Thoughts on Mercurial (and Git)

May 12, 2013 at 12:00 PM | categories: Mozilla, Mercurial, Git | View Comments

My first experience with Mercurial (Firefox development) was very unpleasant. Coming from Git, I thought Mercurial was slow and perhaps even more awkward to use than Git. I frequently encountered repository corruption that required me to reclone. I thought the concept of a patch queue was silly compared to Git branches. It was all extremely frustrating and I dare say a hinderance to my productivity. It didn't help that I was surrounded by a bunch of people who had previous experience with Git and opined about every minute difference.

Two years later and I'm on much better terms with Mercurial. I initially thought it might be Stockholm Syndrome, but after reflection I can point at specific changes and enlightenments that have reshaped my opinions.

Newer versions of Mercurial are much better

I first started using Mercurial in the 1.8 days and thought it was horrible. However, modern releases are much, much better. I've noticed a steady improvement in the quality and speed of Mercurial in the last few years.

If you aren't running 2.5 or later (Mercurial 2.6 was released earlier this month), you should take the time to upgrade today. When you upgrade, you should of course read the changelog and upgrade notes so you can make the most of the new features.

Proper configuration is key

For my workflow, the default configuration of Mercurial out of the box is... far from optimal. There are a number of basic changes that need to be made to satisfy my expectations for a version control tool.

I used to think this was a shortcoming with Mercurial: why not ship a powerful and useful environment out of the box? But, after talking to a Mercurial core contributor, this is mostly by design. Apparently a principle of the Mercurial project is that the CLI tool (hg) should be simple by default and should minimize foot guns. They view actions like rebasing and patch queues as advanced and thus don't have them enabled by default. Seasoned developers may scoff at this. But, I see where Mercurial is coming from. I only need to refer everyone to her first experience with Git as an example of what happens when you don't aim for simplicity. (I've never met a Git user who didn't think it overly complicated at first.)

Anyway, to get the most out of Mercurial, it is essential to configure it to your liking, much like you install plugins or extensions in your code editor.

Every person running Mercurial should go to http://mercurial.selenic.com/wiki/UsingExtensions and take the time to find extensions that will make your life better. You should also run hg help hgrc to view all the configuration options. There is a mountain of productivity wins waiting to be realized.

For reference, my ~/.hgrc. Worth noting are some of the built-in externsions I've enabled:

  • color - Colorize terminal output. Clear UX win.
  • histedit - Provides git rebase --interactive behavior.
  • pager - Feed command output into a pager (like less). Clear UX win.
  • progress - Draw progress bars on long-running operations. Clear UX win.
  • rebase - Ability to easily rebase patches on top of other heads. This is a basic feature of patch management.
  • transplant - Easily move patches between repositories, branches, etc.

If I were on Linux, I'd also use the inotify extension, which installs filesystem watchers so operations like hg status are instantaneous.

In addition to the built-in extensions, there are a number of 3rd party extensions that improve my Mozilla workflow:

  • mqext - Automatically commit to your patch queue when you qref, etc. This is a lifesaver. If that's not enough, it suggests reviewers for your patch, suggests a bug component, and let's you find bugs touching the files you are touching.
  • trychooser - Easily push changes to Mozilla's Try infrastructure.
  • qimportbz - Easily import patches from Bugzilla.
  • bzexport - Easily export patches to Bugzilla.

I'm amazed more developers don't use these simple productivity wins. Could it be that people simply don't realize they are available?

Mozilla has a bug tracking easier configuration of the user's Mercurial environment. My hope is one day people simply run a single command and get a Mozilla-optimized Mercurial environment that just works. Along the same vein, if your extensions are out of date, it prompts you to update them. This is one of the benefits of a unified developer tool like mach: you can put these checks in one place and everyone can reap the benefits easily.

Mercurial is extensible

The major differentiator from almost every other version control system (especially Git) is the ease and degree to which Mercurial can be extended and contorted. If you take anything away from this post it should be that Mercurial is a flexible and agile tool.

If you want to change the behavior of a built-in command, you can write an extension that monkeypatches that command. If you want to write a new command, you can of course do that easily. You can have extensions interact with one another - all natively. You can even override the wire protocol to provide new capabilities to extend how peers communicate with one another. You can leverage this to transfer additional metadata or data types. This has nearly infinite potential. If that's not enough, it's possible to create a new branching/development primitive through just an extension alone! If you want to invent Git-style branches with Mercurial, you could do that! It may require client and server support, but it's possible.

Mercurial accomplishes this by being written (mostly) in Python (as opposed to C) and by having a clear API on which extensions can be built. Writing extensions in Python is huge. You can easily drop into the debugger to learn the API and your write-test loop is much smaller.

By contrast, most other version control systems (including Git) require you to parse output of commands (this is the UNIX piping principle). Mercurial supports this too, but the native Python API is so much more powerful. Instead of parsing output, you can just read the raw values from a Python data structure. Yes please.

