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This tutorial explains how to use the "core" git commands to set up and work with a git repository.

If you just need to use git as a revision control system you may prefer to start with "A Tutorial Introduction to GIT" (gittutorial(7)) or the GIT User Manual.

However, an understanding of these low-level tools can be helpful if you want to understand git's internals.

The core git is often called "plumbing", with the prettier user interfaces on top of it called "porcelain". You may not want to use the plumbing directly very often, but it can be good to know what the plumbing does for when the porcelain isn't flushing.

Back when this document was originally written, many porcelain commands were shell scripts. For simplicity, it still uses them as examples to illustrate how plumbing is fit together to form the porcelain commands. The source tree includes some of these scripts in contrib/examples/ for reference. Although these are not implemented as shell scripts anymore, the description of what the plumbing layer commands do is still valid.

Deeper technical details are often marked as Notes, which you can skip on your first reading.

Creating a git repository

Creating a new git repository couldn't be easier: all git repositories start out empty, and the only thing you need to do is find yourself a subdirectory that you want to use as a working tree - either an empty one for a totally new project, or an existing working tree that you want to import into git.

For our first example, we're going to start a totally new repository from scratch, with no pre-existing files, and we'll call it git-tutorial. To start up, create a subdirectory for it, change into that subdirectory, and initialize the git infrastructure with git init:

$ mkdir git-tutorial
$ cd git-tutorial
$ git init

to which git will reply

Initialized empty Git repository in .git/

which is just git's way of saying that you haven't been doing anything strange, and that it will have created a local .git directory setup for your new project. You will now have a .git directory, and you can inspect that with ls. For your new empty project, it should show you three entries, among other things:

  • a file called HEAD, that has ref: refs/heads/master in it. This is similar to a symbolic link and points at refs/heads/master relative to the HEAD file.

    Don't worry about the fact that the file that the HEAD link points to doesn't even exist yet -- you haven't created the commit that will start your HEAD development branch yet.

  • a subdirectory called objects, which will contain all the objects of your project. You should never have any real reason to look at the objects directly, but you might want to know that these objects are what contains all the real data in your repository.

  • a subdirectory called refs, which contains references to objects.

In particular, the refs subdirectory will contain two other subdirectories, named heads and tags respectively. They do exactly what their names imply: they contain references to any number of different heads of development (aka branches), and to any tags that you have created to name specific versions in your repository.

One note: the special master head is the default branch, which is why the .git/HEAD file was created points to it even if it doesn't yet exist. Basically, the HEAD link is supposed to always point to the branch you are working on right now, and you always start out expecting to work on the master branch.

However, this is only a convention, and you can name your branches anything you want, and don't have to ever even have a master branch. A number of the git tools will assume that .git/HEAD is valid, though.

An object is identified by its 160-bit SHA1 hash, aka object name, and a reference to an object is always the 40-byte hex representation of that SHA1 name. The files in the refs subdirectory are expected to contain these hex references (usually with a final \n at the end), and you should thus expect to see a number of 41-byte files containing these references in these refs subdirectories when you actually start populating your tree.
An advanced user may want to take a look at gitrepository-layout(5) after finishing this tutorial.

You have now created your first git repository. Of course, since it's empty, that's not very useful, so let's start populating it with data.

Populating a git repository

We'll keep this simple and stupid, so we'll start off with populating a few trivial files just to get a feel for it.

Start off with just creating any random files that you want to maintain in your git repository. We'll start off with a few bad examples, just to get a feel for how this works:

$ echo "Hello World" >hello
$ echo "Silly example" >example

you have now created two files in your working tree (aka working directory), but to actually check in your hard work, you will have to go through two steps:

  • fill in the index file (aka cache) with the information about your working tree state.

  • commit that index file as an object.

The first step is trivial: when you want to tell git about any changes to your working tree, you use the git update-index program. That program normally just takes a list of filenames you want to update, but to avoid trivial mistakes, it refuses to add new entries to the index (or remove existing ones) unless you explicitly tell it that you're adding a new entry with the --add flag (or removing an entry with the --remove) flag.

So to populate the index with the two files you just created, you can do

$ git update-index --add hello example

and you have now told git to track those two files.

In fact, as you did that, if you now look into your object directory, you'll notice that git will have added two new objects to the object database. If you did exactly the steps above, you should now be able to do

$ ls .git/objects/??/*

and see two files:


which correspond with the objects with names of 557db... and f24c7... respectively.

If you want to, you can use git cat-file to look at those objects, but you'll have to use the object name, not the filename of the object:

$ git cat-file -t 557db03de997c86a4a028e1ebd3a1ceb225be238

where the -t tells git cat-file to tell you what the "type" of the object is. git will tell you that you have a "blob" object (i.e., just a regular file), and you can see the contents with

$ git cat-file blob 557db03

which will print out "Hello World". The object 557db03 is nothing more than the contents of your file hello.

Don't confuse that object with the file hello itself. The object is literally just those specific contents of the file, and however much you later change the contents in file hello, the object we just looked at will never change. Objects are immutable.
The second example demonstrates that you can abbreviate the object name to only the first several hexadecimal digits in most places.

Anyway, as we mentioned previously, you normally never actually take a look at the objects themselves, and typing long 40-character hex names is not something you'd normally want to do. The above digression was just to show that git update-index did something magical, and actually saved away the contents of your files into the git object database.

