While working on Gitgo, an implementation of Git in pure Go, I encountered a puzzling issue. Gitgo tests its own dogfood, which means the tests for parsing objects use the git repository for Gitgo itself. This worked fine for a few days, until my pairing partner wanted to work on his computer instead of mine. I pushed the code to a remote repository so he could check it out, and we immediately noticed that all of the tests suddenly started failing on both of our computers, complaining that the commit objects did not exist. Sure enough, the commits were missing from .git/objects/. And yet, we were both still able to check out the supposedly missing commits on our machines using Git. What was going wrong?

The commit objects were there, but they were stored in a different location, as packfiles.

Packfile motivation

Git was built to be fast. One of the reasons that git checkout is fast is that it doesn’t actually store any diffs. Instead, Git stores the actual, raw, content of every file at each commit, which it uses to calculate diffs on-the-fly. All this data starts to quickly add up in size, so Git does three things to reduce the space on disk.

First, it compresses files before storing them, using zlib. Zlib reduces the footprint of each file while still being quick to decompress (“inflate”). If you didn’t have version control software, but wanted to be able to reference previous versions of your work, you might simply create a ZIP archive of your directory every day as a makeshift “version control.” Although Git uses a different compression algorithm, this is almost exactly what it does!

The second way that Git saves disk space is by doing deduplication, a technique to remove redundant data. When creating a new commit, Git SHA-1 hashes the contents of each tracked file within the commit to compare to the hashes of all the objects it already has. If a file’s hash matches an existing object’s hash, Git doesn’t store any new content for that file.

This is why git mv acts like a regular mv followed by a git add of the new file and a git rm of the old one. Git doesn’t actually need to know that you’ve moved a file; it just needs to know that there’s now a file with a different name whose content happens to be the same as a previously tracked file.

There’s a problem with all of this, though. Hashing functions are designed to avalanche: changing just a single bit in an input to a hashing function should yield a completely different output.

$ echo "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs" | sha1sum
ce1ac435d9d47079f74874ed49615225d1be7be4  -
$ echo "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs." | sha1sum
87344ca7264d0f3e1d4e1350aeb71ffb597af8e2  -
$ echo "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogz" | sha1sum
a262234693b48b9c93ac3d69ce5818ade116a4be  -

Even if two files mostly match, if there’s any difference at all Git thinks they’re completely different. This isn’t a problem if you never plan on modifying the code you write – but at that point, why bother using version control in the first place?

It turns out that this isn’t that problematic for many projects. Zlib compression is quite powerful, and disk space is cheap enough that Git is happy to use nothing more than these two techniques for quite a while. But there’s one thing that isn’t quite so cheap: bandwidth. Even if your ISP doesn’t charge you per-megabyte, you still care about how long it takes you to clone, push, and pull. Git is meant to be fast, and taking lots of data that is similar-but-not-quite-identical, compressing it, and then transmitting it over the wire is slow.

Enter packfiles

I’ll count packfiles as the third strategy that Git uses to reduce disk space usage, even though packfiles were really created to reduce network usage (and increase network performance). It’s helpful to keep this in mind because the design of Git’s packfiles were informed by the goal of making network usage easy. Reducing the disk space needed is a pleasant side effect.

You can check for any packfiles in a Git repository by looking under .git/objects/pack/. If you’re looking at a repository you created yourself, this directory may be empty because packfiles are usually created the first time you push, pull, fetch, or clone. For a small or medium-sized repository, you’ll likely only see a single packfile, along with a corresponding index file:

$ ls .git/objects/pack/
pack-b3de836568441629d260ae19c7c1c11fa8ce5a5e.idx  pack-b3de836568441629d260ae19c7c1c11fa8ce5a5e.pack

Notice that the names of these files match except for the extension. The .pack file contains the actual Git objects and the .idx file contains the index used to quickly locate objects within the .pack file.

