Introduction to Software Engineering/Tools/Source Control
Revision control, also known as version control or source control (and an aspect of software configuration management or SCM), is the management of changes to documents, programs, and other information stored as computer files. It is most commonly used in software development, where a team of people may change the same files. Changes are usually identified by a number or letter code, termed the "revision number", "revision level", or simply "revision". For example, an initial set of files is "revision 1". When the first change is made, the resulting set is "revision 2", and so on. Each revision is associated with a timestamp and the person making the change. Revisions can be compared, restored, and with some types of files, merged.
Version control systems (VCSs – singular VCS) most commonly run as stand-alone applications, but revision control is also embedded in various types of software such as word processors (e.g., Microsoft Word, OpenOffice.org Writer, KWord, Pages, etc.), spreadsheets (e.g., Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice.org Calc, KSpread, Numbers, etc.), and in various content management systems (e.g., Drupal, Joomla, WordPress). Integrated revision control is a key feature of wiki software packages such as MediaWiki, DokuWiki, TWiki etc. In wikis, revision control allows for the ability to revert a page to a previous revision, which is critical for allowing editors to track each other's edits, correct mistakes, and defend public wikis against vandalism and spam.
Software tools for revision control are essential for the organization of multi-developer projects.
Revision control developed from formalized processes based on tracking revisions of early blueprints or bluelines. This system of control implicitly allowed returning to any earlier state of the design, for cases in which an engineering dead-end was reached in the development of the design. Likewise, in computer software engineering, revision control is any practice that tracks and provides control over changes to source code. Software developers sometimes use revision control software to maintain documentation and configuration files as well as source code. Also, version control is widespread in business and law. Indeed, "contract redline" and "legal blackline" are some of the earliest forms of revision control, and are still employed with varying degrees of sophistication. An entire industry has emerged to service the document revision control needs of business and other users, and some of the revision control technology employed in these circles is subtle, powerful, and innovative. The most sophisticated techniques are beginning to be used for the electronic tracking of changes to CAD files (see product data management), supplanting the "manual" electronic implementation of traditional revision control.
As teams design, develop and deploy software, it is common for multiple versions of the same software to be deployed in different sites and for the software's developers to be working simultaneously on updates. Bugs or features of the software are often only present in certain versions (because of the fixing of some problems and the introduction of others as the program develops). Therefore, for the purposes of locating and fixing bugs, it is vitally important to be able to retrieve and run different versions of the software to determine in which version(s) the problem occurs. It may also be necessary to develop two versions of the software concurrently (for instance, where one version has bugs fixed, but no new features (branch), while the other version is where new features are worked on (trunk).
At the simplest level, developers could simply retain multiple copies of the different versions of the program, and label them appropriately. This simple approach has been used on many large software projects. While this method can work, it is inefficient as many near-identical copies of the program have to be maintained. This requires a lot of self-discipline on the part of developers, and often leads to mistakes. Consequently, systems to automate some or all of the revision control process have been developed.
Moreover, in software development, legal and business practice and other environments, it has become increasingly common for a single document or snippet of code to be edited by a team, the members of which may be geographically dispersed and may pursue different and even contrary interests. Sophisticated revision control that tracks and accounts for ownership of changes to documents and code may be extremely helpful or even necessary in such situations.
Revision control may also track changes to configuration files, such as those typically stored in
/usr/local/etc on Unix systems. This gives system administrators another way to easily track changes made and a way to roll back to earlier versions should the need arise.
Traditional revision control systems use a centralized model where all the revision control functions take place on a shared server. If two developers try to change the same file at the same time, without some method of managing access the developers may end up overwriting each other's work. Centralized revision control systems solve this problem in one of two different "source management models": file locking and version merging.
Computer scientists speak of atomic operations if the system is left in a consistent state even if the operation is interrupted. The commit operation is usually the most critical in this sense. Commits are operations which tell the revision control system you want to make a group of changes you have been making final and available to all users. Not all revision control systems have atomic commits; notably, the widely-used CVS lacks this feature.
