––thursday #2: diff ‘n patch

I’m trying something new: every Thursday I’ll do a short post on how to do something with the command line.

I always seem to either create or apply patches in the wrong direction. It’s like stalagmites vs. stalactites, which I struggled with until I heard the nemonic: “Stalagmites might hang from the ceiling… but they don’t.”

Moving right along, you can use diff to get line-by-line changes between any two files. Generally I use git diff because I’m dealing with a git repo, so that’s what I’ll use here.

Let’s get a diff of MongoDB between version 2.0.2 and 2.0.3.

$ git clone git://github.com/mongodb/mongo.git
$ cd mongo
$ git diff r2.0.2..r2.0.3 > mongo.patch

This takes all of the changes between 2.0.2 and 2.0.3 (r2.0.2..r2.0.3) and dumps them into a file called mongo.patch (that’s the > mongo.patch part).

Now, let’s get the code from 2.0.2 and apply mongo.patch, effectively making it 2.0.3 (this is kind of a silly example but if you’re still with me after the stalagmite thing, I assume you don’t mind silly examples):

$ git checkout r2.0.2
Note: checking out 'r2.0.2'.

You are in 'detached HEAD' state. You can look around, make experimental
changes and commit them, and you can discard any commits you make in this
state without impacting any branches by performing another checkout.

If you want to create a new branch to retain commits you create, you may
do so (now or later) by using -b with the checkout command again. Example:

  git checkout -b new_branch_name

HEAD is now at 514b122... BUMP 2.0.2
$ patch -p1 < mongo.patch

What intuitive syntax!

What does the -p1 mean? How many forward slashes to remove from the path in the patch, of course.

To take an example, if you look at the last 11 lines of the patch, you can see that it is the diff for the file that changes the version number. It looks like this:

$ tail -n 11 mongo.patch
--- a/util/version.cpp
+++ b/util/version.cpp
@@ -38,7 +38,7 @@ namespace mongo {
      *      1.2.3-rc4-pre-
      * If you really need to do something else you'll need to fix _versionArray()
-    const char versionString[] = "2.0.2";
+    const char versionString[] = "2.0.3";
     // See unit test for example outputs
     static BSONArray _versionArray(const char* version){

Note the a/util/version.cpp and b/util/version.cpp. These indicate the file the patch should be applied to, but there are no a or b directories in the MongoDB repository. The a and b prefixes indicate that one is the previous version and one is the new version. And -p says how many slashes to strip from this path. An example may make this clearer:

  • -p0 (equivalent to not specifying -p): “apply this patch to a/util/version.cpp” (which doesn’t exist)
  • -p1: “apply this patch to util/version.cpp” ← bingo, that’s what we want
  • -p2: “apply this patch to version.cpp” (which doesn’t exist)

So, we use -p1, because that makes the patch’s paths match the actually directory structure. If someone sent you a patch and the path is something like /home/bob/bobsStuff/foo.txt and your name is not Bob, you’re just trying to patch foo.txt, you’d probably want to use -p4.

On the plus side, if you’re using patches generated by git, they’re super-easy to apply. Git chose the intuitive verb “apply” to patch a file. If you have a patch generated by git diff, you can patch your current tree with:

$ git apply mongo.patch

So, aside from the stupid choice of verbiage, that is generally easier.

Did I miss anything? Get anything wrong? Got a suggestion for next week? Leave a comment below and let me know!

5 thoughts on “––thursday #2: diff ‘n patch

  1. Great article. Are people sending patches to 10gen as opposed to pull requests? I would think with github pull requests running Larry Wall’s patch would have become a lost art by now.


    1. Thank you!  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I get a lot of patches from the Perl community 🙂  They also come up sometimes for the core DB, although I think most people do pull requests.


  2. Stalactite has a “c” in it because it hangs from the ceiling. Stalagmites have a “g” because they come up from the ground.


    1. (That’s supposed to be a helpful mnemonic, not an actual explanation for why these words have the “c” or “g”. In case anyone wanted to jump all over me about that.)


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