Ranting about Mercurial (hg) (part 1)

     The day I got a grip of git, I fell in love with it. Yes, I am talking about the famous distributed version control application: git. I was a happy Subversion (svn) user before discovering git. The day to day workflow with git and the way git worked made me hate Subversion. I was totally head over heels in love with git.

     I have come to a point where the first thing I do when I am about to start a new project is to start a git repository for that project. Why? Because it is so easy and conveneient to do. I really like the git workflow and the little tools that come with it. I know that people who complain about git often lament about its lack of good, proper GUI front-ends. While the state of GUI front-ends for git has improved incredibly and drastically over the years, I consider myself a happy command-line user of git. All my interactions with git happen on the command-line. And, I will admit, it does not slow me down or hinder my progress or limit me in any way in what I do. I have managed fairly large projects on git from the command-line, and let me tell you, if you are not afraid of working on the command-line, it is extremely manageable. However, I understand that a lot of people run away from the command-line as if it were the plague. For those people, there are some really good git GUI front-ends available.

     I have to admit that for someone coming from no version control background or centralized version control background (such as Subversion or CVS), the learning curve to git could turn out to be a litle steep. I know that it was for me, especially when it came to getting to grips with concepts involving pushing, pulling, rebasing, merging, etc. I don’t think I will be off-base here to think that a good number of people who use version control software for fairly basic tasks are afraid of merge conflicts in code when collaborating code. I know I was always afraid of it, until I actually finally faced a merge conflict for the first time. That was the last time I felt afraid of it, because I was surprised to find out how easy it was to deal with and (possibly) resolve merge conflicts. There’s no rocket science to it.

     I have been plenty impressed with git that I wince when I am forced to use any other version control. In fact, I refuse to use Subversion, as an example, and try my best to convince people to move to git. Why? Because git is just that good. I should probably point the reader to this lovely article that puts down severals reasons that explain why git is better that a number of other popular version control applications out there.

     Recently, at work, I have had to deal with the beast they call Mercurial (hg). Yes, it is another famous distributed version control system out there. I was furious at the decision of my peers to select Mercurial for work-related use, and tried my best to convince them to use git instead, but they didn’t give in to my attempts to persaude them. I had no choice but to unwilling embrace the beast and work with it.

     Instantly, I had big gripes with the way Mercurial worked as well as its general workflow. Where I fell in love with how git tracked content and not files, I hated the fact that Mercurial only tracked files. What I mean by that is if you add a file in a Mercurial repository to be tracked and commit it, and then make any changes to the file, Mercurial would automatically add it to the staging commit. Yes, it wouldn’t let you specify manually which files that were changed should be part of the staging commit, something that git does. A staging commit is a staging area where files that have been changed and have been selected to be part of the next commit are loaded to be ready for commit. With git, you have to manually specify which file to add to the staging commit. And I loved doing it that way. With Mercurial, this was done automatically. This in turn brings me to the second big gripe I had with Mercurial: incremental commits. Git workflow places an indirect emphasis on incremental commits. What are incremental commits? In the version control world, it is considered best practice to perform a commit that is as small as possible and that does not break any existing functionality. So, if for example, you have made changes to ten files to add five different functionalities, that may be independent of each other, but would only like to commit one functionality at a time. That is where incremental commits come in action. With incremental commits, you specify only the files you want to be committed and commit them, instead of committing all the changed files in a bunch and add a general purpose commit message. Incremental commits is a big win for me, and I adore that feature. Because with git you had to manually specify which of the changed files you wanted in the staging commit area, incremental commits came easily and naturally. With Mercurial, where it automatically added all changes to tracked files into the staging commit area, it did not.

     So I asked the obvious question: How do we do incremental commits with Mercurial? Aftering sifting through the logs, I found out that it was indeed possible, but in a very ugly way. The Mercurial commit command takes an extra parameter, -I, that can be used to specify which files explicity to make part of the commit. But that wasn’t it. If you had, say, five files of the ten changed files you wanted to commit, you would have to tag the -I switch behind each of those files, otherwise, Mercurial will fail to include the files in the commit. To this day, this little quirk bites me every now and then.

     I will admit that the one thing I really liked about Mercurial was the built-in web server it came with that could provide a web-based interface to your Mercurial repositories for viewing. This was something that was missing from or quite difficult to do with git. And, this was also one of the biggest reasons why my peers at work decided to go with Mercurial for. They all wanted a convenient way to access the repositories over the web.

To be continued.