My git-based Ubuntu package merge workflow

Robie Basak robie.basak at
Mon Aug 4 16:17:45 UTC 2014

I thought it was about time that I shared my own merge workflow, as I
think it is quite different from most other Ubuntu developers. I'm an
advanced git user (even a fanatic, perhaps), and I make extensive use of
git's interactive rebase feature. To me, an Ubuntu package merge is just
a rebase in git's terminology, and in this case I use git as nothing
more than an advanced patchset manager.

I find my workflow allows me to handle arbitrarily complex package
merges - something I've not been able to do any other way. And once I've
merged a particular package with this workflow once, future merges take
me far less time because checking individual broken down diffs is even
quicker still.

This workflow may be useful to others, but probably only if you are
already very familiar with git's interactive rebase feature. I don't
suggest that you try to use this workflow without first being
extremely comfortable with this (for example, working with git while not
attached to a branch).

On the other hand, if you are very familiar with rebasing in git, then
like me you may find this workflow to be the logically obvious way of
doing package merges in Ubuntu. I wonder if anybody else feels like

In my mind, this write-up may seem complex, but I think this complexity
is just a reflection of the reality of what's really going on when one
does an Ubuntu package merge. But by using git, the complexity gets
moved to the complexity of doing git rebases, and this is something that
only needs to be learnt once.

I'm also interested to know how this fits in with other recent work in
using git with Debian packaging. My impression is that it doesn't fit so
well, because in Ubuntu we need to deal with all Debian packages,
including those not managed in git in Debian. Comments, feedback and
criticism are all appreciated.

# Considering merges

## Merge essentials

Let's me first consider what an Ubuntu package merge really is. Existing
Ubuntu developers probably want to skip this section.

First, some terminology. For a given package that needs merging, Ubuntu
has applied some set of changes from the Debian version it is based on.
So we have some Debian version from which Ubuntu diverged (the base
version), the latest Debian version, and the current Ubuntu version. The
old Ubuntu delta is the diff between the base version and the current
Ubuntu version. The new Ubuntu delta will be the diff between the latest
Debian version and the newest Ubuntu version that we will upload.

To do a package merge, we must re-apply all of the Ubuntu delta that is
still required onto the latest Debian version. On the way, we might find
that some changes are no longer required, some changes that have to be
modified to work against the latest Debian version, and may perhaps need
to introduce new changes.

We expect the result to contain a changelog entry summarising what
remains in the Ubuntu delta, what was modified or dropped, and any new
changes that were made.

## The logical delta

So when doing a package merge, it is essential to understand what
exactly logically constituted the previous Ubuntu delta, so that we can
identify what changes are no longer required, how we might need to
modify some previous changes, and what new changes may be needed.

When the Ubuntu delta is relatively trivial, checking all of this
by examining the diffs produced by merge-o-matic is normally fine. Even
if the delta consists of a few changes, they are easy to identify and
understand in a small diff.

But when the delta is larger, I find it far more difficult to follow it
all in my head at once, particularly when multiple logical changes apply
changes to similar overlapping areas across multiple files. This is, of
course, yet another good reason why we should be sending our changes to
Debian and keeping our delta small, but in some cases this maintaining a
large delta is necessary, at least in the short term.

In following my workflow, I have come across a number of merge errors
made by multiple Ubuntu developers, where the claimed delta in the
changelog for a merge did not match the delta itself. This suggests to
me that developers are not always checking and understanding the delta
as they should.

# Applying git

git makes it easy to take a large "squashed" diff and split it into
multiple constituent logical parts. This is what I've been doing here.
Once split like this, I use `git rebase` to apply the logical parts back
on to the latest Debian version. This allows me to examine each logical
part of the delta separately, modifying or removing them as required.
When I'm done, it is easy to review each part, and even compare against
the previous version. And I can save the broken down parts for the next

So broadly, my workflow for packages with complex deltas is:

1. Import the base, latest Debian and all Ubuntu revisions since the
base version into a git repository.

2. Break down the Ubuntu revisions into constituent logical parts using
`git rebase`. Or If I followed this workflow last time, then I just run
`git am` against what I saved previously. One might consider this step
to be the opposite of a "squash" operation. "Unsquash", if you like.

3. Rebase onto the latest Debian version, dropping any metadata changes
(eg. `debian/changelog` changes and `update-maintainer`) and amending
the delta on the way as required.

4. Update `debian/changelog`, apply `update-maintainer`, review, test
and upload.

5. Run `git format-patch` to save my set of logical changes for next time.

To help with these tasks, I have written some tooling that I use. I've
pushed these to `git://`:

* `xgit` is a wrapper around setting `GIT_WORK_DIR` and `GIT_DIR`, so
  that I can operate with a `.git` directory that is outside my working
  tree. This means that `dpkg-buildpackage`, `dpkg-source` etc. don't
  need to know or care that I'm using git, and I can run git commands
  without necessarily being in my working tree.

* `git-dsc-commit` imports a source package by just committing and
  tagging a new commit (in the current branch, or detached HEAD) that is
  exactly the unpacked source package.

