Generating a version number from your git repo -- follow up

9 Nov 2022 18:46 git

I wrote about Generating a version number from your git repo at the weekend. This post contains some follow-up notes and thoughts.

At the end of the previous post, we’d come up with a version number that looked something like this:


Environment variable

It’s useful to allow overriding the behaviour with an environment variable, for two reasons:

  1. We might simply want to lie to it.
  2. We might already have run the script, in a parent Makefile for example, and want to avoid doing the work again.

We can do that by putting something like the following near the top of the script.

if [ -n "$GIT_VSN" ]; then
    echo "$GIT_VSN"
    exit 0

Exporting a tarball

If you’re exporting a tarball (with git archive), the .git directory is gone and you have no tags, so you’ll have to find another way to figure out the version at (later) build time.

One way to do this is to create a marker file containing the version number and put it in the tarball. Then, later, when you unpack the tarball, the git-vsn script can look for that file.

We’ll make the git-vsn script look for a file named .git-vsn. Actually putting the .git-vsn file in the tarball is left as an exercise for the reader.

We want to look up the directory tree until we find the file. This function will help:

search_up() {
    local look=${PWD%/}

    while [[ -n $look ]]; do
        [[ -e $look/$1 ]] && {
            printf '%s\n' "$look"


    [[ -e /$1 ]] && echo /

The function is taken from; we can use it as follows:

git_vsn_file="$(search_up ".git-vsn")/.git-vsn"
if [ -f "$git_vsn_file" ]; then
    head "$git_vsn_file"
    exit 0

Detecting a work tree

If you’re running this inside the git work tree, you probably want to ignore any .git-vsn files you find.

You can do this by using git rev-parse --is-inside-work-tree; note that it outputs true or false, which is ugly; you probably want to redirect that to /dev/null:

if git rev-parse --is-inside-work-tree >/dev/null 2>&1; then
    # We're inside the work tree.

Also note that only --is-inside-work-tree sets the exit code. The other, similar options – --is-inside-git-dir and --is-bare-repository – don’t, for some reason. Since we’re not planning on using them, this is only of passing interest, however.

Commit count vs ‘-pre’

Earlier, we awkwardly wedged the commit count into the metadata:

#      ^ commit count

As mentioned, this could be confusing: someone might only look at the version number, and might ignore the rest. SemVer allows us to put arbitrary suffixes after the version number, but before the +. For example, we can call our version -alpha2, -beta, etc. It even suggests a -pre suffix, which seems useful.

Unfortunately, however, we need to put the suffix on the next version number, not the previous one. That is: v1.2.0 isn’t followed by v1.2.0-pre; it should be followed by v1.3.0-pre and then eventually by v1.3.0.

Here’s a potential way to handle that:

# if there are commits, assume we're working on the next version; increment minor, clear patch and add a -pre suffix.
if [[ "$commits" -gt 0 ]]; then


It’s up for discussion whether we should continue to include the commit count in the metadata. It doesn’t help us identify a particular commit: that’s what the SHA is for. It might give us an idea of how much work we’ve done since the most-recent tag. I don’t have any strong feelings one way or the other, but I opted to discard it.

Maintenance branches are problematic

If you’re doing maintenance branches, then our script, as written so far, gets a bit confused.

Let’s say that you’ve just tagged v1.2.0 and started work on what will eventually be v1.3.0. Commits on the trunk will (correctly) be denoted v1.3.0-pre.

But then (oh no), a bug report comes in, and you want to do a maintenance release. So you:

git checkout v1.2.0   # check out the 'v1.2.0' tag on 'main'.
git checkout -b v1.2  # create a 'v1.2' maintenance branch
# hack hack hack
# fix fix fix
# test test test
git add hack fix test
git commit -m "Fix: whatever was wrong with it [JIRA-1234]"
git push
git-vsn     # v1.3.0-pre+...

Wat? We’re on the v1.2 maintenance branch, not the main branch that’s going to become v1.3.0.

If we’re on the v1.2 maintenance branch, shortly after the v1.2.0 tag, then we probably want the next version to be v1.2.1, and we should denote this build as v1.2.1-pre.

The problem we have is that git doesn’t care what your branches are called; it doesn’t know that your trunk is called main or master (or even trunk), so it’s kinda hard for the git-vsn script to work out what you meant.

We can nearly solve this by using git remote show origin, which will tell us which branch HEAD refers to on the remote. But it requires a connection to the remote; it’s slow; and it’s not 100% reliable (for reasons that I’m not going to go into).

Instead, we can just use brute force and ignorance. If the current branch starts with vX.Y, then assume we’re on a maintenance branch and use the alternative behaviour:

branch=$(git branch --show-current)
if [[ $branch =~ $re ]]; then
    # we're on a maintenance branch
    # we're on the trunk
    # ...
The git-vsn script can be found at; this blog post refers to the v1.3.0 tag.