The Problems with Diffs#
Diffs today have a number of problems that may not seem that obvious if you’re not working closely with them. Parsing them, generating them, passing them between various systems.
We covered some of this on the front page, but let’s go into more detail on the problems with diffs today.
Revision control systems represent data differently#
There really isn’t much of a standard in how you actually store information in diffs. All you really can depend on are the original and modified filenames (but not the format used to show them), and the file modifications.
A number of things have been bolted onto diffs and handled by GNU patch over the years, but very little has become standardized. This makes it very difficult to reliably store or parse metadata without writing a lot of custom code.
Git, for instance, needs to track data such as file modes, SHA1s, similarity
information (for move/rename detection), and more. They do this with some
strings that appear above the typical
+++ filename blocks that Git
knows how to parse, but GNU patch will ignore. For instance, to handle a file
move, you might get:
diff --git a/README b/README2 index 91bf7ab..dd93b71 100644 similarity index 95% rename from README rename to README2 --- a/README +++ b/README
Perforce, on the other hand, doesn’t encode any information on revisions or file modes, requiring that tools add their own metadata to the files. For example, Review Board adds this additional data for a moved file with changes (based on an existing extended Perforce diff format it adopted for compatibility):
Moved from: //depot/project/README Moved to: //depot/project/README2 --- //depot/project/README //depot/project/README#2 +++ //depot/project/README2 12-10-83 13:40:05
Or without changes:
==== //depot/project/README#2 ==MV== //depot/project/README2 ====
Let’s look at a simple diff in CVS:
Index: README =================================================================== RCS file: /path/to/README,v retrieving revision 1.1 retrieving revision 1.2 diff -u -p -r1.1 -r1.2 --- README 07 May 2014 08:50:30 -0000 1.1 +++ README 10 Dec 2014 13:40:05 -0000 1.2
No real consistency, and the next revision control system that comes along will probably end up injecting its own arbitrary content in diffs.
Operations like moves/deletes are inconsistent#
Diffs are pretty good at handling file modifications and, generally, the introduction of new files. Unfortunately, they fall short at handling other simple operations, like a deleted file or a moved/renamed file. Again, different implementations end up representing these operations in different ways.
For some time, Perforce’s p4 diff wouldn’t show deleted file content, prompting some companies to write their own wrapper.
TFS won’t even show added or deleted content natively.
Git represents deleted files with:
diff --git a/README b/README deleted file mode 100644 index 91bf7ab..0000000 --- a/README +++ /dev/null @@ -1,3 +0,0 @@ -All the lines -are deleted -one by one
Subverison, depending on the version and the way the diffs were built, may use:
Index: README =================================================================== --- README (revision 4) +++ README (working copy) @@ -1,3 +0,0 @@ -All the lines -are deleted -one by one
Or it may be use:
Index: README =================================================================== --- README (revision 4) +++ README (nonexistent) @@ -1,3 +0,0 @@ -All the lines -are deleted -one by one
Index: README (deleted) =================================================================== --- README (revision 4) +++ README (working copy) @@ -1,3 +0,0 @@ -All the lines -are deleted -one by one
And that’s not even factoring in the versions that localized
(nonexistent)” or “
(working copy)” into other languages, in the diff!
Most are consistent with the removal of the lines, but that’s about it. Some have metadata explicitly indicating a delete, but others don’t differentiate between deleted files and removing all lines from files.
Copies/moves are worse. There is no standard at all, and SVN/Git/etc. have been forced to work around this by inventing their own formats and command line switches, which the patch tool needs to have special knowledge of.
No support for binary files#
Binary files have no official support in diffs. Git has its own support for binary files in diffs, but GNU patch rejects them, requiring git apply to be used instead.
Very few systems even try to support binary files in diffs, instead simply
adding a marker explaining the file has unspecified binary changes. This
Binary files <file> and <file> differ.
In the world of binary files in diffs, Git’s way of handling them seems to be the current de-facto standard, as hg diff --git will generate these changes as well. Still, it’s not very wide-spread yet.
Text encodings are unclear#
When you view a diff, you have to essentially guess at the encoding. This can be done by trying a few encodings, or assuming an encoding if you know the encodings in the repository the diff is being applied to. This is pretty bad, though. Today, there’s just no way to consistently know for sure how to properly decode text in a diff.
This manifests in the wild when working with international teams and different languages and sets of editors. If the encoding of a file has been changed from, say, UTF-8 to zh_CN, then any tool working with the diff and the source files will break, and it’s hard to diagnose why at first.
They’re limited to single commits#
Tools will generally output a separate diff file for every commit, which means more files to keep track of and e-mail around, and means that the ordering must be respected when applying the changes or when uploading files to any services or software that needs to operate on them. This isn’t a huge problem in practice, but ideally, a diff could just contain each commit.
DVCS is basically the standard for all modern source code management solutions, but that wasn’t the case when Unified Diffs were first created. A new diff format should account for this.
Fixing these problems#
These problems are all solvable, without breaking existing diffs.
Diffs have a lot of flexibility in what kind of “garbage” data is stored, so long as the diff contains at least one genuine modification to a file. Git, SVN, etc. diffs leverage this to store additional data.
We’re leveraging this as well. We store an encoding marker at the top of the file and to break the diff into sections. Sections can contain options to control parsing behavior, metadata on the content represented by the section, and the content itself. The content may be standard text diff data (with or without implementation-specific metadata) or binary diff content.
Through this, it’s also possible to extend the format by defining custom metadata, custom sections, and to specify custom parsing behavior in sections.
Diffs also don’t have limits as to how many times a file shows up with modifications. Tools like patch and diffstat are more than happy to work with any entries that come up. That means we can safely store the diffs for a series of commits in one file and still be able to patch safely.
This is all done without breaking parsing/patching behavior for existing diffs, or causing incompatibilities between DiffX files and existing tools.