We can see which objects are contained in a pack with the Git command-line tools:

$ git verify-pack -v .git/objects/pack/pack-b3de836568441629d260ae19c7c1c11fa8ce5a5e.pack
200c8213bd227eed106fed7b168ac3dfd5257cc3 commit 263 184 12
b8043e69c7af9925e3a52500ab26cc743ff5ef5f commit 458 293 196
b268ea58184656aff6e933f19f32239092602a5d commit 232 163 489
30e7261b0c4871f4f924bd92de0511e3e2f06aa1 commit 278 194 652
89adc4b548996941a8ad925943852277aaec41c8 commit 251 174 846
0bee0ab5eaa26a18486dcf11126a8e3c6ee0c8bd commit 269 184 1020
afa6aaae2bb2481163ca9f6116aec86719695957 commit 298 207 1204
07ebd246a136dc074e0bfdbbd3e24f7345b54f39 commit 233 163 1411
f3f7619936a2264ac88ee1649107d5d0df0f8a31 commit 247 171 1574
9a8a2efaac4210f522790863053f30e25b822876 commit 249 174 1745
3d71259d2ee3ec7f1f80b7ed79429d3bda92ee6a commit 222 157 1919
33a8962e32df97e3d4d9c188f0daf967d4977da7 commit 73 85 2076 1 3d71259d2ee3ec7f1f80b7ed79429d3bda92ee6a
a6c45c1724ae18bbfe0ed5bf5b7eeb3637bbc6ab commit 342 235 2161
3a024e2f731f30545af80bf9bb66501f9530e960 commit 65 75 2396 1 a6c45c1724ae18bbfe0ed5bf5b7eeb3637bbc6ab
360617730b92b72b1f599391a46be736ca3a7d80 commit 266 184 2471
3a9d2d6974acd98dab6f9e834f477b353c41295d commit 336 228 2655
106aa1c02fa7f8e883837f270a606819fd8651bc commit 248 170 2883
4b9aad61562afaa257bb4b0c3d26816545fd46c1 commit 266 179 3053
200e279624a42905bed21c89139db6dd22f93610 commit 423 284 3232
df084d8bce5c57acdebf0958bfdfa30b1e3f929c commit 60 73 3516 1 200e279624a42905bed21c89139db6dd22f93610
5aecdc1eb6a499010defdd06889f3ffc559b7206 commit 60 73 3589 1 200e279624a42905bed21c89139db6dd22f93610
165e1598a27169730804267c6d9705adee06aa00 commit 61 74 3662 1 200e279624a42905bed21c89139db6dd22f93610
da3819b25efdfcec084abd524ab1e8611b427252 commit 59 72 3736 1 200e279624a42905bed21c89139db6dd22f93610
be5d471b02b9ee56538c8dc04253ec7206a43971 commit 241 170 3808
9e08d4ffcc8beb10dc6eaaa93cdbdb00cfc95be9 commit 58 70 3978 1 be5d471b02b9ee56538c8dc04253ec7206a43971
eeac5890e8e6b7500c12ebd51af4f6c6be6f9ccc commit 12 23 4048 2 9e08d4ffcc8beb10dc6eaaa93cdbdb00cfc95be9

(some entries ommitted for brevity)

Objects in a packfile can either be deltified or non-deltified. Deltification means that Git stores only a special diff instead of storing the whole object. Normal diffs reference a base object and describe a series of actions (e.g., insert, delete, or typechange) that should be applied to the base object in order to create the new result. Deltas work similarly, except that they’re not meant to be human-readable (and the actions that they describe are different).

Deltified objects are easy to spot in the git verify-pack output – they’re the ones with the extra SHA at the end. Instead of storing the entire object, they store a delta object. The SHA at the end tells us the base object. In this case, df084d8bce5c57acdebf0958bfdfa30b1e3f929c and 5aecdc1eb6a499010defdd06889f3ffc559b7206 both are stored as deltas with 200e279624a42905bed21c89139db6dd22f93610 as a base object.

The base object may also be deltified, which allows multiple layers of deltification, reducing the total size even further. For deltified objects, the second-to-last field (right before the base object name) indicates the depth of the object. So eeac5890e8e6b7500c12ebd51af4f6c6be6f9ccc has two layers of deltification, because its base object is 9e08d4ffcc8beb10dc6eaaa93cdbdb00cfc95be9, which is also a delta, and this second delta’s base object is be5d471b02b9ee56538c8dc04253ec7206a43971. Don’t get thrown off by the hexadecimal names – at its root (no pun intended), this is just a recursive data structure.

