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Drupal and Git

I’m honored to have been selected to present at the first-ever DrupalCamp Michigan. The local Drupal community is super strong: they opened registration for 50 people and it sold out so quickly they expanded to 100. Not being a good public speaker at all, you’d think this might be daunting. However, a combination of under-preparedness and lack of sleep really put me in the right mindset. So, without further ado, here are the slides and a video of the presentation:


You’ve got the wrong guy

I originally proposed this session not because I have a ton of experience on the topic and all the answers, but because I wanted to use presenting as an excuse to learn about git.

If you’ve been using git for a long time and/or have memorized large portions of the Drupal APIs, chances are you won’t be able to learn much from me.

WTF is a git!?

The word git was first a British slang word for an annoying or stupid person. The software was named self-deprecatingly from that word. I like to think git stands for something else though: good shit.

Git is a fast, distributed version control system.

It was originally developed by Linus Torvalds in 2005 to be used for developing the Linux kernel

If you’ve used another version control system, you might wonder what sets git apart.

From what I’ve gathered, the most important differences between git and other systems are:

  • Git is distributed נthis is important, because having a local copy of a repo lets you access the version history easily, commit whenever it makes sense, and push it to one or more repositories, or remotes, based on the structure of your project
  • Git reduces the pain of merging, which means that you can make lots of branches without worry

Other systems, like CVS, subversion, and others, are also considered slow for accomplishing certain tasks. While I don’t have a great means of comparison, git seems pretty quick to do most everything.

Drupal and Git

The Drupal project switched from CVS to git in February 2011. The changeover is a 3-phase process, of which they’re on phase 2.

  1. Phase 1 was a git mirror, so that people could test and develop in git without affecting the project
  2. Phase 2 is a centralized model based entirely in git
  3. Phase 3 will be a decentralized, GitHub-like model that will change the contribution workflow. Details are still being hashed out on that front

Local Tools

Locally, there are a few tools that can make routine tasks fast and can integrate with the tools you already use.

I’m a visual, GUI guy, especially for menial tasks. So I like TortoiseGit on Windows, along with a Git plugin for Notepad++. TortoiseGit makes pushing changes a job of a few clicks. The Notepad++ plugin lets me press Ctrl+Alt+C, type a commit message, and click a button to commit changes to one or more files. If you think vi is a pain in the butt, tools like these are for you.

Remote Tools

It’s probably not just you doing development. Even if it is, there’s a compelling reason to have at least one central place for your repositories, which I’ll explain later.

But a side reason to have bare remote repositories is that you can use tools intended for remotes, like redmine. Tools like this add another layer for project management. You can do project planning, bug tracking, wiki documentation, and other such tasks from a web interface, letting either you or your team keep track of things. And if your project is out in the open, you can leverage a much larger community using sites like GitHub, Google Code, or SourceForge.

Your First Repo

Let’s say you have a directory of files that you want to put under version control at that path. You’d go there in your terminal, then initiate a new repository. Next you’d add all the files. Those files are queued up and ready for the first commit, which you then perform.

If you don’t use the ‘m’ option to add a commit message, the commit command will show the log entry for the commit in vi, and you put the commit message at the top. It’s at this point that I’d like to reiterate that vi is a pain in the butt.

So that’s how you create a new repo from bash


These are the git commands you might use in day-to-day work

Point at commands and explain what they do ^ Learn what the commands do

These commands are used less frequently (in general), but it’s good to know about them

bisect lets you determine where a bug began in the revision history, using a binary search to split the possibilities in half each time.

These are also git commands, though you might not use them very often or ever.

stash is commit for wusses


So let’s talk workflow.

At my job I’ve got two Drupal sites: “Beta,” which isn’t really the right name for it, since at times it’s a dev box and at others it’s a beta-slash-QA machine.

And the live site.

The design and development parts of my job revolve around creating modules and themes to add functionality and enhance the design of just those two properties.

I’m guessing that’s NOT what your jobs are like. I’m guessing you make lots of sites. And those sites in various states exist in multiple places, like your local dev machine, an internal server for testing, and external hosting that you don’t necessarily control. I don’t envy you.

Wherein I Tell You Not To Hack the Core

A site is Drupal core, plus contrib, plus the data in your database.

Since Drupal is modular and nearly everything can be changed via hooks, it’s really pretty rare that you have to change anything in core. And if you do, I’ve found from experience that it’s usually for temporary debugging rather than for permanent changes.

Do not hack core.

Avoiding Temptation

So from Do Not Hack Core we can take away that all the things on the left are things you shouldn’t mess with, and the thing on the right is the only place that customizations go (unless you have a weird multisite setup, which is cool, but your workflow’s going to be different).

A repo at the whole site level is redundant, and reinforces the opposite of the number 1 best practice of the Drupal site-building community.

Drilling Down

What about at the ‘sites’ level?

This is workable, but you might notice something immediately.

Look at the sites/all/modules directory.

You’re probably not going to be hacking contrib either! All of those modules are version tracked in git on the site. The vast majority of those modules require zero coding to work exactly as expected. Putting them under version control doesn’t accomplish much.

