Fork me on GitHub


Teaching: 20 min
Exercises: 40 min
  • How can we collaborate with others within one repository?
  • Understand how to collaborate using a centralized workflow.
  • Understand the difference between local branch, origin/branch, and remote branch.

Centralized workflow

Meaning of “central” in a distributed version control

The GitHub Octocat

Git implements a distributed version control. This means that any type of repository links that you can think of can be implemented - not just “everything connects to one central server”.

In Git, all repositories are equivalent but we typically we consider one repository as the main development line and this is marked as “central”. The “central” is a role, not a technical difference.

In this episode, we will explore the usage of a centralized workflow for collaborating online on a project within one repository.

Centralized layout


  • Typically all developers have both read and write permissions (double-headed arrows).
  • Suited for cases where all developers are in the same group or organization or project.
  • Everybody who wants to contribute needs write access.
  • Good idea to write-protect the main branch (typically master or main).

Real life examples:

Centralized workflow exercise

In this exercise we will practice collaborative centralized workflow in small groups. We’ll discuss how this leads to code review and discuss a number of typical pitfalls.

Exercise preparation

  • We form small groups (4-5 persons).
  • Each group needs to appoint someone who will host the shared GitHub repository: an administrator.
  • For online teaching, use breakout rooms.
  • One person per group (administrator) generates a new repository from the template template-centralized-workflow-exercise called centralized-workflow-exercise (There is no need to tick “Include all branches” for this exercise):

  • Then everyone in your group needs their GitHub account to be added as collaborator to the exercise repository:
    • Participants give their GitHub usernames to their chosen administrator (in their respective group, in online workshops you can use the Zoom chat for private communication within the breakout room).
    • Administrator gives the other group members the newly created GitHub repository URL.
    • Administrator adds participants as collaborators to their project (Settings → Manage Access → Invite a collaborator).
    • Group members need to accept the invitation. GitHub emails you an invitation link, but if you don’t receive it you can go to your GitHub notifications in the top right corner. The administrator can also “copy invite link” and share it within the group.

Watching and unwatching repositories

  • Now that you are a collaborator, you get notified about new issues and pull requests via email.
  • If you do not wish this, you can “unwatch” a repository (top of the project page).
  • However, we recommend watching repositories you are interested in. You can learn things from experts just by watching the activity that come through.

Exercise description

  • Helper prepares an exercise repository (see above) - this will take 10 minutes or so.
  • The exercise group works on steps 1-8 (15-20 minutes).
  • After step 8 you can return to the main room. Please ask questions.
  • We do step 9 and 10 together (instructor demonstrates, and everybody follows along in their repositories).
  • Before we start with the exercise, instructor mentions all steps and explains what happens during a git clone.

1. Clone your administrator’s group repository

$ git clone centralized-workflow-exercise

Where you replace coderefinery by the namespace of the repository administrator.

Instead of using https you can also clone using ssh keys:

This is a representation of what happens when you clone:



Here and in what follows, “c1” is a commit, “b1” etc. are commits on side branches and “m1” is a merge commit.

  • We clone the entire history, all branches, all commits. In our case, we have one branch (we did not include all branches when creating our repository from template) and we have only one commit (initial commit).
  • git clone creates pointers origin/master so you can see the branches of the origin.
  • origin refers to where we cloned from, try: git remote -v.
  • origin is a shortcut for the full URL.
  • origin/master is a read-only pointer.
  • They only move during git pull or git fetch or git push.
  • Only git pull or git fetch or git push require network.
  • All other operations are local operations.

2. Step into the newly created directory

$ cd centralized-workflow-exercise

Try to find out where this repository was cloned from using git remote -v.

3. Create a branch yourname-somefeature pointing at your commit

Create a branch from the current master:

$ git branch yourname-somefeature
$ git checkout yourname-somefeature

The yourname- prefix has no special meaning here (not like origin/): it is just part of a branch name to indicate who made it.

4. Create a file with a unique name, e.g.: yourusername.txt

In this file share your favourite cooking recipe or haiku or Git trick or whatever.

5. Stage and commit the change

$ git add yourusername.txt
$ git commit



6. Push your change as a new branch

$ git push origin -u yourname-somefeature

Can we leave out the -u?

7. Browse the network of branches and commits

After you have pushed your branch and other participants have too, browse the network of branches and commits and discuss with others what you see.

8. Submit a pull request

Submit a pull request from your branch towards the master branch. Do this through the web interface.

A pull-request means: “please review my changes and if you agree, merge them with a mouse-click”. In a popular project, it means that anyone can contribute with almost no work on the maintainer’s side - a big win.

