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Git Bisect: the Time Traveling Bug Finder

I think it’s safe to say that most of us have been in a situation where we pull down some changes from main and something breaks unexpectedly, or a bug got introduced in a recent deployment. It might not take long to narrow down which commit caused the issue if there’s only a couple of new commits, but if you’re a dozen or more commits behind, it can be a daunting task to determine which one caused it.

🔗But can’t I just check each commit until I find the culprit?

You could just check each commit individually without any special tools until you find the one that caused the issue, but that can be a very slow process. This is not ideal and is analogous to the reason why linear search isn’t as effective as binary search.

As the title suggests, there is a tool that Git provides called “bisect”. What this command does is checks out various commit refs in the tree of the branch you’re currently working in and allows you to mark commits as, “good”, “bad”, or “skip” (invalid / broken build). It does away with the need of having to check each commit individually as it is able to infer if commits are good or bad based on which other commits you have already marked.

🔗Git Bisect in Action

Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario where some bug was reported for the software we’re working on. Starting a git bisect session usually looks like the following example.

$ git bisect start     # While on main.
$ git bisect bad       # Here we are marking HEAD on main as "bad".
$ git bisect good 6e71b3cac15d32fe2d36c270887df9479c25c640

In this case, the commit hash in this example comes from a commit that I already know works. In the case where you pull down changes, and only then does something break, you can use whatever commit you were at prior before you pulled them down. If it’s an older bug, then you could check an older tag or two to see if it exists there.

Next is the part where we search for the offending commit. Every time you mark a commit, bisect will then navigate to another commit in-between your good and bad starting points using a specialized binary search algorithm.

$ build                # This build succeeds but the bug is present.
$ git bisect bad       # Mark the commit and navigate to another commit.
$ build                # This command succeeds and the bug is not present.
$ git bisect good
$ build                # Build fails for a reason unrelated to the issue.
$ git bisect skip

This is the general workflow you will follow when bisecting for its most basic use case, and these commands will be repeated until there are no more revisions left to review. Bisect will try to predict how many steps are left, and let you know every time you mark a commit. Once you are done, you will be checked into the commit that introduced the regression. This assumes that you marked everything accurately!

After you are done bisecting, you can quickly return to where you started by running git bisect reset.

🔗How Git Bisect Works

Firstly, bisect makes the reasonable assumption that any commits after a bad commit remain bad, and any commits before a good commit remain good. It then continues to narrow down which commit is the cause by asking you to check the middlemost commit, along with some added bias when navigating around invalid commits. Though, that’s not vitally important to understand as a user of the command.

The following graphic shows how bisect moves throughout your branch’s history.

Git Bisect Illustration

Bisect becomes incredibly useful when dealing with repositories with a lot of history, or when tracking down the cause of a bug that’s been in a codebase for a long time. It makes it possible to mule over hundreds of commits in fewer than a dozen steps! That’s a lot better than going through commits one-by-one or at random.

🔗Limitations

It is worth mentioning that bisect isn’t as useful in cases where commits are very large because they incorporate several different changes all bundled together (e.g. squash merges). In an ideal world, each commit in the main branch’s history can be built, and they will implement or fix one thing and one thing only. But in reality, this isn’t always the case. The skip command is available to help with this scenario, but even with that, it’s possible that a change that caused the bug is in one of those skipped commits; therefore, relying solely on the diff of the determined commit to find the root cause of a bug may be misleading.

🔗Conclusion

Git bisect is a very useful tool that can dramatically decrease the amount of time it takes to identify the cause of a regression. I would also recommend reading the official documentation on git bisect as it’s actually quite informative! There are a lot of good examples in here that demonstrate how you can use the command to its full potential.


This Dot Labs is a JavaScript consulting firm that enables companies to build and improve their digital technologies with confidence. For expert architectural guidance, training, consulting, engineering leadership, and development services in React, Angular, Vue, Web Components, GraphQL, Node, Bazel, Polymer, and more, visit thisdot.co

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