git submodules are not so bad

Posted by Simon Walker on Sun 28 December 2014

I see a lot of complaints about git submodules, people suggesting alternatives, complaints about merging or other bits and pieces.

Git submodules have their place. Yes they are not ideal for all situations but they are ideal for the typical use case I'm about to outline.

Example use case

In my work I have a master project which contains multiple submodules. Each submodule is also cloned into a separate development repository sitting near by. I use the master repository to synchronise pushes to the deployment server (in this case an isolated computer sitting on a mountain in Chile!)

Admittedly I have to train myself to follow certain procedures:

  1. Never perform code alterations or general development in the submodule inside the master repository.

  2. Only use the master repository for synchronisation.

Git submodule advantages

For my use case I find it very good for the master repository to track a single commit, as this bakes in the state of the submodules for each commit of the master repository. I only need to record the git sha of the master to be able to recreate the entire source code checkout of the individual packages.

Development on the individual packages is also easier as they're modularised into separate small, testable directories, and only combined in the master during a "deployment".

I can add tests to the master project that assess the integration between submodules. In the case of an error I can then check out a specific revision in my submodules at will to re-run tests and find breaking changes, perhaps with git bisect.

Git submodule disadvantages

The paradigm shift of using submodules is a pain. They require extra, very strange commands to synchronise.

I have a few git aliases to help me with this:

su = submodule update --init --recursive

This command initialises and synchronises the submodules in whatever state they started in, either not existing - so a clone takes place - or a previous commit. It also synchronises nested submodules, which I'll admit I would probably never do.

upsub = submodule foreach 'git checkout master && git pull'

A very useful command, git submodule foreach runs a command over every submodule specified in the current project. In this case it's used to update the master branch to origin.

A minor annoyance is a submodule with code changes will appear to a git status in the master as an untracked file, showing the whole submodule as modified. I personally like this feature as it reminds me that the submodule in the master is not in a proper state:

-Subproject commit c74dd1e56794962d7ff7661a7f8ae84cafa96b4f
+Subproject commit c74dd1e56794962d7ff7661a7f8ae84cafa96b4f-dirty

and therefore shouts at me for forgetting rule 1. above. It can be disabled via: git status --ignore-submodules=dirty but I do not recommend this. Consider it a feature.

Git subtree

A common suggested alternative is git subtree which I have tried, though briefly. Perhaps learning submodules from an early stage has ingrained their process in my brain too hard for other alternatives to really show their benefits. As far as I could tell git subtree creates a huge merge commit in the master repository as a single static blob. I didn't look into coding in the subtrees but I feel the separation of projects afforded by submodules fits my needs better. Perhaps I just have to read the linked article above a bit more.

Hints and tips

Some hints and tips I always have to google myself:

Remove a submodule


git submodule deinit asubmodule
git rm asubmodule


  • Separate projects and use a master project to coordinate commits,
  • Never develop in the masters copy of the repository,
  • Use shortcuts to make managing submodules easier.

tags: git