Sometimes you actually do need to know how it works. GitHubber Ben Straub shows how learning Git’s internals helps explain its odder qualities.

Git is simple (on the inside)

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The way we use most computer systems is through a metaphor.

When you’re using a word processor, you don’t think about the byte-by-byte representation of each character, or the control sequences that determine which words are italic and which are bold-face. The software abstracts that away, presenting a clean metaphor – inked characters on a sheet of paper. You write your words, decide on their font and style, and when you’re ready for your words to be on actual paper, you print.

When you’re adjusting the exposure of a photo, you don’t want think about the mathematical acrobatics necessary to change the R, G, and B bytes of every pixel just so, or the resampling algorithm needed to adjust the size or rotation. The metaphor is something like a darkroom, and you adjust exposure and brightness, paint away red-eye, and erase the red wine stain on the wedding dress.

And with most version control systems, you don’t want to know how the data is stored and retrieved, or how the bytes are ordered during a network transmission. You just want to write your code, and every once in a while save a snapshot to someplace safe, so the metaphor is defined on that level. The underlying data model is complicated, and you rarely (if ever) need to know what it is, because the UI is pretty effective at abstracting those details away.

With Git, the story is a little different. The metaphor it presents is a directed acyclic graph (DAG) of commit nodes, which is to say there is no metaphor – the data model actually is a DAG. If you try to re-use the metaphor you learned from another system, you’re going to run into trouble.

The good news is that this data model is easy to understand, and that figuring it out will make you better at using Git.


Just about everything in a Git repository is either an object or a ref.

Objects are how Git stores content. They’re stored in .git/objects, which is sometimes called the object database or ODB. Objects in the ODB are immutable; once you create one, you can’t change it. This is because Git uses an object’s SHA-1 hash to identify and find it, and if you were to change the content of an object, its hash would change.

Objects come in four flavors: blobs, trees, commits, and tag annotations. Blobs are chunks of data that Git doesn’t interpret with any kind of structure, and it’s how Git stores your files. Objects are actually pretty easy to inspect:

# Print the object's type
$ git cat-file -t d7abd6

# Print the first 5 lines of the object's content
$ git cat-file -p d7abd6 | head -n 5

Note that there’s no filename here. Git expects file renames to be fairly common, and if the filename were embedded with the content, you’d have to keep lots of copies of that object where the only difference is the filename.

You use git cat-file because Git has optimized the storage of objects. They’re gzip-compressed, and sometimes strings lots of them together into big pack-files, so if you look in .git/objects, you may not see anything you recognize as an object.

The second type of object is called a tree, and it’s how Git stores directory structures.

$ git cat-file -t 8f5b65

$ git cat-file -p 8f5b65 | head -n 5
100644 blob 08b8e3400a81a79aeb42878171449b773ab493c0    after_footer.html
100644 blob 11517b315de6d7bc7550cc74ae413f1e6dafce19    archive_post.html
100644 blob 8ad5afd4581caa7458658325aeec9f8de875b988    article.html
040000 tree 5c2166adaa57c909182a45b995dfb750c22c8810    asides
040000 tree 52deb7c58d46aa09208c0b863fbecee81a2e3dad    custom

Only blobs are unstructured; Git expects a fairly specific format for all the others. Each line of a tree object contains the file’s permission flags, what type it is (blobs are files, trees are subdirectories), the SHA-1 hash of the object, and a filename. So the tree type is responsible for the names and locations of things, and the blob type is responsible for their contents.

The third type of object is a commit. This is how Git represents a snapshot in history.

$ git cat-file -t e365b1

 $ git cat-file -p e365b1
tree 58c796e7717809c2ca2217fc5424fdebdbc121b1
parent d4291dfddfae86cfacec789133861098cebc67d4
author Ben Straub  1380719530 -0700
committer Ben Straub  1380719530 -0700

Fix typo, remove false statement

A commit has exactly one tree reference, which is the root directory of the commit. It has zero or more parents, which are references to other commits, and it has some metadata about the commit – who made it, when it was made, and what it’s about.

There’s just one more type of object, and it’s not used very often. It’s called a tag annotation, and it’s used to make a tag with comments.

$ git cat-file -t 849a5e34a

$ git cat-file -p 849a5e34a
object a65fedf39aefe402d3bb6e24df4d4f5fe4547750
type commit
tag hard_tag
tagger Ben Straub  Fri May 11 11:47:58 2012 -0700

Tag on tag

I’ll say more about how these work later; for now, just note the object SHA that’s stored in there.

That’s it! You can count the number of object types on one hand! See how simple this is?


