Version control systems are essential tools for any software engineering team. Version control, also known as source control, allows developers to track changes to source code, documents, web pages, and other collection of information stored in a repository. Using a source control system brings many advantages over relying solely on backups and file naming conventions to manage changes.
Some key benefits include collaboration among developers, easy backup and restore capabilities, detailed change tracking, support for experimental branches, and merging of parallel changes.
By the end of this article, you will have a solid understanding of what source control systems are as well as major concepts and workflows associated with them.
For a guide on implementing version control specifically for documents, please refer to our separate article.
What is Version Control?
Version control, or source control, is the practice of tracking and managing changes to a software project’s code. As a software project grows, source control becomes essential for coordinating any changes made by members of the development team.
Version control systems allow you to track modifications to source code or other content in a repository. This repository contains the full history of changes so that you can recall specific versions at any point in time.
With source control, you can revel changes that were made, who made them, and why they were made. This allows you to roll back to any previous state or compare changes between any two points in the history.
Popular source control systems, as covered later in the article, include Git, Mercurial, and Apache Subversion (SVN).
Benefits of Using Version Control
Source control systems provide several key benefits for software teams:
- Collaboration – Source control enables developers to work concurrently on the same files without interfering with each other’s changes. The system tracks changes by each developer and merges them into a final version.
- Backup and Restore – Version control systems store the entire codebase and history in a repository, acting as an online backup. Developers can easily revert the codebase to a previous stable version if bugs are introduced.
- Track Changes – Version control tracks all code and document modifications, recording who made each change and why. This context helps when reviewing the project history.
- Support Branching – Developers can create separate branches to isolate feature work or experiment without impacting the main codebase until ready.
- Merge Changes – Teams can merge branches back to the main branch when appropriate, allowing parallel work and combining of changes.
Basic Source Control Concepts
To use a source control system effectively, you should understand some key concepts and terminology:
- Repository – The repository contains all of a project’s files and the complete history of all changes. This is usually stored in a central server which clients connect to.
- Commit – A commit records a snapshot of all changes made since the last commit. Commits include metadata like a timestamp, author, and descriptive message summarizing the changes.
- Log – A log lists all commits made in chronological order. The commit log allows you to browse the project history and understand how the code evolved over time.
- Branch – A branch is a parallel version of the main codebase that isolates feature work or experimental changes without impacting the production code.
Version Control Types and Workflows
Organizations can choose between local, centralized, or distributed version control systems based on their needs:
- Local Version Control – Quite self-explanatory, the repository resides on a local machine and is not stored on a server.
- Centralized Version Control – A single central repository contains the project history. Clients make changes locally, then merge changes back to the central repository.
- Distributed Version Control – Each developer has a local copy of the complete repository, so they can commit, branch, and merge locally.
There are also different workflows enabled by version control systems. Some popular options are:
- Centralized Workflow – Uses a central repository as the single point-of-entry for all applied changes.
- Feature Branch Workflow – New branch created for each feature or fix, isolating changes until ready to merge into main branch. Enables parallel work.
- Gitflow Workflow – Strict branching model designed around Git with distinct branches for long-term releases, short-term development, and hot fixes. Ideal for projects with a scheduled release cycle.
Choosing and Using a Version Control System
Some major source control options include:
- Git – The most widely used modern version control system today. It was created by Linus Torvalds for developing the Linux kernel. Excellent for distributed teams.
- Mercurial – An alternative distributed version control tool inspired by Git. Mercurial is known for being easy to learn and use.
- Subversion (SVN) – An older centralized system used by many large enterprises. Works well when collaborators have networked access to a central server.
When choosing a version control system, take into account your team preferences (after all, the goal is to streghten teamwork), the learning curve for getting your team up to speed, ease of administration, and, of course, the workflow you would like to implement.
Best Practices for Version Control
Follow these best practices when working with source control:
- Make commits often – Smaller commits are easier to revert if needed. DevOps gave us good examples of this.
- Write clear, concise commit messages – Helps you and others understand why changes were made long term.
- Structure branches and merges intelligently – Model workflows like Gitflow or Feature Branching.
- Use pull requests for code reviews – Allows discussion and approval before merging branches.
Source control systems provide software teams with essential capabilities for managing changes to source code, documents, and other collections of information.
Key benefits include collaboration support, detailed history tracking, branching for experimental work, and merging of parallel changes.
Systems like Git and Mercurial allow distributed teams to work efficiently across locations and timezones.
Following best practices for commits, and branching ensures you fully leverage the strengths of your chosen version control system.
Italian cloud computing professional with a strong background in project management & several years of international experience in business consulting. His expertise lies in bridging the gap between business stakeholders & developers, ensuring seamless project delivery. During his free time, he enjoys fatherhood and immersing himself in nature.