Dec 26, 2009

Version Control with Subversion


Version control is the art of managing changes to information. It has long been a critical tool for programmers, who typically spend their time making small changes to software and then undoing those changes the next day. But the usefulness of version control software extends far beyond the bounds of the software development world. Anywhere you can find people using computers to manage information that changes often; there is room for version control.

And that's where Subversion comes into play.

What is Subversion?

Subversion is a free/open-source version control system. That is, Subversion manages files and directories over time. A tree of files is placed into a central repository. The repository is much like an ordinary file server, except that it remembers every change ever made to your files and directories. This allows you to recover older versions of your data, or examine the history of how your data changed. Subversion can access its repository across networks, which allows it to be used by people on different computers.

At some level, the ability for various people to modify and manage the same set of data from their respective locations fosters collaboration. And because the work is versioned, you need not fear that quality is the trade-off for losing that conduit—if some incorrect change is made to the data, just undo that change.

Some version control systems are also software configuration management (SCM) systems. These systems are specifically tailored to manage trees of source code, and have many features that are specific to software development— such as natively understanding programming languages, or supplying tools for building software. Subversion, however, is not one of these systems. It is a general system that can be used to manage any collection of files.

Subversion provides:

Directory versioning

CVS only tracks the history of individual files, but Subversion implements a “virtual” versioned filesystem that tracks changes to whole directory trees over time. Files and directories are versioned.

True version history

Since CVS is limited to file versioning, operations such as copies and renames—which might happen to files, but which are really changes to the contents of some containing directory—aren't supported in CVS. Additionally, in CVS you cannot replace a versioned file with some new thing of the same name without the new item inheriting the history of the old—perhaps completely unrelated—file. With Subversion, you can add, delete, copy, and rename both files and directories. And every newly added file begins with a fresh, clean history all of its own.

Atomic commits

A collection of modifications either goes into the repository completely, or not at all. This allows developers to construct and commit changes as logical chunks, and prevents problems that can occur when only a portion of a set of changes is successfully sent to the repository.

Versioned metadata

Each file and directory has a set of properties—keys and their values—associated with it. You can create and store any arbitrary key/value pairs you wish. Properties are versioned over time, just like file contents.

Choice of network layers

Subversion has an abstracted notion of repository access, making it easy for people to implement new network mechanisms. Subversion can plug into the Apache HTTP Server as an extension module. This gives Subversion a big advantage in stability and interoperability, and instant access to existing features provided by that server—authentication, authorization, wire compression, and so on. A more lightweight, standalone Subversion server process is also available.

Consistent data handling

Subversion expresses file differences using a binary differencing algorithm, which works identically on both text (human-readable) and binary (human-unreadable) files. Both types of files are stored equally compressed in the repository, and differences are transmitted in both directions across the network.

Efficient branching and tagging

The cost of branching and tagging need not be proportional to the project size. Subversion creates branches and tags by simply copying the project, using a mechanism similar to a hard-link. Thus these operations take only a very small, constant amount of time.


Subversion has no historical baggage; it is implemented as a collection of shared C libraries with well-defined APIs. This makes Subversion extremely maintainable and usable by other applications and languages.

Basic Concepts

This chapter is a short, casual introduction to Subversion. If you're new to version control, this chapter is definitely for you. We begin with a discussion of general version control concepts, work our way into the specific ideas behind Subversion, and show some simple examples of Subversion in use.

Even though the examples in this chapter show people sharing collections of program source code, keep in mind that Subversion can manage any sort of file collection—it's not limited to helping computer programmers.

The Repository

Subversion is a centralized system for sharing information. At its core is a repository, which is a central store of data. The repository stores information in the form of a filesystem tree—a typical hierarchy of files and directories.

Any numbers of clients connect to the repository, and then read or write to these files. By writing data, a client makes the information available to others; by reading data, the client receives information from others.

When a client reads data from the repository, it normally sees only the latest version of the filesystem tree. But the client also has the ability to view previous states of the filesystem. For example, a client can ask historical questions like, “What did this directory contain last Wednesday?” or “Who was the last person to change this file, and what changes did they make?” These are the sorts of questions that are at the heart of any version control system: systems that are designed to record and track changes to data over time.

Versioning Models

The core mission of a version control system is to enable collaborative editing and sharing of data. But different systems use different strategies to achieve this.

