Compilation of already published Articles/Ideas/Problems-Solutions which I faced or came across over the period of time. Largely a place for me to document it as note-to-self. Nothing serious. :)
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Git - Getting Started - About Version Control
About Version Control
What is version control, and why should you care? Version control is a system that records changes to a file or set of files over time so that you can recall specific versions later. Even though the examples in this book show software source code as the files under version control, in reality any type of file on a computer can be placed under version control.
If you are a graphic or web designer and want to keep every version of an image or layout (which you certainly would), it is very wise to use a Version Control System (VCS). A VCS allows you to: revert files back to a previous state, revert the entire project back to a previous state, review changes made over time, see who last modified something that might be causing a problem, who introduced an issue and when, and more. Using a VCS also means that if you screw things up or lose files, you can generally recover easily. In addition, you get all this for very little overhead.
Many people’s version-control method of choice is to copy files into another directory (perhaps a time-stamped directory, if they’re clever). This approach is very common because it is so simple, but it is also incredibly error prone. It is easy to forget which directory you’re in and accidentally write to the wrong file or copy over files you don’t mean to.
To deal with this issue, programmers long ago developed local VCSs that had a simple database that kept all the changes to files under revision control (see Figure 1-1).
Figure 1-1. Local version control diagram.
One of the more popular VCS tools was a system called rcs, which is still distributed with many computers today. Even the popular Mac OS X operating system includes the rcs command when you install the Developer Tools. This tool basically works by keeping patch sets (that is, the differences between files) from one revision to another in a special format on disk; it can then recreate what any file looked like at any point in time by adding up all the patches.
The next major issue that people encounter is that they need to collaborate with developers on other systems. To deal with this problem, Centralized Version Control Systems (CVCSs) were developed. These systems, such as CVS, Subversion, and Perforce, have a single server that contains all the versioned files, and a number of clients that check out files from that central place. For many years, this has been the standard for version control (see Figure 1-2).
Figure 1-2. Centralized version control diagram.
This setup offers many advantages, especially over local VCSs. For example, everyone knows to a certain degree what everyone else on the project is doing. Administrators have fine-grained control over who can do what; and it’s far easier to administer a CVCS than it is to deal with local databases on every client.
However, this setup also has some serious downsides. The most obvious is the single point of failure that the centralized server represents. If that server goes down for an hour, then during that hour nobody can collaborate at all or save versioned changes to anything they’re working on. If the hard disk the central database is on becomes corrupted, and proper backups haven’t been kept, you lose absolutely everything—the entire history of the project except whatever single snapshots people happen to have on their local machines. Local VCS systems suffer from this same problem—whenever you have the entire history of the project in a single place, you risk losing everything.
This is where Distributed Version Control Systems (DVCSs) step in. In a DVCS (such as Git, Mercurial, Bazaar or Darcs), clients don’t just check out the latest snapshot of the files: they fully mirror the repository. Thus if any server dies, and these systems were collaborating via it, any of the client repositories can be copied back up to the server to restore it. Every checkout is really a full backup of all the data (see Figure 1-3).
Figure 1-3. Distributed version control diagram.
Furthermore, many of these systems deal pretty well with having several remote repositories they can work with, so you can collaborate with different groups of people in different ways simultaneously within the same project. This allows you to set up several types of workflows that aren’t possible in centralized systems, such as hierarchical models.
A Short History of Git
As with many great things in life, Git began with a bit of creative destruction and fiery controversy. The Linux kernel is an open source software project of fairly large scope. For most of the lifetime of the Linux kernel maintenance (1991–2002), changes to the software were passed around as patches and archived files. In 2002, the Linux kernel project began using a proprietary DVCS system called BitKeeper.
In 2005, the relationship between the community that developed the Linux kernel and the commercial company that developed BitKeeper broke down, and the tool’s free-of-charge status was revoked. This prompted the Linux development community (and in particular Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux) to develop their own tool based on some of the lessons they learned while using BitKeeper. Some of the goals of the new system were as follows:
Strong support for non-linear development (thousands of parallel branches)
Able to handle large projects like the Linux kernel efficiently (speed and data size)
Since its birth in 2005, Git has evolved and matured to be easy to use and yet retain these initial qualities. It’s incredibly fast, it’s very efficient with large projects, and it has an incredible branching system for non-linear development (See Chapter 3).
So, what is Git in a nutshell? This is an important section to absorb, because if you understand what Git is and the fundamentals of how it works, then using Git effectively will probably be much easier for you. As you learn Git, try to clear your mind of the things you may know about other VCSs, such as Subversion and Perforce; doing so will help you avoid subtle confusion when using the tool. Git stores and thinks about information much differently than these other systems, even though the user interface is fairly similar; understanding those differences will help prevent you from becoming confused while using it.