* `git-merge-changelogs` is a wrapper around `dpkg-mergechangelogs` that
  takes its input changelogs from `debian/changelog` files found in
  specific git revisions.

* `git-reconstruct-changelog` extracts commit log messages from a set of
  git commits and writes them to `debian/changelog`.

These tools are incomplete. I didn't know where I was going when I wrote
them, and there is certainly scope for more automation. I addressed the
biggest needs first, and what is remaining costs me little time so I
have not spent time to automate any more yet.

## Importing revisions into a git repository

I generally start with:

    # Import relevant source packages. This could probably be automated
    # with the help of grab-merge.
    pull-debian-source -d <package>
    pull-debian-source -d <package> <base-revision>
    pull-lp-source -d <package>
    pull-lp-source -d <package> <version-since-base>  # 0 or more times

    # Set up git repository for this merge
    . /path/to/xgit.bash
    mkdir git gitwd  # git = moved .git directory; gitwd = working directory
                     # without .git
    git init

Next I import the sources package into git, modelling the Ubuntu
divergence by having the new Debian package have a parent commit of the
base Debian package, and the Ubuntu packages on a separate branch also
rooted at the base package:

    git dsc-commit <base-revision .dsc>
    git dsc-commit <latest-debian-version .dsc>
    git checkout <base-revision tag>
    git dsc-commit <Ubuntu version since base .dsc>  # 0 or more times
    git dsc-commit <current Ubuntu version .dsc>

`git-dsc-commit` automatically tags revisions, but since `~` and `:` are
invalid in git tag names, `_` is substituted. So right now, I have to
correctly name the tag that `git-dsc-commit` used in the `git checkout`
call above.

`git-dsc-commit` commits "3.0 (quilt)" source packages without patches
applied. I prefer to work with quilt patches directly if they need
refreshing or other changes made. Otherwise I just get noise in `.pc/`,
and it is difficult to rationalise any changes made back into the
separate quilt patches they belong to.

Note that `git-dsc-commit` commits the entire source package tree
exactly as it is. It is not like a normal commit, where logically you're
committing a change. Underneath, git commits are really snapshots, not
changesets, so `git-dsc-commit` just commits a snapshot identical to the
source package. For example, if you have made a change, then
from your point of view `git-dsc-commit` will effectively commit the
reverse of that change if necessary so that the result looks identical
to the source package you're importing.

When this step is done, I have a git repository with imported source
packages in commits that mirror the Ubuntu divergence.

I find this point very useful in itself, since I can now easily compare
things. If I want to know if two files specific are different between
specific Debian and Ubuntu source package versions, or how they are
different, or want a list of files in a particular `debian/`
subdirectory that have changed, then I just ask and git will tell me.
Querying for changes between arbitrary revisions and files is something
that git does very well.

## Breaking down the delta into logical parts

If I already perfomed this for a previous upload, then a simple `git am`
against my saved work allows me to skip this step. I can verify the
result by diffing against the imported squashed equivalent.

I won't go into how to use `git rebase` here; I assume you know that.
For every commit I edit, I generally `git reset HEAD^` back to the
previous version, so all changes made in this particular source package
version become unstaged. Then I go through the changelog entries one by
one, staging only those changes (often using `git add -p`) and
committing them one by one.

The point in this step is to reflect what was logically present in an
already-uploaded source package, errors and all. Some notes:

* I generally aim to end up with commits that follow the same order as
  the entries in `debian/changelog`.

* `git log --decorate` is useful here, since all the imported source
  packages are tagged.

* I make the commit message for each logical change identical to its
  entry in `debian/changelog` where possible, including leading
  whitespace and the `*`, `-` or `+` bullet points.

* I make the `debian/changelog` file change for the entire upload a
  separate commit at the end (most recent) for each source package

* If `update-maintainer` was run and thus modified `debian/control`, or
  `VCS-*` entries changed to `XS-Debian-VCS*` entries, I put this in a
  separate logical commit with an "ubuntu-meta" commit message.

* Quilt patches that exist only in Ubuntu involve logical commits that
  add the file in `debian/patches/` and add a single line to
  `debian/patches/series`. Patches remain unapplied. Similarly, for
  other types of quilt patch modification, only changes to
  `debian/patches/` end up in the commit.

* This is the stage that I often find errors in the previously
  documented changelog. Where this happens, I just figure out what
  happened logically and try and commit something that matches. If
  `debian/changelog` specified a change that was actually not present,
  it doesn't get a logical commit, but the commit with the full
  `debian/changelog` change does include the erroneous text.

When done, it is trivial to run `git log -p` and check that all commits
match their description. I also run `git diff <tag>` and verify that the
result is still identical to the source package import we started from
by checking that the reported diff is empty.

## Rebasing onto the newest Debian version

Again, this should be straightforward to follow for git rebasers, and I
assume you know how to operate the details.

First, I drop any previous commits that changed `debian/changelog` only,
as well as any "ubuntu-meta" commits. Then something like `git rebase
--onto <new_debian_version> <base_version>` does the job. If there are
conflicts, they can be handled during the rebase in the normal way.

