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Branches, Part I

Branches are the final component of Git version control. This gives us four core elements to work with throughout the rest of this tutorial:

In Git, a branch is an independent line of development. For example, if you wanted to experiment with a new idea without using Git, you might copy all of your project files into another directory and start making your changes. If you liked the result, you could copy the affected files back into the original project. Otherwise, you would simply delete the entire experiment and forget about it.

This is the exact functionality offered by Git branches—with some key improvements. First, branches present an error-proof method for incorporating changes from an experiment. Second, they let you store all of your experiments in a single directory, which makes it much easier to keep track of them and to share them with others. Branches also lend themselves to several standardized workflows for both individual and collaborative development, which will be explored in the latter half of the tutorial.

If you’ve been following along from the previous module, you already have everything you need. Otherwise, download the zipped Git repository from the above link, uncompress it, and you’re good to go.

View Existing Branches

Let’s start our exploration by listing the existing branches for our project.

git branch

This will display our one and only branch: * master. The master branch is Git’s default branch, and the asterisk next to it tells us that it’s currently checked out. This means that the most recent snapshot in the master branch resides in the working directory:

The master branch

Notice that since there’s only one working directory for each project, only one branch can be checked out at a time.

Checkout the Crazy Experiment

The previous module left out some details about how checking out previous commits actually works. We’re now ready to tackle this topic in depth. First, we need the checksums of our committed snapshots.

git log --oneline

This outputs the following history.

506bb9b Revert "Add a crazzzy experiment"
514fbe7 Add a crazzzy experiment
1c310d2 Add navigation links
54650a3 Create blue and orange pages
b650e4b Create index page

Check out the crazy experiment from the last module, remembering to change 514fbe7 to the ID of your fourth commit.

git checkout 514fbe7

This command returns a message that says we’re in a detached HEAD state and that the HEAD is now at 514fbe7. The HEAD is Git’s internal way of indicating the snapshot that is currently checked out. This means the red circle in each of our history diagrams actually represents Git’s HEAD. The following figure shows the state of our repository before and after we checked out an old commit.

Checking out the 4th commit

As shown in the “before” diagram, the HEAD normally resides on the tip of a development branch. But when we checked out the previous commit, the HEAD moved to the middle of the branch. We can no longer say we’re on the master branch since it contains more recent snapshots than the HEAD. This is reflected in the git branch output, which tells us that we’re currently on (no branch).

Create a New Branch

We can’t add new commits when we’re not on a branch, so let’s create one now. This will take our current working directory and fork it into a new branch.

git branch crazy

Note that git branch is a versatile command that can be used to either list branches or create them. However, the above command only creates the crazy branch—it doesn’t check it out.

git checkout crazy

We’re now free to experiment in the working directory without disturbing anything in the master branch. The crazy branch is a completely isolated development environment that can be visualized as the following.

Creating a new branch

Right now, the crazy branch, HEAD, and working directory are the exact same as the fourth commit. But as soon as we add another snapshot, we’ll see a fork in our project history.

Make a Rainbow

We’ll continue developing our crazy experiment by changing crazy.html to the following.

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en">
<head>
  <title>A Crazy Experiment</title>
  <meta charset="utf-8" />
</head>
<body>
  <h1>A Crazy Experiment</h1>
  <p>Look! A Rainbow!</p>

  <ul>
    <li style="color: red">Red</li>
    <li style="color: orange">Orange</li>
    <li style="color: yellow">Yellow</li>
    <li style="color: green">Green</li>
    <li style="color: blue">Blue</li>
    <li style="color: indigo">Indigo</li>
    <li style="color: violet">Violet</li>
  </ul>
    
  <p><a href="index.html">Return to home page</a></p>
</body>
</html>

Stage and Commit the Rainbow

Hopefully, you’re relatively familiar with staging and committing snapshots by now:

git add crazy.html
git status
git commit -m "Add a rainbow to crazy.html"

After committing on the crazy branch, we can see two independent lines of development in our project:

Forked project history

Also notice that the HEAD (designated by the red circle) automatically moved forward to the new commit, which is intuitively what we would expect when developing a project.

The above diagram represents the complete state of our repository, but git log only displays the history of the current branch:

677e0e0 Add a rainbow to crazy.html
514fbe7 Add a crazzzy experiment
*1c310d2 Add navigation links
*54650a3 Create blue and orange pages
*b650e4b Create index page

Note that the history before the fork is considered part of the new branch (marked with asterisks above). That is to say, the crazy history spans all the way back to the first commit:

History of the crazy branch

The project as a whole now has a complex history; however, each individual branch still has a linear history (snapshots occur one after another). This means that we can interact with branches in the exact same way as we learned in the first two modules.

Rename the Rainbow

Let’s add one more snapshot to the crazy branch. Rename crazy.html to rainbow.html, then use the following Git commands to update the repository.

git status
git rm crazy.html
git status
git add rainbow.html
git status

The git rm command tells Git to stop tracking crazy.html (and delete it if necessary), and git add starts tracking rainbow.html. The renamed: crazy.html -> rainbow.html message in the final status output shows us that Git is smart enough to figure out when we’re renaming a file.

