Cover by Matthew McCullough, Jon Loeliger

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Chapter 4. Basic Git Concepts

Basic Concepts

The previous chapter presented a typical application of Git—and probably sparked a good number of questions. Does Git store the entire file at every commit? What’s the purpose of the .git directory? Why does a commit ID resemble gibberish? Should I take note of it?

If you’ve used another VCS, such as SVN or CVS, the commands in the last chapter likely seemed familiar. Indeed, Git serves the same function and provides all the operations you expect from a modern VCS. However, Git differs in some fundamental and surprising ways.

In this chapter, we explore why and how Git differs by examining the key components of its architecture and some important concepts. Here we focus on the basics and demonstrate how to interact with one repository; Chapter 12 explains how to work with many, interconnected repositories. Keeping track of multiple repositories may seem like a daunting prospect, but the fundamentals you learn in this chapter apply just the same.


A Git repository is simply a database containing all the information needed to retain and manage the revisions and history of a project. In Git, as with most version control systems, a repository retains a complete copy of the entire project throughout its lifetime. However, unlike most other VCSs, the Git repository not only provides a complete working copy of all the files in the repository, but also a copy of the repository itself with which to work.

Git maintains a set of configuration values within each repository. You saw some of these, such as the repository user’s name and email address, in the previous chapter. Unlike file data and other repository metadata, configuration settings are not propagated from one repository to another during a clone, or duplicating, operation. Instead, Git manages and inspects configuration and setup information on a per-site, per-user, and per-repository basis.

Within a repository, Git maintains two primary data structures, the object store and the index. All of this repository data is stored at the root of your working directory in a hidden subdirectory named .git.

The object store is designed to be efficiently copied during a clone operation as part of the mechanism that supports a fully distributed VCS. The index is transitory information, is private to a repository, and can be created or modified on demand as needed.

The next two sections describe the object store and index in more detail.

Git Object Types

At the heart of Git’s repository implementation is the object store. It contains your original data files and all the log messages, author information, dates, and other information required to rebuild any version or branch of the project.

Git places only four types of objects in the object store: the blobs, trees, commits, and tags. These four atomic objects form the foundation of Git’s higher level data structures.


Each version of a file is represented as a blob. Blob, a contraction of binary large object, is a term that’s commonly used in computing to refer to some variable or file that can contain any data and whose internal structure is ignored by the program. A blob is treated as being opaque. A blob holds a file’s data but does not contain any metadata about the file or even its name.


A tree object represents one level of directory information. It records blob identifiers, path names, and a bit of metadata for all the files in one directory. It can also recursively reference other (sub)tree objects and thus build a complete hierarchy of files and subdirectories.


A commit object holds metadata for each change introduced into the repository, including the author, committer, commit date, and log message. Each commit points to a tree object that captures, in one complete snapshot, the state of the repository at the time the commit was performed. The initial commit, or root commit, has no parent. Most commits have one commit parent, although later in the book (Chapter 9) we explain how a commit can reference more than one parent.


A tag object assigns an arbitrary yet presumably human readable name to a specific object, usually a commit. Although 9da581d910c9c4ac93557ca4859e767f5caf5169 refers to an exact and well-defined commit, a more familiar tag name like Ver-1.0-Alpha might make more sense!

Over time, all the information in the object store changes and grows, tracking and modeling your project edits, additions, and deletions. To use disk space and network bandwidth efficiently, Git compresses and stores the objects in pack files, which are also placed in the object store.


The index is a temporary and dynamic binary file that describes the directory structure of the entire repository. More specifically, the index captures a version of the project’s overall structure at some moment in time. The project’s state could be represented by a commit and a tree from any point in the project’s history, or it could be a future state toward which you are actively developing.

One of the key, distinguishing features of Git is that it enables you to alter the contents of the index in methodical, well-defined steps. The index allows a separation between incremental development steps and the committal of those changes.

Here’s how it works. As the developer, you execute Git commands to stage changes in the index. Changes usually add, delete, or edit some file or set of files. The index records and retains those changes, keeping them safe until you are ready to commit them. You can also remove or replace changes in the index. Thus, the index allows a gradual transition, usually guided by you, from one complex repository state to another, presumably better state.

