In my previous article on how to submit patches by email for PostgreSQL, I skipped over whether patches should be split up. Let’s discuss that now.

(See the previous article, as well as general Git documentation, for the technical details of how to split up a patch. Here, I’m only talking about why.)

What I’m talking about here specifically is where instead of attaching one patch to an email to pgsql-hackers, you attach a sequence of patch files like 0001-first.patch, 0002-second.patch, etc. (see previous article for the correct naming).

What follows is my opinion, based on what I like to see during patch reviews, and how I tend to prepare my patch submissions. Maybe it’s all wrong and others hate it and wish I’d stop it. Feedback welcome. But anyway.

The foremost principle is, each patch in a series should make sense on its own, and it should move the source tree from one working state to another working state. (Think of the “C” in ACID.) When I review a patch series, I review each patch separately, and I also run each patch (incrementally on top of its predecessors) through the test suites. If that fails, meh.

This principle can be applied and interpreted in different ways, and that’s fine. Let’s go through a few different cases:

[I will show some examples. In order not to pick on anyone else, I’m only picking examples that I authored or I’m otherwise closely involved in.]

  1. Simplest case: You send the whole thing as one patch. Nothing wrong with that, let’s be clear. Start here if you don’t know better or you’re not a Git wizard or none of the other cases apply. There appears to be a natural limit on how big a patch can be processed successfully, but that’s not a hard rule, just indirect advice. Keep your patch free of unrelated cleanup. If you have cleanup, see below.

    [Example: Here is the first patch submission for a potential new feature. It’s just a big patch for now, early in development, maybe we’ll find ways to organize it differently later. But for now, keep it simple.]

  2. If you work on a larger project, you will inevitably find stuff you want to clean up, weird formatting, confusing comments, ancient coding style, etc. This does not belong in your main patch, people will get upset about that. You could either split your patch now, or you just send a new patch in a separate email thread. The latter is probably easiest: If you write an email, “here is some cleanup I did while working on something else”, together with a really clean and obvious patch, someone can quickly pick that up and review it or commit it. (Note, if you have several different kinds of cleanups, such as formatting changes, comment typos, etc., it’s probably also good to split those into separate patches attached to the same email.) If instead you submit those cleanups with the main patch, then chances are fewer people will see it, because the big patch at the end will scare them away.

    [Example: Here is a thread developing a new feature that has gone on for quite some time. I know a lot of side-cleanups have been done during the development, but I kept all of those out of the main patch and the main discussion thread.]

  3. Sometimes, if you work on a big project, you will want to do some preparatory work first, like refactor some code, add a new API, put some testing infrastructure in place, or add test coverage. This would be bad to put into the main patch, because it will make the visual inspection of the patch more confusing and difficult. It usually also doesn’t make sense to submit these preparatory patches in a separate thread, because then you’ll lose the context, and often you will want to change those preparatory patches as your main patch evolves. So here you should really split your patch into a single series.

    Sometimes, the review discussion might reveal that the splitting went too far. Maybe the new API does not make sense without the main feature, and the reviewers think they should be committed together. Or maybe, as a compromise, they can be committed separately, but only in one batch, once the whole series has been agreed upon. That’s ok, that’s part of patch review. Reviewing is not only about patch contents but also a bit about patch structure. Sometimes it’s also useful to make smaller splits during early development, and then combine the patches after they have been reviewed. Also, sometimes, the preparation work becomes so significant that it becomes a feature of its own, in which case, see the next case.

    [Example: Here is the first patch submission for a possible new feature. Note how the first two patches in the series reorganize the tests before anything else. This would have been really confusing if it had been included in the main patch. The third and fourth patches are arguably cleanups that could be submitted separately, but I felt they make more sense if kept in this context. Note also how my email message explains the patch structure and guides any reviewers.]

  4. You are working on a big project, but it’s really a collection or sequence of smaller projects. (Or alternatively, you are working on a huge project, but it’s really a collection or sequence of big projects.) If you can figure out how to divide this up, then that’s great. You made your patches smaller but each patch is useful on its own.

    Here again, the granularity can vary as the feature development progresses or after reviews. Maybe your first patch adds support for some feature to the UPDATE command, and the second patch to the DELETE command, and the third one to the MERGE command. This kind of thing can be useful during code review, as each increment can be considered and tested separately, but maybe for final commit you want to combine them; it depends.

    But if the smaller projects can be fully separated without losing context, they should probably just be separate threads, especially if they are each fairly big on their own.

    [Example: Here is a patch submission in the middle of a larger thread. This submission organized the previous work into this incremental-features fashion, after some offline discussions. This ultimately allowed this very large feature set to make progress.]

What is not useful in my opinion is splitting patches in a way that each patch is not considered a self-contained patch. For example, splitting documentation or tests into separate patches is counter-useful. I wouldn’t commit it like that, and it doesn’t help during review, because I can find the documentation, code, and test parts of a patch just fine, but not if they are in different patches. Another example is where one patch adds a GUC and a second patch makes use of it. You could argue that this is akin to first adding an API and then using it, but I think in this case it goes too far. Realistically, the first patch cannot be considered on its own if we don’t know how the new GUC is going to be used.

When you submit a patch series, explain under what premise you have split the patches, and explain the state and review expectations for each patch of the series. For example, if you send cleanups plus main patch, you might want to write, “the first three patches are just trivial cleanups, if people want to look at those first, we could get them out of the way”. Otherwise, they will linger there forever until the main patch becomes ready. (Hence the suggestion above to send cleanups separately.) If you send a patch series consisting of several independent subfeatures, then you might want to guide the focus of reviewers. Otherwise, they might all end up reviewing the middle patch, which might make the least sense to commit first. Or maybe the last patch in the series is still in development and you’d rather have reviewers to finalize the reviews of the first couple of patches. Say that, or otherwise they’ll spend all their time reporting the faults in your last patch that you already knew. Or maybe you do want all patches to be reviewed equally because you want to verify some cross-cutting issues.

My general expectation is that patches are to be considered in order. So if I see a series of like five patches, I’ll probably briefly look over each patch and the whole discussion to get the general idea, then I’ll run each patch through the test suites incrementally, and then I’ll focus on reviewing the first patch in detail.

A patch series can also be considered a queue of sorts. Maybe you submit a series of five patches. Then, after some rounds of reviews, the first patch gets committed. Then you submit the remaining four patches for the next review rounds. Maybe after a while you add some additional functionality, so you add another patch at the end. Or you find some issues with what has already been committed, and so you insert a new patch at the front of the queue (remember, first patch first). However, this generally only works well if the patch authors and reviewers how some sort of understanding about this. Otherwise, you’ll just have a patch series that is always changing and never ends, and everyone will get tired of it. Think about the scope of your project, and if appropriate start a separate thread for a new topic.


  • Each patch in a series is self-contained.
  • If in doubt, start with a single patch.
  • Communicate structure and expectations to reviewers.