Git/Github: Version Control and Branch Development

This section provides information about getting started with Git and Github and describes some mechanics of topic branch development on the Axom project. For most project work, we interact with our Git repository via our Github project.

If you are new to the Git or want to brush up on its features, there are several good sources of information available on the web:

SSH Keys

If you have not used Github before, you should start by creating and adding your SSH keys to Github. Github provides a good tutorial here. Performing these two simple steps will make it easier for you to interact with our Git repository without having to repeatedly enter login credentials.

Cloning the Repo

All development work on Axom is performed in a local workspace copy of the Git repository. To make a local workspace copy, you clone the repo into a directory that you will work in. This is done by typing:

$ git clone --recursive


You don’t need to remember the URL for the Axom repo above. It can be found by going to the Axom repo on our Github project and clicking on the ‘Clone or download’ button on the upper right hand corner above the source.

The ‘–recursive’ argument above is needed to pull in all Git submodules that we use in the project. In particular, you will need the BLT build system, which is a Git sub-module in Axom, in your local copy of the repo. In case you forget to pass the ‘–recursive’ argument to the ‘git clone’ command, you can type the following commands after cloning:

$ cd axom
$ git submodule init
$ git submodule update

Either way, the end result is the same and you are good to go.

Git Environment Support

After cloning, we recommend that you run the development setup script we provide in the top-level Axom directory to ensure that your Git environment is configured properly; i.e.,:

$ cd axom
$ ./scripts/

This script sets up several things we find useful, such as Git editor, aliases, client-side hooks, useful tips, etc.

You can also define your own aliases for common git commands to simplify your workflow. For example, the following sets up an alias for unstaging files:

$ git config alias.unstage 'reset HEAD--'

Then, the alias can be used as a regular Git command as illustrated below:

$ git unstage <file>

Moreover, you may want to tap in to some of your shell’s features to enhance your Git experience. Chief among the most notable and widely used features are:

  1. Git Completion, which allows tab-completion of Git commands and branch names.

  2. Prompt Customization, which allows modifying your prompt to indicate the current branch name, whether there are local changes, etc.

Git ships with contributed plugins for popular shells. Examples illustrating how to use these plugins in bash and tcsh/csh are given below.

Setting up your Bash Environment

If you are in Bash, you can set your environment as follows:

  1. Get the and auto-completion scripts from github

    $ wget
    $ wget
  2. Optionally, you may want to move the files to another location. Nominaly, folks put those as hidden files in their home directory

    $ mv $HOME/
    $ mv git-completion.bash $HOME/.git-completion.bash
  3. Add the following to your .bashrc

    source ~/
    source ~/.git-completion.bash
    ## Set your PS1 variable
    reset=$(tput sgr0)
    bold=$(tput bold)
    export PS1='[\w] \[$bold\]$(__git_ps1 " (%s)")\[$reset\]\n\[$bold\]\u@\h\[$reset\] > '

Setting up your tcsh/csh Environment

Likewise, if you are using tcsh/csh, you can do the following:

  1. Get the auto-completion scripts from github. Note, git-completion.tcsh makes calls to git-completion.bash, so you need to have both

    $ wget
    $ wget
  2. Optionally, you may want to move the files to another location. Nominally, folks put those as hidden files in their home directory

    $ mv git-completion.tcsh $HOME/.git-completion.tcsh
    $ mv git-completion.bash $HOME/.git-completion.bash
  3. Add the following to your .tcshrc or .cshrc

    source ~/.git-completion.tcsh
    ## Add alias to get the branch
    alias __git_current_branch 'git rev-parse --abbrev-ref HEAD >& /dev/null && echo "{`git rev-parse --abbrev-ref HEAD`}"'
    ## Set your prompt variable for example:
    alias precmd 'set prompt="%n@%m[%c2]`__git_current_branch` "'

Topic Branch Development

It is worth re-emphasizing a fundamental principle of the Gitflow development model that we described in Gitflow Branching Model.