As you’ll see in Chapter 9, the index plays an important role in merges, allowing multiple versions of the same file to be managed, inspected, and manipulated simultaneously.

Content-Addressable Names

The Git object store is organized and implemented as a content-addressable storage system. Specifically, each object in the object store has a unique name produced by applying SHA1 to the contents of the object, yielding an SHA1 hash value. Because the complete contents of an object contribute to the hash value and the hash value is believed to be effectively unique to that particular content, the SHA1 hash is a sufficient index or name for that object in the object database. Any tiny change to a file causes the SHA1 hash to change, causing the new version of the file to be indexed separately.

SHA1 values are 160-bit values that are usually represented as a 40-digit hexadecimal number, such as 9da581d910c9c4ac93557ca4859e767f5caf5169. Sometimes, during display, SHA1 values are abbreviated to a smaller, unique prefix. Git users speak of SHA1, hash code, and sometimes object ID interchangeably.

Git Tracks Content

It’s important to see Git as something more than a VCS: Git is a content tracking system. This distinction, however subtle, guides much of the design of Git and is perhaps the key reason it can perform internal data manipulations with relative ease. Yet, this is also perhaps one of the most difficult concepts for new users of Git to grasp, so some exposition is worthwhile.

Git’s content tracking is manifested in two critical ways that differ fundamentally from almost all other[7] revision control systems.

First, Git’s object store is based on the hashed computation of the contents of its objects, not on the file or directory names from the user’s original file layout. Thus, when Git places a file into the object store, it does so based on the hash of the data and not on the name of the file. In fact, Git does not track file or directory names, which are associated with files in secondary ways. Again, Git tracks content instead of files.

If two separate files have exactly the same content, whether in the same or different directories, Git stores a single copy of that content as a blob within the object store. Git computes the hash code of each file according solely to its content, determines that the files have the same SHA1 values and thus the same content, and places the blob object in the object store indexed by that SHA1 value. Both files in the project, regardless of where they are located in the user’s directory structure, use that same object for content.

If one of those files changes, Git computes a new SHA1 for it, determines that it is now a different blob object, and adds the new blob to the object store. The original blob remains in the object store for the unchanged file to use.

Second, Git’s internal database efficiently stores every version of every file—not their differences—as files go from one revision to the next. Because Git uses the hash of a file’s complete content as the name for that file, it must operate on each complete copy of the file. It cannot base its work or its object store entries on only part of the file’s content nor on the differences between two revisions of that file.

The typical user view of a file—that it has revisions and appears to progress from one revision to another revision—is simply an artifact. Git computes this history as a set of changes between different blobs with varying hashes, rather than storing a file name and set of differences directly. It may seem odd, but this feature allows Git to perform certain tasks with ease.

Pathname Versus Content

As with many other VCSs, Git needs to maintain an explicit list of files that form the content of the repository. However, this need not require that Git’s manifest be based on file names. Indeed, Git treats the name of a file as a piece of data that is distinct from the contents of that file. In this way, it separates index from data in the traditional database sense. It may help to look at Table 4-1, which roughly compares Git to other familiar systems.

Table 4-1. Database comparison

SystemIndex mechanismData store
Traditional databaseIndexed Sequential Access Method (ISAM)Data records
Unix file systemDirectories (/path/to/file)Blocks of data
Git.git/objects/hash, tree object contentsBlob objects, tree objects

The names of files and directories come from the underlying filesystem, but Git does not really care about the names. Git merely records each pathname and makes sure it can accurately reproduce the files and directories from its content, which is indexed by a hash value.

Git’s physical data layout isn’t modeled after the user’s file directory structure. Instead, it has a completely different structure that can, nonetheless, reproduce the user’s original layout. Git’s internal structure is a more efficient data structure for its own internal operations and storage considerations.

When Git needs to create a working directory, it says to the filesystem: Hey! I have this big blob of data that is supposed to be placed at pathname path/to/directory/file. Does that make sense to you? The filesystem is responsible for saying Ah, yes, I recognize that string as a set of subdirectory names, and I know where to place your blob of data! Thanks!