While I'm doing this, I take notes of the changes I made so that I can
write up the changelog later. Where possible, I directly squash these
notes into the commit messages in the form of the future changelog
entry. If the rebase step drops commits because they have been applied
in Debian, then it's important to note these. git doesn't specifically
point these out except as they scroll past.

Next, I check that all quilt patches apply and are still correct, and do
any further editing required. This includes test builds, running dep8
tests, etc. As I do this, I use `git rebase` extensively again,
squashing the commits down into their original places and updating
commit messages (which will be the basis of the future changelog

When doing test builds at this stage, I don't want to overwrite the
Debian source package in my parent directory, so I do have to insert a
temporary changelog entry or something. I haven't worked out a strong
pattern for this yet; sometimes I complete the remaining steps first to
avoid this issue, and rebase and squash any changes I needed back in.
`git-buildpackage` can probably help me here; I haven't looked into
integrating it into my workflow at this step yet.

It is important to note that this stage really uses git as an advanced
patchset editor. I am editing the patchset itself. I specifically do not
add new commits to the end, except temporarily before I squash them down

When this step is complete, my commits start from the imported latest
Debian source package version, and show the logical delta (one logical
entry per commit) that will form the new Ubuntu upload. Changelog
entries exist only as commit messages; `debian/changelog` is not
modified at all yet.

## Updating the changelog

Since an Ubuntu merge is expected to include a merged changelog, adding
to the Debian changelog will not do; we need to import all previous
Ubuntu changelog entries too.

Most of this could probably be automated more.

### Merging old changelog entries

My tool `git-merge-changelogs` does this. Calling it as `git
merge-changelogs <base version tag> <latest Debian version tag> <current
Ubuntu version tag>` fetches the changelog entries out of the imported
source packages, calls `dpkg-mergechangelogs` and writes out
`debian/changelog` in the working tree. Then I usually just `git commit
-mmerge-changelogs debian/changelog` to commit this step.

### Automatically creating new changelog entries

Next, I need to add the changelog entry for the merge itself. I do this
with my tool `git-reconstruct-changelog`. Calling `git
reconstruct-changelog <latest Debian version tag>` inserts the commit
messages into `debian/changelog`. Then I usually run `git commit
-mreconstruct-changelogs debian/changelog` to commit this step.

### Finishing the changelog

Reconstructing the changelog will miss out the merge introduction, and
also will fail to mention any dropped changes since there are no commits
that correspond to these. Consulting my notes from earlier, I edit up
the changelog manually, fix any whitespace/wrapping issues, release it
with `dch -r ''` and commit it with `git commit -mchangelog

## Other metadata

Next I run `update-maintainer`, and then `git commit -mubuntu-meta
debian/control` to commit this step. Any `VCS-*` to `XS-Debian-VCS-*`
type translation goes into this commit, too.

## Uploading

That's it. Since my working tree has no `.git` directory, I can just run
`debuild` as usual to create my source package ready for upload.

If there's a problem and I need to go round again, it's quite easy to
squash a change in where I need it, re-run `git reconstruct-changelog`
and edit the changelog, and rebuild the source package.

## Saving the logical delta for future use

After upload, I make sure to save my logical delta by using `git
format-patch`. This allows me to reconstruct it quickly the next time I
merge the same package. There is no need for me to keep the git
repository around.

The patchsets I've saved this way don't always follow what I've written
here precisely, as I have taken a while to settle on it, and I still
deviate on a whim. It doesn't really matter though; by separating out
logical changes into separate commits, when I look at it the next time
it's easy to mould a patchset into whatever form I will need.

# Example of use

This workflow allows me to handle any merge that is thrown at me,
however complex it may be. When I merged mysql-5.5 last cycle, it had
diverged considerably from Debian, but with much cherry-picking going
both ways. The sheer complexity of it, and the time necessary to figure
it all out, had put off developers before me from sorting it out.
Instead, some changes kept getting cherry-picked and other changes were
getting lost.

When I reconstructed the logical set of changes made in Ubuntu since we
diverged, I ended up with a branch of around 120 commits (IIRC). With
extensive rebasing, I ended up reducing this to 8 logical changes to
send to Debian, and just 4 commits remaining in the Ubuntu delta.
Importantly, I did this in a way that I could be confident about the
results, since I could easily verify my work.

I'm now going to do the same for mysql-5.6, and I'm much happier doing
it knowing that I can manage it this way.

# Future

I have a local store of these logical delta patchsets. Currently this is
for apache2, facter, nginx, php5, subversion and vsftpd. If others want
to follow the same workflow, we should work out some way to share them.

And if many people find a git repository that follows Debian and Ubuntu
source packages useful, then perhaps we should set one of those up to
share, too, to save doing the import step.

I did have some code that auto-imported into git from UDD bzr, and
cached, so I could just `git clone` a UDD branch, but this is limited to
UDD's package import reliability, so I stopped using it. My
git-dsc-commit tool should always work. I have had to fix a number of
edge cases, but I am not aware of any that are outstanding.

# The End

What I think I have here are the pieces needed to make merging Ubuntu
packages with git work. The workflow itself doesn't matter so much - you
can mix and match, and you should be fine.
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