The simplest method of preventing "concurrent access" problems involves locking files so that only one developer at a time has write access to the central "repository" copies of those files. Once one developer "checks out" a file, others can read that file, but no one else may change that file until that developer "checks in" the updated version (or cancels the checkout).
File locking has both merits and drawbacks. It can provide some protection against difficult merge conflicts when a user is making radical changes to many sections of a large file (or group of files). However, if the files are left exclusively locked for too long, other developers may be tempted to bypass the revision control software and change the files locally, leading to more serious problems.
Most version control systems allow multiple developers to edit the same file at the same time. The first developer to "check in" changes to the central repository always succeeds. The system may provide facilities to merge further changes into the central repository, and preserve the changes from the first developer when other developers check in.
Merging two files can be a very delicate operation, and usually possible only if the data structure is simple, as in text files. The result of a merge of two image files might not result in an image file at all. The second developer checking in code will need to take care with the merge, to make sure that the changes are compatible and that the merge operation does not introduce its own logic errors within the files. These problems limit the availability of automatic or semi-automatic merge operations mainly to simple text based documents, unless a specific merge plugin is available for the file types.
The concept of a reserved edit can provide an optional means to explicitly lock a file for exclusive write access, even when a merging capability exists.
Most revision control tools will use only one of these similar terms (baseline, label, tag) to refer to the action of identifying a snapshot ("label the project") or the record of the snapshot ("try it with baseline X"). Typically only one of the terms baseline, label, or tag is used in documentation or discussion; they can be considered synonyms.
In most projects some snapshots are more significant than others, such as those used to indicate published releases, branches, or milestones.
When both the term baseline and either of label or tag are used together in the same context, label and tag usually refer to the mechanism within the tool of identifying or making the record of the snapshot, and baseline indicates the increased significance of any given label or tag.
Most formal discussion of configuration management uses the term baseline.
Distributed revision control
Distributed revision control (DRCS) takes a peer-to-peer approach, as opposed to the client-server approach of centralized systems. Rather than a single, central repository on which clients synchronize, each peer's working copy of the codebase is a bona-fide repository. Distributed revision control conducts synchronization by exchanging patches (change-sets) from peer to peer. This results in some important differences from a centralized system:
- No canonical, reference copy of the codebase exists by default; only working copies.
- Common operations (such as commits, viewing history, and reverting changes) are fast, because there is no need to communicate with a central server.
Rather, communication is only necessary when pushing or pulling changes to or from other peers.
- Each working copy effectively functions as a remote backup of the codebase and of its change-history, providing natural protection against data loss.
Some of the more advanced revision-control tools offer many other facilities, allowing deeper integration with other tools and software-engineering processes. Plugins are often available for IDEs such as Oracle JDeveloper, IntelliJ IDEA, Eclipse and Visual Studio. NetBeans IDE and Xcode come with integrated version control support.
- An approved revision of a document or source file from which subsequent changes can be made. See baselines, labels and tags.
- A set of files under version control may be branched or forked at a point in time so that, from that time forward, two copies of those files may develop at different speeds or in different ways independently of each other.
- A change (or diff, or delta) represents a specific modification to a document under version control. The granularity of the modification considered a change varies between version control systems.
- Change list
- On many version control systems with atomic multi-change commits, a changelist, change set, or patch identifies the set of changes made in a single commit. This can also represent a sequential view of the source code, allowing the examination of source "as of" any particular changelist ID.
- A check-out (or co) is the act of creating a local working copy from the repository. A user may specify a specific revision or obtain the latest. The term 'checkout' can also used as a noun to describe the working copy.
- A commit (checkin, ci or, more rarely, install, submit or record) is the action of writing or merging the changes made in the working copy back to the repository. The terms 'commit' and 'checkin' can also used in noun form to describe the new revision that is created as a result of committing.
- A conflict occurs when different parties make changes to the same document, and the system is unable to reconcile the changes. A user must resolve the conflict by combining the changes, or by selecting one change in favour of the other.
- Delta compression
- Most revision control software uses delta compression, which retains only the differences between successive versions of files. This allows for more efficient storage of many different versions of files.
