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Your 2021 Crash Course in Version Control Systems

Software development is sophisticated business, and developers must practice vigilance as projects grow more complex. In 2021, there’s no reason to leave your source control to chance. Read on to learn all about how version control systems will streamline your efforts and protect you from unnecessary risk!

Your 2021 Crash Course in Version Control Systems

Picture this: you're building an intricate dominoes design, painstakingly placing each block in the perfect position. Halfway through, you accidentally knock one over – and there goes the whole structure. Time and effort wasted, you're left to start over from scratch.

Software engineering can be a bit like this, too. With a team of developers collaborating, sometimes from all over the world, projects become incredibly vulnerable to even the slightest mistake. It can take a tremendous amount of time and effort to correct errors before you can move on with your work, putting both your deadlines and the end product's integrity at risk.

Version control systems (VCS), also known as source control software, can help you mitigate these risks. In simple terms, it is your insurance policy against human error in software engineering. VCS track file changes, making "snapshots" with every revision to facilitate better traceability, productivity, and collaboration. Used correctly, version control software will improve efficiency and speed up the development process while reducing your vulnerability to errors and conflicts. You will move towards a more transparent collaborative environment, even if your team spans the globe. And the best part? Enhanced recovery possibilities offered by your source control system mean you can rest easy if the dominoes do fall.

Related reading:

Source Control Management Best Practices

So you want a VCS. Where to start?

Just as version control systems go by many names (version control, source control, revision control), they also come in several iterations. Since version control in software engineering serves different needs for different teams, it is crucial to know the difference before choosing your new VCS. There are three main types of source control management.

Local Version Control Systems

Local Version Control Systems, or LVCS, are the earliest and simplest form of VCS. LVCS consist of local databases that record every file change. They keep patch sets, or recordings of content differences at development stages, and create version histories by combining all of the patches up to that point. These systems are less sophisticated and more error-prone than either of the more modern VCS.

When to use LVCSs: The 1990s.

Centralized Version Control Systems

Centralized Version Control Systems, or CVCS, track all changes in a central server, or master repository. To make changes, clients pull a selected version of the code from the server to a local device to create a new working copy. They later commit this new version back to the central server. CVCS facilitate collaboration between developers by saving records of every version, accessible to collaborators in a central repository. Each saved version is a "snapshot" of the project, which developers can then take in different directions or add new "branches" to without risking the original product. CVCS allow greater transparency in development and give administrators more granular control over the product.

CVCS are relatively easy to set up, meaning that greater collaborative possibilities and a more efficient, reliable workflow are right at your fingertips. But centralized systems are not without their flaws. They can be functionally slower than distributed systems, and new versions are still subject to human error. More seriously, any problems with the central server (i.e., corruption or accessibility issues) may result in losing part or all of your project history.

When to use CVCS: 

  • If you need quicker, easier set up and simpler administration, CVCS are the source control management tool for you. 
  • If you are looking for more granular control, CVCS offer managers greater managerial oversight over the project and collaborators than DVCS (see below).
  • If your project is extensive or has an exceptionally long version history, CVCS is going to be your best bet because it allows you to pull as little as a few lines of code, saving you precious download time and disk space. 

Distributed Version Control Systems

Distributed Version Control Systems, or DVCS, on the other hand, do not rely on any central repository. Collaborators using DVCS each clone the central server to their local devices, allowing them to work directly on the master source. This enables them to use the entire history of the project without accessing any central server, allowing you to work offline without pulling anything from a central server.

Contrary to popular belief, DVCS are not necessarily devoid of a central server. The distributed system usually has a master repository, which consists of the entire version history, including "sets of changes" from every collaborator. In DVCS, every developer works on their local servers, creating "change sets" to push to the central repository. In this system, if the central server ever fails, every collaborator has their own local version that can be pushed to the central server and restored.

