Using Git with triangular workflows; tips, tricks, and more

Chances are you are using a triangular workflow, even if you don’t know it. A triangular workflow simply means that you pull from one repository, and push to another. This is what the vast majority of Git users do, unfortunately most of the good stuff is buried in the nearly incomprehensible official manpages.

In this blog post I’ll try to shine some light into triangular workflows, how to make use of the upstream tracking branch for them, and explain the new publish tracking branch.

The basics

Say you clone a repository:

% git clone https://github.com/tiimgreen/github-cheat-sheet
% cd github-cheat-sheet

Then you do some changes and want to share them back.

What most people would do is create a fork in GitHub and push their changes there.

% git remote add mine https://github.com/felipec/github-cheat-sheet
% git push mine

After doing that they do a pull request so their changes can be merged to the original repository.

This workflow is not specific to GitHub by any means, for example the Linux kernel developers have the main repository in git.kernel.org, and they send pull requests by mail using repositories all over the map (example).

The help

If you do this over and over it becomes clear that a little help from Git would be nice.

The first thing you can do is setup the configuration ‘remote.pushdefault’ to the repository you usually push to (in the above case ‘mine’). So now you can type `git push` instead of `git push mine` every time.

The next thing would be to setup an upstream tracking branch (read my blog post about it if you are not familiar with it).

% git branch --set-upstream-to mine/fix-typos

Then Git would greet you with the following help:

Your branch is ahead of 'mine/fix-typos' by 1 commit.

This is telling you that you probably want to push your branch again, since it’s not up-to-date in the remote. It shows you that each time you switch to that branch, or when you do `git status`.

Moreover, `git branch -vv` would show you this help:

* fix-typos ... [mine/fix-typos: ahead 1] Fix a bunch of typos

So it seems Git already has tons of help for this workflow, doesn’t it? Not so fast.

The real upstream

The upstream tracking branch is useful for other purposes, but for that we need to set a different upstream:

% git branch --set-upstream-to origin/master

Now that the upstream is ‘master’ in the ‘origin’ remote, and when you run `git status`, you get:

Your branch and 'origin/master' have diverged,
and have 2 and 10 different commits each, respectively.

What that message is telling you is that ‘origin/master’ has moved, so there are 10 commits in ‘origin/master’ that your branch doesn’t have (and your branch has 2 commits ‘origin/master’ doesn’t have). In those cases you probably would want to rebase on top of ‘origin/master’ so that it’s easier for upstream maintainers to merge your branch, although you can merge ‘origin/master’ too, or simply do nothing and hope there are no conflicts. Either way the information is useful so you can decide what to do.

In addition, if you want to rebase, the command is easier; instead of `git rebase origin/master` you can just type `git rebase`, since `git rebase` by default uses the upstream tracking branch.

Moreover, if you always stay up-to-date, you can do `git pull --rebase`, which will fetch all remote the branches, and then rebase your current branch (e.g. ‘fix-typos’) on top of the upstream (e.g. ‘origin/master’). You can also configure ‘pull.rebase = true’ to always do this when you type `git pull`.

Not to mention that `git branch -vv` gives a much more useful information:

* fix-typos ... [master: ahead 2, behind 10] Fix a bunch of typos

Check how it looks in my real repository:

git branch --vv with upstream

You get other additional benefits, like for example you get warned if you try to delete a branch that hasn’t been merged to its upstream:

warning: not deleting branch 'fix-typos' that is not yet merged to
'origin/master', even though it is merged to HEAD.
error: The branch 'fix-typos' is not fully merged.
If you are sure you want to delete it, run 'git branch -D fix-typos'.

This is actually what the upstream tracking branch is meant for: to track the upstream, that is; the target branch where eventually all the commits of the source branch eventually should end up. All the commits of ‘fix-typos’ should end up in ‘origin/master’, therefore ‘origin/master’ is the upstream of ‘fix-typos’.

We want to have all the goodies of tracking ‘origin/master’ as our upstream, but we also want to track ‘mine/fix-typos’ so we know when we need to push. Unfortunately we can’t set them both as upstream, so we must choose one set of benefits over the other. Or should we?

