Working with a remote team can be an absolute nightmare coordination-wise. You have a group of people that need to work on the same set of files, so you need to organize who edits which files, at which time, and possibly forbid access to parts of the project that are one version up and ready to ship. This is why GitHub has become one of the most valuable tools you can use in a collaborative environment.
So, what is GitHub, exactly? We’ll explain that in this article, going over its main features and advantages, to give you a better idea about how it works and whether you need it.
Version Control and Git
Before we can dive deeper into the features and inner workings of GitHub, we need to cover some basic terminology and principles that this tech is based upon. We’ll go a step at a time, starting from the very basics, and then gradually build up until we can start talking about GitHub itself.
First things first - what is version control and versioning, for that matter? It’s, in short, how GitHub works. When you’re creating anything, whether it’s an app or a book, you’re likely to change some things as you go along. Each new iteration of the project is a version. Developers like to label each version of an app they’re building with a number.
Alpha and beta versions are often labeled 0.2, 0.3, etc., while the first release version is typically 1.0, and future patches are 1.1, 1.2, etc. Releases past 1.0 typically have some app improvements and bug fixes, but new features are sometimes added.
As your project grows and the updates keep piling up, you’ll need a way to keep track of all the versions you’ve made so far and the ability to roll back to a previous version if it turns out an update broke something. This is one of the main GitHub features called versioning.
So, what is version control, then? It’s a platform that keeps track of all the versions and roles within a project and prevents people from overwriting each other’s work. This makes it much easier to grasp who’s working on which part of the code.
Before we answer the question “What is GitHub used for?” we must first explain what Git is. Simply put, it is a piece of software dedicated to version control. Git is where GitHub gets its name and function from. It was initially developed by Linus Torvalds (of Linux fame) in 2005, and Git was intended to be used for the Linux kernel. As with anything Linux-related, Git is entirely open-source and can be used straight from the command line.
Although it was developed for Linux (since Linus Torvalds needed a free alternative to distribution systems popular at the time), it is platform agnostic. That means you can use it on Windows and Mac, too.
As for the name, there are many theories - it can either be British slang for an unpleasant person, a play on the word “get,” a shorthand from “Global Information Tracker,” or just a simple command that can be quickly typed in console. Even the readme file jokes about this.
What Is GitHub, and How Does It Work?
This finally brings us to GitHub itself. As the name implies, this platform serves as a hub for all the projects and pieces of code available to developers through Git commands. It’s a repository, or repo for short, a web-based service with a graphical user interface (GUI) that streamlines the process of acquiring and maintaining projects.
GitHub is all about collaboration. When you upload your project to a repository, it will have a unique URL and can be set to either be available to the general public or stay within the confines of your team. Then, you can “fork” your GitHub project so you can, for example, test some experimental features before committing it to the main branch. Since the platform is so interconnected, you can create forks from other people’s code and projects, or you can join in and contribute to them directly. The original author always has the final say when it comes to accepting forks and revisions.
Code sharing is another important feature of the platform and the reason why so many people use GitHub in the first place. Since everything is hosted online, sharing your work with a fellow programmer is much easier and faster compared to more traditional methods.
Terminology and Inner Workings
Now that you can answer the question “What is a GitHub repository?” let’s look at some of the terms you’ll be encountering across this platform. Along the way, we will talk about how each of these features actually works within the broader scope of things.
We’ve already explained that it’s a repository, basically storage for your project. It can contain files of any type, sorted into folders that you can freely create and edit. GitHub pros recommend including license and readme files in the root folder, no matter whether the project is public or not.
Your default project is called the master branch. Every new branch created is an exact copy of the master branch at the time of making the copy.
Continuing through GitHub basics, let’s talk about commits and pull requests. A commit is a term used to describe every change you make, either to a single file or the project as a whole. Documentation is essential, which is why you’re required to provide a written description of why you’ve made the change and what’s different from the previous version.
Finally, once you’ve done working, you send a pull request - a proposal to include newly updated files into the master. During this process, you can discuss changes with your co-workers within GitHub, and once the request is accepted, the platform color-codes all of the new changes.
Advantages of Using GitHub
Now that we’ve seen how it all works, let’s see how GitHub can help run and manage projects. Through this section, you’ll see some of the features of this platform and will, hopefully, be able to decide whether you need GitHub in the first place. Let’s start from the top.
Team and Project Management
The number one reason for creating an account on this platform is when you need extra help managing a project you’re working on. This is especially true if you’re working in a team and need to coordinate several people with different roles on the project. How does GitHub work in this case? It lets you assign roles to your team members, effectively creating a virtual hierarchy for the project without requiring a third-party tool.
Various moderation tools are at your disposal, as is versioning info, so everyone stays on the same page while working on the same set of files. The platform makes it easy to revert to previous versions of the project if anything breaks, so you won’t need to constantly think about backups and keep track of where your old versions are.
During any kind of development, when things are kept under the radar, the last thing you want is your source code to leak outside of the development team. That’s why GitHub uses role management and allows for private file distribution. This way, you can keep everything in one place, both code and documentation - no more digging through a bunch of folders and different file servers.
As a platform that has been developer-centric from its early days, it’s no wonder that GitHub caters primarily to software developers. It is, in fact, one of the most popular DevOps tools today, a platform that helps teams develop their software faster and in a more effective manner. By using Git pull commands, your programmers can easily fetch the latest pieces of code available on the repository and just start working on updates.
The purpose of GitHub here is to allow for discussion and new code proposals before committing any changes, which ties into the main principle of the platform - improving team communication. On top of that, GitHub understands 200+ programming languages and can help with the syntax while you code.
It’s rare to find a team using just one integrated development environment (IDE) while working on a job. You might have files that need to be pulled up from other cloud hosting services, a lot of file conversion might need to be done, or you’ll have to work with a CMS such as WordPress.
GitHub’s usage is very flexible here, and it can likely connect to any third-party software you’ll need to help streamline the process of getting the files you need.
GitHub is, after all, a social network of sorts. When you create an account, you’ll get a profile that doubles as a portfolio. Joining a project will connect you with other people that work on it. This creates a network of professionals and opens up opportunities to work on bigger projects, where you might get hired based on your skills and previous experience.
As we previously explained in our GitHub beginners guide, the platform simplifies communication, making it quicker and to the point. We no longer need to scour the internet for the developer’s contact when we can just reach out to them directly through this platform.
At this point, you probably have a clear idea of whether you need to move your project to GitHub or not. The platform has become the most popular of its kind, and for a good reason. It’s completely free for public projects and very affordable if you need some private hosting space.
Getting started with GitHub is just a matter of creating an account and trying out its features. Not many high-level tools can boast such incredible usability.