Delta Manifests

This article describes "delta manifests," a special-case form of checkin manifest which is intended to take up far less space than a normal checkin manifest, in particular for repositories with many files. We'll see, however, that the space savings, if indeed there are any, come with some caveats.

This article assumes that the reader is at least moderately familiar with Fossil's artifact file format, in particular the structure of checkin manifests, and it won't make much sense to readers unfamiliar with that topic.

Sidebar: delta manifests are not to be confused with the core Fossil delta format. The former is a special-case form of delta which applies only to checkin manifests whereas the latter is a general-purpose delta compression which can apply to any Fossil-stored data (including delta manifests).

Background and Motivation of Delta Manifests

A checkin manifest includes a list of every file in that checkin. A moderately-sized project can easily have a thousand files, and every checkin manifest will include those thousand files. As of this writing Fossil's own checkins contain 989 files and the manifests are 80kb each. Thus a checkin which changes only 2 bytes of source code ostensibly costs another 80kb of storage for the manifest for that change.

Delta manifests were conceived as a mechanism to help combat that storage overhead.

Makeup of a Delta Manifest

A delta manifest is structured like a normal manifest (called a "baseline" manifest) except that it has two types of parents: the P-card which is part of (nearly) every manifest and a so-called baseline (denoted by a B-card). The P-card tells us which artifact(s) is/are the parents for purposes of the SCM version DAG. The B-card tells us which manifest to use as a basis for this delta. The B-card need not be, and often is not, the same as the P-card. Here's an example:

B c04ce8aaf1170966c6f8abcce8b57e72a0fa2b81
C Minor\sdoc\supdates...
D 2021-03-11T18:56:24.686
F bindings/s2/shell_extend.c 6d8354c693120a48cfe4798812cd24499be174b2
<15 F-cards snipped for brevity>
F src/repo.c 2f224cb0e59ccd90ba89c597e40b8e8d87506638
P 61d3e64e6fb1a93d4a7b0182e4c6b94d178d66d9
R a84ec2e8e1eb37ff0d94cac262795e23
U stephan
Z 536e6d26dd8dbe2779d9e5f52a15518e

The B-card names another manifest, by its unique ID, the same way that a P-card does. A manifest may have multiple P-card parents (the second and subsequent ones denoting merge parents) but B-cards always refer to exactly one parent.

What unambiguously distinguishes this as a delta is the existence of the B-card. All deltas have a B-card and no other type of artifact has one. What also, but not unambiguously, distinguishes it as a delta is that it has only 17 F-cards, whereas a baseline manifest in that same repository has (as of this writing) 291 F-cards. In this particular case, the delta manifest is 1363 bytes, compared to 20627 bytes for the next checkin - a baseline manifest. That's a significant saving in F-cards, especially if a repository contains thousands of files. That savings, however, comes with caveats which we'll address below.

Trivia regarding the B-card:

A delta manifest is functionally identical to a normal manifest except that it has a B-card and how it records F-cards. Namely, it only records F-cards which have changed at some point between this delta and the version represented by the delta's B-card. This recording of F-card differences also means that delta manifests, unlike normal manifests, have to explicitly record deleted F-cards. Baseline manifests do not record deletions. Instead, they include a list of every file which is part of that checkin. Deltas, however, record the differences between their own version and a baseline version, and thus have to record deletions. They do this by including F-cards which have only a file name and no hash.

Iterating over F-cards in a manifest is something several important internal parts of Fossil have to do. Iterating over a baseline manifest, e.g. when performing a checkout, is straightforward: simply walk through the list in the order the cards are listed. A delta, however, introduces a significant wrinkle to that process. In short, when iterating over a delta's F-cards, code has to compare the delta's list to the baseline's list. If the delta has an entry the parent does not have, or which is a newer entry for the same file, the delta's entry is used. If the delta is missing an entry which the baseline has, the baseline's entry is used. When a deletion F-card is discovered in the delta (recall that baselines do not record deletions), iteration over that card is skipped - the internal algorithms which iterate over F-cards never report deletions to the code iterating over those cards. The reason for that is consistency: only deltas record file deletions, but the fact that it's a delta is an internal detail, not something which higher-level code should concern itself with. If higher-level iteration code were shown file deletions, they would effectively be dealing with a leaky abstraction and special-case handling which only applies to delta manifests. The F-card iteration API hides such details from its users (other Fossil-internal APIs).

When does Fossil Create Deltas?

By default, Fossil never creates delta manifests. It can be told to do so using the --delta flag to the commit command. (Before doing so in your own repositories, please read the section below about the caveats!) When a given repository gets a delta manifest for the first time, Fossil records that fact in the repository's config table with an entry named seen-delta-manifest. If, in later sessions, Fossil sees that that setting has a true value, it will consider creating delta manifests by default.

