Versioning Personal Configuration Dotfiles

For almost two months now I’ve been versioning all my personal dotfiles in Git. Just as when I did the same with Emacs, it’s been extremely liberating and I wish I had been doing this for years. Currently it covers 11 different applications including my web browser, shell, window manager, and cryptographic keys, giving me a unified experience across all of my machines — which, between home, work, and virtual computers is about half a dozen.

Like anything, the biggest problem with not versioning these files is introducing changes. If I add an interesting tweak to a dotfile, I won’t see that change on my other machines until I either copy it over or I enter it manually again. Because I’d worry about clobbering other unpropagated changes, it was usually the latter. Only changes I could commit to memory would propagate. Any tweak that wasn’t easy to duplicate manually I couldn’t rely on, so I was discouraged from customizing too much and relied mostly on defaults. This is bad!

Source control solves almost all of this trivially. If I notice a pattern in my habits or devise an interesting configuration, I can immediately make the change, commit it, and push it. Later, when I’m on another computer and I notice it missing, I just do a pull without needing to worry about clobbering any local changes. When moving onto a new computer/install, all I need to do is clone the repository and I’ve got every configuration I have without having the snoop around the last computer I used figuring out what to copy over.

Most of the applications I prefer have tidy, manually-editable dotfiles that version well, so I would be able to capture almost my entire environment. One near-exception was Firefox. By itself, it doesn’t play well, but since I use Pentadactyl I’m able to configure it cleanly like a proper application.

The last straw that triggered my dotfiles repository was managing my Bash aliases. It had gotten just long enough that I was tired of manually synchronizing them. It was finally time to invest some time into nipping this in the bud once and for all. Unsure what approach to take, I looked around to see what other people were doing. There are two basic approaches: version your entire home directory or symbolically link your dotfiles into place from a stand-alone repository.

The first approach is straightforward but has a number of issues that make it a poor choice. You don’t need an install script or anything special, you just use your home directory.

git init
git add .bashrc .gitconfig ...

The first problem is that most the files Git sees you do not want to version. These are all going to show up in the status listing and, because there’s no pattern to them, there’s really no way to filter them out with a .gitconfig. Any other clones you have in your home directory may also confuse Git, looking like submodules. You’ll have to dodge this extra stuff all the time when working in the repository.

The second problem is that Git has only only one .git directory, in the repository root. If there’s no .git in the current directory, it will keep searching upwards until it finds one … which will inevitably be your dotfiles repository. This will eventually lead to annoying mistakes where you accidentally commit work to your dotfiles repository for awhile until you notice you forgot a git init. A possible workaround is to keep the .git directory out of your home directory and use the environment variable GIT_DIR to tell Git where it is when you’re working on it. That sounds like a pain to me.

The other approach is to have your dotfiles repository cloned on its own, then use symlinks to put the configuration files into place. You need to write an install script to do this. However, not all configuration files are sitting directly in your home directory. Some have their own directory. Modern applications have moved into a directory under ~/.config/. Your script needs to handle these.

Why symlinks rather than just copying the file into place? Well, if you make any changes to the installed files, Git won’t see them and you risk losing those changes.

Why symlinks rather than hard links? Symlinks deal with the atomic replacement issue better. Conscientious applications are very careful about how they write your data to disk. Unless it’s some kind of database, files are never edited in-place. The application rewrites the entire file at once. If the application is stupid and overwrites the file directly, there’s a brief instant where you data is not on disk at all! First, it truncates the original file, deleting your data, then it rewrites the data, and, if it’s not too stupid, calls fsync() to force the write to the hardware. It’s stupid, but it will work with symlinks.

The conscientious application will write the data to a temporary file, call fsync() (well, sort of), then atomically rename() the new file over top the original file. If there’s any failure along the way, some intact version of the data will be on the disk. The problem is that this will replace your symlink and changes won’t be captured by the repository. Such an incident will be obvious with symlinks, since the file will no longer be a symlink. Hard links are much less obvious.

Smart applications, like Emacs, also know not to clobber your symlinks and will handle these writes properly, leaving the symlink intact. With hard links, there is no way for the application to know it needs to treat a file specially.

I figured that I could use someone else’s install script, so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting this right. Since Ruby is so popular with Git, many people are using Rake for this task. However, I want to be able to maintain the install script myself and I don’t know Rake. I also don’t want to depend on anything unusual to install my dotfiles. So that was out.

Second, I don’t want to have to specifically list the files to install, or not install, in the script. Don’t put the same information in two places when one will do. This script should be able to tell on its own what files to install.

Third, I didn’t want my dotfiles to actually be dotfiles in my repository. It makes them hard to see and manage, since they’re hidden. They’re much easier to handle when the dot is replaced with an underscore.

So I wrote my own install script which installs any file beginning with an underscore. I’ve since added support for “private” dotfiles along the way. These are dotfiles that contain sensitive information and are encrypted in the repository, allowing me to continue publishing it safely. I’ll elaborate in a future post.

If you’d like to create your own dotfiles repository, my dotfile repository may not be useful beyond standing as an example but my install script may be directly reusable for you.

There’s a lot to talk about, so I’ll be making a few more posts about this.

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Chris Wellons