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.. SPDX-License-Identifier: GPL-2.0
Rebasing and merging
Maintaining a subsystem, as a general rule, requires a familiarity with the
Git source-code management system. Git is a powerful tool with a lot of
features; as is often the case with such tools, there are right and wrong
ways to use those features. This document looks in particular at the use
of rebasing and merging. Maintainers often get in trouble when they use
those tools incorrectly, but avoiding problems is not actually all that
One thing to be aware of in general is that, unlike many other projects,
the kernel community is not scared by seeing merge commits in its
development history. Indeed, given the scale of the project, avoiding
merges would be nearly impossible. Some problems encountered by
maintainers result from a desire to avoid merges, while others come from
merging a little too often.
"Rebasing" is the process of changing the history of a series of commits
within a repository. There are two different types of operations that are
referred to as rebasing since both are done with the ``git rebase``
command, but there are significant differences between them:
- Changing the parent (starting) commit upon which a series of patches is
built. For example, a rebase operation could take a patch set built on
the previous kernel release and base it, instead, on the current
release. We'll call this operation "reparenting" in the discussion
- Changing the history of a set of patches by fixing (or deleting) broken
commits, adding patches, adding tags to commit changelogs, or changing
the order in which commits are applied. In the following text, this
type of operation will be referred to as "history modification"
The term "rebasing" will be used to refer to both of the above operations.
Used properly, rebasing can yield a cleaner and clearer development
history; used improperly, it can obscure that history and introduce bugs.
There are a few rules of thumb that can help developers to avoid the worst
perils of rebasing:
- History that has been exposed to the world beyond your private system
should usually not be changed. Others may have pulled a copy of your
tree and built on it; modifying your tree will create pain for them. If
work is in need of rebasing, that is usually a sign that it is not yet
ready to be committed to a public repository.
That said, there are always exceptions. Some trees (linux-next being
a significant example) are frequently rebased by their nature, and
developers know not to base work on them. Developers will sometimes
expose an unstable branch for others to test with or for automated
testing services. If you do expose a branch that may be unstable in
this way, be sure that prospective users know not to base work on it.
- Do not rebase a branch that contains history created by others. If you
have pulled changes from another developer's repository, you are now a
custodian of their history. You should not change it. With few
exceptions, for example, a broken commit in a tree like this should be
explicitly reverted rather than disappeared via history modification.
- Do not reparent a tree without a good reason to do so. Just being on a
newer base or avoiding a merge with an upstream repository is not
generally a good reason.
- If you must reparent a repository, do not pick some random kernel commit
as the new base. The kernel is often in a relatively unstable state
between release points; basing development on one of those points
increases the chances of running into surprising bugs. When a patch
series must move to a new base, pick a stable point (such as one of
the -rc releases) to move to.
- Realize that reparenting a patch series (or making significant history
modifications) changes the environment in which it was developed and,
likely, invalidates much of the testing that was done. A reparented
patch series should, as a general rule, be treated like new code and
retested from the beginning.
A frequent cause of merge-window trouble is when Linus is presented with a
patch series that has clearly been reparented, often to a random commit,
shortly before the pull request was sent. The chances of such a series
having been adequately tested are relatively low - as are the chances of
the pull request being acted upon.
If, instead, rebasing is limited to private trees, commits are based on a
well-known starting point, and they are well tested, the potential for
trouble is low.
Merging is a common operation in the kernel development process; the 5.1
development cycle included 1,126 merge commits - nearly 9% of the total.
Kernel work is accumulated in over 100 different subsystem trees, each of
which may contain multiple topic branches; each branch is usually developed
independently of the others. So naturally, at least one merge will be
required before any given branch finds its way into an upstream repository.
Many projects require that branches in pull requests be based on the
current trunk so that no merge commits appear in the history. The kernel
is not such a project; any rebasing of branches to avoid merges will, most
likely, lead to trouble.
Subsystem maintainers find themselves having to do two types of merges:
from lower-level subsystem trees and from others, either sibling trees or
the mainline. The best practices to follow differ in those two situations.
Merging from lower-level trees
Larger subsystems tend to have multiple levels of maintainers, with the
lower-level maintainers sending pull requests to the higher levels. Acting
on such a pull request will almost certainly generate a merge commit; that
is as it should be. In fact, subsystem maintainers may want to use
the --no-ff flag to force the addition of a merge commit in the rare cases
where one would not normally be created so that the reasons for the merge
can be recorded. The changelog for the merge should, for any kind of
merge, say *why* the merge is being done. For a lower-level tree, "why" is
usually a summary of the changes that will come with that pull.
