Practical Branch LayoutΒΆ

I’ve recently gone from being someone who uses git entirely “on my own,” to being someone who uses git with a lot of other people at once. I’ve also had to introduce git to the uninitiated a few times. These have both been notable challenges.

Git is hard, particularly in these contexts: not only are there many concepts to learn, but there’s no single proscribed workflow and a multitude of workflow possibilities. Which is great from a philosophy perspective, and arguably good from a “useful/robust tool perspective,” but horrible from a “best practices” perspective. Hell, it’s horrible for a “consistent” and “sane” practices perspective.

There are a lot of solutions to the “finding a sane practice,” when working with git and large teams. Patching or reformulating the interface is a common strategy. Legit is a great example of this, but I don’t think it’s enough, because the problem is really one of bad and unclear defaults. For instance:

  • The “master” branch, in larger distributed systems is highly confusing. If you have multiple remotes (which is common), every remote has its own master branch, which all (necessarily) refer to different possible points in a repository’s history.
  • The names of a local branch do not necessarily refer to the names of the remote branch in any specific repository. The decoupling of local and remote branches, makes sense from a design perspective, but it’s difficult to retain this mapping in your head, and it’s also difficult to talk about branch configurations because your “view of the universe,” doesn’t often coincide with anyone else’s?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Have two modes of operation: a maintainer’s mode that resembles current day git with a few basic tweaks described in later options, and a contributors mode, that is designed with makes the following assumptions:

    • The “mainline” of the project’s development will occur in a branch to which this user only has read-only access.
    • Most of this user’s work will happen in isolated topic branches.
  2. Branch naming enforcement:

    • All branches will be uniquely named, relative to a username and/or hostname. This will be transparent (largely) to the history, but will make all conversations about branches less awkward. This is basically how branches work now, with [remote]/[branch], except that all local branches need self/[branch], and the software should make this more transparent.
    • Remote branches will implicitly have local tracking branches with identical names. You could commit to any of the local tracking branches, and pull will have the ability to convert your changes to a self/[branch] if needed.
    • All local branches, if published, will map to a single remote branch. One remote, will be the user’s default “publication target,” for branches.

    This is basically what the origin remote does today, so again, this isn’t a major change.

  3. When you run git clone, this remote repository should be the upstream repository, not the origin.

    Use the origin remote, which should be the default “place to publish my work,” and would be configured separately.

  4. Minor tweaks.

    • Map local branches directly to remote branches.
    • Be able to specify a remote branch as a “mirror” of another branch.
    • Make cherry-picked commits identifiable by their original commit-id internally. The goal is to push people to cherry-pick commits as much as possible to construct histories without needing to rebase. [1]
    • Have sub-module support automatically configured, without fussing.
    • Have better functions to cleaning up branch cruft. Particularly on remotes.
    • Have some sort of configurable “published pointer,” that users can use as a safe block against rebases before a given point.

    The goals here are to:

    • Make working with git all about branches and iteration rather than a sequence of commits.
    • Provide good tools to prevent people from rebasing commits, which is always confusing and rarely actually required.
    • Make branch names as canonical as possible. The fact that there can be many possible names for the same thing is awful.

Who’s with me? We can sort out the details, if you want in comments.

[1]To make this plausible, github needs to allow cherry-picked commits to close a pull request.


Recent Posts


tychoish is a blog about software, science fiction, community, music, knitting, and economies with particular attention to their past and future histories. Produced in Brooklyn by tycho garen.