Deploy a sub-directory as a branch

This post outlines a mechanism for using one branch as the source to generate a compiled artifact into another branch. This is achieved without resorting to moving files around a working directory and staging dirty changes away safely, by leveraging some neat internals of Git.


But first, why would someone want to do this?

In general, storing (deterministically) buildable artifacts in a repository can be unneccessary and even problematic. For example: building a binary which can't run on all platforms that might use the repository; or creating large files which grow the repository size rapidly (e.g. JARs).

In the past, I have been in situations where using Git's object model to storean immutable history of changes in compiled outputs has been useful, inparticular for analytical purposes.

However, this time, the reason is rather mundane: GitHub's Jekyll compilation whitelists certain plugins (for good, security-related reasons) and I had set up this blog using a theme and plugin combination that apparently is not compatible with GitHub-built Jekyll projects.


GitHub expects to find source files for GitHub Pages deployment in either the gh-pages or main branch (depending on whether its building a project page or a user/org page). All that was necessary was to generate the compiled files into that appropriate branch.

However, I did not want it to be up to the person making changes to the blog to have to remember to generate and commit the generated files. In addition, it was important to me that the Git history of source changes was not conflated with the adjacent need to store the compiled version.

That meant:

  1. As much automated as possible
  2. The compiled branch (main, in this case) should be nothing but the generated files and a separate commit history.

Understanding git commit

When you run a command like git commit ., Git is doing a few of things of interest internally:

  1. git-write-tree stores the current state of your (staged) files as a tree
  2. git-commit-tree creates a commit for that tree (and, usually, a parent commit)
  3. git-update-ref Updating a ref (branch) to point to that new commit

By dropping down a level and taking control of these primitives directly, we can actually exercise a little bit more control over what is in the commit and how that commit relates to the rest of the repository's history.

Writing a tree at a custom root

The key ingredient that we will leverage is the --prefix flag to git-write-tree. This allows us to create a tree object rooted at an arbitrary directory!

For example, compare the following:

$ git show $(git write-tree)
tree c97ce6b80599da62e34a684a245dec5df1228b8d


$ git show $(git write-tree --prefix pages)
tree 8e479816fadad469d16bcb16c24413feb780765f


Piecing it together

The main caveat to account for is that git-write-tree will only write staged or committed files. I don't want to keep the built files in the source branch so I have the build directory ignored, which means those files are neither committed nor staged.

To work around this, a bin/deploy script temporarily stages the files for the duration of the commit building. NOTE, because I am deploying to main branch, I configured the repository's default branch to be source and the bin/deploy script lived there, along with all the Jekyll source files.

Here's a simplified version of the script:

#!/usr/bin/env bash


# This can be substituted for any command which builds artifacts to a
# specific directory
bundle exec jekyll build --destination $build_dir

# Force the files to be added, regardless of .gitignore
git add -f $build_dir

# Write tree to an object
tree=$(git write-tree --prefix=$build_dir)

# Un-stage the build so it is back to being ignored
git reset -- $build_dir

# Create a new commit for that tree as a child of target branch's commit
commit=$(git commit-tree -p $branch -m "Deploy" $tree)

# Update the GitHub Pages' branch to the new commit
git update-ref refs/heads/$branch $commit

# Push the compiled branch to GitHub
git push origin $branch

Automated builds

I used our existing Buildkite CI setup to quickly add a build which essentially just called bin/deploy to automatically deploy changes we made to GitHub (much the way that GitHub would automatically deploy changes if I were committing directly to main/gh-pages).

Some changes for resilience

  • I wanted to preserve committer/authorship metadata for the deploy commits to make it clear whose latest change is deployed. To handle this, the bin/deploy script takes these details from the commit being built and sets some env vars before we generate the deploy commit:

    export GIT_AUTHOR_NAME=$(git show -s --format='%an' HEAD)
    export GIT_AUTHOR_EMAIL=$(git show -s --format='%ae' HEAD)
    commit=$(git commit-tree -p $branch -m "Deploy" $tree)
  • I wanted to make it clear which commit had been deployed, so I augmented the commit creation step to record a description of the source commit in the commit message, including whether or not the working directory had uncommitted changes:

    identifier=$(git describe --dirty --always) # e.g. "213c9af", "213c9a-dirty"
    commit=$(git commit-tree -p $branch -m "Deploy $identifier" $tree)
  • For maximum re-usability, I have the script detect the target branch based on the type of repository (project or user/org):

    # Determine which branch GitHub pages is built from, for this repository
    remote=$(git config remote.origin.url)
    if [[ $remote = * ]] || [[ $remote = * ]]; then
  • To still work in CI where a clean checkout has occurred without necessarily creating local branch refs, I use long-form names (refs/remotes/origin/$branch or refs/heads/$branch, as appropriate)


Feel free to have a look at the repository for the blog. The main branch contains the history of deployed changes and the source branch contains the history of source changes.

This blog post was deployed in this manner.

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