Programming, Python

Setting up a Mercurial work environment

So today I had a frustrating experience trying to get a Mercurial environment going for the current project I am working on. I am convinced for the kind of work we are doing the distributed branch model is going to be the right solution and I had been using a local Mercurial instance during my tech spiking earlier on the product.

Having built Python and Mercurial on the server and created a Mercurial user with the SSH keys of the individual developers I thought it would be easy sailing this morning. Not a bit of it and all of the problems stemmed from the lack of by default support for SSH in Windows.

Like most people I use the Putty Tool Suite for my SSH needs on windows. However simply aliasing putty to ssh doesn’t work. There are some key command switches that are different (including the trivial but annoying -P instead of -p for port).

Coming from a Java Subversion background I am used to having a portable library to take care of my ssh protocol needs. I also use OSX for my home development and that obviously provides a UNIX ssh command-line implementation, hence hassle-free SSH based source control.

The command line tool turned out to be the root of all my problems, both Eclipse and NetBeans Mercurial plugins don’t provide an implementation of the Mercurial client, instead they delegate it to the Mercurial client on the host OS, that in turns delegates ssh protocol invocations to the command line SSH.

The solution is simple once you know it, in the Mercurial.ini file you can alias ssh to Putty’s plink executable. There is in fact an example in the Mercurial book. Better still you don’t have to specify the key used if you are using Pageant.

However getting the first station to work was incredibly hard work. I even downloaded Cygwin just to get a more normal Unix ssh but by that point I had put a typo into the ssh alias and was getting a very weird error whenever I invoked Mercurial and I’d lost the forest in the trees.

At one stage I even gave Bazaar a go, hoping that SFTP might cure all my ills. However Bazaar uses Paramiko for it’s SSH support and on Windows that was failing due to its inability to find an OS source of entropy.

Server-side Python also let me down a bit as I was having an issue with the zlib module and after similar experiences with Ruby I knew that this would be because I must have compiled Python before zlib. Despite cleaning and re-configuring Python it still didn’t build the zlib module and in then end I had to go and run configure within the zlib module manually prior to a full Python build. This is exactly the same issue I have had with Ruby, what is the problem with this library?

Once you’ve done it once Mercurial repositories are actually easier to setup and manage than SVN (and that itself is pretty easy once you’ve done it a few times) and if you are working in a UNIX environment then they are extremely compelling.

However on Windows you are currently going to either do a lot of preparatory reading or be ready to set aside six hours to prevent frustration. In my case it probably didn’t help that I am also the one selling the utility of Mercurial. The pioneers always have the arrows in their backs; on the other hand they also get to better places long before anyone else.