We never work directly on the develop or main branches. All development occurs on topic branches.

When we refer to a topic branch, it could be a feature branch, a bugfix branch, etc. The basic workflow for performing development on a topic branch is:

  1. Create a topic branch off the develop branch and push the new branch to Github.

  2. Make changes and commit them to your branch in your local copy of the repository. Remember to push changes to the Github repo regularly for backup and so you can easily recover earlier versions of your work if you need to do so.

  3. If you are working on your topic branch for a while, it is a good idea to keep your topic branch current with the develop branch by merging develop into your topic branch regularly. This will simplify the process of merging your work into the develop branch when you are ready.

  4. When your work is complete (including required testing, documentation, etc.), create a pull request so others on the team can review your work. See Pull Requests and Code Reviews.

Here are some details about each of these steps.

Step 1 – Create a topic branch

Most development occurs on a topic branch created off the develop branch. Occasions where a branch is created from another branch, such as a ‘hotfix’ branch created off main, are described in Gitflow Branching Model. To create a branch in Git, provide the -b option to the git checkout command, followed by the name of your topic branch. A topic branch name should include your username (i.e., login id) and a brief description indicating the purpose of the branch. Typically, we label such branches using “feature”, “bugfix”, etc. to make it clear what type of work is being performed on a branch. For example,:

$ git checkout -b feature/<userid>/my-cool-new-feature
$ git push -u

You can also attach a Github issue number to the branch name if the work you will do on the branch is related to a issue. Then, Github will associate the issue with the commit when you merge your branch to the develop branch. For example,:

$ git checkout -b bugfix/<userid>/issue-atk-<issue #>
$ git push -u

Alternatively, if your branch addresses multiple issues, you should add the appropriate issue numbers (e.g., #374) to the messages in your commits that address them.

In each of these examples, the ‘git push -u’ command pushes the branch to the Github server and it will appear in the list of branches you and other developers can see there.

Step 2 – Do development work

After you’ve created a topic branch and pushed it to Github, perform your development work on it; i.e., edit files, add files, etc. Common commands you will use are:

$ git add <file>
$ git commit
$ git push

The ‘add’ command adds a file (or files) to be staged for a commit operation. The ‘commit’ command moves your staged changes to your local copy of the repository. The ‘push’ command pushes these changes to the topic branch in the Git repo. To push your work, you could also do:

$ git push origin

This is equivalent to ‘git push’ if you specified the ‘-u’ option when you originally pushed your topic branch when you created it.


You may perform several local commits before you push your work to the Github repo. Generally, it is a good idea to limit the amount of modifications contained in any one commit. By restricting individual commits to a reasonable size that contain closely related work, it is easier to refer back to specific changes you make when the need arises (as it inevitably will!). For example, if you regularly run your code through a formatting tool (we use clang-format on the Axom project), it is preferable to commit other content changes first and then commit formatting changes in a separate commit. That way, you can distinguish substance from cosmetic changes easily in the Git history.

Recall the Git environment setup script we recommended that you run after cloning the repo in the Cloning the Repo section above. One of the Git pre-commit hooks that the script sets up applies formatting constraints on the commit message you provide when you execute the ‘commit’ command. The constraints are recommended Git practices that help make it easier to use various tools with the Git version control system. Specifically:

  • Commit message subject line is at most 50 characters

  • Subject line and body of commit message are separated by a blank line

  • Main body of commit message is wrapped to 78 characters

Step 3 – Keep current with develop

If you will be working on your topic branch for a while, it is a good idea to merge changes (made by other developers) from the develop branch to your topic branch regularly. This will help avoid getting too far out of sync with the branch into which your work will be merged eventually. Otherwise, you may have many conflicts to resolve when you are ready to merge your topic branch into develop and the merge could be difficult.

