cd ~{,/zhs/}

Manage Dotfiles with Git and Stow

Meta Info

I use only git and tons of .gitignore files to manage my dotfiles now, this article is reserved only for reference.

What is Dotfiles

This name came from the dot prefix of file name, for example, your probably most familiar one: ~/.bashrc.

So when we say dotfiles, we’re talking about user level application configuration, which should be stored as text files in ~/.config, according to XDG Base Directory Specification).

However dotfiles may be at anywhere under your home directory: ~/.bashrc, ~/.zshrc, ~/.ssh/config. Apparently, not all apps follow the XDG standard.

Manage for What

There may be more benefits, synchronization is considered the most useful one, however.

Control with Git

Git is really powerful also complicated, but in this scene, we start with a quite simple workflow, just initialize a local Git repository right under user’s home directory:

$ git init dotfiles

This ~/dotfiles local repository will contain all of app configurations to manage, just as other general Git repositories.

To take control of an app’s configuration, we create a directory for it, then move its dotfile(s) there, keeping the directory structure relative to $HOME.

~/.ssh/config, for example, the dotfile of SSH, let’s move it into our fresh empty repository:

$ mkdir ~/dotfiles/ssh/ && cd ~/dotfiles/ssh/  # make and change to directory for SSH
$ mkdir .ssh/ && cd .ssh/  # keep the directory structre relative to ~/
$ pwd  # now in ~/dotfiles/ssh/.ssh/
$ mv -v ~/.ssh/config .  # move dotfile here

Then comes a set of basic instructions of Git to manage the local repository:

$ cd ~/dotfiles/  # manage repository
$ git add ssh  # track the whole SSH's dotfile directory
$ git commit -m "add ssh"

Now we create an empty repository online, public or private, GitHub / GitLab / other platform / even your self-hosted Git server, it’s your call. Add remote repo’s url to the local one then push.

$ git remote add origin <your-repo-url>
$ git push -u origin master

Deploy with Stow

If you know little about Stow, it’s just a tool that makes symbolic links from ~/dotfiles/<app> to ~/. I rather call this proceed “deploying”, it’s easy and intuitive, just one command in ~/dotfiles/:

$ stow <app1> [<app2> <app3> ...]

So a command like stow bash ssh fontconfig make symbolic links:

This is not a reversed instruction to “taking control of app’s dotfiles”,because symbolic links are not moving, they are more like shortcuts. Applications read configuration from symbolic link, while we users could focus on editing in ~/dotfiles.

After a fresh install or some new apps added, we just need to clone or pull the repository, update it to latest version, then choose apps to run stow to deploy, simple and flexible, right?

About --dotfiles Option

This new feature introduced in Stow 2.3.0 preprocesses dot- prefix to real dot, so that users could use ~/dotfiles/bash/dot-bashrc rather than the hidden one.

Up to September of 2019 with version 2.3.1, this feature is still not fully functional with directories like ~/dotfiles/ssh/dot-ssh/, see details in this thread and this thread.

For now, vanilla usage with hidden directories and files is still recommended. Once the bug is fixed, we could use --dotfiles option to use unhidden ones.