Large projects are often composed of smaller, self-contained modules. For example, an embedded Linux distribution's source tree would include every piece of software in the distribution with some local modifications; a movie player might need to build against a specific, known-working version of a decompression library; several independent programs might all share the same build scripts.

With centralized revision control systems this is often accomplished by including every module in one single repository. Developers can check out all modules or only the modules they need to work with. They can even modify files across several modules in a single commit while moving things around or updating APIs and translations.

Git does not allow partial checkouts, so duplicating this approach in Git would force developers to keep a local copy of modules they are not interested in touching. Commits in an enormous checkout would be slower than you'd expect as Git would have to scan every directory for changes. If modules have a lot of local history, clones would take forever.

On the plus side, distributed revision control systems can much better integrate with external sources. In a centralized model, a single arbitrary snapshot of the external project is exported from its own revision control and then imported into the local revision control on a vendor branch. All the history is hidden. With distributed revision control you can clone the entire external history and much more easily follow development and re-merge local changes.

Git's submodule support allows a repository to contain, as a subdirectory, a checkout of an external project. Submodules maintain their own identity; the submodule support just stores the submodule repository location and commit ID, so other developers who clone the containing project ("superproject") can easily clone all the submodules at the same revision. Partial checkouts of the superproject are possible: you can tell Git to clone none, some or all of the submodules.

The git submodule command is available since Git 1.5.3. Users with Git 1.5.2 can look up the submodule commits in the repository and manually check them out; earlier versions won't recognize the submodules at all.

To see how submodule support works, create (for example) four example repositories that can be used later as a submodule:

$ mkdir ~/git
$ cd ~/git
$ for i in a b c d
    mkdir $i
    cd $i
    git init
    echo "module $i" > $i.txt
    git add $i.txt
    git commit -m "Initial commit, submodule $i"
    cd ..

Now create the superproject and add all the submodules:

$ mkdir super
$ cd super
$ git init
$ for i in a b c d
    git submodule add ~/git/$i

NOTE: Do not use local URLs here if you plan to publish your superproject!

See what files git-submodule created:

$ ls -a
.  ..  .git  .gitmodules  a  b  c  d

The git-submodule add command does a couple of things:

  • It clones the submodule under the current directory and by default checks out the master branch.
  • It adds the submodule's clone path to the gitmodules file and adds this file to the index, ready to be committed.
  • It adds the submodule's current commit ID to the index, ready to be committed.

Commit the superproject:

$ git commit -m "Add submodules a, b, c and d."

Now clone the superproject:

$ cd ..
$ git clone super cloned
$ cd cloned

The submodule directories are there, but they're empty:

$ ls -a a
.  ..
$ git submodule status
-d266b9873ad50488163457f025db7cdd9683d88b a
-e81d457da15309b4fef4249aba9b50187999670d b
-c1536a972b9affea0f16e0680ba87332dc059146 c
-d96249ff5d57de5de093e6baff9e0aafa5276a74 d

NOTE: The commit object names shown above would be different for you, but they should match the HEAD commit object names of your repositories. You can check it by running git ls-remote ../a.

Pulling down the submodules is a two-step process. First run git submodule init to add the submodule repository URLs to .git/config:

$ git submodule init

Now use git-submodule update to clone the repositories and check out the commits specified in the superproject:

$ git submodule update
$ cd a
$ ls -a
.  ..  .git  a.txt

One major difference between git-submodule update and git-submodule add is that git-submodule update checks out a specific commit, rather than the tip of a branch. It's like checking out a tag: the head is detached, so you're not working on a branch.

$ git branch
* (no branch)

If you want to make a change within a submodule and you have a detached head, then you should create or checkout a branch, make your changes, publish the change within the submodule, and then update the superproject to reference the new commit:

$ git checkout master


$ git checkout -b fix-up


$ echo "adding a line again" >> a.txt
$ git commit -a -m "Updated the submodule from within the superproject."
$ git push
$ cd ..
$ git diff
diff --git a/a b/a
index d266b98..261dfac 160000
--- a/a
+++ b/a
@@ -1 +1 @@
-Subproject commit d266b9873ad50488163457f025db7cdd9683d88b
+Subproject commit 261dfac35cb99d380eb966e102c1197139f7fa24
$ git add a
$ git commit -m "Updated submodule a."
$ git push

You have to run git submodule update after git pull if you want to update submodules, too.

Pitfalls with submodules

Always publish the submodule change before publishing the change to the superproject that references it. If you forget to publish the submodule change, others won't be able to clone the repository:

$ cd ~/git/super/a
$ echo i added another line to this file >> a.txt
$ git commit -a -m "doing it wrong this time"
$ cd ..
$ git add a
$ git commit -m "Updated submodule a again."
$ git push
$ cd ~/git/cloned
$ git pull
$ git submodule update
error: pathspec '261dfac35cb99d380eb966e102c1197139f7fa24' did not match any file(s) known to git.
Did you forget to 'git add'?
Unable to checkout '261dfac35cb99d380eb966e102c1197139f7fa24' in submodule path 'a'

You also should not rewind branches in a submodule beyond commits that were ever recorded in any superproject.

It's not safe to run git submodule update if you've made and committed changes within a submodule without checking out a branch first. They will be silently overwritten:

$ cat a.txt
module a
$ echo line added from private2 >> a.txt
$ git commit -a -m "line added inside private2"
$ cd ..
$ git submodule update
Submodule path 'a': checked out 'd266b9873ad50488163457f025db7cdd9683d88b'
$ cd a
$ cat a.txt
module a

NOTE: The changes are still visible in the submodule's reflog.

This is not the case if you did not commit your changes.

"GitCast #11: Git Submodules"