Parsing packfiles

Packfiles are mostly self-contained. In fact, it’s possible to parse a packfile without an index file — the index file is merely for convenience and performance.

The packfile starts with 12 bytes of meta-information and ends with a 20-byte checksum, all of which we can use to verify our results. The first four bytes spell “PACK” and the next four bytes contain the version number – in our case, [0, 0, 0, 2]. The next four bytes tell us the number of objects contained in the pack. Therefore, a single packfile cannot contain more than 232 objects, although a single repository may contain multiple packfiles. The final 20 bytes of the file are a SHA-1 checksum of all the previous data in the file.

The heart of the packfile is a series of data chunks, with some metainformation preceding each one. This is where things get interesting! The metainformation is formatted slightly differently depending on whether the data chunk that comes after it is deltified or not. In both cases, they begin by telling us the size of the object that the packfile contains. This size is encoded as a variable-length integer with a special format.

Because the integer has a variable length, the first bit of each byte – also called the MSB, for “most significant bit” - is reserved. That bit tells us whether the next byte belongs as part of the variable-length integer that we’re decoding. If it’s a 1, we should read the next byte. An easy way to check for this is to check if the byte is less than 128, which is 10000000 in binary.

The very first byte of this integer contains one extra piece of information: the type of the object that follows. There are six defined types, which means that this information fits into three bits, and the three bits after the MSB are used to designate this information:

Packfile object header

For the non-deltified types, the data that follows the metainformation is the zlib-compressed object data, which we can handle just like we handle normal Git objects. The variable-length integer tells us the expected size of the object after the object is inflated (decompressed).

How can we decompress the object if we don’t know how much data to read? It turns out that zlib is pretty robust and will ignore any extra bytes added to the end of a valid zlib-compressed data stream. Zlib is able to do this because the compressed data itself begins with its own header, but since we’re not implementing zlib’s inflate function from scratch, we can treat this binary data as a black box.

However, there’s a problem here. We can decompress the first object as long as we give zlib more data than it needs. But how do we know where the second object begins?

It turns out that, with the approach we’ve been using so far, we can’t! Go’s zlib library buffers the input that we feed it greedily. As a result, we can’t simply measure the number of bytes that the zlib library inputs – it may request to read more bytes than it ends up using. (This isn’t a problem exclusive to Go, either; other languages have similar issues.)

This is where the IDX file comes in – it tells us where each object begins.

IDX files

While it’s possible to to work around the aforementioned buffering issues and parse a packfile without ever reading the IDX file, the index makes it a lot easier. Like the packfile, a version 2 index file starts with a header, though the index file header is only eight bytes instead of 12. The first four bytes are always 255, 116, 79, 99, which are chosen because the first version of the index file did not have any header information, and these four bytes would be an invalid start to a version 1 index file. The next four bytes denote the version number explicitly – in our case, version 2.

IDX Layer 0

After the header, we encounter what Git calls a fanout table.

The first level of entries in this table is a series of 256 entries of four bytes each, 1024 bytes long in total. According to the documentation, “[the] N-th entry of this table records the number of objects in the corresponding pack, the first byte of whose object name is less than or equal to N.”

IDX Layer 1

Let’s break that down by example. Remember that object names are just SHAs, which we usually read in base-16. If the first entry of our fanout table is 4, then we will eventually expect to find four objects whose 20-byte object name begins with 00. If the second entry of the fanout table is also 4, that means that we will expect to find zero objects whose 20-byte object name beings with 01, because these totals are cumulative and we’ll already have four objects whose name begins with 00. If the 17th entry is the first whose value is greater than 4, and it has a value of 12, then that means we will find exactly eight objects whose name begins with 10 (remember that object names use base 16).

This table has 256 entries, so the last entry tells us how many objects will have an object name that begins with ff or any one-byte hexadecimal value that is less than 0xFF. Since 0xFF (256) is the largest value that can fit into a single byte, the last entry tells us how many objects to expect in total.

The second layer of the fanout table contains the 20-byte object names, in order. We already know how many to expect from the first layer of the fanout table.

The third layer of the fanout table gives us a four-byte cyclic redundancy check value for each object. Remember that packfiles are optimized for use across a network, so it’s important to be able to check that data did not get corrupted during transfer.

