Mark's Meanderings


Using Git Flow on GitHub

23 Oct 2011

A while ago while at StumbleUpon we looked at using git flow, an implementation of the workflow outlined in the post A Successful Git Branching Model. It looked really interesting and I wanted to try it but never got around to it.

Lately, I have. Thanks to this very helpful post on the subject, I have now worked this tool in to my daily open source work. It actually integrates quite well with GitHub, now that I've gotten down a very functional workflow.

The first thing that I've done is forced myself to have very good hygiene in my repository. I don't develop on master and smash everything together now, I use feature branches for all of my development. Branches are extremely cheap in git, so there is no real excuse not to separate things out. It makes for a little more merging down the road, but that trade-off seems worth it. Particularly when you are talking about GitHub, which allows you to easily share code and contribute back to other projects.

Today I decided to contribute back some of the recent Perlbal changes I had made. For this blog post, we'll look at one of those -- a small change to add a DEFAULT command. (What the change does exactly doesn't matter for the purpose of this post.)

Set Up (Forking, Config, Git Flow)

The code I wanted to change is on GitHub already, in the repository perlbal/Perlbal. I clicked the "Fork" button and a few moments later GitHub gave me my own copy of the code to do with as I will.

Most of you have probably used git before, so you won't be surprised by the next step:

$ git clone
$ cd Perlbal/
$ git remote add upstream
$ git flow init

Executed on my local Linux installation, this command checked out and set up the code for me to interact with. It landed in a Perlbal/ folder under the current working directory and then configured the upstream remote to point back at the source for Perlbal so I can pull down changes they make later.

Finally, the Git Flow system is initialized. I recommend you accept all of the defaults, they are reasonable and work well.

Write Some Code

Now we're ready to kick some code. From inside of the Perlbal/ folder, you can instruct Git Flow that you are about to start developing on something. The only thing you have to decide right now is what to call it. For today's example:

$ git flow feature start default-command

A few moments later, you will have a new branch named feature/default-command. It does a little other magic in the background and some sanity checks to make sure you don't have uncommitted changes, but otherwise, it's mostly just creating a branch for you.

Now do your development and commit, just like normal. (This part I assume you know how to do and am not going to spend any time discussing.) The only thing to keep in mind is that you need to make sure all of your commits stay on the feature branch you're on.

Submit to GitHub

At this point, you normally would use Git Flow to finish the feature, it would merge your changes back into the development branch, and you could share that with other people. In our case, however, since we're using GitHub and we want to upstream this change, we actually want to leave the feature branch open.

This is important: do not use git flow feature finish yet! If you do, I'm not sure how to recover from that situation. (I'd love to know, if anybody out there has some good advice on the matter.)

What you should actually do is this:

$ git flow feature publish default-command

This command causes the branch you've created and worked on to be created on the origin which is, in our case, xb95/Perlbal.git on GitHub. That's exactly what we want. A few moments later, you can see the branch has been created if you visit the GitHub UI. Great!

Now select your branch on GitHub and click the "Pull Request" button. You will be taken to a page that allows you to start building your pull request. Importantly, you should see that it only shows the commits that you have made to this feature -- nothing else!

Once you click the "Send pull request" button, you will have finished what is, to me, the cleanest and easiest way to work on code and send it upstream I have yet found. Bravo!

Write More Code

This process couldn't be simpler. If your pull request results in someone asking for some changes, you can do that just like you were doing your earlier development.

First, make sure that you're on the right branch. If you have been working on other projects in the meantime, you can switch back to your feature branch like this:

$ git checkout feature/default-command

Now that you're on the branch, go ahead and make your changes. Do whatever you need to do and then commit them. Finally, push your changes up to your fork on GitHub:

$ git push origin HEAD

Now if you go look at your pull request, you'll see that your commits have shown up automatically since it is tracking your branch. When you're ready for the upstream author to look at your changes again, it's best to comment and let them know.


Great, now you've finished and the upstream author has accepted your change. Your pull request has been accepted and you're done. Now you can consider closing off that branch so that it doesn't continue to clutter up your UI.

If you're ready to do that, let's go back to the repository. First make sure you are on the right branch (see the above section). When everything looks good and you're ready, tell git flow you're finished with this feature:

$ git flow feature finish feature default-command

If everything looks good locally, you can now delete the branch on GitHub:

$ git push origin --delete feature/default-command

Done. You have now cleaned up your local branch as well as the remote GitHub branch. That's all there is to it.

Next Steps

That's it for today. Thanks for reading and please let me know where this guide can be improved. I hope to maintain it as a living document to help people.

And of course -- your next step is to go write some code! I look forward to seeing some patches now. :)