Take Control of Time with Git - Intermediate Git Tutorial

By Moustafa Elsisy

In the previous entry of this series we discussed what Git is, then we made a very simple git repository, and made a commit to it. If you did not read the previous entry, I strongly recommend that you read it before continuing. In this entry, we will send the laws of physics crying as we make time travel a reality with Git – so buckle up fellas, this is a whole new level of jet lag.

Git History

We discussed before that Git keeps track of the changes that you commit, but how does it do that? To start off, we need to introduce the concept of a branch: you can think of a branch as a timeline, with commits being nodes along the timeline.

For this tutorial, we will only consider having a single branch, which is by default called master. Whenever we make a new commit, it gets added as a node to the right of the branch. Each commit keeps track of the changes that happened since the previous commit. Thus, the branch represents the history of all the changes that we made, since the first commit on the branch, till the last one.

We can see a log of all the history held by the branch, through opening up a terminal/command prompt window in the directory of the git repository, and using git log. If you run the command, you can see on the first line a long string of numbers and characters – this string is called a hash, and it is used to identify the commit. You can also see who is the author of the commit, the date the commit was made, and the commit message. To exit the log press the key q.

Checkout

Now we start doing our magic. What if we wanted to see how our code was like at a previous point in time? In that case, we can checkout commits, using git checkout [commit_hash/reference/branch]. In order to see the effect of git checkout, we will need to at least have two commits (if you have only one commit, make another trivial change, stage it, and commit it).

It is time to introduce the special reference HEAD. HEAD always points to the commit that we are currently inspecting, at least as far as checking out is concerned. Since we did not perform any checkouts yet, HEAD will be pointing to the latest commit in the branch. HEAD~1 will point to 1 commit behind HEAD, so go ahead and try git checkout HEAD~1, and you should find that you went back to the previous commit. At the moment we are said to be in a detached HEAD state, meaning that HEAD is not pointing to a branch, and so any changes that we commit in the detached state will inevitably be lost when we we checkout our branch master again. Since we did not cover making branches yet, when you use checkout on a commit hash, always use it for read-only purposes. If we are done checking the old code, we can go back to the latest commit by git checkout master, which checks out the master branch at its latest commit.

Revert

Revert is a relatively straight forward command. git revert [commit_hash] makes a new commit that undoes everything performed by the specified commit. So if you do git log and grab your latest commit’s hash from there, then perform git revert, you should be prompted to write a commit message (there is a default one which you can keep) for the reverting commit. Press Escape and then type :wq then hit enter, and you should be done! If you run git log again you should be able to see the new commit.

Reset

This guy can be a dangerous command if not used correctly, and so make sure you analyse the consequences before using it (time travel has to always come at a cost!). From a high level view, git reset is able to undo undesired changes, and leave no trace behind; let’s see how:

There are three modes for reset: soft, mixed and hard. soft moves the HEAD reference to a specified commit, and does just that. mixed (this is the default mode) moves the HEAD reference, and uncommits+unstages any changes since that commit (meaning that any differences between your latest changes – whether committed/staged or not- and the specified commit, will still be available but appear as unstaged). hard moves the HEAD reference, and deletes all changes since the specified commit.

I don’t know about you, but this kind of sounds like rocket science to me, so let us go through some common uses to illustrate how this command works:

Say you have made a commit, and then continued on with more edits (but did not commit them yet). You realise that these changes did not yield the effect you imagined, and you have edited files all over the place. You can either go on a Ctrl-Z marathon, or use our friend over here: git reset --hard HEAD, which deletes everything we have done since the last commit (because that is where HEAD is pointing, assuming that you did not use git reset --soft to move HEAD to a different commit).

Or maybe you simply staged some changes, and for some reason you wanted to unstage everything in your staging area, then you can use git reset HEAD (which is actually running the mixed option) to unstage everything in the staging area.

Maybe, you wanted to get rid of all changes since a given commit. Use git log to get the hash of the commit you want to go back to, and then do git reset --hard [commit_hash]. Be cautious with this command though – you should not use it if the commits that will be removed have been pushed to the remote, where other developers/branches could have interacted with them. If you are really sure it is safe to perform the reset with the affected commits on the remote, you will have to force push when you want to push the next time, using git push -f. This use of reset deletes all commits up till the specified commit from the branch’s history (unlike revert which adds a new commit undoing a specific commit, and the reverted commit is kept in the history).

Congratulations, now you can manage edits to your code with the powerful tools of Git! This may not fully sink in till you try it out, and so I encourage you to go back and forth through the use of these commands till you feel comfortable using them 🙂

In the next tutorial we will cover branches and how you can manage different developers and features acting on the same repository. Stay tuned!