9. Discuss and accept pull requests

We do this step together on the main screen (in the main room). The instructor shows a submitted pull request, discusses what features to look at, and how to discuss and review.

At the same time, helpers can review open pull requests from their exercises groups.

Hint for breakout rooms

If the helper in the room is the one who sets up the central repository, he/she cannot easily demostrate the steps via screen-sharing as the repository’s owner. A good alternative is to have one of the learners screen-share and get advice on the steps from other learners and helpers!



  • In GitLab or BitBucket these are named merge requests, not pull requests.
  • Which one do you feel is more appropriate and in which context? (The name pull request may make more sense in the forking workflow: next episode).
  • It can be useful to think of them as change proposals.

Pull requests are from branch to branch

  • They originate from a source branch and are directed towards a branch.
  • Not from commit to branch.
  • Pull requests create new commits on the target branch.
  • They do not create new branches.

Pull requests can be used for code review

  • Pull requests are like change proposals.
  • We recommend that pull requests are reviewed by someone else in your group.
  • In our example everyone has write access to the “central” repository.

Code review and protected branches

  • A good setting is to make the master or main branch protected and all changes to it have to go through code review.
  • Centralized workflow with protected branches is a good setup for many projects.

Why code review

  • You see what others are working on
  • Collaborative learning
  • OK if students and junior researchers review senior researchers
  • Improves quality of the code

Read more

Once the pull-request is accepted, the change is merged:



Finally also discuss

10. Update your local copy

Your branch yourname-somefeature is not needed anymore but more importantly, you need to sync your local copy: Everybody needs to do this step in their exercise repository but we do this together in the main room so that we can discuss this step and ask questions.

$ git checkout master
$ git pull origin master



(Optional) exercise or demo: Cross-referencing issues

We will submit another change by a pull request but this time we will first create an issue.

  1. Open an issue on GitHub and describe your idea for a change. This gives others the chance to give feedback/suggestions. Note the issue number, you will need it in step 3.
  2. Create a new branch and switch to it.
  3. On the new branch create a commit and in the commit message write what you did, but also add that this “closes #1” (if the issue that you refer to had the number 1).
  4. Push the branch and open a new pull request. If you forgot to refer to the issue number in step 3, you can still refer to it in the pull request form.
  5. Note how now commits, pull requests, and issues can be cross-referenced by including #NNN.
  6. Notice how after the pull request is merged, the issue gets automatically closed. This only happens certain keywords like closes or fix.
  7. Discuss the value of cross-referencing them and of auto-closing issues with commits or pull requests.

Exercise/discussion: Why did we create a feature branch yourname-somefeature?

This exercise is done in groups of 4-5 persons and can be done through a discussion only.

Pushing directly to the main branch is perfectly fine for simple personal projects - the pull-request workflows covered here are for larger projects or for collaborative development. Guidelines for simpler workflows are given in the how much git is necessary? episode of the git-intro lesson.

In collaborative development, whenever we update our repository we create a new branch and create a pull-request. Let’s now imagine that everyone in your group makes a new change (create a new file) but without creating a new branch.

  1. You all create a new file in the master branch, stage and commit your change locally.
  2. Try to push the change to the upstream repository:
$ git push origin master

You probably see something like this:

$ git push
 ! [rejected]        master -> master (non-fast-forward)
error: failed to push some refs to ''
To prevent you from losing history, non-fast-forward updates were rejected
Merge the remote changes (e.g. 'git pull') before pushing again.  See the
'Note about fast-forwards' section of 'git push --help' for details.
  • The push only worked for one participant.
  • Discuss why push for everybody else in this group was rejected?


The push for everyone except one person fails because they are missing one commit in their local repository that exists on the remote. They will first need to pull the remote changes before pushing their own, which will usually result in a merge commit.

Discussion: How to make changes to remote branches

We can create a local branch somefeature tracking origin/somefeature:

$ git checkout -b somefeature origin/somefeature

If there is no local branch somefeature and there is a remote branch origin/somefeature, then this is enough:

$ git checkout somefeature

The long form is only needed if you have multiple remotes containing a branch called somefeature (we will learn about multiple remotes in the next episode).

Once we track a remote branch, we can pull from it and push to it:

$ git pull origin somefeature
$ git push origin somefeature

We can also delete remote branches:

$ git push origin --delete somefeature

Creating pull requests from the command line

There are several possibilties:

How you can find out in which repositories you are a collaborator

Visit where you will see an overview of all repositories you have write access to.

GitHub/GitLab organizations

  • Projects often start under a personal namespace.
  • If you want the project to live beyond the interest or work time of one person, one can share projects under an “organization”.
  • You can then invite collaborators to an organization.
  • This is what we do in the CodeRefinery project:

Key Points