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Find the culprit with git bisect

by Christof Jans | 2014-03-18

Suppose you are developing your application, merrily committing code when suddenly you realize that a bug has been introduced. You know for sure an earlier commit was correct but the last commit is not. The bug was introduced somewhere between these 2 commits, but where?

You could test every commit since the last known good commit, but if there are many commits this could take a long time. Suppose the last know good commit is called good, the first known bad commit is called bad and there are 100 commits in the interval [good,bad]. A linear search has to test (on average) 50 commits.

Luckily git has a built in tool to help you with this: git bisect. The bisect algorithm will find the commit that is in the 'middle' of good and bad (let's call it middle). If middle is determined to be good the interval is halved to [middle, bad], otherwise it's halved to [good, middle]. Since the interval is halved each time, only $$[ log_2 100 \approx 7 ]$$ tests are needed.

Here is how it works:

> git bisect start
> git bisect good f45f0a85
> git bisect bad 08ecc95d
Bisecting: 100 revisions left to test after this (roughly 7 steps)
[a167b78a47d89185a6450e41421b7aa936884fe1] added awesome sauce

git bisect starts the bisect task. git bisect good f45f0a85 tells git the SHA of the last known good commit. git bisect bad 08ecc95d tells git the SHA of the first known bad commit. Git will then check out a commit for you to test. You must inform git whether this commit is good or bad. If it's good, type:

git bisect good

If it's bad, type:

git bisect bad

Based on the information you give, git will keep halving the interval until the culprit is found.

a167b78a47d89185a6450e41421b7aa936884fe1 is the first bad commit
commit a167b78a47d89185a6450e41421b7aa936884fe1
Author: Christof Jans <christofjans@someplace.com>
Date:   Mon Mar 17 21:13:41 2014 -0400

small fix - no need to test

Git has found the culprit and gives you the hash, author date and message of the commit. Finally you can exit bisect mode with:

git bisect reset

Automating git bisect

git bisect drastically reduces the number of commits you have to test but you still have to manually test each commit. Luckily, git bisect supports scripting the test:

git bisect start bad_commit good_commit
git bisect run test_commit.sh

In this example test_commit.sh is a bash shell script to test if the commit is good or bad. If the commit is good the script should return 0, otherwise it should return a non-zero integer. Now git bisect will run fully automated. If you don't like writing bash shell scripts, you can just call a windows exe from the script:

"c:\path_to_exe\test_commit.exe"

Again, the .exe should return 0 if the commit is good and a non-zero integer if the commit is bad.

Conclusion

Git bisect is a powerful tool to find bad commits quickly. It can be run in interactive mode or fully automated. Also note that if you find yourself using git bisect all the time, you might want to consider integrating unit tests in your build ;)

Hope this helps.