Source code is an invaluable resource that provides precious context, knowledge, and understanding for any given project. As such, it must be protected and preserved. Since source code is constantly being written and modified by various developers, it’s easy for different versions to sprawl out of control, which can lead to bugs and incompatibility.
This is where version control systems (VCSs) come in. They have the ability to take a snapshot of a set of files at a moment in time. That snapshot is given a unique identifier or reference name, then checked in to a special database where only the changes are recorded. This can be done automatically and continuously, so that users can backtrack to a previous state at any time. Lastly, a VCS can branch off the main branch into concurrent paths and merge back again, allowing developers to work independently on their features without having to wait for other team members. This is a powerful enabler of continuous integration, without which the CI/CD pipeline would not be possible.
Version control is absolutely essential for modern software development, regardless of the size of the project and its state of agile or DevOps adoption.
There are two main types of VCSs:
1. Centralized Version Control:
The repository is located in one centralized location and provides access to many clients in a client-and-server relationship. All changes, users, and commits must be sent and received from the repository. Centralized version control works in a similar way to FTP, where a single FTP client connects to a single FTP server. It tends to be simple to set up and easy to understand, but it is dependent on access to the server and isn’t as compatible with branching and merging tools. Basically, if the server goes down, then nobody can collaborate or save changes. Subversion and Perforce are both centralized systems.
2. Distributed Version Control:
Also known as decentralized version control, this system gives each user their own copy of the entire repository (files and history both), forming a network of individual repositories. It is fast, doesn’t require a server, and enables branching and merging to be more reliable. Git and Mercurial are both distributed systems.
Version control tools provide an organized way to track changes over time. They record changes so that specific versions can be recalled later, synchronize versions to make sure that team members don’t make different code changes, and provide process enforcement and permissions.
Key features of an ideal version control tool include:
1. Complete change history of every file
2. Branching and merging
4. Conflict resolution
5. Rollback source code
6. Off-site source code backup (if using centralized version control)
In general, you will also want to consider 3rd party integrations, whether the tool encompasses collaboration and messaging, and metrics capture and analysis.
Version control tools allow everyone on the team to work and collaborate freely on any file at any time. Changes and updates are in no danger of being overwritten, and team members don’t have to wait for others to finish before working on a file. In addition, version control tools save versions in a well-structured and organized manner. Thorny issues like how much to save, how to name the versions, and how to document the changes are all side-stepped by the fact that version control only allows for one version. That version becomes the single source of truth for all team members, so that they can consistently get a snapshot of the complete project.
Perhaps even more importantly, version control allows you to restore previous versions, meaning that developers can undo erroneous changes and avoid tedious rework. A distributed VCS is especially useful in this regard. If the central server becomes corrupt or breaks down, each developer has a local repository for recovery purposes.
Ultimately, VCS tools provide a complete and easily digestible timeline of changes and are a must for projects of any size.
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