The major difference between Git and any other VCS (Subversion and friends included) is the way Git thinks about its data. Conceptually, most other systems store information as a list of file-based changes. These systems (CVS, Subversion, Perforce, Bazaar, and so on) think of the information they keep as a set of files and the changes made to each file over time, as illustrated in Figure 1-4.
Figure 1-4. Other systems tend to store data as changes to a base version of each file.
Git doesn’t think of or store its data this way. Instead, Git thinks of its data more like a set of snapshots of a mini filesystem. Every time you commit, or save the state of your project in Git, it basically takes a picture of what all your files look like at that moment and stores a reference to that snapshot. To be efficient, if files have not changed, Git doesn’t store the file again—just a link to the previous identical file it has already stored. Git thinks about its data more like Figure 1-5.
Figure 1-5. Git stores data as snapshots of the project over time.
This is an important distinction between Git and nearly all other VCSs. It makes Git reconsider almost every aspect of version control that most other systems copied from the previous generation. This makes Git more like a mini filesystem with some incredibly powerful tools built on top of it, rather than simply a VCS. We’ll explore some of the benefits you gain by thinking of your data this way when we cover Git branching in Chapter 3.
Most operations in Git only need local files and resources to operate — generally no information is needed from another computer on your network. If you’re used to a CVCS where most operations have that network latency overhead, this aspect of Git will make you think that the gods of speed have blessed Git with unworldly powers. Because you have the entire history of the project right there on your local disk, most operations seem almost instantaneous.
For example, to browse the history of the project, Git doesn’t need to go out to the server to get the history and display it for you—it simply reads it directly from your local database. This means you see the project history almost instantly. If you want to see the changes introduced between the current version of a file and the file a month ago, Git can look up the file a month ago and do a local difference calculation, instead of having to either ask a remote server to do it or pull an older version of the file from the remote server to do it locally.
This also means that there is very little you can’t do if you’re offline or off VPN. If you get on an airplane or a train and want to do a little work, you can commit happily until you get to a network connection to upload. If you go home and can’t get your VPN client working properly, you can still work. In many other systems, doing so is either impossible or painful. In Perforce, for example, you can’t do much when you aren’t connected to the server; and in Subversion and CVS, you can edit files, but you can’t commit changes to your database (because your database is offline). This may not seem like a huge deal, but you may be surprised what a big difference it can make.
Everything in Git is check-summed before it is stored and is then referred to by that checksum. This means it’s impossible to change the contents of any file or directory without Git knowing about it. This functionality is built into Git at the lowest levels and is integral to its philosophy. You can’t lose information in transit or get file corruption without Git being able to detect it.
The mechanism that Git uses for this checksumming is called a SHA-1 hash. This is a 40-character string composed of hexadecimal characters (0–9 and a–f) and calculated based on the contents of a file or directory structure in Git. A SHA-1 hash looks something like this:
You will see these hash values all over the place in Git because it uses them so much. In fact, Git stores everything not by file name but in the Git database addressable by the hash value of its contents.
When you do actions in Git, nearly all of them only add data to the Git database. It is very difficult to get the system to do anything that is not undoable or to make it erase data in any way. As in any VCS, you can lose or mess up changes you haven’t committed yet; but after you commit a snapshot into Git, it is very difficult to lose, especially if you regularly push your database to another repository.
This makes using Git a joy because we know we can experiment without the danger of severely screwing things up. For a more in-depth look at how Git stores its data and how you can recover data that seems lost, see Chapter 9.
Now, pay attention. This is the main thing to remember about Git if you want the rest of your learning process to go smoothly. Git has three main states that your files can reside in: committed, modified, and staged. Committed means that the data is safely stored in your local database. Modified means that you have changed the file but have not committed it to your database yet. Staged means that you have marked a modified file in its current version to go into your next commit snapshot.
This leads us to the three main sections of a Git project: the Git directory, the working directory, and the staging area.
Figure 1-6. Working directory, staging area, and git directory.
The Git directory is where Git stores the metadata and object database for your project. This is the most important part of Git, and it is what is copied when you clone a repository from another computer.
The working directory is a single checkout of one version of the project. These files are pulled out of the compressed database in the Git directory and placed on disk for you to use or modify.
The staging area is a simple file, generally contained in your Git directory, that stores information about what will go into your next commit. It’s sometimes referred to as the index, but it’s becoming standard to refer to it as the staging area.
The basic Git workflow goes something like this:
You modify files in your working directory.
You stage the files, adding snapshots of them to your staging area.
You do a commit, which takes the files as they are in the staging area and stores that snapshot permanently to your Git directory.
If a particular version of a file is in the git directory, it’s considered committed. If it’s modified but has been added to the staging area, it is staged. And if it was changed since it was checked out but has not been staged, it is modified. In Chapter 2, you’ll learn more about these states and how you can either take advantage of them or skip the staged part entirely.