Maintainers at all levels should be using signed tags on their pull
requests, and upstream maintainers should verify the tags when pulling
branches. Failure to do so threatens the security of the development
process as a whole.
As per the rules outlined above, once you have merged somebody else's
history into your tree, you cannot rebase that branch, even if you
otherwise would be able to.
Merging from sibling or upstream trees
While merges from downstream are common and unremarkable, merges from other
trees tend to be a red flag when it comes time to push a branch upstream.
Such merges need to be carefully thought about and well justified, or
there's a good chance that a subsequent pull request will be rejected.
It is natural to want to merge the master branch into a repository; this
type of merge is often called a "back merge". Back merges can help to make
sure that there are no conflicts with parallel development and generally
gives a warm, fuzzy feeling of being up-to-date. But this temptation
should be avoided almost all of the time.
Why is that? Back merges will muddy the development history of your own
branch. They will significantly increase your chances of encountering bugs
from elsewhere in the community and make it hard to ensure that the work
you are managing is stable and ready for upstream. Frequent merges can
also obscure problems with the development process in your tree; they can
hide interactions with other trees that should not be happening (often) in
a well-managed branch.
That said, back merges are occasionally required; when that happens, be
sure to document *why* it was required in the commit message. As always,
merge to a well-known stable point, rather than to some random commit.
Even then, you should not back merge a tree above your immediate upstream
tree; if a higher-level back merge is really required, the upstream tree
should do it first.
One of the most frequent causes of merge-related trouble is when a
maintainer merges with the upstream in order to resolve merge conflicts
before sending a pull request. Again, this temptation is easy enough to
understand, but it should absolutely be avoided. This is especially true
for the final pull request: Linus is adamant that he would much rather see
merge conflicts than unnecessary back merges. Seeing the conflicts lets
him know where potential problem areas are. He does a lot of merges (382
in the 5.1 development cycle) and has gotten quite good at conflict
resolution - often better than the developers involved.
So what should a maintainer do when there is a conflict between their
subsystem branch and the mainline? The most important step is to warn
Linus in the pull request that the conflict will happen; if nothing else,
that demonstrates an awareness of how your branch fits into the whole. For
especially difficult conflicts, create and push a *separate* branch to show
how you would resolve things. Mention that branch in your pull request,
but the pull request itself should be for the unmerged branch.
Even in the absence of known conflicts, doing a test merge before sending a
pull request is a good idea. It may alert you to problems that you somehow
didn't see from linux-next and helps to understand exactly what you are
asking upstream to do.
Another reason for doing merges of upstream or another subsystem tree is to
resolve dependencies. These dependency issues do happen at times, and
sometimes a cross-merge with another tree is the best way to resolve them;
as always, in such situations, the merge commit should explain why the
merge has been done. Take a moment to do it right; people will read those
Often, though, dependency issues indicate that a change of approach is
needed. Merging another subsystem tree to resolve a dependency risks
bringing in other bugs and should almost never be done. If that subsystem
tree fails to be pulled upstream, whatever problems it had will block the
merging of your tree as well. Preferable alternatives include agreeing
with the maintainer to carry both sets of changes in one of the trees or
creating a topic branch dedicated to the prerequisite commits that can be
merged into both trees. If the dependency is related to major
infrastructural changes, the right solution might be to hold the dependent
commits for one development cycle so that those changes have time to
stabilize in the mainline.
It is relatively common to merge with the mainline toward the beginning of
the development cycle in order to pick up changes and fixes done elsewhere
in the tree. As always, such a merge should pick a well-known release
point rather than some random spot. If your upstream-bound branch has
emptied entirely into the mainline during the merge window, you can pull it
forward with a command like::
git merge v5.2-rc1^0
The "^0" will cause Git to do a fast-forward merge (which should be
possible in this situation), thus avoiding the addition of a spurious merge
The guidelines laid out above are just that: guidelines. There will always
be situations that call out for a different solution, and these guidelines
should not prevent developers from doing the right thing when the need
arises. But one should always think about whether the need has truly
arisen and be prepared to explain why something abnormal needs to be done.