Use Gitolite to Control Access to a Git Server

Posted on

Git is a great distributed version control system that can be used to keep track of changes and code for any kind of project. Sometimes, it is helpful to configure a git server to house your team’s projects.

Gitolite provides an access-control layer for a git server, so that you can configure user-based git access without the accompanying operating system user accounts. This provides your git contributors the privileges they need, without exposing your server to other kinds of interaction.

We will be installing these components on an Debian 7.0 VPS. This tutorial assumes that you have a regular user account on this VPS with sudo privileges.

Install Git

Log into your Debian server with your regular user account.

We will be installing git from Debian’s default repositories:

sudo apt-get install git-core

We now have git installed. We will want to configure a few things for git to operate properly.

Install Gitolite

Now that we have git set up correctly, we can install gitolite to manage user access to our repositories.

Gitolite is also available in Debian’s default repositories. Install it with this command:

sudo apt-get install gitolite

Gitolite manages its configuration through git! To set this up properly, we’ll create a operating system user whose sole function is to interact with gitolite.

The operating system user will be called git to make it easy for our collaborators to remember. We will not set a password so that it is only accessible through using the su command.

sudo adduser --system --group --shell /bin/bash --disabled-password git

We now have a user called “git” that will handle gitolite configuration. We need to be able to access this user from a normal account. We will do this by configuring an SSH key associated with git administration.

Configure SSH Keys for Git Administration

On your local computer, which you will be using to administer git and gitolite, you need to create an SSH key pair if you have not done so already.

Note: If you already have a key pair created, you should skip this command to avoid overwriting your SSH keys.

ssh-keygen -t rsa

Accept the default location and press ENTER to configure key-based login without a password.

Copy the public key to the git server by typing:

scp ~/.ssh/ regular_username@git_server_IP_address:/tmp/

If you followed the Initial Server Setup article, you will need to allow SSH access to the git user. You can do that by editing /etc/ssh/sshd_config and adding git to the AllowUsers directive. Once you’re done, restart the SSH server:

sudo service ssh restart

Configure Gitolite

The next steps will take place back on our git server. Log back in with your normal user.

We can log in with our “git” user to initialize gitolite with the public key we just transferred.

sudo su - git

Now, we can set up gitolite with the following command:

gl-setup /tmp/

Hit ENTER to pull the configuration into your editor. Scan the contents to make sure the default configuration will meet your needs. You can always change it later.

When you are finished, save and exit out of the file.

How To Administer Gitolite

Back on your local computer, you can begin administering gitolite.

If you do not already have git installed on this computer, you need to install it with:

sudo apt-get install git-core

First, we need to clone the gitolite information from our git server to our local machine:

git clone git@git_server_IP_address:gitolite-admin

This will create a new directory called gitolite-admin within your current directory. Here, we can make changes to our access policies and then push those changes to the git server.

Add New Users to Gitolite

To add users to your projects, you will need their public keys. Gitolite works by associating the username that will be signing in with the public key with the same name. We will pretend we have a user called john for this demonstration.

On the local machine, we can change into the gitolite-admin directory and see what is inside:

cd gitolite-admin
conf    keydir

Inside, there are two directories: conf and keydir. Unsurprisingly, keydir contains user keys.

You would communicate with “john” and acquire the public key that he plans on using. You would then copy that key into this directory like this:

cp /path/to/johns/public/ ~/gitolite-admin/keydir/

After that, you need to add the new public key to the git repository.

First, we want to configure the user name and email that will be associated with administrative git actions. Type these commands to configure this:

git config --global "your_name_here"
git config --global "[email protected]"

You probably also want to configure git to use the editor of your choice. Type this command to specify your preferences:

git config --global core.editor your_editor_choice

Now, we can add the new file to git:

git add keydir/

Commit the changes with a message:

git commit -a -m "New user John added"

Push the changes up to the git server to save the results:

git push

Configure Access with Gitolite

When you added the user in the last section, you may have noticed a warning like this:

remote:         ***** WARNING *****
remote:         the following users (pubkey files in parens) do not appear in the config file:
remote: john(

You will receive a message that the new user is not in the config file. This means that the user “john” is known to gitolite, but no access has been created for him.

We can easily add him to our configuration by editing the ~/gitolite-admin/conf/gitolite.conf file.

We will go one step further though and give him his own repository. We will create a repository called johns-project and give him access:

nano ~/gitolite-admin/conf/gitolite.conf
repo    gitolite-admin
RW+     =   git-admin

repo    testing
RW+     =   @all

As you can see, the syntax is pretty simple.

We specify a git repository with the repo keyword followed by its name. Under that, we write the privilege type, an equal sign (=), and the users who should get that access.

Groups can be defined with a line like this:

@group_name = user1 user2 user3

After that, we can refer to a number of users like by referencing the group:

repo    some_repo
RW+     = @group_name

A special group called @all references all users or all repositories, based on the context.

The permissions can be one of these values:

R: Read only access RW: Can read or push new changes. Cannot delete refs that exist on the git server already. RW+: Can push destructively, or delete refs on the server. -: Has no access to the specified content.

We can give “john” full access to a new repository called johns-project by adding these lines to the end of the file:

repo    johns-project
RW+     =       john

Save and close the file.

Now, we can commit this change with a new message:

git commit -a -m "Made John's repo"

Finally, push the changes to the git server:

git push

Now, “john” should be able to clone his project repository with the following command, from the computer where he created the public and private keys:

git clone git@git_server_IP_address:johns-project


You should now have gitolite configured correctly. You should be able to create git users easily without worrying about configuring accompanying operating system users and permissions every time.

If you are managing multiple projects with diverse teams, it is probably best to set up groups that correspond to projects. It might also be helpful to organize your keydir keys into subdirectories based on project. Gitolite will use them the same way, but they will be easier to find for administrative purposes.