The fourth layer contains the information we’ve been looking for: the packfile offsets for each object. These are also four bytes per entry. If the packfile is less than 2 GB, the MSB of all of these values will be 0, and the remaining bits contain the packfile offset. Otherwise, the offset may be too large to fit into 4 bytes. In this case, the offset will actually be stored in the fifth layer, the MSB in the fourth layer for that object will be 1, and the remaining bits will be the offset in the fifth layer at which the offset into the packfile can be found.

The fifth and final layer is only present for packfiles larger than 2GB. If present, it will contain a series of 8-byte entries that encode the offset in the packfile. As mentioned before, the fourth layer will indicate which entries in the fifth layer correspond to each object - if an element in the fourth layer has its MSB set, the remaining bits in that element specify which element in the fifth layer contain the packfile offset for that object.

This is the end of the fanout table. The index file itself ends with a 20-byte checksum of the packfile and a 20-byte checksum of the entire index file.

Searching packfiles

At this point, you may be wondering why Git uses such a convoluted format. While this format may be difficult to read, it makes it possible to use binary search to locate a particular object in an IDX file. If there are multiple packfiles, the only way to find a particular object is to search each one, so binary search is crucial for speed. Furthermore, remember that packfiles (and IDX files) were motivated by network performance. For dense packfiles, there’s very little redundant information in either the packfile or the index file. Information is packed not only into every byte, but into every bit.

Packfiles, revisited

Now that we know where every object in the packfile starts, we can decode the rest of the packfile. For non-deltified objects, the actual data is just the zlib-compressed object data.

There are two kinds of deltified objects. If the type is OBJ_REF_DELTA (reference delta object), the object metainformation (which we already parsed earlier) is followed by the 20-byte name of the base object. Remember that deltas are analogous to diffs, so we need to know what the reference point is for the diff that we are about to apply. After this name, you’ll find the zlib-compressed delta data, which we’ll handle shortly.

However, even this was wasteful, so Git added the OBJ_OFS_DELTA (offset delta object). For these, instead of the 20-byte base object name, there’s another variable-length integer. Again, the MSB tells us where the last byte of the integer is. This integer represents a negative offset – it tells us how many bytes to scan backwards in the current packfile in order to find the base object. The negative offset is followed by the zlib-compressed delta data, just as for the OBJ_REF_DELTA.

Applying deltas

We’re almost done! We’ve read the entire index file and packfile and we have a bunch of base objects and delta objects. The only thing we still need to do is apply the deltas to the base objects to reconstruct the missing objects.

The delta begins with the source and target lengths, both encoded as variable-length integers, which is useful for error checking, but is not essential. After this, there are a series of instructions, which may be either “copy” (MSB = 1) or “insert” (MSB = 0).

Copy instructions signal that we should copy a consecutive chunk of bytes from the base object to the output. There are two numbers that are necessary to perform this operation: the location (offset) of the first byte to copy, and the number of bytes to copy. These are stored as little-endian variable-length integers after each copy instruction; however, their contents are compressed.

Even though the byte offset is a 32-bit integer, Git only includes the non-zero bytes to save space, and the last four bits of the copy instruction signal how many bytes to read. This means that Git could store the number 536,870,912 in only a single byte!

For example, let’s say that the last four bytes of the copy instruction are 1010 and the next two bytes are 11010111 01001011. This means that the byte offset is 01001011 00000000 11010111 00000000, which is 1,258,346,240.

The copy length is interpreted the same way, with the middle three bits of the instruction signifying whether to advance the cursor or not, just as the last four bits signify whether to advance the cursor when constructing the byte offset.

Insert instructions are even easier. The insert instruction itself is the number of bytes to copy from the delta object to the output. Since insert instructions all have their MSB set to 0, the maximum number of bytes to insert is 127. So, if the instruction is 01001011, that means that we should read the next 75 bytes of the delta object and copy them to the output.

(Un)-Packing it all together

And there we have it – we’ve parsed a packfile!

Packfiles are one of the few parts of Git that cannot be read or written at the command-line except when using Git’s plumbing tools. Most people who use Git don’t even know they exist, let alone what they are for or how to read them. Once you become comfortable with packfiles, you’re ready for pretty much everything Git can throw your way!