Some notes on bisecting a modified Firefox source base with Mercurial

July 11, 2014

Suppose, not hypothetically, that you maintain your own copy of the Firefox master source (aka 'Nightly') with private modifications on top of the Mozilla version. Of course you don't commit your modifications, because that would lead to a huge tangle of merges over time. Now suppose that Mozilla breaks something and you want to use Mercurial bisection to find it.

The first thing you need is to figure out the last good version. What I do is I don't run my modified Firefox version directly out of the build directory; instead I periodically make an install tarball and unpack it elsewhere (and then keep the last few ones when I update it, so I can revert in case of problems). Among other things this tarball copy has an application.ini file, which for my builds includes a SourceStamp= value that gives the Mercurial commit identifier that the source was built from.

So we start the procedure by setting the range bounds:

hg bisect --good 606848e8adfc
hg bisect --bad tip

Since I'm carrying local modifications this will generally report something like:

Testing changeset 192456:d2e7bd70dd95 (1663 changesets remaining, ~10 tests)
abort: uncommitted changes

So now I need to explicitly check out the named changeset. If I skip this step Mercurial won't complain (and it will keep doing future 'hg bisect' operations without any extra complaints), but what I'm actually doing all of the time is building the tip of my repo. This is, as they say, not too useful. So:

hg checkout d2e7bd70dd95

This may print messages about merging changes in my changed files, which is expected. In general Mercurial is smart enough to get merging my changes in right unless something goes terribly wrong. Afterwards I build and test and do either 'hg bisect --good' or 'hg bisect --bad' followed by another 'hg checkout <ver>'.

(If I remember I can use the '-U' argument to 'hg bisect' so it doesn't attempt the checkout and abort with an error, but enhh. I actually think that having the error is handy because it reminds me that I need extra magic and care.)

In some cases even the 'hg checkout' may fail with the uncommitted changes error message. In this case I need to drop my changes and perhaps re-establish them later. The simple way is:

hg shelve
hg checkout ...

Perhaps I should routinely shelve all of my changes at the start of the bisection process, unless I think some of them are important for the testing I'm doing. It would cut down the hassle (and shelving them at the start would make it completely easy to reapply them at the end, since they'd be taken from tip and reapplied to tip).

After the whole bisection process is done, I need to cancel it and return to the tip of the tree:

hg bisect --reset
hg checkout tip
# if required:
hg unshelve
# optional but customary:
hg pull -u

(This is the sort of notes that I write for myself because it prevents me from having to reverse engineer all of this the next time around.)

Sidebar: Some related Mercurial bits I want to remember

The command to tell me what checkout I am on is 'hg summary' aka 'hg sum'. 'hg status' doesn't report this information; it's just for file status. This correctly reports that the current checkout hasn't changed when a 'hg bisect ...' command aborts due to uncommitted changes.

I don't think there's an easy command to report whether or not a bisection is in progress. The best way to check is probably:

hg log -r 'bisect(current)'

If there's no output, there's no bisection in flight.

(I believe I've left bisections sitting around in the past by omitting the 'hg bisect --reset'. If I'm right, things like 'hg pull -u' and so on won't warn me that theoretically there is a bisection running.)

Written on 11 July 2014.
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Last modified: Fri Jul 11 00:38:32 2014
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