Samstag, Mai 04, 2024

A new kind of git history

Discussions about rebase vs. merge are familiar territory for anybody with an interest in version control in general and git in particular. I want to finally give a more permanent home to an idea that I have expressed in the past and that I've occasionally seen others hint at in those discussions as well.

There are multiple camps in these discussions that have slightly different ideas about how and for what purposes git should be used.

The first major axis of disagreement is whether history needs to be git bisect-able. Outside of my own little hobby projects, I've always worked on projects for which bisectability was important. This has generally been because their scope was such that CI simply had no chance to cover all uses of the software. Bug reports that can be traced to regressions from weeks or even months ago are not frequent per se, but they have always been frequent enough to matter. git bisect is an essential tool for finding those regression points when they happen. Not all projects are like that, but for projects which are, the notion of an "atomic" change to the project's main development branch (or branches) is important.

The second major axis of disagreement is whether the development history of those "atomic" changes is important enough to preserve. The original git development workflow does not consider this to be important: developers send around and review multiple iterations of a change, but only the final version of the change goes into the permanent record of the git repository. I tend to agree with that view. I have very occasionally found it useful to go back and read through the comments on a pull request that lead to a change months ago (or the email thread in projects that use an email workflow), but I have never found it useful to look at older versions of a change.

Some people seem to really care about this kind of history, though. They're the people who argue for a merge-based workflow for pull requests on GitHub (but against force-pushes to the same) and who have built hacks for bisectability and readability of history like --first-parent. I'm calling that a hack because it does not compose well. It works for projects whose atomic change history is essentially linear, but it breaks down once the history becomes more complex. What if the project occasionally has a genuine merge? Now you'd want to apply --first-parent for most merge commits but not all. Things get messy.

One final observation. Even "my" camp, which generally prefers to discard development history leading up to the atomic change in a main development branch, does want to preserve a kind of history that is currently not captured by git's graph. git revert inserts the hash of the commit that was reverted into the commit message. Similarly, git cherry-pick optionally inserts the hash of the commit that was cherry-picked into the commit message.

In other words, there is a kind of history for whose preservation at least in some cases there seems to be a broad consensus. This kind of history is distinct from the history that is captured by commit parent links. Looked at in this light, the idea is almost obvious: make this history an explicit part of git commit metadata.

The gist of it would be this. Every commit has a (often empty) list of historical commit references explaining the origins of the diff that is implicitly represented by the commit; let's call them diff-parents. The diff-parents are an ordered list of references to commits, each of them with a "reverted" bit that can optionally be set.

The history of a revert can be encoded by making the reverted commit a diff-parent with the "reverted" bit set. The history of a cherry-pick can be encoded similarly, with the "reverted" bit clear. When we perform a simple rebase, each new commit has an obvious diff-parent. When commits are squashed during a rebase, the sequence of squashed commits becomes the list of diff-parents of the newly formed commit. GitHub users who like to preserve all development history can use the "squash" option when landing pull requests and have the history be preserved via the list of diff-parents. git commit --amend can similarly record the original commit as diff-parent.

This is an idea and not a fully fleshed-out plan. There are obviously a whole bunch of tricky questions to answer. For example: How does this all fit into git's admittedly often byzantine CLI? Can merge commits be diff-parents, and how would that work? Can we visualize the difference between a commit and its diff-parents? (Hint: Here's an idea)

Diff-parents are a source of potential information leaks. This is not a problem specific to the idea of diff-parents; it is a general problem with the idea of preserving all history. Imagine some developer accidentally commits some credentials in their local clone of a repository and then uses git commit --amend to remove them again. Whoops, the commit that contains the credentials is still referenced as a diff-parent. Will it (and therefore the credentials) be published to the world for all to see when the developers pushes their branch to GitHub? This needs to be taken seriously.

So there are a whole bunch of issues that would have to be addressed for this idea to work well. I believe those issues to be quite surmountable in principle, but given the state of git development (where GitHub, which to many is almost synonymous with git, doesn't even seem to be able to understand how git was originally meant to be used) I am not particularly optimistic. Still, I think it's a good idea, and I'd love to see it or something like it in git.

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