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Git and GitHub Basics

This document summarize the subset of git concepts required for doing the hands-on lab sessions in my UPC courses. Let me stress again the importance of hands on practice while you are exploring new course content. My recommentation is that you should read this guide on a computer and try to follow along.

1. Getting Started

Git is a free and open source distributed version control system (started (in 2005 by Linus Torvald) designed to handle everything from small to very large code projects. With git, users keep entire code files on their location machines. However git keeps a historical record of the files in your codebase, as well as manage workflows that allow teams of programmers to work together and allowing them to revert any changes and go back to a previous code version. For this purpouse git, store the files into a repository that is typically hosted on G+. GitHub took the git program and connected the people and code over the web, creating an eco-system and user interface for software projects that we can 'touch'.

Before to start it is important to clarify some key concepts:

  • Snapshot is the way git keeps track of our code history recording what our files look like at a given point in time. We can decide when to take a snapshot and go back to visit any previous snapshot.

  • Commit refers to the act of creating a snapshot. Essentially, a project in GitHub is made up of a bunch of commits. Basically a commit contain 3 pieces of information: information about how the files changed from previous snapshot, a reference to the commit that came before it (called the parent commit) and a hash code name to identify the commit.

  • Repository, often shortened to repo, refers the collection of all the files, the history of those files and all the commits. A repository can live in our local machine, referenced as a our local repository, or on a remote on GitHub's servers, named remote repository.

  • The action of downloading commits that don’t exist on our local repository from a remote repository is called pulling changes. The process of adding our local changes to the remote repository is called pushing changes.


2. Getting Started with Git

2.1. Installing git

In order to intalling git you can visit the git download page and run the installer for your operating system.

You can verify that git is working from the command line:

$ git --version

You should see something like git version 2.7.4, that indicates the intalled version.

In this hands-on we will be using the command line to interact with git repositories. There are also graphical user interface, or GUI, applications available for viewing and maintaining your repositories from Windows, Linux or OSX.

2.2. git init

To start, let's create a new directory called git_local_repository and add a few files to it.

$ mkdir git_local_repository
$ cd git_local_repository
git_local_repository $ echo '# README #' >
git_local_repository $ echo '# LICENSE #' >

As an example we created the files and, both are included in the root directory of many open source projects.

Markdown format

These particular files use the markdown format that allows to create sophisticated formatting for your prose (and code on GitHub) with simple syntax. For example:

  • To create a heading, add one to six # symbols before your heading text. The number of # you use will determine the size of the heading.
  • To indicate emphasis with bold use ** before and after the selected text.
  • To indicate emphasis with italic use * before and after the selected text.
  • You can quote text with a >.
  • You can call out code or a command within a sentence with single backticks `. The text within the backticks will not be formatted.
  • To format code or text into its own distinct block, use triple backticks.
  • We can create an inline link by wrapping link text in brackets [ ], and then wrapping the URL in parentheses ( ).
  • We can make a list by preceding one or more lines of text with - or * . To order the list, precede each line with a number.
  • We can create a new paragraph by leaving a blank line between lines of text.

For more information, see Daring Fireball's "Markdown Syntax".

Now we can create a local repository with the following command:

git_local_repository $ git init

We should see something like Initialized empty Git repository in git_local_repository/.git/as an output that indicates that you have created a new repository in your current directory. Internally a .git directory was added to local directory as you can check with:

git_local_repository $ ls -a
.       ..      .git

That turns that directory into a git repository. This .git hidden directory will contain all of the configuration and metadata necessary for git to keep track of our files and the changes that we make to them.

Usually we will want to store our identity information which tells all git repositories in our system our name/email, which will be applied to each commit. Type the following into the command line, replacing the fake identity with your own:

git_local_repository $ git config --global "JordiTorresBCN"
git_local_repository $ git config --global

After we initialize a directory as a git repository, we can then start issuing other git commands. Warning, do not nest repositories.

2.3. Add & commit

Our local repository consists of three "trees" maintained by git. the first one is your Working Directory which holds the actual files. the second one is the Index which acts as a staging area and finally the HEAD which points to the last commit we have made.

You can propose changes (add it to the Index) using git add <filename>( or git add * ). This is the first step in the basic git workflow. To actually commit these changes use git commit -m "Commit message". Now the file is committed to the HEAD of your local working directory (but not in your remote repository yet).


In our case we can execute:

git_local_repository $ git add
git_local_repository $ git commit -m "first commit"

Notice that we do not add file intentionally, in order to show the differences. Sometimes git repositories will have private data that you do not want shared (unintentionally added for instance). That is what the .gitignore file is for. This file is a list of files and/or directories that you do not want included in your repository. Git will not allow you to add any of the files referenced in the file .gitignore to your repository.

2.4. Branching

Branching is a powerful mechanism in any repository tool that allows developers to veer off into a tangential or experimental direction, without affecting the main codebase.

In git, a branch is a copy of all the files in your codebase. Each branch has an identifying name and its own set of version or commit history. When you create a new repository, the default branch is called master. Even if you do not create any additional branches, you'll be performing all git commands on a branch called master (it is the "default" branch when we create a repository).

To create a branch, we fork it from another existing branch, likely master. Then we switch to the newly forked branch and start working inside the new branch. The new experimental branch will contain all the historical changes in the master branch up to the point of the fork. That is, the two branches do not stay in sync automatically going forward. In the case we decide to discard that experimental branch, we can simply delete it. On the other hand, if we want to keep the code we can merge commits from the experimental branch into our master branch.