Pack Files

An astute reader my have formed a lingering question about Git’s data model and its storage of individual files: Isn’t it incredibly inefficient to store the complete content of every version of every file directly? Even if it is compressed, isn’t it inefficient to have the complete content of different versions of the same file? What if you only add, say, one line to a file, doesn’t Git store the complete content of both versions?

Luckily, the answer is No, not really!

Instead, Git uses a more efficient storage mechanism called a pack file. To create a packed file, Git first locates files whose content is very similar and stores the complete content for one of them. It then computes the differences, or deltas, between similar files and stores just the differences. For example, if you were to just change or add one line to a file, Git might store the complete, newer version and then take note of the one line change as a delta and store that in the pack too.

Storing a complete version of a file and the deltas needed to construct other versions of similar files is not a new trick. It is essentially the same mechanism that other VCSs such as RCS have used for decades.

Git does the file packing very cleverly, though. Since Git is driven by content it doesn’t really care if the deltas it computes between two files actually pertain to two versions of the same file or not. That is, Git can take any two files from anywhere within the repository and compute deltas between them if it thinks they might be similar enough to yield good data compression. Thus, Git has a fairly elaborate algorithm to locate and match up potential delta candidates globally within a repository. Furthermore, Git is able to construct a series of deltas from one version of a file to a second, to a third, etc.

Git also maintains the knowledge of the original blob SHA1 for each complete file (either the complete content or as a reconstruction after deltas are applied) within the packed representation. This provides the basis for an index mechanism to locate objects within a pack.

Packed files are stored in the object store alongside the other objects. They are also used for efficient data transfer of repositories across a network.

Object Store Pictures

Let’s look at how Git’s objects fit and work together to form the complete system.

The blob object is at the bottom of the data structure; it references nothing and is referenced only by tree objects. In the figures that follow, each blob is represented by a rectangle.

Tree objects point to blobs and possibly to other trees as well. Any given tree object might be pointed at by many different commit objects. Each tree is represented by a triangle.

A circle represents a commit. A commit points to one particular tree that is introduced into the repository by the commit.

Each tag is represented by a parallelogram. Each tag can point to, at most, one commit.

The branch is not a fundamental Git object, yet it plays a crucial role in naming commits. Each branch is pictured as a rounded rectangle.

Git objects

Figure 4-1. Git objects

Figure 4-1 captures how all the pieces fit together. This diagram shows the state of a repository after a single, initial commit added two files. Both files are in the top-level directory. Both the master branch and a tag named V1.0 point to the commit with ID 1492.

Now, let’s make things a bit more complicated. Let’s leave the original two files as is, adding a new subdirectory with one file in it. The resulting object store looks like Figure 4-2.

Git objects after a second commit

Figure 4-2. Git objects after a second commit

As in the previous picture, the new commit has added one associated tree object to represent the total state of directory and file structure. In this case, it is the tree object with ID cafed00d.

Because the top-level directory is changed by the addition of the new subdirectory, the content of the top-level tree object has changed as well, so Git introduces a new tree, cafed00d.

However, the blobs dead23 and feeb1e didn’t change from the first commit to the second. Git realizes that the IDs haven’t changed and thus can be directly referenced and shared by the new cafed00d tree.

Pay attention to the direction of the arrows between commits. The parent commit or commits come earlier in time. Therefore, in Git’s implementation, each commit points back to its parent or parents. Many people get confused because the state of a repository is conventionally portrayed in the opposite direction: as a dataflow from the parent commit to child commits.

In Chapter 6, we extend these pictures to show how the history of a repository is built up and manipulated by various commands.

Git Concepts at Work

With some tenets out of the way, let’s see how all these concepts and components fit together in the repository itself. Let’s create a new repository and inspect the internal files and object store in much greater detail.

Inside the .git Directory

To begin, initialize an empty repository using git init and then run find to reveal what’s created.