Then there’s sites/default

sites/default/files contains uploaded and attached files. Those files are site-specific and are subject to database dependencies. The files also tend to be images and other files that are unlikely to change. There are a number of reasons why version controlling those files is impractical.

On the other hand, sites/default/settings.php is a good candidate for revision control individually, as it’s something that you have to work on in the development process, and some of the settings will likely have to change depending on where the site lives. The branching model of git could be really useful for this purpose.

.gitignore Files

One way to wrangle sites/default/files and streamline the process is with .gitignore files. With a well-made, well-placed .gitignore file or two, you can continue using git add . and git commit -a without adding stuff you don’t want to your project.

.gitignore files let you choose files to omit from the versioning index, based on wildcard notation. So instead of omitting /sites/default/files wholesale, for instance, you could just selectively ignore boring images and junk while preserving the directory structure wherever the repo might end up.

What You’re Controlling

Conceptually, the two components that you’re likely to work on that can most benefit from version control are:

  1. Customizing the theme to the client’s needs
  2. Developing custom modules or modifying one or more contrib modules

If you start with a working theme, like Zen, you can clone down a repo from and use the history of that particular part of the project if you need it. You can create your own branch for your theme and develop from there.

If you code up a custom module, it might only be useful for a single site a single time. But maybe the functionality you add is something that other clients might want, or that can be contributed back to the Drupal community. Modules are reusable pieces, so structuring your repository environment to make them accessible for all sorts of projects is a plus.

Hypothetical Model

Here’s an example of what repositories on a central server might look like.

I made the directory structure here very flat, putting core, modules, themes, and the site_projects repositories all within a single folder. This would work well if you always use the same base theme along with a limited number of custom modules. This particular setup plays nice with management software like redmine, which is one reason a flat structure is attractive.

If you’re going to have lots of distinct themes and modules, it might be helpful to create big repos called modules and themes, then use git’s submodules functionality to manage the individual drupal modules contained within. Thanks Ben for the submodules tip!

Now that we have a central place for all the things we’re working on related to building our sites, we can optimize our workflow to play nice with version control.

Leveraging Synergy

One way to do that is to set up pushing and pulling.

If you don’t already have ssh keys set up between your development box and your repository server, setting that up will make it a lot quicker to push and pull from git. If you want to deploy via git from the repo server to other machines like your site testing server or even live web server, you’ll also want to set up ssh keys between the those boxes.

On your local dev box, use the clone command to make a local version of the repo on your server. When you do that, the source repo becomes a ‘remote’ called origin.

Make some changes to the local copy (you can branch if you want to, you can leave master behind). When you’re done making changes and they’re ready for other people in your shop to see/use them, use the push command to send them back to the origin.

Drush Make and Install Profiles

Once the changes are on the server, you can pull them to your deployment boxes, or…

You can get fancy.

It’s a common use case: you end up using the same base theme, modules, configurations, and other tweaks on most of your projects. You might already have an “install profile” informally; Drupal with all the stuff you use all in one place.

The “drush make” command lets you generate makefiles that turn your informal install profiles into the real deal. In Drupal 7 it’s easier to make profiles that configure things on install, but technically it should be possible in D6 too. Some combination of the features, strongarm, context, and other helper modules could let you automate some impressive stuff — like pre-built views.

Hint: it might be manual coding work, but if you install a whole bunch of similar sites, writing a (profile name).install file could be a time-saver in the long run. Especially if you swipe one from an existing public profile and suit it to your needs.

You can use the drush make command to import all the dependencies for your profile wherever you need them. Then just run the installer (which if you’re super fancy you could get working with drush site-install) to have a functional site in the time it takes to make a pot of coffee because your junior dev doesn’t know proper coffee machine etiquette.

The makefiles are really flexible, so you can choose particular version numbers of modules for compatibility, apply patch files to change modules or core code, or grab external libraries from tarballs.

Nailing down a “holy grail” workflow for this sort of development takes time and effort, and I certainly don’t have all the answers.

Over the next few weeks, Alex Fisher and I will be working on drush make and workflows, and will report useful findings to our respective blogs.

You may also ask about how to go from local dev to testing to quality assurance to live, all while easily managing your databases. You may ask that, but I don’t have an answer. Sorry.

Pay it Forward

If you’d like to become a core developer or get involved in a contrib project, a working knowledge of git will help.

I’m fighting the urge to give nitty-gritty details here, as the instructions are both technical and well-documented. If you’re not a project maintainer, contributing code involves creating patch files based on numbers from the issue queue. If you are a project maintainer, you can interact directly with the remote repo (albeit while following the guidelines).

One reason I’m avoiding an in-depth explanation is that the Phase 3 git migration could very well change how things get developed on

But here’s how to create a patch file, just in case.

Just one commit is the easiest for contributing back patches.

The Version Control tab on project pages gives really good instructions for grabbing source repos and other contibution tasks, including the specific clone command you need to grab a local copy of the repository.

So now that you’re a git expert, go out there and contribute back to the Drupal community!

Thanks for putting up with me!