I think I was completely wrong about Git workflows

post, May 23, 2023 on Mitja Felicijan's blog

I have been using some approximation of Git Flow for years now and never really questioned it to be honest. When I create a repo I create develop branch and set it as default one and then merge to master from there. Seems reasonable enough.

One thing that I have learned is that long living branches are the devil. They always end up making a huge mess when they need to be merged eventually into master. So by that reason, what is the develop branch if not the longest living feature branch. And from my personal experience there was never a situation where I wasn’t sweating bullets when I had to merge develop back to master.

This realisation started to give me pause. So why the hell am I doing this, and is there a better way. Well the solution was always there. And it comes in a form of git tags.

So what are git tags? Git tags are references to specific points in a Git repository’s history. They are used to mark important milestones, such as releases or significant commits, making it easier to identify and access specific versions of a project.

Somehow we have all hijacked the meaning of the master branch that it has to be the most releasable version of code. And this is also where the confusing about versioning the software kicks in. Because master branch implicitly says that we are dealing with the rolling release type of a software. And by having a develop branch we are hacking around this confusion. With a separation of develop and master we lock functionalities into place and forcing a stable vs development version of the software.

But if that is true and the long living branches are the devil then why have develop at all. I think that most of this comes to how continuous integration is being done. There usually is no granular access to tags and CD software deploys what is present on a specific branch, may that be master for production and develop for staging. This is a gross simplification and by having this in place we have completely removed tagging as a viable option to create a fix point in software cycle that says, this is the production ready code.

One cool thing about tags are that you can checkout a specific tag. So they behave very similarly as branches in that regard. And you don’t have the overhead of having two mainstream branches.

So what is the solution? One approach is to use development workflow, where all changes are made on the smaller branches and continuously merged into master. Where the software is ready to be pushed to production you tag the master branch. This approach eliminates the need for long-lived branches and simplifies the development process. It also encourages developers to make small, incremental changes that can be tested and deployed quickly. However, this approach may not be suitable for all projects or teams that heavily rely on automated deployment based on branch names only.

This also requires that developers always keep production in mind. No more living on an island of the develop branch. All your actions and code need to be ready to meet production standards on a much smaller timescale.

I think that we have complicated the workflow in an honest attempt to make things more streamlined but in the process of doing this, we have inadvertently made our lives much more complicated.

In conclusion, it’s important to re-evaluate our workflows from time to time to see if they still make sense and if there are better alternatives available. Long-living branches can be problematic, and using tags to mark important milestones can simplify the development process.