Evolve: Concepts

Getting the most out of software requires an accurate understanding of the concepts underlying it. For example, you cannot use Mercurial to its full potential without understanding the DAG (directed acyclic graph) of changesets and the meaning of parent/child relationships between nodes in that graph. Mercurial with changeset evolution adds some additional concepts to the graph of changesets. Understanding those concepts will make you an informed and empowered user of evolve.


This document contains math! If you have a pathological fear of set theory and the associated notation, you might be better off just reading the user guide. But if you appreciate the theoretical rigour underlying core Mercurial, you will be happy to know that it continues right into changeset evolution.


This document is incomplete! (The formatting of the math isn’t quite right yet, and the diagrams are missing for malformatted.)

This document follows standard set theory notation:

x ∈ A: x is a member of A

A ∪ B: union of A and B: { x | x ∈ A or x ∈ B }

A ∖ B: set difference: { x | x ∈ A and x ∉ B }

A ⊇ B: superset: if x ∈ B, then x ∈ A


First, every changeset in a Mercurial repository (since 2.3) has a phase. Phases are independent of evolve and they affect Mercurial usage with or without changeset evolution. However, they were implemented in order to support evolution, and are a critical foundation of evolve.

Phases are strictly ordered:

secret > draft > public

Changesets generally only move from a higher phase to a lower phase. Typically, changesets start life in draft phase, and move to public phase when they are pushed to a public repository. (You can set the default phase of new commits in Mercurial configuration.)

The purpose of phases is to prevent modifying published history. evolve will therefore only let you rewrite changesets in one of the two mutable phases (secret or draft).

Run hg help phases for more information on phases.

Obsolete changesets

Obsolescence is they key concept at the heart of changeset evolution. Everything else in this document depends on understanding obsolescence. So: what does it mean for a changeset to be obsolete?

In implementation terms, there is an obsolescence marker associated with changesets: every changeset is either obsolete or not.

The simplest way that a changeset becomes obsolete is by pruning it. The hg prune command simply marks the specified changesets obsolete, as long as they are mutable.

More commonly, a changeset A becomes obsolete by amending it. Amendment creates a new changeset A’ that replaces A, which is now obsolete. A’ is the successor of A, and A the predecessor of A’:

[diagram: A and A’ with pred/succ edge]

The predecessor/successor relationship forms an additional obsolescence graph overlaid on top of the traditional DAG formed by changesets and their parent/child relationships. In fact, the obsolescence graph is second-order version control. Where the traditional parent/child DAG tracks changes to your source code, the obsolescence graph tracks changes to your changesets. It tracks the evolution of your changesets.

(If you prefer a calculus metaphor to set theory, it might help to think of the traditional parent/child DAG as the first derivative of your source code, and the obsolescence DAG as the second derivative.)

Troubled changesets (unstable, bumped, divergent)

Evolving history can introduce problems that need to be solved. For example, if you prune a changeset P but not its descendants, those descendants are now on thin ice. To push a changeset to another repository R, all of its ancestors must be present in R or pushed at the same time. But Mercurial does not push obsolete changesets like P, so it cannot push the descendants of P. Any non-obsolete changeset that is a descendant of an obsolete changeset is said to be unstable.

[diagram: obsolete cset with non-obsolete descendant]

Another sort of trouble occurs when two developers, Alice and Bob, collaborate via a shared non-publishing repository. (This is how developers can safely share mutable history.) Say Alice and Bob both start the day with changeset C in draft phase. If Alice pushes C to their public repository, then it is now published and therefore immutable. But Bob is working from a desert island and cannot pull this change in C‘s phase. For Bob, C is still in draft phase and therefore mutable. So Bob amends C, which marks it obsolete and replaces it with C’. When he is back online and pulls from the public repository, Mercurial learns that C is public, which means it cannot be obsolete. We say that C’ is bumped, since it is the successor of a public changeset.

(Incidentally, the terminology here comes from airline overbooking: if two people have bought tickets for the same seat on a plane and they both show up at the airport, only one of them gets on the plane. The passenger who is left behind in the airport terminal has been “bumped”.)

The third sort of trouble is when Alice and Bob both amend the same changeset C to have different successors. When this happens, the successors are both called divergent (unless one of them is in public phase; only mutable changesets are divergent).

The collective term for unstable, bumped, and divergent changeset is troubled:

troubled = unstable ∪ bumped ∪ divergent

It is possible for a changeset to be in any of the troubled categories at the same time: it might be unstable and divergent, or bumped and divergent, or whatever.

[diagram: Venn diagram of troubled changesets, showing overlap]

The presence of troubled changesets indicates the need to run hg evolve.

Hidden (and visible) changesets

Some obsolete changesets are hidden: deliberately suppressed by Mercurial and usually not visible through the UI. (As of Mercurial 2.9, there are still some commands that inadvertently reveal hidden changesets; these are bugs and will be fixed in due course.)

All hidden changesets are obsolete, and all obsolete changesets are part of your repository. Mathematically speaking:

repo ⊇ obsolete ⊇ hidden

Or, putting it visually:

[diagram: Venn diagram showing nested strict subsets]

However, the presence of obsolete but not hidden changesets should be temporary. The desired end state for any history mutation operation is that all obsolete changesets are hidden, i.e.:

repo ⊇ obsolete, obsolete = hidden


[diagram: Venn diagram showing obsolete = hidden, subset of repo]

Why is this changeset visible?

Any changeset which is not hidden is visible. That is,

visible = repo ∖ hidden

(Recall that ∖ means set difference: visible is the set of changesets that are in repo but not in hidden.)

After amending or pruning a changeset, you might expect it to be hidden. It doesn’t always work out that way. The precise rules are:

hideable = obsolete
blockers = bookmarks ∪ parents(workingcopy) ∪ localtags
hidden = hideable ∖ ancestors((repo ∖ hideable) ∪ blockers)

This will probably be clearer with a worked example. First, here’s a repository with some obsolete changesets, some troubled changesets, one bookmark, a working copy, and some hidden changesets:


Here’s the computation required to determine which changesets are hidden:

repo = { 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 }

hideable = obsolete = { 2, 4, 5, 8 }

blockers = { 6 } ∪ { 4 } ∪ {}

blockers = { 4, 6 }

hidden = hideable ∖ ancestors((repo ∖ { 2, 4, 5, 8 }) ∪ { 4, 6 })

hidden = hideable ∖ ancestors({ 0, 1, 3, 6, 7 } ∪ { 4, 6 })

hidden = hideable ∖ ancestors({ 0, 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 })

hidden = { 2, 4, 5, 8 } ∖ { 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 }

hidden = { 8 }