    $ mkdir /tmp/hello
    $ cd /tmp/hello
    $ git init
    Initialized empty Git repository in /tmp/hello/.git/

    # List all the files in the current directory
    $ find .

As you can see, .git contains a lot of stuff. The files are displayed based on a template directory that you can adjust if desired. Depending on the version of Git you are using, your actual manifest may look a little different. For example, older versions of Git do not use a .sample suffix on the .git/hooks files.

In general, you don’t have to view or manipulate the files in .git. These hidden files are considered part of Git’s plumbing or configuration. Git has a small set of plumbing commands to manipulate these hidden files, but you will rarely use them.

Initially, the .git/objects directory (the directory for all of Git’s objects) is empty, except for a few placeholders.

    $ find .git/objects


Let’s now carefully create a simple object:

    $ echo "hello world" > hello.txt
    $ git add hello.txt

If you typed hello world exactly as it appears here (with no changes to spacing or capitalization), then your objects directory should now look like this:

    $ find .git/objects

All this looks pretty mysterious. But it’s not, as the following sections explain.

Objects, Hashes, and Blobs

When it creates an object for hello.txt, Git doesn’t care that the filename is hello.txt. Git cares only about what’s inside the file: the sequence of 12 bytes that represent hello world and the terminating newline (the same blob created earlier). Git performs a few operations on this blob, calculates its SHA1 hash, and enters it into the object store as a file named after the hexadecimal representation of the hash.

The hash in this case is 3b18e512dba79e4c8300dd08aeb37f8e728b8dad. The 160 bits of an SHA1 hash correspond to 20 bytes, which takes 40 bytes of hexadecimal to display, so the content is stored as .git/objects/3b/18e512dba79e4c8300dd08aeb37f8e728b8dad. Git inserts a / after the first two digits to improve filesystem efficiency. (Some filesystems slow down if you put too many files in the same directory; making the first byte of the SHA1 into a directory is an easy way to create a fixed, 256-way partitioning of the namespace for all possible objects with an even distribution.)

To show that Git really hasn’t done very much with the content in the file (it’s still the same comforting hello world), you can use the hash to pull it back out of the object store any time you want:

    $ git cat-file -p 3b18e512dba79e4c8300dd08aeb37f8e728b8dad
    hello world


Git also knows that 40 characters is a bit chancy to type by hand, so it provides a command to look up objects by a unique prefix of the object hash:

    $ git rev-parse 3b18e512d

Files and Trees

Now that the hello world blob is safely ensconced in the object store, what happened to its filename? Git wouldn’t be very useful if it couldn’t find files by name.

As mentioned before, Git tracks the pathnames of files through another kind of object called a tree. When you use git add, Git creates an object for the contents of each file you add, but it doesn’t create an object for your tree right away. Instead, it updates the index. The index is found in .git/index and keeps track of file pathnames and corresponding blobs. Each time you run commands such as git add, git rm, or git mv, Git updates the index with the new pathname and blob information.

Whenever you want, you can create a tree object from your current index by capturing a snapshot of its current information with the low-level git write-tree command.

At the moment, the index contains exactly one file, hello.txt.

    $ git ls-files -s
    100644 3b18e512dba79e4c8300dd08aeb37f8e728b8dad 0       hello.txt

Here you can see the association of the file, hello.txt, and the 3b18e5... blob.

Next, let’s capture the index state and save it to a tree object:

    $ git write-tree

    $ find .git/objects

Now there are two objects: the hello world object at 3b18e5 and a new one, the tree object, at 68aba6. As you can see, the SHA1 object name corresponds exactly to the subdirectory and filename in .git/objects.

But what does a tree look like? Because it’s an object, just like the blob, you can use the same low-level command to view it.

    $ git cat-file -p 68aba6
    100644 blob 3b18e512dba79e4c8300dd08aeb37f8e728b8dad    hello.txt

The contents of the object should be easy to interpret. The first number, 100644, represents the file attributes of the object in octal, which should be familiar to anyone who has used the Unix chmod command. Here, 3b18e5 is the object name of the hello world blob, and hello.txt is the name associated with that blob.

It is now easy to see that the tree object has captured the information that was in the index when you ran git ls-files -s.