To create a new branch named "feature_x" and switch to it using git checkout -b feature_x. In order to switch back to master git checkout master and delete the branch again git branch -d feature_x.

In order to merge another branch into your active branch (e.g. master), use git merge <branch>. Git tries to auto-merge changes. Unfortunately (and obviously), this is not always possible and results in conflicts. You are responsible to merge those conflicts manually by editing the files shown by git. After changing, you need to mark them as merged with git add <filename>. Before merging changes, you can also preview them by using git diff <source_branch> <target_branch>.

3. Getting Started with GitHub

3.1. Creating a GitHub account

Github offers free accounts for users and organizations working on public and open source projects, as well as paid accounts that offer unlimited private repositories.

Now that you have set up your GitHub account, it is time to learn how to use it. Whenever you are logged in to the GitHub website, you will see a plus icon in the upper right corner. When you click on that, you will see a menu that includes a New Repository link. Click on that link. Choosing a repository name comes next (if we have spaces in our repo name, GitHub will automatically replace them with hyphens).

In this hands-on, we are going to create a remote repository on GitHub where we can push the local repository that we created previously (our local and remote repos do not have to have the same name). We can decide if our repo is public or private.

The next important thing we need to look at is the Initialize this repository with a README checkbox. This is a very important step in creating our remote repo. If we check the box, it will automatically create and commit a README file in our remote repo. We will usually create our local repo first, so we will not check this box in this case (this is the case of our example in this hands-on).

3.2. Connecting local repository to Github repository

Now you should see instructions (similar to the following screenshot) on how to connect your local repository in your computer to the remote one you just created on GitHub.

Connecting local repository to Github repository

Looking at just the first option, the set of git commands should look very familiar, we have already done the first four commands. We only need to perform the last two commands in order to link our local repository with the remote one.

Remember that your changes are in the HEAD of your local working copy. To send those changes to your remote repository, you need to add it with git remote add origin <server>. Now we are able to push our changes to the selected remote server:

git_local_repository $ git remote add origin

Before we move on, let's take a look at the command we just executed. The primary git command we issued is git remote to work with remote repositories. If we just issued git remote by itself, git will list all the remote repositories that your local repository knows about. If we pass additional sub-commands to the git remote command, we can further add, remove, and modify the remote GitHub repository that your local repository is linked to. The parameters origin and refer to the remote repository. In particular origin is an alias that we will use locally to interact with this remote repository and indicates the URL of remote repository. If you open .git/config in a text editor, you will see how git stores the information we just added.

We are ready to push our code to GitHub with:

git_local_repository $ git push -u origin master

Here, origin is the alias of remote repository indicated before and master indicates the remote repository branch.

If we have never pushed to GitHub before, we will now be seeing a login prompt, and we are required to introduce our GitHub username and password. If you're following along from the previous sections, your output should read similar as follows:

Username for '': jorditorresBCN
Password for '': 
Counting objects: 3, done.
Writing objects: 100% (3/3), 236 bytes | 0 bytes/s, done.
Total 3 (delta 0), reused 0 (delta 0)
 * [new branch]      master -> master
Branch master set up to track remote branch master from origin.

After a successfully login, we will see a message saying that our objects have been written. We will also see a message saying that we have set up our local master branch to track the remote master branch (thanks to the -u flag).

As a result we have in our remote GitHub account our files added with git add, in our case only README.mdfile.


Sometimes the code in our remote repository will contain commits we do not have in your local repository (for example because we work on a team or we made a change to a file directly on In those situations, we will need to pull the commits from the remote repository into our local repository with the command:

git_local_repository $ git pull origin master

3.3. Branching

It is important to be aware that branches can exist both locally and on remote repositories. A branch is not available to others unless you push the branch to your remote repository git push origin <branch>.

If you want to update your local repository to the newest commit, execute

git_local_repository $ git pull

in your working directory to fetch and merge remote changes. In order to merge another branch into your active branch (e.g. master), use git merge <branch>.

4. Git clone

So far, we have been talking about connecting an existing remote repository with an existing local repository. But what if we don't have an existing local repository, and just want to pull down all the contents of a remote repository? In this case we can use git cloneto make an exact clone of an existing remote repository in our local repository. The git clone command has several options, but most of the time we will only consider its basic usage git clone <remote_repository_url> <local_directory_path>.

git clone is used mainly when we need to work with a remote repository, and do not yet have a local repository created. This is the case of many of the hands-on suggested in this course. For this reason we will use git clonein almost all laboratory hands-on sessions. For instance, assume that the documentation of today hands-on is at (our today example). Here's what it looks like in action:

$ pwd
$ git clone hands-on_lab
Cloning into 'hands-on_lab'...
remote: Counting objects: 3, done.
remote: Total 3 (delta 0), reused 3 (delta 0), pack-reused 0
Unpacking objects: 100% (3/3), done.
Checking connectivity... done.
$ ls
$ cd hands-on_lab/
hands-on_lab $ ls -a
.       ..      .git
hands-on_lab $ 

As you can see a new local git repository was created in a directory called hands-on_lab. All content from the remote repository were downloaded into the newly created local repository. Finally, indicate that a remote was added to the local repository's configuration, pointing to the remote repository URL, aliased as origin. This is the same thing as issuing git remote add origin from within the local repository directory.

5. To go into more detail

An excellent book is the Pro Git book, written by Scott Chacon and Ben Straub and published by Apress. It is available here (pdf, epub, mobi, html). All content is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 license. Print versions of the book are available on

Now, we are ready to start a new hands-on. Enjoy!