E macsAir

Collecting frequent-committer miles

Assimilate Emacs packages
using Git submodules

Borg is a bare-bones package manager for Emacs packages. It provides only a few essential features and should be combined with other tools such as Magit, epkg, use-package, and auto-compile.

Borg is not intended to compete with package.el, which, as we all know, makes it trivial to install additional packages. That in turn also makes it easier for the maintainers of these packages.

While package.el is a great success and the right solution for many users, I don’t use package.el myself because for me installing a package usually is only the beginning. More often than not I end up contributing to the packages that I use, at least in some minor way. package.el does not help with that.

When you install a package with package.el, it essentially fetches the libraries that make up the package and then makes them available to the current and future Emacs instances. That’s extremely useful and convenient in itself, but once you want to start contributing to an installed package, you have to fetch it again, this time using Git (or in increasingly rare cases some other version control system) to get the repository. Now you can start making changes, testing them by evaluating the affected forms or complete buffers, committing them, and finally making them available publicly and proposing them to the upstream maintainers.

So far so good — having to clone the repository isn’t such a big deal. But usually upstream doesn’t merge your changes instantly. You might be asked to make further changes, or the proposed changes might be rejected altogether.

What now? You could go back to the latest upstream version while you wait for upstream to merge, or if your change was rejected you could give up or you could increase your efforts to convince upstream of the importance of your changes.

In my opinion it is better to just add your clone of the package’s repository to the load-path at least temporarily. Unfortunately you now use two different mechanisms to manage your packages, package.el and “running directly from the Git repository”.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Submodule

All of that isn’t much of an issue if you only have to do it once or twice, at least not if your changes end up being merged eventually. But if you often contribute to the packages that you use, or if you often patch packages for your own use, then it might make sense to skip the package.el step altogether and to install all packages by cloning their Git repositories and tracking these clones as submodules.

I have been doing this manually for years, and enjoyed the additional control I gained from not using a package manager. Of course I used existing tools to make this a bit easier. epkg (which I released a few weeks ago) helped determining a package’s upstream url and its dependencies. Magit made it possible to update a package by pulling inside its repository, and to conveniently inspect the changes before actually doing so. auto-compile made sure I did not continue to use outdated byte-compiled files in case I forgot to recompile after an update. And use-package helped managing my configuration.

So the features that were missing and which I had to perform by hand were very few and borg only implements those. For the other features I continue to rely on the mentioned tools, and even though borg does not actually depend on these or any other packages, I recommend that users do the same.

Borg only implements the features that I was missing. It does not implement the features that are also absent but that I did not actually miss.

Borg installs a package by adding its repository as a submodule of ~/.emacs.d. It then proceeds to automatically compile libraries, generate the autoload file, generate Info manuals from Texinfo sources, and create the Info index file. After installation and when starting Emacs, Borg adds the appropriate directories to the load-path and to Info-directory-alist, and loads the autoload files.

Omitted features

And that’s pretty much it. Borg does not provide a mechanism for updating packages and it does not deal with dependencies. While both of these features are usually expected in a package manager, it turned out that I don’t actually miss them much in this case.

With package.el you can choose to replace “the old version” with “the new version”. If you want to know in what way they differ, then you have to manually locate the changelog. If you want to inspect the changes in more detail, then you have to do so by navigating to some web interface or, if you want to do it in the comfort of Emacs, then you have to clone the respective repository.

With Borg and (an appropriately configured) Magit all changes can be inspected instantly. And not only that, you are not forced to choose from two versions, “the old” and “the new”. You can instead choose to use the tip of the maintenance branch or that of the development branch, or any feature, hotfix, or personal branch for that matter. Or some tag. You are not even limited to branches and tags, you could e.g. also rewind just before some commit that introduced a regression or a change you hope will be reverted. Or you could temporarily or permanently revert the offending commit and still continue to pull further upstream changes. It’s really all up to you.

Like there is no single “current version”, there often exists no single “definite set of dependencies” of a package, which is right for everyone. In light of that, I have chosen to omit dependency handling from Borg. In practice this means that before installing a package you should consult the dependency tree using epkg-describe-package and that you then might have to invoke borg-assimilate a few (but only very rarely more than three) times, instead of just once. That is a bit inconvenient, but I hope that it is a price you are willing to pay.

Current status

Borg certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you do like Git and possibly already use submodules to install Emacs packages (or at least have not already dismissed submodules altogether due to the sharp edges of the user interface provided by git submodule), then it does provide some of the missing pieces, which make this approach to package management more convenient.

One of git submodule’s sharper edges is that it records very little information about the internals of submodules. This isn’t much of a problem when first trying out borg (whose setup command make bootstrap partially works around the issue), but it does become an issue once you start making your own commits and pushing them to your own forks. In that case it is necessary to add your own forks as remotes of the submodules, because otherwise the recorded commits might not even be available for checkout. But currently git submodule does not support that and so you have to do it manually.

I intend to fork git submodule and implement support for recording and setting up additional remotes, as well as some other features which would be very useful. [Update: I haven’t improved git-submodule yet. But I have implemented a minimal viable version in Epkg itself.] I will then also try to get those changes merged into Git. Until I have implemented these features, I can only recommend Borg for users who are already familiar with submodules.

Despite these shortcomings I am making a preview release of Borg available now, in the hope that some users who already use submodules to install Emacs packages give it a try and help my iron out the outstanding issues before the the first stable release.

Borg could be used to create a “starter-git” (typo intended) of sorts, i.e. “the Emacs collective”. Configuration sets, what Spacemacs for example calls “layers”, could be provided as branches. But that has to wait until the above issue has been fully addressed. [Update: Even though those issues have not been fully addressed yet, I have created such a starter-git, named emacs.g.]

Posted on 17th May 2016