Quick Tip: Multiple User Configs with Git

On my personal laptop I often write code for multiple organizations as well as my own personal projects. Being the git neat freak I am sometimes I prefer to use different user configurations in git depending on what project I'm working on (e.g., personal projects might use my email address here at knpw.rs whereas non-personal projects might use a different email address). The solution for a small number of projects is simple: just use git config to set local user configuration for a given repo. However, that breaks down very easily. For instance, sometimes I would clone down a repo just to make a quick change and I would forget to set local user configuration. A quick Google search revealed that I'm not alone. What follows is my solution to make using multiple users in git easy and convenient.

Authorship With Environment Variables

A look around the git docs shows that you can set the name and email for a commit through environment variables. For instance:

$ export GIT_AUTHOR_NAME="Foo Barrington"
$ export GIT_AUTHOR_EMAIL="[email protected]"
$ git commit -am "Foo"
[master b51714c] Foo
Author: Foo Barrington <[email protected]>
1 file changed, 21 insertions(+)

GIT_{AUTHOR,COMMITTER}_NAME and GIT_{AUTHOR,COMMITTER}_EMAIL are now set for that shell session. All commits until the shell exits will use the name Foo Barrington and the email [email protected] for their user configuration. What we need is a way to make sure we always have these variables set for a given set of projects.

Introducing direnv

direnv describes itself as an environment switcher for the shell. If you've ever used tools like rvm then you're already familiar with the concept. Essentially it lets you change your environment variables depending on what your current working directory is. Unlike rvm, it's just a small, static binary with no external dependencies and it is language-agnostic.

Part One: Installation and Setup

On macOS installation is simple enough with Homebrew:

$ brew install direnv

Installation for other platforms (or from source) is covered on the direnv website.

You will also need to set it up to hook in to your shell. For zsh, I have the following in my .zshrc:

# Load direnv
if hash direnv 2>/dev/null; then
eval "$(direnv hook zsh)"

Because I use my dotfiles on multiple machines I check to make sure direnv is installed before attempting to hook it into the shell. Documentation for other shells is available on the direnv website, though it's very similar.

Now that you have direnv setup you can create .envrc files that export variables. For our purposes we can create a .envrc file with the following contents:

export GIT_AUTHOR_NAME="Foo Barrington"
export GIT_AUTHOR_EMAIL="[email protected]"

Now whenever we change in to this directory, or any directory underneath this directory, those environment variables will be set. Note that the first time you encounter any given .envrc file direnv will ask you to whitelist the file.

direnv: error .envrc is blocked. Run `direnv allow` to approve its content.

This is a security feature. Essentially since direnv is just executing arbitrary code it wants to make sure that you are aware of what is going on in your shell. That way if you clone down a project that contains a .envrc file you won't just be blindly executing code whenever you enter the project.

Also note that when you enter a directory that contains a .envrc file (or a sub-directory as previously noted) you will get a little notice indicating that you have new variables in your shell:

direnv: loading .envrc

Let's whitelist that .envrc file, initialize a new git repository, and make an initial commit:

$ direnv allow
direnv: loading .envrc
$ git init foo
Initialized empty Git repository in /Users/kpowers/Workspace/tmp/foo/.git/
$ cd foo
$ echo "# foo" > README.md
$ git add README.md
$ git commit -m "Initial commit."
[master (root-commit) 9a31ade] Initial commit.
Author: Foo Barrington <[email protected]>
1 file changed, 1 insertion(+)
create mode 100644 README.md

Looks like we're in business!

Part Two: Workspace Structure

The a-ha moment is that the .envrc file cascades to deeper directories. The trick to get this working the way we want relies on structuring your workspace in a certain way. In my home directory I have a workspace directory that looks like the following:

├── git.my.org
│ ├── .envrc # User configuration when I'm working on my.org.
│ └── team
│ ├── proj1
│ ├── proj2
│ └── proj3
└── github.com
└── knpwrs
├── .envrc # User configuration when I'm working on my personal projects.
├── proj1
├── proj2
└── proj3

Essentially I can set user configuration on a per-subtree basis rather than a per-repo basis. It doesn't matter where in the tree the .envrc files are located, as long as relevant projects are kept at the same level or lower in the directory tree.

For the Gophers

If you are a Go developer you might already be using direnv to manage your GOPATH. To implement what I am writing about here you would have a .envrc in the root of your workspace for GOPATH (and probably PATH, for that matter) and then you may want individual .envrc files for packages or organizations:

├── .envrc # Go workspace configuration (GOPATH, etc).
├── bin
├── pkg
└── src
└── github.com
├── knpwrs
│ ├── .envrc # Git user configuration for knpwrs.
│ └── proj1
├── mattn
└── nsf

But there's a problem! By default direnv will only use the closest .envrc file. What we want is to combine the root .envrc with the project or organization .envrc so we can have our GOPATH and PATH correct but still have granual authorship configuration. Fortunately, direnv has a mechanism for this:

export GIT_AUTHOR_NAME="Foo Barrington"
export GIT_AUTHOR_EMAIL="[email protected]"

source_up is a command in direnv-stdlib which looks for .envrc files in parent directories. Now whenever I am working inside of src/github.com/knwprs I will be known as Foo Barrington <[email protected]> and my GOPATH and PATH variables will be properly set up. Sweet!

My Original (Failed) Idea

I thought that .gitconfig might be able to cascade much like .gitignore does inside a repo (or rather, I was hoping it would scan up through the directory tree and apply settings from any .gitconfig files it finds, much like source_up in direnv). Essentially instead of creating .envrc files I would create .gitconfig files. Unfortunately git doesn't work this way. It checks for config in three places: .git/config, ~/.gitconfig, and $(prefix)/etc/gitconfig. For more information, see git-config.


The problem may seem a little convoluted at first (I was internally debating whether or not to even write this) but the existence of that Stack Overflow thread shows that I'm not alone in my desire for easily switching user configuration in git. Unfortunately my original idea of just using .gitconfig files didn't work and so I had to introduce an external tool to solve the problem. That said, direnv is very useful on its own outside of this context anyway (like for GOPATH), so I'm happy to have it installed.

To the extent possible under law, Ken Powers has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this website. This work is published from The United States.