The solution

The solution is not that hard to figure out: we need another upstream! Or rather; we need some concept that is similar to the upstream tracking branch, but instead of tracking the final destination, we track the location we push our commits to.

This is the publish tracking tracking branch.

When you set it up, you get all the information:

Your branch and 'origin/master' have diverged,
and have 2 and 10 different commits each, respectively.
Some commits haven't been published to 'mine/fix-typos'.

* fix-typos ... [origin/master, mine/fix-typos *: ahead 2, behind 10]

Notice the extra ‘*’ next to the publish branch, which hints that it needs to be published.

Also, you can type `git pull` and `git rebase`, which will use the upstream branch as you would expect, and `git push` which will use the publish branch.

In other words; everything just works perfectly.

You set up the publish branch just like you set up the upstream branch:

% git branch --set-publish-to mine/fix-typo

Or:

% git push --set-publish mine

But wait, there’s more: you are not tied to push to a single remote; you can set different branches in different remotes as publish tracking. For example ‘fix-typos’ to ‘github/fix-typos’, ‘bug-fix’ to ‘client/bug-fix’, and so on. You can even choose a different branch name in the remote: ‘client-b-bug-fix’ to ‘client-b/bug-fix’.

Nice, isn’t it?
git branch -vv publish

The problem

There is only one problem with the publish branch: it’s not in upstream git😦

It is part of my fork, git-fc. If you use my fork, you will get this and other features, and you won’t loose any feature from official Git. Or you can use the specific branch, ‘fc/publish‘.

I’ve been using this code for more than half a year, and it has been reviewed in the Git mailing list, so you can trust it won’t eat your babies🙂

Why isn’t it in official Git?

WARNING: if you don’t like conflicts or you know me for “adversarial” style (and don’t like it), skip this section

That’s a very good question. If the maintainer (Junio C Hamano) has accepted the triangular workflows are lacking, and a separate ‘upstream’ tracking branch is needed. Why isn’t it there?

The short answer is that they have an ad hominem thing against me, so even if my patches are correct and they solve a long-standing problem, they are not applied. They are only picked if they are trivial, or not controversial, or obvious fixes. Which is why I started a fork.

I sent the original version of the patches in September 2013, with virtually no comments. Then on January 2014 people start discussing (once again) about the issues with triangular workflows, and even complain about the lack of @{publish}. Eventually they start writing preparatory patches. But I had already written the whole thing several months ago!

It can’t be attributed to the fact they went inadvertently unnoticed because I re-sent the series once, and because I wrote about the support for @{publish} when I announced the git-fc fork.

Then I returned to the project after a long hiatus, and noticed they were working on something I already did, so let them know and send the patches again. This time they receive more feedback, and even make it into Junio’s “pu” (proposed updates) branch. Patches are often dropped from “pu”, sometimes for no reason at all, so this is not a reason they will get in.

This is the message Junio attached to the patch series:

 Add branch@{publish}; it seems that this is somewhat different from
 Ram and Peff started working on.  There were many discussion
 messages going back and forth but it does not appear that the
 design issues have been worked out among participants yet.

The “design issues” have not been worked out because “Ram” is not actively working on Git anymore (possibly thanks to the fact that nothing ever changes), and “Peff” said he wasn’t interested in the @{publish} concept, but more like a @{push} concept which will only benefit him and his weird bare-bones mode of interacting with Git. The fact that the @{publish} concept is what would benefit a vast majority of the user base is of no consequence to “Peff”.

So will it ever get into Git’s mainline? Who knows.

Get the goodies

If you want to use the publish tracking branch feature, get git-fc and follow the installation instructions. In addition you would get a ton of other features, and will loose none🙂

If you use ArchLinux, you can get the package from AUR.

Enjoy🙂

One thought on “Using Git with triangular workflows; tips, tricks, and more

  1. Pingback: What’s missing in Git v2.0.0 | Felipe Contreras

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