A Note on Git’s Use of SHA1

Before peering at the contents of the tree object in more detail, let’s check out an important feature of SHA1 hashes:

    $ git write-tree

    $ git write-tree

    $ git write-tree

Every time you compute another tree object for the same index, the SHA1 hash remains exactly the same. Git doesn’t need to recreate a new tree object. If you’re following these steps at the computer, you should be seeing exactly the same SHA1 hashes as the ones published in this book.

In this sense, the hash function is a true function in the mathematical sense: For a given input, it always produces the same output. Such a hash function is sometimes called a digest to emphasize that it serves as a sort of summary of the hashed object. Of course, any hash function, even the lowly parity bit, has this property.

That’s extremely important. For example, if you create the exact same content as another developer, regardless of where or when or how both of you work, an identical hash is proof enough that the full content is identical, too. In fact, Git treats them as identical.

But hold on a second—aren’t SHA1 hashes unique? What happened to the trillions of people with trillions of blobs per second who never produce a single collision? This is a common source of confusion among new Git users. So read on carefully, because if you can understand this distinction, then everything else in this chapter is easy.

Identical SHA1 hashes in this case do not count as a collision. It would be a collision only if two different objects produced the same hash. Here, you created two separate instances of the very same content, and the same content always has the same hash.

Git depends on another consequence of the SHA1 hash function: it doesn’t matter how you got a tree called 68aba62e560c0ebc3396e8ae9335232cd93a3f60. If you have it, you can be extremely confident it is the same tree object that, say, another reader of this book has. Bob might have created the tree by combining commits A and B from Jennie and commit C from Sergey, whereas you got commit A from Sue and an update from Lakshmi that combines commits B and C. The results are the same, and this facilitates distributed development.

If you are asked to look for object 68aba62e560c0ebc3396e8ae9335232cd93a3f60 and can find such an object, then, because SHA1 is a cryptographic hash, you can be confident that you are looking at precisely the same data from which the hash was created.

The converse is also true: If you don’t find an object with a specific hash in your object store, then you can be confident that you do not hold a copy of that exact object. In sum, you can determine whether your object store does or does not have a particular object even though you know nothing about its (potentially very large) contents. The hash thus serves as a reliable label or name for the object.

But Git also relies on something stronger than that conclusion, too. Consider the most recent commit (or its associated tree object). Because it contains, as part of its content, the hash of its parent commits and of its tree and that in turn contains the hash of all of its subtrees and blobs recursively through the whole data structure, it follows by induction that the hash of the original commit uniquely identifies the state of the whole data structure rooted at that commit.

Finally, the implications of our claim in the previous paragraph lead to a powerful use of the hash function: It provides an efficient way of comparing two objects, even two very large and complex data structures,[8] without transmitting either in full.

Tree Hierarchies

It’s nice to have information regarding a single file, as was shown in the previous section, but projects contain complex, deeply nested directories that are refactored and moved around over time. Let’s see how Git handles this by creating a new subdirectory that contains an identical copy of the hello.txt file:

    $ pwd
    $ mkdir subdir
    $ cp hello.txt subdir/
    $ git add subdir/hello.txt
    $ git write-tree

    $ git cat-file -p 4924132693
    100644 blob 3b18e512dba79e4c8300dd08aeb37f8e728b8dad    hello.txt
    040000 tree 68aba62e560c0ebc3396e8ae9335232cd93a3f60    subdir

The new top-level tree contains two items: the original hello.txt file as well as the new subdir directory, which is of type tree instead of blob.

Notice anything unusual? Look closer at the object name of subdir. It’s your old friend, 68aba62e560c0ebc3396e8ae9335232cd93a3f60!

What just happened? The new tree for subdir contains only one file, hello.txt, and that file contains the same old hello world content. So the subdir tree is exactly the same as the older, top-level tree! And of course it has the same SHA1 object name as before.

Let’s look at the .git/objects directory and see what this most recent change affected:

    $ find .git/objects

There are still only three unique objects: a blob containing hello world; a tree containing hello.txt, which contains the text hello world plus a new line; and a second tree that contains another reference to hello.txt along with the first tree.