- Dynamic stream
- A stream in which some or all file versions are mirrors of the parent stream's versions.
- exporting is the act of obtaining the files from the repository. It is similar to checking-out except that it creates a clean directory tree without the version-control metadata used in a working copy. This is often used prior to publishing the contents, for example.
- Also sometime called tip, this refers to the most recent commit.
- importing is the act of copying a local directory tree (that is not currently a working copy) into the repository for the first time.
- See tag.
- Similar to trunk, but there can be a mainline for each branch.
- A merge or integration is an operation in which two sets of changes are applied to a file or set of files. Some sample scenarios are as follows:
- A user, working on a set of files, updates or syncs their working copy with changes made, and checked into the repository, by other users.
- A user tries to check-in files that have been updated by others since the files were checked out, and the revision control software automatically merges the files (typically, after prompting the user if it should proceed with the automatic merge, and in some cases only doing so if the merge can be clearly and reasonably resolved).
- A set of files is branched, a problem that existed before the branching is fixed in one branch, and the fix is then merged into the other branch.
- A branch is created, the code in the files is independently edited, and the updated branch is later incorporated into a single, unified trunk.
- The act of copying file content from a less controlled location into a more controlled location. For example, from a user's workspace into a repository, or from a stream to its parent.
- The repository is where files' current and historical data are stored, often on a server. Sometimes also called a depot (for example, by SVK, AccuRev and Perforce).
- The act of user intervention to address a conflict between different changes to the same document.
- Reverse integration
- The process of merging different team branches into the main trunk of the versioning system.
- Also version: A version is any change in form. In SVK, a Revision is the state at a point in time of the entire tree in the repository.
-  See tag.
- The act of making one file or folder available in multiple branches at the same time. When a shared file is changed in one branch, it is changed in other branches.
- A container for branched files that has a known relationship to other such containers. Streams form a hierarchy; each stream can inherit various properties (like versions, namespace, workflow rules, subscribers, etc.) from its parent stream.
- A tag or label refers to an important snapshot in time, consistent across many files. These files at that point may all be tagged with a user-friendly, meaningful name or revision number. See baselines, labels and tags.
- The unique line of development that is not a branch (sometimes also called Baseline or Mainline)
- An update (or sync) merges changes made in the repository (by other people, for example) into the local working copy.
- Working copy
- The working copy is the local copy of files from a repository, at a specific time or revision. All work done to the files in a repository is initially done on a working copy, hence the name. Conceptually, it is a sandbox.
- "Rapid Subversion Adoption Validates Enterprise Readiness and Challenges Traditional Software Configuration Management Leaders". Collabnet. May 15, 2007. http://www.open.collab.net/news/press/2007/svn_momentum.html. Retrieved October 27, 2010. "Version management is essential to software development and is considered the most critical component of any development environment."
- Wheeler, David. "Comments on Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS) Software Configuration Management (SCM) Systems". http://www.dwheeler.com/essays/scm.html. Retrieved May 8, 2007.
- O'Sullivan, Bryan. "Distributed revision control with Mercurial". http://hgbook.red-bean.com/hgbook.html. Retrieved July 13, 2007.
- Collins-Sussman, Ben; Fitzpatrick, B.W. and Pilato, C.M. (2004). Version Control with Subversion. O'Reilly. ISBN 0-596-00448-6. http://svnbook.red-bean.com/.
- Wingerd, Laura (2005). Practical Perforce. O'Reilly. ISBN 0-596-10185-6. http://safari.oreilly.com/0596101856.
- Collins-Sussman, Ben; Brian W. Fitpatrick, and C. Michael Pilato. "Version Control with Subversion". http://svnbook.red-bean.com/en/1.5/svn.tour.cycle.html#svn.tour.cycle.resolve. Retrieved 8 June 2010. "The G stands for merGed, which means that the file had local changes to begin with, but the changes coming from the repository didn't overlap with the local changes."
- Accurev Concepts Manual, Version 4.7. Accurev, Inc.. July, 2008.