For a lot of my open source and side projects, I tend to release code as soon as I've finished a distinct chunk and in most cases, when the code is for a web site, I won't have any concept of managed versioning (though I do use semantic/conventional commits). This means often when I'm looking at the web site - or rather you're looking at the web site I can't always be sure which version of code you're using at the time.

Last week though, I discovered a little trick inside of Netlify that helped me surface this information in a, I think, fairly nice way.

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A way to verify live changes

I wanted both a way that I could ask the users of my sites which version they were on, but also a way to check what had gone live in that latest change.

What I have now is this: a link at the bottom of each page that shows a commit sha that links to the commit diff between releases to Netlify.

Version link example

This links to the previous deployed version of the code to the commit that's now live, using a github "compare" URL, such as this:

The how

Netlify includes two useful environment variables:

  • COMMIT_REF: Reference ID (also known as 'SHA' or 'hash') of the commit we're building.
  • CACHED_COMMIT_REF: Reference ID (also known as 'SHA' or 'hash') of the last commit that we built before the current build.

The compare URL I showed you earlier is the difference between these two commits. So the task is getting those values into my code.

I get these values into my code using three steps:

  1. Netlify calls the build process on my project - I use Node and so this will run npm run build for me
  2. The build process runs a shell script that generates a JavaScript file on the fly for me
  3. The file that's generated is then used during my main project build process

In my case I'm using JavaScript both on the server side (for a static build) and on the client side. However, there's nothing stopping you from using this process with PHP or any other language - the point is to use these values. In my case, I'm generating a new JavaScript file because I want to use this during browser runtime - so this file won't have access to environment variables at this point in time.

This is my package.json build process - the important part being the sh ./ - the semi-colon ; is used to separate two commands, so once the shell script is run, my main parcel build process runs:

  "scripts": {
    "build": "sh ./; parcel build public/index.html"

The file contains this line of code:

echo "export default { prev: \"$CACHED_COMMIT_REF\", curr: \"$COMMIT_REF\" }" > ./public/hash.js

This shell script will generate a new file in the public directory called hash.js which contains the parts I need. In my codebase I'm using JavaScript modules and building using Parcel, though you could just as easily change the contents of this file to run a console.log to show the URL to compare the release.

Finally, I have a client side JavaScript file that imports the hash.js file and adds a useful "version" link to my code, whilst also dropping a URL into the console (note that this lives in public so the import is relative to that directory):

import hash from './hash';

const repo = 'zx-tools';

Definitely useful for debugging some of my smaller projects, particularly when the ship with a service worker which might load a slightly behind version.

Gotcha: when this doesn't work

As I was writing this post, I thought it would be wise to check my blog, that also included this method. When I visited the compare URL, I found that it loaded up a broken page on github. Actually not broken, when I looked closer I realised that the commit sha for the cached release and the latest was the same.

That was entirely accurate and was due to the fact that I run an hourly deploy on my own blog (which keeps the timestamps and "live"-ish data fresh). So the gotcha is that this just doesn't work with projects that are auto-deployed without changes - as it is in my own blog's case.