Updating the index did something else too: it created a .git/index file. This is the index that describes your current working tree, and something you should be very aware of. Again, you normally never worry about the index file itself, but you should be aware of the fact that you have not actually really "checked in" your files into git so far, you've only told git about them.

However, since git knows about them, you can now start using some of the most basic git commands to manipulate the files or look at their status.

In particular, let's not even check in the two files into git yet, we'll start off by adding another line to hello first:

$ echo "It's a new day for git" >>hello

and you can now, since you told git about the previous state of hello, ask git what has changed in the tree compared to your old index, using the git diff-files command:

$ git diff-files

Oops. That wasn't very readable. It just spit out its own internal version of a diff, but that internal version really just tells you that it has noticed that "hello" has been modified, and that the old object contents it had have been replaced with something else.

To make it readable, we can tell git diff-files to output the differences as a patch, using the -p flag:

$ git diff-files -p
diff --git a/hello b/hello
index 557db03..263414f 100644
--- a/hello
+++ b/hello
@@ -1 +1,2 @@
 Hello World
+It's a new day for git

i.e. the diff of the change we caused by adding another line to hello.

In other words, git diff-files always shows us the difference between what is recorded in the index, and what is currently in the working tree. That's very useful.

A common shorthand for git diff-files -p is to just write git diff, which will do the same thing.

$ git diff
diff --git a/hello b/hello
index 557db03..263414f 100644
--- a/hello
+++ b/hello
@@ -1 +1,2 @@
 Hello World
+It's a new day for git

Committing git state

Now, we want to go to the next stage in git, which is to take the files that git knows about in the index, and commit them as a real tree. We do that in two phases: creating a tree object, and committing that tree object as a commit object together with an explanation of what the tree was all about, along with information of how we came to that state.

Creating a tree object is trivial, and is done with git write-tree. There are no options or other input: git write-tree will take the current index state, and write an object that describes that whole index. In other words, we're now tying together all the different filenames with their contents (and their permissions), and we're creating the equivalent of a git "directory" object:

$ git write-tree

and this will just output the name of the resulting tree, in this case (if you have done exactly as I've described) it should be


which is another incomprehensible object name. Again, if you want to, you can use git cat-file -t 8988d... to see that this time the object is not a "blob" object, but a "tree" object (you can also use git cat-file to actually output the raw object contents, but you'll see mainly a binary mess, so that's less interesting).

However -- normally you'd never use git write-tree on its own, because normally you always commit a tree into a commit object using the git commit-tree command. In fact, it's easier to not actually use git write-tree on its own at all, but to just pass its result in as an argument to git commit-tree.

git commit-tree normally takes several arguments -- it wants to know what the parent of a commit was, but since this is the first commit ever in this new repository, and it has no parents, we only need to pass in the object name of the tree. However, git commit-tree also wants to get a commit message on its standard input, and it will write out the resulting object name for the commit to its standard output.

And this is where we create the .git/refs/heads/master file which is pointed at by HEAD. This file is supposed to contain the reference to the top-of-tree of the master branch, and since that's exactly what git commit-tree spits out, we can do this all with a sequence of simple shell commands:

$ tree=$(git write-tree)
$ commit=$(echo 'Initial commit' | git commit-tree $tree)
$ git update-ref HEAD $commit

In this case this creates a totally new commit that is not related to anything else. Normally you do this only once for a project ever, and all later commits will be parented on top of an earlier commit.

Again, normally you'd never actually do this by hand. There is a helpful script called git commit that will do all of this for you. So you could have just written git commit instead, and it would have done the above magic scripting for you.

Making a change

Remember how we did the git update-index on file hello and then we changed hello afterward, and could compare the new state of hello with the state we saved in the index file?

Further, remember how I said that git write-tree writes the contents of the index file to the tree, and thus what we just committed was in fact the original contents of the file hello, not the new ones. We did that on purpose, to show the difference between the index state, and the state in the working tree, and how they don't have to match, even when we commit things.

As before, if we do git diff-files -p in our git-tutorial project, we'll still see the same difference we saw last time: the index file hasn't changed by the act of committing anything. However, now that we have committed something, we can also learn to use a new command: git diff-index.

Unlike git diff-files, which showed the difference between the index file and the working tree, git diff-index shows the differences between a committed tree and either the index file or the working tree. In other words, git diff-index wants a tree to be diffed against, and before we did the commit, we couldn't do that, because we didn't have anything to diff against.

But now we can do

$ git diff-index -p HEAD

(where -p has the same meaning as it did in git diff-files), and it will show us the same difference, but for a totally different reason. Now we're comparing the working tree not against the index file, but against the tree we just wrote. It just so happens that those two are obviously the same, so we get the same result.

Again, because this is a common operation, you can also just shorthand it with

$ git diff HEAD

which ends up doing the above for you.

In other words, git diff-index normally compares a tree against the working tree, but when given the --cached flag, it is told to instead compare against just the index cache contents, and ignore the current working tree state entirely. Since we just wrote the index file to HEAD, doing git diff-index --cached -p HEAD should thus return an empty set of differences, and that's exactly what it does.

================ git diff-index really always uses the index for its comparisons, and saying that it compares a tree against the working tree is thus not strictly accurate. In particular, the list of files to compare (the "meta-data") always comes from the index file, regardless of whether the --cached flag is used or not. The --cached flag really only determines whether the file contents to be compared come from the working tree or not.

This is not hard to understand, as soon as you realize that git simply never knows (or cares) about files that it is not told about explicitly. git will never go looking for files to compare, it expects you to tell it what the files are, and that's what the index