Do we think of Git commits as diffs, snapshots, and/or histories?

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Joined: Nov 2016

Hello! I’ve been extremely slowly trying to figure how to explain every core
concept in Git (commits! branches! remotes! the staging area!) and commits have
been surprisingly tricky.

Understanding how git commits are implemented feels pretty straightforward to
me (those are facts! I can look it up!), but it’s been much harder to figure
out how other people think about commits. So like I’ve been doing a lot
recently, I went on Mastodon and started asking some questions.

how do people think about Git commits?

I did a highly unscientific poll on Mastodon about how people think about Git
commits: is it a snapshot? is it a diff? is it a list of every previous commit?
(Of course it’s legitimate to think about it as all three, but I was curious
about the primary way people think about Git commits). Here it is:

The results were:

51% diff
42% snapshot
4% history of every previous commit
3% “other”

I was really surprised that it was so evenly split between diffs and snapshots.
People also made some interesting kind of contradictory statements like “in my
mind a commit is a diff, but I think it’s actually implemented as a snapshot”
and “in my mind a commit is a snapshot, but I think it’s actually implemented
as a diff”. We’ll talk more about how a commit is actually implemented later in
the post.

Before we go any further: when we say “a diff” or “a snapshot”, what does that

what’s a diff?

What I mean by a diff is probably obvious: it’s what you get when you run git show
COMMIT_ID. For example here’s a typo fix from rbspy:

diff –git a/src/ui/ b/src/ui/
index 5c4ff9c..3ce9b3b 100644
— a/src/ui/
+++ b/src/ui/
@@ -160,7 +160,7 @@ mod tests {

let mut buf: Vec=Vec::new();
– stats.write(&mut buf).expect(“Callgrind write failed”);
+ stats.write(&mut buf).expect(“summary write failed”);
let actual=String::from_utf8(buf).expect(“summary output not utf8”);
assert_eq!(actual, expected, “Unexpected summary output”);

You can see it on GitHub here:

what’s a snapshot?

When I say “a snapshot”, what I mean is “all the files that you get when you
run git checkout COMMIT_ID”.

Git often calls the list of files for a commit a “tree” (as in “directory
tree”), and you can see all of the files for the above example commit here on
GitHub: (it’s /tree/ instead of /commit/)

is “how Git implements it” really the right way to explain it?

Probably the most common piece of advice I hear related to learning Git is
“just learn how Git represents things internally, and everything will make
sense”. I obviously find this perspective extremely appealing (if you’ve spent
any time reading this blog, you know I love thinking about how things are
implemented internally).

But as a strategy for teaching Git, it hasn’t been as successful as I’d hoped!
Often I’ve eagerly started explaining “okay, so git commits are snapshots with
a pointer to their parent, and then a branch is a pointer to a commit, and…“,
but the person I’m trying to help will tell me that they didn’t really find
that explanation that useful at all and they still don’t get it. So I’ve been
considering other options.

Let’s talk about the internals a bit anyway though.

how git represents commits internally: snapshots

Internally, git represents commits as snapshots (it stores the “tree” of the
current version of every file). I wrote about this in In a git repository, where do your files live?,
but here’s a very quick summary of what the internal format looks like.

Here’s how a commit is represented:

$ git cat-file -p 24ad81d2439f9e63dd91cc1126ca1bb5d3a4da5b
tree e197a79bef523842c91ee06fa19a51446975ec35
parent 26707359cdf0c2db66eb1216bf7ff00eac782f65
author Adam Jensen 1672104452 -0500
committer Adam Jensen 1672104890 -0500

Fix typo in expectation message

and here’s what we get when we look at this tree object: a list of every file /
subdirectory in the repository’s root directory as of that commit:

$ git cat-file -p e197a79bef523842c91ee06fa19a51446975ec35
040000 tree 2fcc102acd27df8f24ddc3867b6756ac554b33ef .cargo
040000 tree 7714769e97c483edb052ea14e7500735c04713eb .github
100644 blob ebb410eb8266a8d6fbde8a9ffaf5db54a5fc979a .gitignore
100644 blob fa1edfb73ce93054fe32d4eb35a5c4bee68c5bf5
100644 blob 9c1883ee31f4fa8b6546a7226754cfc84ada5726
100644 blob 9fac1017cb65883554f821914fac3fb713008a34
100644 blob b009175dbcbc186fb8066344c0e899c3104f43e5 Cargo.lock
100644 blob 94b87cd2940697288e4f18530c5933f3110b405b Cargo.toml

What this means is that checking out a Git commit is always fast: it’s just as
easy for Git to check out a commit from yesterday as it is to check out a
commit from 1 million commits ago. Git never has to replay 10000 diffs to
figure out the current state or anything, because commits just aren’t stored as

snapshots are compressed using packfiles

I just said that Git commits are snapshots, but when someone says “I think of
git commits as a snapshot, but I think internally they’re actually diffs”,
that’s actually kind of true too! Git commits are not represented as diffs in
the sense you’re probably used to (they’re not represented on disk as a diff
from the previous commit), but the basic intuition that if you’re editing a
10,000 lines 500 times, it would be inefficient to store 500 copies of that
file is right.