The next object to discuss is the commit. Now that hello.txt has been added with git add and the tree object has been produced with git write-tree, you can create a commit object using low-level commands like this:

    $ echo -n "Commit a file that says hello\n" \
        | git commit-tree 492413269336d21fac079d4a4672e55d5d2147ac

The result will look something like this:

    $ git cat-file -p 3ede462
    tree 492413269336d21fac079d4a4672e55d5d2147ac
    author Jon Loeliger <> 1220233277 -0500
    committer Jon Loeliger <> 1220233277 -0500

    Commit a file that says hello

If you’re following along on your computer, you probably found that the commit object you generated does not have the same name as the one in this book. If you’ve understood everything so far, the reason for that should be obvious: it’s not the same commit. The commit contains your name and the time you made the commit, so of course it is different, however subtly. On the other hand, your commit does have the same tree. This is why commit objects are separate from their tree objects: different commits often refer to exactly the same tree. When that happens, Git is smart enough to transfer around only the new commit object, which is tiny, instead of the tree and blob objects, which are probably much larger.

In real life, you can (and should!) pass over the low-level git write-tree and git commit-tree steps, and just use the git commit command. You don’t need to remember all those plumbing commands to be a perfectly happy Git user.

A basic commit object is fairly simple, and it’s the last ingredient required for a real RCS. The commit object just shown is the simplest possible one, containing:

  • The name of a tree object that actually identifies the associated files

  • The name of the person who composed the new version (the author) and the time when it was composed

  • The name of the person who placed the new version into the repository (the committer) and the time when it was committed

  • A description of the reason for this revision (the commit message)

By default, the author and committer are the same; there are a few situations where they’re different.


You can use the command git show --pretty=fuller to see additional details about a given commit.

Commit objects are also stored in a graph structure, although it’s completely different from the structures used by tree objects. When you make a new commit, you can give it one or more parent commits. By following back through the chain of parents, you can discover the history of your project. More details about commits and the commit graph are given in Chapter 6.


Finally, the last object Git manages is the tag. Although Git implements only one kind of tag object, there are two basic tag types, usually called lightweight and annotated.

Lightweight tags are simply references to a commit object and are usually considered private to a repository. These tags do not create a permanent object in the object store. An annotated tag is more substantial and creates an object. It contains a message, supplied by you, and can be digitally signed using a GnuPG key according to RFC4880.

Git treats both lightweight and annotated tag names equivalently for the purposes of naming a commit. However, by default, many Git commands work only on annotated tags, because they are considered permanent objects.

You create an annotated, unsigned tag with a message on a commit using the git tag command:

    $ git tag -m "Tag version 1.0" V1.0 3ede462

You can see the tag object via the git cat-file -p command, but what is the SHA1 of the tag object? To find it, use the Tip from Objects, Hashes, and Blobs:

    $ git rev-parse V1.0

    $ git cat-file -p 6b608c
    object 3ede4622cc241bcb09683af36360e7413b9ddf6c
    type commit
    tag V1.0
    tagger Jon Loeliger <> Sun Oct 26 17:07:15 2008 -0500

    Tag version 1.0

In addition to the log message and author information, the tag refers to the commit object 3ede462. Usually, Git tags a particular commit as named by some branch. Note that this behavior is notably different from that of other VCSs.

Git usually tags a commit object, which points to a tree object, which encompasses the total state of the entire hierarchy of files and directories within your repository.

Recall from Figure 4-1 that the V1.0 tag points to the commit named 1492, which in turn points to a tree (8675309) that spans multiple files. Thus, the tag simultaneously applies to all files of that tree.

This is unlike CVS, for example, which will apply a tag to each individual file and then rely on the collection of all those tagged files to reconstitute a whole tagged revision. And whereas CVS lets you move the tag on an individual file, Git requires a new commit, encompassing the file state change, onto which the tag will be moved.

[7] Monotone, Mercurial, OpenCMS, and Venti are notable exceptions here.

[8] This data structure is covered in more detail in Commit Graphs of Chapter 6.

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