Revision control, also known as version control, source control or (source) code management (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 (VCSes - singular VCS) most commonly run as stand-alone applications, but revision control is also embedded in various types of software like word processors (e.g. OpenOffice.org Writer, Microsoft Word, KOffice, Pages, Google Docs), spreadsheets (e.g. OpenOffice.org Calc, Google Spreadsheets, Microsoft Excel), 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.
Engineering 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 extremely 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 and other issues with 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 and other environments, including in legal and business practice, 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/or 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 to configuration files 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, such as CVS, 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 provides facilities to merge changes into the central repository, thus preserving the changes from the first developer when the other developers check in.
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 program.
The concept of a reserved edit can provide an optional means to explicitly lock a file for exclusive write access, even though a merging capability exists.
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:
Rather, communication is only necessary when pushing or pulling changes to or from other peers.
An "open system" of distributed revision control is characterized by its support for independent branches, and its heavy reliance on merge operations. Its general characteristics include:
One of the first open systems, BitKeeper, served in the development of the Linux kernel. When the makers of BitKeeper decided in 2005 to restrict its licensing, Linux developers looked for a free replacement.
As of 2010, common open systems in free use include:
For a full list, see the comparison of revision control software.
A replicated system of distributed revision control depends on a replicated database. A check-in is equivalent to a distributed commit. Successful commits create a single baseline, which reduces the need for merges. An example of a replicated distributed system is Code Co-op.
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.
Most often only one of the terms baseline, label, or tag is used in documentation or discussion and can be considered synonyms. 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"). However, 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.