This is a cautionary tale about keeping git data in sync between two machines with rsync. There aren’t really a lot of pitfalls here, but we stumbled into one of them, and I’ve been meaning to write this up since.

tl;dr: to keep git repos in sync using rsync use the command:

rsync --archive --verbose --delete <dir1> <dir2>


Almost a year ago we upgraded the hardware for our primary git host at work. We run our primary git server on bare metal in one of the Equinix data centers in Virginia and it was starting to show its age. Our git host was coming up on the end of its warranty, but – more importantly – we’d simply outgrown the hardware. We run Gerrit as our code review system and its hunger for heap led to more than one late night caused by java.lang.OutOfMemoryError. After spending more time than I probably should have tuning various GC parameters, I put in a request for new hardware.

The plan for the upgrade was pretty simple: Setup a new machine seeded with all of our git data and run it as a replica of the current machine until the switchover window. Prevent the new machine from writing to Gerrit’s database entirely. When the switchover window rolls around: take both machines offline, one final rsync of data, swap DNS records, allow database writes from the new machine, and bring the new machine online.

We finished up the migration at the end of my day and all seemed to go fine, we sent out the all clear and claimed victory. Over my night the European cohort began to see the first inklings of a problem: there were revisions and Gerrit comments missing on the new server! Patches that had been merged were showing up as unmerged! Day was night! Dogs and Cats were best friends! Chaos reigned.

Data integrity problems are alarming, but they are especially acute when the data that’s integrity is in doubt is the canonical source code to a gigantic open source project backing one of the most important free knowledge projects in existence. No pressure.

NoteDB and things to know

The first thing to know is that code reviews in Gerrit aren’t stored in a real database, but are stored instead in NoteDB – which is just a bunch of namespace conventions on top of git. In fact, as of today, the latest version of Gerrit stores nothing in the database and stores everything in git.

Everything being stored in git has some uhhh…I’ll say “interesting”…. side-effects. For example, users are stored in a git repo called All-Users.git and in our version of that repository there are >22,000 refs pointing to the blob ce7b81997cf51342dedaeccb071ce4ba3ed0cf52. Why tag a blob? What could be in that blob?

$ git show ce7b81997cf51342dedaeccb071ce4ba3ed0cf52

That’s right, there are 22,000 refs pointing to a single blob with the contents, star. Each ref is of the format refs/starred-changes/XX/YYYYXX/ZZZZ. This is how Gerrit stores starred changes :|

I don’t know if that’s normal or sane: there are no rules out here in git-is-your-database-now land.

All of the above background about NoteDB is to say that any knowledge you might have about how reviews might disappear from a database don’t hold in Gerrit. All the lovely persistence guarantees about RDBMS mean fuck all. This is a pop quiz about git knowledge.

How reviews are stored

OK, so Gerrit doesn’t use an RDBMS, so we’ll need to know how reviews are stored in order to understand how they might disappear.

Gerrit stores patchsets for review in refs. Gerrit uses the “changes” ref namespace for all changes. For example, the first revision for the first change for the repo “foo” would be stored in /srv/gerrit/git/foo.git under the ref refs/changes/01/0001/1. The next revision for the first change would be stored on refs/changes/01/0001/2. Any commentary about the first change is also stored in a special ref in the changes namespace in git in refs/changes/01/0001/meta.

How refs are stored

Git refs are stored in the refs directory inside a repository’s git directory. A Gerrit change stored in loose refs on disk might look like:

└── 01
    └── 0001
        ├── 1
        └── meta

Each file there points to a commit (or a tree or a blob, but in practice it’s usually a commit).

Periodically (i.e., whenever git runs a garbage collection cycle) that directory is emptied out and the info is shoved into a packed-refs file.

But what happens when there are both? When there is a refs/heads/foo and a packed-refs that references a refs/heads/foo? When you do git rev-parse which one “wins”? This is a common scenario and happens whenever you update a ref:

$ git init
Initialized empty Git repository in /home/thcipriani/tmp/git-pack/.git/
$ echo "foo" > README
$ git add . && git commit -m 'Initial commit'
[main (root-commit) 8c1ba31] Initial commit
 1 file changed, 1 insertion(+)
  create mode 100644 README
$ git update-ref refs/changes/1 HEAD
$ cat .git/refs/changes/1
$ echo 'bar' > README
$ git commit -a -m 'update'
  [main 93791e4] update
   1 file changed, 1 insertion(+), 1 deletion(-)
$ git gc
   Enumerating objects: 6, done.
   Counting objects: 100% (6/6), done.
   Delta compression using up to 4 threads
   Compressing objects: 100% (2/2), done.
   Writing objects: 100% (6/6), done.
   Total 6 (delta 0), reused 0 (delta 0), pack-reused 0
$ ls -lh .git/refs/changes/
total 0
$ git update-ref refs/changes/1 HEAD
$ cat .git/refs/changes/1
$ cat .git/packed-refs
# pack-refs with: peeled fully-peeled sorted
8c1ba312abe6b25948011d05e0ded8bc581b6bb0 refs/changes/1
93791e4e3fbf39cd2d90d678eb2530ce03e5eaf4 refs/heads/main

The punchline

OK, so what happened to our changes? Trying to be cautious we used the rsync command:

rsync --archive --verbose <dir1> <dir2>

We purposely omitted --delete because objects in git are deterministic: who cares if they were packed? Why risk deleting things? We knew we didn’t lose any objects in the transfer. The problem was we didn’t lose any of the unpacked refs either. This meant that when we seeded the git directories on the new server a month before the maintenance window, some of these repositories had loose refs that were subsequently packed into packed-refs. Since the newer refs ended up in packed-refs while the older refs were on disk it made the Gerrit interface appear to be in an older state.

The moral of the story here is to never omit --delete from rsync if you’re trying to keep repos in sync.