Git does have a way of storing files as differences from other ways. This is
called “packfiles” and periodically git will do a garbage collection and
compress your data into packfiles to save disk space. When you git clone a
repository git will also compress the data.

I don’t have space for a full explanation of how packfiles work in this post
(Aditya Mukerjee’s Unpacking Git packfiles
is my favourite writeup of how they work). But here’s a quick summary of my
understanding of how deltas work and how they’re different from diffs:

Objects are stored as a reference to an “original file”, plus a “delta”
the delta has a bunch of instructions like “read bytes 0 to 100, then insert bytes ‘hello there’, then read bytes 120 to 200”. It cobbles together bytes from the original plus new text. So there’s no notion of “deletions”, just copies and additions.
There’s only 1 layer of deltas: git only has look at 2 things to decompress a file, the original and the delta. It doesn’t need to look at 100 diffs or anything.
The “original file” isn’t necessarily from the previous commit, it could be anything. Maybe it could even be from a later commit? I’m not sure about that.
There’s no “right” algorithm for how to compute deltas, Git just has some approximate heuristics

what actually happens when you do a diff is kind of weird

When I run git show SOME_COMMIT to look at the diff for a commit, what
actually happens is kind of counterintuitive. My understanding is:

git looks in the packfiles and applies deltas to reconstruct the tree for that commit and for its parent.
git diffs the two directory trees (the current commit’s tree, and the parent commit’s tree). Usually this is pretty fast because almost all of
the files are exactly the same, so git can just compare the hashes of the identical files and do nothing almost all of the time.
finally git shows me the diff

So it takes deltas, turns them into a snapshot, and then calculates a diff. It
feels a little weird because it starts with a diff-like-thing and ends up with
another diff-like-thing, but the deltas and diffs are actually totally
different so it makes sense.

a “wrong” mental model for git: commits are diffs

I think a pretty common “wrong” mental model for Git is:

commits are stored as diffs from the previous commit (plus a pointer to the parent commit(s) and an author and message).
to get the current state for a commit, Git starts at the beginning and
replays all the previous commits

This model is obviously not true (in real life, commits are stored as
snapshots, and diffs are calculated from those snapshots), but it seems very
useful and coherent to me! It gets a little weird with merge commits, but maybe
you just say it’s stored as a diff from the first parent of the merge.

I think wrong mental models are often extremely useful, and this one doesn’t
seem very problematic to me for every day Git usage. I really like that it
makes the thing that we deal with the most often (the diff) the most
fundamental – it seems really intuitive to me.

I’ve also been thinking about other “wrong” mental models you can have about
Git which seem pretty useful like:

commit messages can be edited (they can’t really, actually you make a copy of the commit with a new message, and the old commit continues to exist)
commits can be moved to have a different base (similarly, they’re copied)

I feel like there’s a whole very coherent “wrong” set of ideas you can have
about git that are pretty well supported by Git’s UI and not very problematic
most of the time. I think it can get messy when you want to undo a change or
when something goes wrong though.

some advantages of “commit as diff”

Personally even though I know that in Git commits are snapshots, I probably think of them as diffs most of the time, because:

most of the time I’m concerned with the change I’m making – if I’m just
changing 1 line of code, obviously I’m mostly thinking about just that 1 line
of code and not the entire current state of the codebase
when you click on a Git commit on GitHub or use git show, you see the diff, so it’s just what I’m used to seeing
I use rebase a lot, which is all about replaying diffs

some advantages of “commit as snapshot”

I also think about commits as snapshots sometimes though, because:

it’s conceptually much easier to think about what git checkout COMMIT_ID is doing (the idea of replaying 10000 commits just feels stressful to me)
merge commits kind of make more sense to me as snapshots, because the merged
commit can actually be literally anything (it’s just a new snapshot!). It
helps me understand why you can make arbitrary changes when you’re resolving
a merge conflict, and why it’s so important to be careful about conflict

some other ways to think about commits

Some folks in the Mastodon replies also mentioned:

“extra” out-of-band information about the commit, like an email or a GitHub pull request or just a conversation you had with a coworker
thinking about a diff as a “before state + after state”
and of course, that lots of people think of commits in lots of different ways depending on the situation

that’s all for now!

It’s been very difficult for me to get a sense of what different mental models
people have for git. It’s especially tricky because people get really into
policing “wrong” mental models even though those “wrong” models are often
really useful, so folks are reluctant to share their “wrong” ideas for fear of
some Git Explainer coming out of the woodwork to explain to them why they’re
Wrong. (these Git Explainers are often well-intentioned, but it still has a chilling effect either way)

But I’ve been learning a lot! I still don’t feel totally clear about how I want to
talk about commits, but we’ll get there eventually.

Thanks to Marco Rogers, Marie Flanagan, and everyone on Mastodon for talking to
me about git commits.


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