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Ten years ago the Linux kernel community could no longer use their revision control system BitKeeper and no other Source Control Management (SCMs) met their needs for a distributed system. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, took the challenge and disappeared over the weekend to emerge the following week with Git. Today Git is used in thousands of projects and has created a new level of social coding among programmers. Projects like KVM, Qt, Drupal, Puppet and Wine, among others all use the Git the revision control system. GitHub which hosts most projects can be considered the Facebook for developers.
In this article we will discuss some of the basic features of Git. We recommend our one day course Git for developers if you want to practice and get acquainted with many of its details.
So, what is Git in a nutshell? 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.
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 miniature 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 a stream of snapshots.
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.
Nearly Every Operation Is Local
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.
Git Has Integrity
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 in its database not by file name but by the hash value of its contents.
Git Generally Only Adds Data
When you do actions in Git, nearly all of them only add data to the Git database. It is hard 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.
The Three States
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.