DVCS have ample benefits and are often the go-to VCS for complex projects that require a lot of collaborators. Immediate, offline access and local commits mean DVCS are quicker than their centralized counterparts. Merge conflicts are significantly less common with DVCS, due to their robust change tracking and more controlled collaboration rules. They are also better protected against server vulnerabilities, since every developer has an up-to-date backup. 

But they do have some drawbacks. First, DVCS can be less transparent, with recent changes being difficult to attribute and revisions being more challenging to reference. Local storage also takes a considerable amount of disk space, while CVCS allow you to work on as much or as little code as you need to at a given time. You may also face workflow obstacles such as file locking, which prevents two developers from working on the same piece of code at once. This protects the project in the long run but may slow development.

When to use DVCS: 

  • If offline working, speed, and flexibility are important to you, DVCS are the way to go: with the entire history of the code stored locally, you can boot up and start working in seconds, wherever you may be.
  • If it is paramount that you never lose access to version history. In that case, DVCS will provide you that peace of mind: with clones stored locally with every collaborator, accessibility and corruption issues are no longer a threat.
  • If your project is too complicated and requires many branches, you should consider DVCS. Developers can work on, share, and finalize their change sets before merging them to the master.

Related reading:

CVCS & DVCS: The Needs That Version Control Systems Serve

Which VCS is right for you?

What kind of guide would this be if we didn't leave you with some of the most popular version control systems available to help you find the best fit for your team? Here are some of our favorite version control system tools and why we love them.

  • Git (GitHub, GitLab) is one of the most popular DVCS on the market. Its repository format data model and command line syntax make it a particularly complex system with a steep learning curve. But once you get the hang of it, it offers immense power and flexibility. Commit edits and sky-high technical requirements are a double-edged sword. It offers superior performance in nearly every VCS function, but to get the most out of Git, you should have an experienced team and an effective project manager. If you approach it well, Git may be the best VCS you ever use.
  • Mercurial is another immensely popular DVCS known for its scalability and high performance. It is somewhat less flexible and powerful than Git, but it makes up for that with greater usability and superior documentation. Mercurial is relatively straightforward, so even users without DVCS experience can use it effectively. It is sometimes seen as the best way to move from an CVCS to the more complex DVCS approach. 
  • Bitbucket is a web-based version control repository hosting service that supports DVCS like Git and Mercurial. It provides a single, central place for code collaboration and testing. While it lacks a stellar UI and the extensive user community offered by more established source control management systems, it provides an excellent collaborative environment and several seamless integrations. 
  • Subversion (SVN), one of the most popular CVCS on the market, is an open-source VCS known for excellent performance and usability. While Git is somewhat more popular and boasts better capabilities in specific functions, SVN remains a crowd-pleasing VCS tool that many developers swear by. It stands up to the test in essential functional areas, including storage, traceability, and accessibility, and remains one of the most popular CVCS for a good reason.
  • PlasticSCM is a cross-platform DVCS that aims to make software development easier. While it is less robust than some of the alternatives, it excels in diffing and merging, code review, and visual source control. It is especially popular amongst video game developers, and it can handle large files while preventing errors with stringent lock features. It also boasts a point-and-click GUI app that makes it appealing to artists and designers as well as developers.
  • PerforceVCS (Helix Core) is another popular CVCS known for its top-shelf speed and scale. Perforce is especially useful if you have a widely distributed team that needs to collaborate on a single source. While it is slower than most DVCS (as is the nature of CVCS), it offers robust capabilities, plus unbeatable flexibility and stability. 

With so many excellent version control management tools on the market, the most challenging part might be choosing one. Make sure to take stock of your team's needs and capabilities before committing to your new system. 

Once you've chosen and implemented your new VCS, you need to make sure you are managing it effectively. Luckily, all of these VCS work with codeBeamer ALM, a powerful, holistically integrated Application Lifecycle Management solution that helps you simplify the delivery of complex products by streamlining end-to-end delivery. So what are you waiting for? Try codeBeamer today – it's free for 30 days, no strings attached!