The Problem of File-Sharing

All version control systems have to solve the same fundamental problem: how will the system allow users to share information, but prevent them from accidentally stepping on each other's feet? It's all too easy for users to accidentally overwrite each other's changes in the repository.

Suppose we have two co-workers, Harry and Sally. They each decide to edit the same repository file at the same time. If Harry saves his changes to the repository first, then it's possible that (a few moments later) Sally could accidentally overwrite them with her own new version of the file. While Harry's version of the file won't be lost forever (because the system remembers every change), any changes Harry made won't be present in Sally's newer version of the file, because she never saw Harry's changes to begin with. Harry's work is still effectively lost—or at least missing from the latest version of the file—and probably by accident. This is definitely a situation we want to avoid!

The Lock-Modify-Unlock Solution

Many version control systems use a lock-modify-unlock model to address this problem. In such a system, the repository allows only one person to change a file at a time. First Harry must “lock” the file before he can begin making changes to it. Locking a file is a lot like borrowing a book from the library; if Harry has locked a file, then Sally cannot make any changes to it. If she tries to lock the file, the repository will deny the request. All she can do is read the file, and wait for Harry to finish his changes and release his lock. After Harry unlocks the file, his turn is over, and now Sally can take her turn by locking and editing.

The problem with the lock-modify-unlock model is that it's a bit restrictive, and often becomes a roadblock for users:

  • Locking may cause administrative problems. Sometimes Harry will lock a file and then forget about it. Meanwhile, because Sally is still waiting to edit the file, her hands are tied. And then Harry goes on vacation. Now Sally has to get an administrator to release Harry's lock. The situation ends up causing a lot of unnecessary delay and wasted time.
  • Locking may cause unnecessary serialization. What if Harry is editing the beginning of a text file, and Sally simply wants to edit the end of the same file? These changes don't overlap at all. They could easily edit the file simultaneously, and no great harm would come, assuming the changes were properly merged together. There's no need for them to take turns in this situation.
  • Locking may create a false sense of security. Pretend that Harry locks and edits file A, while Sally simultaneously locks and edits file B. But suppose that A and B depend on one another, and the changes made to each are semantically incompatible. Suddenly A and B don't work together anymore. The locking system was powerless to prevent the problem—yet it somehow provided a false sense of security. It's easy for Harry and Sally to imagine that by locking files, each is beginning a safe, insulated task, and thus not bother discussing their incompatible changes early on.

The Copy-Modify-Merge Solution

Subversion, CVS, and other version control systems use a copy-modify-merge model as an alternative to locking. In this model, each user's client contacts the project repository and creates a personal working copy—a local reflection of the repository's files and directories. Users then work in parallel, modifying their private copies. Finally, the private copies are merged together into a new, final version. The version control system often assists with the merging, but ultimately a human being is responsible for making it happen correctly.

Here's an example. Say that Harry and Sally each create working copies of the same project, copied from the repository. They work concurrently, and make changes to the same file A within their copies. Sally saves her changes to the repository first. When Harry attempts to save his changes later, the repository informs him that his file A is out-of-date. In other words, that file A in the repository has somehow changed since he last copied it. So Harry asks his client to merge any new changes from the repository into his working copy of file A. Chances are that Sally's changes don't overlap with his own; so once he has both sets of changes integrated, he saves his working copy back to the repository.

But what if Sally's changes do overlap with Harry's changes? What then? This situation is called a conflict, and it's usually not much of a problem. When Harry asks his client to merge the latest repository changes into his working copy, his copy of file A is somehow flagged as being in a state of conflict: he'll be able to see both sets of conflicting changes, and manually choose between them. Note that software can't automatically resolve conflicts; only humans are capable of understanding and making the necessary intelligent choices. Once Harry has manually resolved the overlapping changes—perhaps after a discussion with Sally—he can safely save the merged file back to the repository.

The copy-modify-merge model may sound a bit chaotic, but in practice, it runs extremely smoothly. Users can work in parallel, never waiting for one another. When they work on the same files, it turns out that most of their concurrent changes don't overlap at all; conflicts are infrequent. And the amount of time it takes to resolve conflicts is far less than the time lost by a locking system.

In the end, it all comes down to one critical factor: user communication. When users communicate poorly, both syntactic and semantic conflicts increase. No system can force users to communicate perfectly, and no system can detect semantic conflicts. So there's no point in being lulled into a false promise that a locking system will somehow prevent conflicts; in practice, locking seems to inhibit productivity more than anything else.



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