Github Pull Requests


Stefan Hajnoczi recently posted about clean commit history.

It’s a controversial viewpoint that not everyone agrees with - there is a sizable population in favour of “never rewrite history”. For me, though, the points he makes there are totally correct: each commit should be a logical change, main (neé master) should stay green, and CI should pass at every single point in main's history. More than just CI though: regardless of whether it passes CI, the main branch should be of good quality at all times, if you want to avoid the Quality Death Spiral.

Unfortunately, Github pull requests make this model a little difficult for a few reasons:

You can’t ever rebase a PR undergoing review

It’s important that a non-draft PR is never rebased, or re-written in any way. Why? Well, aside from making it difficult for a reviewer to see what’s changed since last looking, if you rebase, the commits previously on the PR disappear off into reflog hyperspace.

The View Changes button on review comments is attached to that particular commit hash, which is no longer in the history for that branch, and you get the dreaded:

We went looking everywhere, but couldn’t find those commits.

Note that if your PR is still a draft, you’re fine to edit the history whichever way you like: in fact, it’s often useful for review purposes to have multiple commits even at the start of a PR review before you move it from draft. Up to you.

The only other safe time to rebase is on final approach. At that point, presuming you are keeping to the “single main commit per PR” approach (see below), you’ll be wanting to squash the entire branch history into a single commit to main. For this, I usually use prr: it’s handy for picking up Reviewed-by automatically, and merging commit comments together for final editing.

Github CI only runs on branch tips

You probably don’t want to have a PR where you’re going to merge more than one commit into main. This is because CI only runs on the top-level commit: if an ancestor commit breaks the build, you’ll never know. Stefan mentions using git rebase --exec for checking commits in a stack, which indeed works great, but unless you’re running exactly the same CI that’s running under Github Actions, you can’t rely on it.

If that’s the case, what if you have one or more changes that depend on another? This is where “stacked PRs” come in, and they’re a bit of a pain…

Stacked PRs are cumbersome

Gerrit has a really useful model for reviewing stacks of changes: instead of the full history, each “patchset” corresponds to the single logical change Stefan talks about above. Every time you push to Gerrit, you’re supposed to have collapsed and rebased additional changes into single commits corresponding to each Gerrit CR. The model has some disadvantages as well (in particular, it’s a bit of a pain to keep a full history locally), but the Gerrit review UI doesn’t suffer from the rebasing issues Github does1.

Presuming - as there is no CI available - gerrithub is a non-starter, the only option available on Github is to use multiple PRs. This is better than it used to be, but is still a little painful.

Essentially, a stacked PR is one that’s opened not against the main branch, but against another PR branch. Say we have changes A and B, where B is dependent on A. You’d create a local branch with A, then push it to Github and open a PR. You’d have another local branch with A and B, then push that branch to Github and open a separate PR.

Now we need to make the B PR be based against the A PR. You can do this via the web UI by clicking Edit, though there is annoying bug here: it doesn’t reset the title and description. You can use gh pr create --base ... to avoid this problem.

Now, in the second PR, you’ll just see the commit for B. Each PR can be reviewed separately, and each PR gets its own CI run.

You also might want to merge additional changes up the stack. Let’s say that you have commit A2 on the A PR, that you want in PR B and C: the best - if rather tedious - way to do this, is to merge A into B, then B into C. That’s a lot of merge commits, but remember we’re squashing a PR every time before merging a PR to main.

You’ll see on the web recommendations to “merge downwards”: you wait for commit approval for the whole stack, then merge the top PR (B) into the PR underneath it (A), and so on, until you merge to main.

I don’t think that’s necessary these days2. Instead, when you have approval for the base PR - and logically, it will make sense that is reviewed first - you can merge it to main. Github will then offer to delete the PR branch. If you do this, the stacked PR gets automatically reset such that its merge base is now main !

There is an annoying thing here though: because of that squash during the merge to main, git, and Github, needs you to merge main back into the commit history of the PR that just changed bases. If you already merged the parent PR, you can always do git merge -Xours master to fix this, since there shouldn’t be any actual diff difference between the PR branch diffs as a whole, and what was merged to master. Or, if you didn’t merge in the parent PR, you’ll need a normal git merge master.

Another bug (as far as I’m concerned) is that if you ask for review on a stacked PR, it doesn’t get tagged with “Review required”, since, technically, you could merge the PR into its parent without approval. And there is no “Review requested” tag.

I would love all this to have some tooling: something that lets me do everything on my local stacked branches, automate merges up, keep track of dependencies, and updating the branches in Github. But I haven’t been able to find anything that can do it.


  1. Gerrit uses Change-ID embedded in the commit message to map commits onto CRs. It’s clumsy but effective. ↩︎

  2. I think it dates from before Github automatically reset a PR when its merge base was deleted ↩︎