The three essential files required by every Git repository

There are three files that you should add to every new Git repository, right from the outset. Unfortunately I frequently see projects that don’t have all three of these files, for whatever reason. These are they.

.gitignore

This is the one you’re most likely to have. However, you may be doing it wrong.

You’ll no doubt be aware what .gitignore does—it specifies a list of file patterns to ignore. However, did you know that GitHub maintains a repository of technology-specific .gitignore files? Or did you know that there is a website called gitignore.io that lets you combine two or more of them into one? So for example, if you are using Visual Studio together with Node.js, Python and Visual Studio Code, you can request a .gitignore file that contains all four sets of patterns.

This should be your starting point when you’re setting up your .gitignore file. Some platforms, such as Visual Studio, have some pretty complex ignore requirements, and it’s all too easy to end up ignoring too much, or too little. But since these ready-made .gitignore templates are peer reviewed and have proven themselves in numerous projects, they save you a lot of guesswork. Additionally, because they cover most if not all of the cases that you need, they are generally a case of “set it and forget it.”

.gitattributes

As you will no doubt be aware, Windows handles line endings differently from Unix or OS X. Windows uses the ASCII control characters CR and LF (0x0D, 0x0A) to indicate an end of line, whereas Unix and OS X use only LF (0x0A).

To allow users of different operating systems to work on the same codebase, Git can be configured either to normalise line endings on check-in and check-out, or to leave them as-is, using the core.autocrlf configuration setting. However, not everyone configures Git the same way, and this can cause confusion (and unnecessary merge conflicts) if you’re not careful, as well as confusing certain text editors such as Notepad or gedit. To avoid problems here, you can (and should) override the core.autocrlf setting for your project using a .gitattributes file. This should contain just one line:

* text=auto

You can set other options with .gitattributes, but this simple example will be sufficient for 99% of cases. It will ensure that text files are checked out on Windows with CRLF endings and on Unix/OS X with LF endings.

In some cases, you may need to make sure that code is checked out with Unix (LF) line endings on both platforms. This can be the case if your files get shared between Windows and Unix systems by mechanisms other than Git — for example, using tools such as Vagrant, Terraform or Docker. In this case, use the following line:

* text=auto eol=lf

Note however that if you are using git-svn against a Subversion repository, you want to make sure that line ending normalisation is turned off, otherwise both Git and Subversion will attempt to handle line endings, leading to confusion among Subversion users who aren’t using git-svn. In this case, you should use:

* -text

README.md

The third file does not actually affect Git’s behaviour. However, it is every bit as important. Your README.md file — a Markdown document located in your root directory is the home page for your developer documentation.

I say this because it is the first place that anyone working on your project will see. GitHub, Bitbucket, GitLab and most other modern Git hosts render it when you visit your source repository’s home page in your browser. As such, even if your actual developer documentation home page is elsewhere, you should at the very minimum have a readme file containing a link pointing to it. This is a well-established standard, and by sticking to it you will make your documentation much easier to find.

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