References (or refs) are nothing more than pointers to objects or other refs. They consist of two pieces of information: the name of the ref, and where it points. If a ref points to an object, it’s called a direct ref; if it points to another ref, it’s called a symbolic ref.

Most refs are direct. To confirm this, check the contents of anything under .git/refs/heads; they’re all plain-text files whose content is the SHA hash of the commit they point to.

$ cat .git/refs/heads/master

Git also keeps around a few symbolic refs for specific purposes. The most commonly useful one is HEAD, which usually points to the branch you have checked out:

$ cat HEAD
ref: refs/heads/master

Now that we know how refs work, let’s take another stab at that tag annotation object we saw earlier. Remember that refs are basically just names for locations; there’s no commentary associated with them, and you can change them at any time. Tag annotations solve both of these issues by putting ref-like information into the ODB (making it immutable, and allowing it to have more content), then making it findable by attaching a regular tag ref to it. The whole scheme looks like this:

tag (ref)  -->  tag_ann (odb)  -->  commit

Note that this opens up a whole new universe of possibility: refs don’t have to point to commits. They can point to any kind of object, which means you could technically set up something like this (though it’s not clear why you’d want to):

branch --> tag --> tag_ann_a --> tag_ann_b --> blob

Three Trees

Tree-type objects in the ODB aren’t the only tree that Git likes to think about. During your day-to-day work, you’ll deal with three of them: HEAD, the index, and the work tree.

HEAD is the last commit that was made, and it’s the parent of your next commit. Technically, it’s a symbolic ref that points to the branch you’re on, which points to the last commit, but for the purposes of this section we’ll simplify a bit.

The index is a proposal for the next commit. When you do a checkout, Git copies the HEAD tree to the index, and when you type git commit -m 'foo', it’s going to take what’s in the index and store it in the ODB as the new commit’s tree.

The work tree is a sandbox. You can safely create, update, and delete files at will in this area, knowing that Git has backups of everything. This is how Git makes your content available to the rest of the universe of tools.

There are a few commands whose job is mainly to deal with these three trees.

  • git checkout – Copies content from HEAD into the index and work tree. It can also move HEAD first.
  • git add – Copies content from the work tree to the index.
  • git commit – Copies content from the index to HEAD.

Reset is Easier Now

Now that we know a few things, some of Git’s seemingly-strange commands start to make sense. One example is git reset, one of the most hated and feared commands in all of Git. Reset generally performs three steps:

  1. Move HEAD (and the branch it points to) to point to a different commit
  2. Update the index to have the contents from HEAD
  3. Update the work tree to have the contents from the index

And, through some oddly-named command-line options, you can choose where it stops.

  • git reset --soft will stop after step 1. HEAD and the checked-out branch are moved, but that’s all.
  • git reset --mixed stops after step 2. The work tree isn’t touched at all, but HEAD and the index are. This is actually reset’s default; the --mixed argument is optional.
  • git reset --hard performs all three steps. After the first two, the work tree is overwritten with what’s in the index.

If you use reset with a path, Git actually skips the first step, since moving HEAD is a whole-repository operation. The other two steps apply, though; --mixed will update the index with HEAD’s version of the file, and --hard also updates the working directory, effectively trashing any modifications you’ve made to the file since it was checked out.

The Everyday Pattern

Let’s take a look at a really common usage pattern with our new Git X-ray goggles on.

$ git checkout -b bug-2345 master

Git creates a new branch called bug-2345, and points it at the same commit master points to. Then it moves HEAD to point to bug-2345, and updates the index and work tree to match HEAD.

You do some work, changing the files in the work tree, and now you’re ready to make a commit.

$ git add foo.txt
$ git add -p bar.html

Git updates the index to match the contents of the work tree. You can even update it with only some of the changes from a file.

$ git commit -m 'Update foo and bar'

Git converts the index into a series of linked objects in the ODB. Blobs and trees whose contents match are re-used, and the files and directories that changed have new blobs and trees generated for them. Git then creates a new commit which points to the new root tree, and (since HEAD points to a branch) bug-2345 is moved to point to the new commit.

Go Forth

With most version-control systems, you’re encouraged to just get to know the UI layer, and the details will be safely abstracted away. Git is different; its basic data model is at a high enough level that it’s pretty easy to understand, and its UI layer is so thin, that you’ll find yourself learning the internals whether you want to or not – you’ll need to for everything except the bare minimum of usage. I hope this article has convinced you that there isn’t really that much to know, and that you earn many new abilities by going through this process.

Your new understanding has made you powerful. Please use your new powers for good.

Ben Straub has always been a programmer, and loves making things work. He hacks on things at GitHub.

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