘private’ mode, where you only keep repositories in one computer, you will often want to share your work with others. The most natural way to do this is to have a repository located on a system that is always online and to which both parties have access. This central location hosts a repository that can be read from and written to by both, and acts as a synchronization point.

The resources above have sections explaining how to configure a server to publish Git repositories, but for open source projects (or for private ones by paying a fee), there are websites that provide this service with minimal hassle. I am most familiar with Github, but Gitorious offers similar services.

A noteworthy hosting service is Indefero: while less well-known than Github and Gitorious, its special feature is that the source code behind the website is itself open source and it contains support for SVN, mercurial and git as well as a wiki and a bug tracker. This means that you can run Indefero on your own server, with as many private repositories as you wish and the typical amenities of a project (Gitorious is also open source, but has no bug tracker). I use this for my own private projects, and I have some notes that you may find useful on configuring Indefero on your own server.

For SVN users

If you want a bit more background on why the model of version control used by Git and Mercurial (known as distributed version control) is such a good idea, I encourage you to read this very well written post by Joel Spolsky on the topic. After that post, Joel created a very nice Mercurial tutorial, whose first page applies equally well to git and is a very good ‘re-education’ for anyone coming from an SVN (or similar) background.

In practice, I think you are better off following Joel’s advice and understanding git on its own merits instead of trying to bang SVN concepts into git shapes. But for the occasional translation from SVN to Git of a specific idiom, the Git - SVN Crash Course can be handy.


Better shell support

(Sent by Nate Vack to the nipy mailing list)

Adding git branch info to your bash prompt and tab completion for git commands and branches; they make git life really brilliant:

Embedding Git information in LaTeX documents

(Sent by Yaroslav Halchenko)

I use a Make rule:

# Helper if interested in providing proper version tag within the manuscript
revision.tex: ../misc/revision.tex.in ../.git/index
       GITID=$$(git log -1 | grep -e '^commit' -e '^Date:' | sed  -e 's/^[^ ]* *//g' | tr '\n' ' '); \
       echo $$GITID; \
       sed -e "s/GITID/$$GITID/g" $< >| $@

in the top level Makefile.common which is included in all subdirectories which actually contain papers (hence all those ../.git). The revision.tex.in file is simply:

% Embed GIT ID revision and date

The corresponding paper.pdf depends on revision.tex and includes the line \input{revision} to load up the actual revision mark.

Automatically make local branches track remotes

When checking out a remote branch with a local one, adding –track will ensure that the new local branch is automatically a tracking branch. But if you have an existing local branch and you decide you want to push it remotely, you can do it once by saying:

git push <remote> <branchname>

or you can configure things (so the local branch becomes a tracking one with):

git config branch.<branchname>.remote <remote>
git config branch.<branchname>.merge refs/heads/<branchname>

Note that as of git 1.7, this can be done with the simpler command:

git branch --set-upstream <branchname> <remote>/<branchname>

and in all of these, it’s possible to set the remote and local branch names to be different, in case there’s a conflict with your local name already existing in the remote.


git config branch.autosetupmerge true

Tells git-branch and git-checkout to setup new branches so that git-pull will appropriately merge from that remote branch. Recommended. Without this, you will have to add --track to your branch command or manually merge remote tracking branches with “fetch” and then “merge”.

git export

Git doesn’t have a native export command, but this works just fine:

git archive --prefix=fperez.org/  master | gzip > ~/tmp/source.tgz

Setting default push/pull:

(master)maqroll[0203_lecture2]> git push
fatal: The current branch master is not tracking anything.

So do this:

git config branch.master.merge refs/heads/master
git config branch.master.remote origin

and now things work:

(master)maqroll[0203_lecture2]> git push
Counting objects: 8, done.
Delta compression using up to 2 threads.
Compressing objects: 100% (6/6), done.
Writing objects: 100% (6/6), 84.82 KiB, done.
Total 6 (delta 0), reused 0 (delta 0)
To git@gfif.udea.edu.co:mscomp-2010.git
   807d520..0a8e2d2  master -> master

Interactive Rebase

One of the neat things about git is that you can modify your commits before you push them up to a public, shared repository. Let’s say you’ve made 10 commits to your local git repository, but you want it to look like two when it gets pushed up. All you need to do is type:

git rebase -i HEAD~10

And git will launch your $EDITOR and allow you to perform what’s referred to as an “interactive rebase.”