Since I imagine a lot of people at Mozilla will be reading this, here are some ways Mozilla could leverage the extensibility of Mercurial:

  • Command to create try pushes (it exists - see above).
  • Record who pushed what when (we have this - it's called the pushlog).
  • Command to land patches. If inbound1 is closed, automatically rebase on inbound2. etc. This could even be monkeypatched into hg push so pushes to inbound are automatically intercepted and magic ensues.
  • Record the automation success/fail status against individual revisions and integrate with commands (e.g. only pull up to the most recent stable changeset).
  • Command to create a review request for a patch or patch queue.
  • Command to assist with reviews. Perhaps a reviewer wants to make minor changes. Mercurial could download and apply the patch(es), wait for your changes, then reupload to Bugzilla (or the review tool) automatically.
  • Annotating commits or pushes with automation info (which jobs to run, etc).
  • Find Bugzilla component for patch (it exists - see above).
  • Expose custom protocol for configuring automation settings for a repository or a head. e.g. clients (with access) could reconfigure PGO scheduling, coalescing, etc without having to involve RelEng - useful for twigs and lesser used repositories.
  • So much more.

Essentially, Mercurial itself could become the CLI tool code development centers around. Whether that is a good idea is up for debate. But, it can. And that says a lot about the flexibility of Mercurial.

Future potential of Mercurial

When you consider the previous three points, you arrive at a new one: Mercurial has a ton of future potential. The fact that extensions can evolve vanilla Mercurial into something that resembles Mercurial in name only is a testament to this.

When I sat down with a Mercurial core contributor, they reinforced this. To them, Mercurial is a core library with a limited set of user-facing commands forming the stable API. Since core features (like storage) are internal APIs (not public commands - like Git), this means they aren't bound to backwards compatibility and can refactor internals as needed and evolve over time without breaking the world. That is a terrific luxury.

An example of this future potential is changeset evolution. If you don't know what that is, you should because it's awesome. One of the things they figured out is how to propagate rebasing between clones!

Comparing to Git

Two years ago I would have said I would never opt to use Mercurial over Git. I cannot say that today.

I do believe Git still has the advantage over Mercurial in a few areas:

  • Branch management. Mercurial branches are a non-starter for light-weigh work. Mercurial bookmarks are kinda-sorta like Git branches, but not quite. I really like aspects of Git branches. Hopefully changeset evolution will cover the remaining gaps and more.
  • Patch conflict management. Git seems to do a better job of resolving patch conflicts. But, I think this is mostly due to Mercurial's patch queue extension not using the same merge code as built-in commands (this is a fixable problem).
  • Developer mind share and GitHub. The GitHub ecosystem makes up for many of Git's shortcomings. Bitbucket isn't the same.

However, I believe Mercurial has the upper hand for:

  • Command line friendliness. Git's command line syntax is notoriously awful and the concepts can be difficult to master.
  • Extensibility. It's so easy to program custom workflows and commands with Mercurial. If you want to hack your version control system, Mercurial wins hands down. Where Mercurial embraces extensibility, I couldn't even find a page listing all the useful Git extensions!
  • Open source culture. Every time I've popped into the Mercurial IRC channel I've had a good experience. I get a response quickly and without snark. Git by contrast, well, let's just say I'd rather be affiliated with the Mercurial crowd.
  • Future potential. Git is a content addressable key-value store with a version control system bolted on top. Mercurial is designed to be a version control system. Furthermore, Mercurial's code base is much easier to hack on than Git's. While Git has largely maintained feature parity in the last few years, Mercurial has grown new features. I see Mercurial evolving faster than Git and in ways Git cannot.

It's worth calling out the major detractors for each.

I think Git's major weakness is its lack of extensibility and inability to evolve (at least currently). Git will need to grow a better extensibility model with better abstractions to compete with Mercurial on new features. Or, the Git community will need to be receptive to experimental features living in the core. All of this will require some major API breakage. Unfortunately, I see little evidence this will occur. I'm unable to find a vision document for the future of Git, a branch with major new features, or interesting threads on the mailing list. I tried to ask in their IRC channel and got crickets.

I think Mercurial's greatest weakness is lack of developer mindshare. Git and GitHub are where it's at. This is huge, especially for projects wanting collaboration.

Of all those points, I want to stress the extensibility and future potential of Mercurial. If hacking your tools to maximize potential and awesomeness is your game, Mercurial wins. End of debate. However, if you don't want to harness these advantages, then I think Git and Mercurial are mostly on equal footing. But given the rate of development in the Mercurial project and relative stagnation of Git (I can't name a major new Git feature in years), I wouldn't be surprised if Mercurial's feature set obviously overtakes Git's in the next year or two. Mind share will of course take longer and will likely depend on what hosting sites like GitHub and Bitbucket do (I wouldn't be surprised if GitHub rebranded as CodeHub or something some day). Time will tell.

Extending case study

I have removed the case study that appeared in the original article because as Mike Hommey observed in the comments, it wasn't a totally accurate comparison. I don't believe the case study significantly added much to the post, so I likely won't write a new one.

Conclusion

From where I started with Mercurial, I never thought I'd say this. But here it goes: I like Mercurial.

I started warming up when it became faster and more robust in recent versions in the last few years. When I learned about its flexibility and the fundamentals of the project and thus its future potential, I became a true fan.

It's easy to not like Mercurial if you are a new user coming from Git and are forced to use a new tool. But, once you take the time to properly configure it and appreciate it for what it is and what it can be, Mercurial is easy to like.

I think Mercurial and Git are both fine version control systems. I would happily use either one for a new project. If the social aspects of development (including encouraging new contributors) were important to me, I would likely select Git and GitHub. But, if I wanted something just for me or I was a large project looking for a system that scales and is flexible or was looking to the future, I'd go with Mercurial.

Mercurial is a rising star in the version control world. It's getting faster and better and enabling others to more easily innovate through powerful extensions. The future is bright for this tool.

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