Before you begin the merge, make sure all outstanding changes to your topic branch are committed. Then, make sure your local repo is up-to-date with the develop branch by checking it out and pulling in the latest changes; i.e.,:

$ git checkout develop
$ git pull

Next, checkout your topic branch and merge changes in from the develop branch, and check for conflicts:

$ git checkout <your topic branch>
$ git merge develop

The ‘merge’ command will tell you whether there are conflicts and which files have them. Hopefully, you will not see any conflicts and you can continue working on your topic branch. If there are conflicts, you must resolve them before you will be able to merge your topic branch to develop. So, you may as well resolve them right away. You can resolve them by editing the conflicting files and committing the changes. Merge conflicts appear in a file surrounded by lines with special characters on them. For example, if you open a conflicted file in an editor, you may see:

<<<<<<< HEAD
// lines of code, etc...
// more lines of code, etc...
>>>>>>> develop

The section above the ‘=======’ line are the file contents in the current branch head (your topic branch). The lines below are the contents of the develop branch that conflict with yours. To resolve the conflict, choose the correct version of contents you want and delete the other lines.

Alternatively, you can use a tool to help resolve your conflicts. The ‘git mergetool’ command helps you run a merge tool. One such tool is called “meld”, which is very powerful and intuitive. Diff tools like “tkdiff” are also helpful for resolving merge conflicts.


Git will not let you commit a file with merge conflicts. After you resolve merge conflicts in a file, you must stage the file for commit (i.e., git add <filename>), commit it (i.e., `git commit), and push it to the Github repo (i.e., git push) before you can merge.

Step 4 – Create a pull request

When your work is complete, and you are ready to merge your topic branch to the develop branch, you must initiate a pull request in Github. Go into the Axom Github project, select your branch, and click Create pull request in the left column. Make sure you select the correct destination branch. The default destination branch in our project is set up to be the develop branch. So, in most cases, you won’t have to do anything special.

You must also select appropriate team members to review changes. Our Github project is set up to require at least one other developer to approve the pull request before a merge.


You cannot approve your own pull request.

When your pull request is approved (see Code Review Checklist for more information), you merge your topic branch to the develop branch by clicking the “merge” button in Github. If there are no merge conflicts, the merge will proceed and you are done. If there are conflicts, Github will indicate this and will not let you merge until all conflicts are resolved.

The preferred way to resolve conflicts at this point is to go into your topic branch and do the following:

$ git fetch origin
$ git merge origin

The ‘fetch’ command pulls changes from the remote branch into your local branch. Running the ‘merge’ command will show which files have conflicts. Fix the conflicts as described in Step 3 – Keep current with develop. After all conflicts are resolved, run the ‘commit’ and ‘push’ commands as usual:

$ git commit
$ git push

Lastly, complete the merge in Github by clicking the merge button.


To keep things tidy, please delete your topic branch in Github after it is merged if you no longer need it for further development. Github provides an option to automatically delete the source branch of a merge after the merge is complete. Alternatively, you can click on the Github branches tab and manually delete the branch.

Checking Out an Existing Branch

When working on multiple branches, or working on one with someone else on the team, you will need to checkout a specific branch. Any existing branch can be checked out from the Git repository. Here are some useful commands:

$ git fetch
$ git branch -a
$ git checkout <branch name>

The ‘fetch’ command retrieves new work committed by others on branches you may have checked out, but without merging those changes into your local copies of those branches. You will need to merge branches if you want changes from one branch to be moved into another. The ‘branch’ command lists all available remote branches. The ‘checkout’ command checks out the specified branch into your local working space.


You do not give the ‘-b’ option when checking out an existing branch. This option is only used when creating a new branch.

Here is a concrete example:

$ git branch -a | grep homer
$ git checkout feature/homer/pick-up-bart
  Branch feature/homer/pick-up-bart set up to track remote branch feature/homer/pick-up-bart
  Switched to a new branch 'feature/homer/pick-up-bart'