Conversely, the forbid-delta-manifests repository config setting may be used to force Fossil to never create deltas. That setting will propagate to other repository clones via the sync process, to try to ensure that no clone introduces a delta manifests. We'll cover reasons why one might want to use that setting later on.

After creating a delta manifest during the commit process, Fossil examines the size of the delta. If, in Fossil's opinion, the space savings are not significant enough to warrant the delta's own overhead, it will discard the delta and create a new baseline manifest instead. (The heuristic it uses for that purpose is tucked away in Fossil's checkin algorithm.)


Delta manifests may appear, on the surface, to be a great way to save a few bytes of repository space. There are, however, caveats...

Space Savings?

Though deltas were conceived as a way to save storage space, that benefit is not truly achieved because...

When a manifest is created, Fossil stores its parent version as a fossil delta (as opposed to a delta manifest) which succinctly descibes the differences between the parent and its new child. This form of compression is extremely space-efficient and can reduce the real storage space requirements of a manifest from tens or hundreds of kilobytes down to a kilobyte or less for checkins which modify only a few files. As an example, as of this writing, Fossil's tip checkin baseline manifest is 80252 bytes (uncompressed), and the delta-compressed baseline manifest of the previous checkin is stored as a mere 726 bytes of Fossil-delta'd data (not counting the z-lib compression which gets applied on top of that). In this case, the tip version modified 7 files compared to its parent version.

Thus delta manifests do not actually save much storage space. They save some, in particular in the tip checkin version: Fossil delta-compresses older versions of checkins against the child versions, as opposed to delta-compressing the children against the parents. The reason is to speed up access for the most common case - the latest version. Thus tip-version delta manifests are more storage-space efficient than tip-version baseline manifests. Once the next version is committed, though, and Fossil deltification is applied to those manifests, that difference in space efficiency shrinks tremendously, often to the point of insignificance.

We can observe the Fossil-delta compression savings using a bit of 3rd-party code which can extract Fossil-format blobs both with and without applying their deltas:

$ f-acat tip > A        # tip version's manifest
$ f-acat prev --raw > B # previous manifest in its raw fossil-deltified form
$ f-acat prev > C       # previous manifest fossil-undelta'd
$ ls -la A B C
-rw-rw-r-- 1 user user 80252 Mar 12 07:09 A  # tip
-rw-rw-r-- 1 user user   726 Mar 12 07:09 B  # previous: delta'd
-rw-rw-r-- 1 user user 80256 Mar 12 07:09 C  # previous: undelta'd

For comparison's sake, when looking at a separate repository which uses delta manifests, a delta-compressed delta manifest takes up approximately the same space as a delta-compressed baseline manifest (to within 10 bytes for the test samples).

i.e. delta manifests may not save any storage space except for the tip version! (Surprise!)

In terms of RAM costs, deltas usually cost more memory than baseline manifests. The reason is because traversing a delta requires having not only that delta in memory, but also its baseline version. Delta manifests are seldom used in ways which do not require also loading their baselines. Thus Fossil internally requires two manifest objects for most operations with a delta manifest, whereas a baseline has but one. The difference in RAM cost is directly proportional to the size of the delta manifest.

Manifests as Proof of Code Integrity

Delta manifests have at least one more notable caveat, this one arguably more significant than an apparent lack of space savings: they're useless for purposes of publishing a manifest which downstream clients can use to verify the integrity of their copy of the software.

Consider this use case: the SQLite project publishes source code to many thousands of downstream consumers, many of whom would like to be able to verify that the copy they have downloaded is actually the copy published by the project. This is easily achieved by providing a copy of the downloaded version's manifest, as it contains a hash of every single file the project published and the manifest itself has a well-known hash and is cryptographically tamper-proof. It's mathematically extremely improbable for a malicious party to modify such a manifest and re-publish it as an "official" one, as the various hashes (F-cards, R-card, Z-card, and the hash of the manifest itself) would not line up. A collision-based attack would have to defeat all four of those hashes, which is practically impossible to do. Thus a Fossil checkin manifest can be used to provide strong assurances that a given copy of the software has not been tampered with since being exported by Fossil.

However, that use case is only possible with baseline manifests. A delta manifest is essentially useless for that purpose. The algorithm for traversing F-cards of a delta manifest is not trivial for arbitrary clients to reproduce, e.g. using a shell script. While it could be done in any higher-level programming language (or some truly unsightly shell code), it would be an onerous burden on downstream consumers and would not be without risks of having bugs which invalidate the strong guarantees provided by the manifest.

It's worth noting that the core Fossil project repository does not use delta manifests, at least in part for the same reason the SQLite project does not: the ability to provide a manifest which clients can easily use to verify the integrity of the code they've downloaded. The forbid-delta-manifests config setting is used to ensure that none are introduced into the repository beyond the few which were introduced solely for testing purposes.