Our snapshot is staged and ready to be committed:

git commit -m "Rename crazy.html to rainbow.html"
git log --oneline

After this addition, our complete repository history looks like the following. Remember that the crazy branch doesn’t include any commits in master after the fork.

Current project history

Return to the Master Branch

Let’s switch back to the master branch:

git checkout master
git branch
git log --oneline

After the checkout, crazy.html doesn’t exist in the working directory, and the commits from the last few steps don’t appear in the history. These two branches became completely independent development environments after they forked. You can think of them as separate project folders that you switch between with git checkout. They do, however, share their first four commits.

Shared branch history

Create a CSS Branch

We’re going to put our crazy experiment on the backburner for now and turn our attention to formatting the HTML pages with a cascading stylesheet (CSS). Again, if you’re not all that comfortable with HTML and CSS, the content of the upcoming files isn’t nearly as important as the Git commands used to manage them.

Let’s create and check out a new branch called css.

git branch css
git checkout css

The new branch points to the currently checked out snapshot, which happens to coincide with the master branch:

Creating the css branch

Add a CSS Stylesheet

Next, create a file called style.css with the following content. This CSS is used to apply formatting to the HTML in our other files.

body {
  padding: 20px;
  font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
  font-size: 14px;
  color: #111;
}

p, ul {
  margin-bottom: 10px;
}

ul {
  margin-left: 20px;
}

Commit the stylesheet in the usual fashion.

git add style.css
git status
git commit -m "Add CSS stylesheet"

We still need to tell the HTML pages to use the formatting in style.css. Add the following text on a separate line after the <title> element in index.html, blue.html, and orange.html (remember that rainbow.html only exists in the crazy branch). You should be able to see the CSS formatting by opening index.html in a web browser.

<link rel="stylesheet" href="style.css" />

Commit the changes.

git add index.html blue.html orange.html
git status
git commit -m "Link HTML pages to stylesheet"
git log --oneline

This results in a repository history that looks like:

Current project history

Return to the Master Branch (Again)

The css branch let us create and test our formatting without threatening the stability of the master branch. But, now we need to merge these changes into the main project. Before we attempt the merge, we need to return to the master branch.

git checkout master

Verify that style.css doesn’t exist and that HTML pages aren’t linked to it. Our repository history remains unchanged, but the working directory now matches the snapshot pointed to by the master branch.

Current project history

Take a look at the git log --oneline output as well.

af23ff4 Revert "Add a crazzzy experiment"
a50819f Add a crazzzy experiment
4cd95d9 Add navigation links
dcb9e07 Create blue and orange pages
f757eb3 Create index page

As expected, there is no mention of the CSS additions in the history of master, but we’re about to change that.

Merge the CSS Branch

Use the git merge command to take the snapshots from the css branch and add them to the master branch.

git merge css

Notice that this command always merges into the current branch: css remains unchanged. Check the history to make sure that the css history has been added to master.

git log --oneline

The following diagram visualizes the merge.

Merging the css branch into master

Instead of re-creating the commits in css and adding them to the history of master, Git reuses the existing snapshots and simply moves the tip of master to match the tip of css. This kind of merge is called a fast-forward merge, since Git is “fast-forwarding” through the new commits in the css branch.

After the merge, both branches have the exact same history, which makes them redundant. Unless we wanted to keep developing on the css branch, we’re free to get rid of it.

Delete the CSS Branch

We can safely delete a branch by passing the -d flag to git branch.

git branch -d css
git branch

Since css and master represent the same branch, our history looks the same, though the css branch has been removed. I’ve also put the master branch’s commits in a straight line in the following visualization, making it easier to track during the upcoming modules.

Deleting the css branch

Deleting branches is a relatively “safe” operation in the sense that Git will warn you if you’re deleting an unmerged branch. This is just another example of Git’s commitment to never losing your work.

Conclusion

This module used two branches to experiment with new additions. In both cases, branches gave us an environment that was completely isolated from the “stable” version of our website (the master branch). One of our experiments is waiting for us in the next module, while our CSS changes have been merged into the stable project, and its branch is thus obsolete. Using branches to develop small features like these is one of the hallmarks of Git-based software management.

While this module relied heavily on branch diagrams to show the complete state of the repository, you don’t need to keep this high-level overview in mind during your everyday development. Creating a new branch is really just a way to request an independent working directory, staging snapshot, and history. You can think of branches as a way to multiply the functionality presented in the first two module.

Next, we’ll practice our branch management skills by examining the typical workflow of veteran Git users. We’ll also discover more complicated merges than the fast-forward merge introduced above.

Quick Reference

git branch
List all branches.
git branch <branch-name>
Create a new branch using the current working directory as its base.
git checkout <branch-name>
Make the working directory and the HEAD match the specified branch.
git merge <branch-name>
Merge a branch into the checked-out branch.
git branch -d <branch-name>
Delete a branch.
git rm <file>
Remove a file from the working directory (if applicable) and stop tracking the file.

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