Version Control Systems

Posted by Douglas Drumond on July 17, 2013 · 5 mins read

A while ago, Fábio Akita from AkitaOnRails.com launched the campaign “Beginners’s Friday” intended to help the new generation of developers coming today. I’m totally buying into this idea and this is the first post I’m doing in that direction with version control systems.

Version Control Systems

What is a version control system? In the context of software development, a version control, revision control or source control system is a software designed to control changes to computer programs (as well as documents, sites and virtually whatever you want). Gone are the days of copying and pasting files and changing the name “index.php,” “index-2.php,” “index-now-works.php,” “index-now-it-really-works.php” and so on. In fact, those days should have never existed in the first place, since revision control systems are hanging around for a really long time (well, they’re older than me, as we’ll see below).

Motivation for version control systems

In software development, requirement changes, code evolve, bugs are introduced, bugs are solved, bugs come back (these are called regression bugs), ideas come and go. Writing code is pretty much like writing texts. Sometimes it’s writing an article, sometimes it’s writing a book, but, as in writing, we revise, clean up, rewrite parts and change ideas. A lot. If code was written exactly how it meant to be, requirements never changed and software never evolved after publishing, source control wouldn’t be necessary. But what if you want to go back to some older idea that now really makes sense? Or discover a bug and need to find when it began? There’s an really easy-looking way to do this that doesn’t require further software, but it’s cumbersome and really error prone (and it’s not easy to manage after all, so it just looks easy). It’s the Copy, Paste, Rename method. You can copy the file, paste it elsewhere and rename it to reflect the version somehow, maybe with an increasing number. The other way is using a version control system, which does this automagically.

Brief history of version control systems

Back in the Triassic age of computation, in 1972, a proprietary software called SCSS was developed at Bell Labs for managing program source code and text files. Later, in the Jurassic age of computation, 1982 (I was born in the Cretaceous age, 1983) a software called RCS (for Revision Control System) came to life. I never used them, so I won’t talk about them.

In 1990, CVS launched (in fact, CVS started as a bunch of shell scripts in 1986), but it had (and still have) some limitations that led to development of Subversion, also known as SVN, in 2000, to replace it. Subversion is still in wide use today.

Until 2005 Linus Torvalds used BitKeeper to track changes in Linux source code. BitKeeper is a proprietary software, but they licensed it for free for using in Linux kernel as long as kernel mantainers didn’t try to develop a competing software or didn’t try to circumvent some restrictions. After a developer trying to develop a way to deal with BitKeeper metadata in order to support more operations, BitKeeper decided to not license it anymore, so an alternative was necessary. Linus announced he’d be switching VCS software and started development of Git. At same time, Matt Mackall started developing Mercurial. In the end, Linux kernel migrated to Git, but a lot of other developers also use Mercurial, both were well accepted by the community.

Both Git and Mercurial share a common characteristic that is different from previous VCS: they’re decentralized, while the previous are centralized version control systems. By centralization I mean there’s a central blessed server which everybody must connect into to download the source files, upload their modification and do other tasks such as listing the change history of a file. Git and Mercurial, on the other hand, download all history together with the source files and provide ways to work locally without connecting to the central server. In fact, the concept of central server in Git and Mercurial is just political, not technical. One can copy and upload to another developer as well, they don’t need to synchronize through a server.

In later posts, I’ll clarify these concepts with examples. Using my own Git workflow, I’ll dig into some details and explain how Git works.