Psycho-rebasing: merge-based

This article tries to point out a potential problem with rebasing, and how to solve it with merges. Examples use Git, but the story could be adapted to other DVCS, like Mercurial with rebase extension.



master: C0---C1---C2
topic:     C3

Basic rebasing git checkout topic && git rebase master:

master: C0---C1---C2
topic:               C3'

C3 changes have been replayed on the top of master, as C3'. Cool feature isn't it? Let's combine it with tests.

Rebase + test

As a developer, I care about tests. Here is the base changelog annotated with test status, which could have been checked by some continuous integration service (i.e. Jenkins).

master: C0[pass]---C1[pass]---C2[pass]
topic:           C3[pass]

Let's git checkout topic && git rebase master:

master: C0[pass]--C1[pass]--C2[pass]
topic:                               C3'[?]

If there is no conflict, git rebase commits. But "no merge conflict" doesn't imply "no regression".

Tests would often pass on C3'. But they could fail too. Rebase preserves changesets, but not test status.

When rebase introduces regressions

Let's consider a fail:

master: C0[pass]--C1[pass]--C2[pass]
topic:                               C3'[fail]

One solution is to:

  • run an interactive rebase (no automatic commit) with git checkout topic && git rebase --interactive master
  • run the test suite. It fails (that's our scenario).
  • fix the regression.
  • commit (rebase --continue).

It means we produced a brand new commit:

master: C0[pass]--C1[pass]--C2[pass]
topic:                               C4[pass]

Notice we didn't commit C3', but C4, i.e. a different diff. It works. Great!

So, would you bet a billion dollar C4 is safe? Of cour... oh! wait.

Where is all the valid work I did on C3? In C4? Are you sure? C3 has been altered, and so maybe compromised my (potentially hard and complex) work. I mean, tests are great, but in real-life, tests could also be wrong or incomplete. I did my best on C3, and C4 is the result of another effort, involving changes introduced by someone else. I can't consider C4 as an equivalent of C3.

Safe "rebasing"

It is possible to preserve C3:

git checkout master
git checkout -b topic-merge
git merge C3


master: C0[pass]--C1[pass]--C2[pass]
                \                   \
topic:           C3[pass]            \
                         \            \
topic-merge:              -------------C4[?]

Now, if C4 breaks tests, it's easy to rollback or see differences with C3.

If we want to run tests before C4 is committed:

git checkout master
git checkout -b topic-merge
git merge --no-commit C3
# Fix the tests.
git commit

Would result to:

master: C0[pass]--C1[pass]--C2[pass]
                \                   \
topic:           C3[pass]            \
                         \            \
topic-merge:              -------------C4[pass]

The more commits you want to rebase, the more helpful is this workflow. Given:

master: C0[pass]--C1[pass]--C2[pass]--C3[pass]---C4[pass]
topic:           C5[pass]---C6[pass]---C7[pass]

Then I dislike this "what happened? Did you test before commit?" situation:

master: C0[pass]--C1[pass]--C2[pass]--C3[pass]---C4[pass]
topic-merge:                                              C5'[pass]---C6'[fail]---C7'[fail]

Whereas I know I can fix this one, where it is clear that the regression was introduced by the merge:

master:      C0[pass]---C1[pass]--C2[pass]--C3[pass]---C4[pass]
                     \                                         \
topic-merge:          \                                         C8[pass]---C9[fail]---C10[fail]
                       \                                       /          /          /
topic:                  -------------------------------C5[pass]---C6[pass]---C7[pass]

Rename "merge-branches"

The more you "psycho-rebase", the more branches you create. I mean we want "topic-merge" to be called "topic"!

If "topic" is local (not pushed on remote), then I can do it:

git checkout master
git branch -m topic topic-deprecated
git branch -m topic-merge topic
git branch -d topic-deprecated

Since "topic commits" has been merged to "topic-merge" branch, removing the "topic-deprecated" branch doesn't remove the commit objects (i.e.C5, C6 and C7).


It seems that we can rename even if the "topic" branch has been pushed on a remote... but, as I am writing this article, I'm not sure about the result.

Don't merge master

One would say I could have merged "master" instead of "topic":

git checkout topic  # HEAD is now C7.
git merge C1
git merge C2
git merge C3
git merge C4
# Or directly git merge C4...

That's true. But I don't want to commit other's work. I want to commit changes I can review, i.e. my own changes. That's partly a matter of responsibility. If I am contributing to a project where 42 contributors performed 1234 commits while I was on holidays, I don't want to merge the whole master changeset, I just want to replay my changes on top of the master... That's the basics of a rebase, isn't it?

Feature request: safe rebasing command

Using the "safe" workflow is a pain!

git checkout master  # HEAD is now C4.
git checkout -b topic-merge
git merge C5
git merge C6
git merge C7

And that's only the version where I don't run tests before commit.

So, I am dreaming of something like:

git checkout topic
git safe-rebase master

... which would:

  • cherrypick changesets of "topic" and replay them on top of "master", as part of the "topic" branch.
  • don't remove former "topic" changesets (i.e. kind of "copy" changesets rather than "move" them).

It's a kind of transplantation, rather than a rebase.

More articles

Merging the right way

If, during a merge, you have to resolve conflicts on files you didn't change in your branch, then you maybe merged the wrong way. Yes, during a merge, direction matters. Here are some tips to figure it out and avoid some merge nightmares.

Apply your changes on top of other's …

1 / 1