many times have you said "What version is in production?"
or "Can we rebuild production to fix a bug and
release an update?"
Better yet my favourite:
"We're working on Feature Y so we can't fix
the bug for Feature X. Doing so would mean we deploy
part of Feature X and Y with the patch!"
These are typical problems with source control, patching,
and keeping your working flowing. Often it's hard to
keep track of what's being worked on vs. what was already
deployed. Sometimes you end up deploying something not
tested or "ready for primetime". For example,
at one point I was deploying screens and we had to pass
along explicit instructions to the QA folks to "not
touch that button!" because we hadn't finished
the backend or our own testing. Of course, they touched
it and logged a bug. Still, we often run into the problem
of working on one set of features while testing another.
Recently we've switched over (not fully yet, but most
of the projects are going there) from TFS to Subversion.
TFS is just a bloody nightmare when it comes to trying
to keep the trunk revision stable while performing updates
on branches and not getting into a merge from hell scenario,
which is sometimes typical when you have branches.
In doing the switch, we landed on a solution around
branching code for new features and keeping the trunk
clean. Branching is a hot topic in source control circles
and has been known to start holy wars. In my past life
(like a month ago) I avoided branches like the plague.
This is probably due to the fact that branching (and
more importantly the merge back) in TFS and VSS was
like a live enema. Not something you want to do every
However in working through the process in a few projects
and experiencing the daily merge routine first-hand,
it's become my friend and makes for building systems
along a feature driven development stream much easier.
Here's how the process goes and all the details on each
Code and screenshots are always the best way to work
through a process. While the code here is trivial (just
a WinForms app with a few custom forms and dialogs)
the principles are the same no matter how big your project
First we setup our subversion repository for the project.
The typical setup is to create three folders in the
repository; branches, tags, and trunk. Branches hold
any branches you work on for new feature development;
Tags contains named copies of revisions representing
some point in time (perhaps a deployment); Trunk contains
the main codebase and is always stable. These become
vital to organizing your code and not clobbering other
work going on as we'll see as go along.
Here's our sample repository in TortoiseSVN:
We'll start with revision 1, the basic application
(the proverbial WinForms "Hello World!").
A single application with a single form. Check this
in to Subversion into the trunk path. This gives us
an updated repository:
Now your day to day work begins. The trunk revision
is the most important (aka "The King"). Any
other work being done will happen in branches and are
known as servants. Servants are important but they take
less priority than The King. The most important and
highest priority work being done is the King (and there
is only one king, viva Las Vegas baby!).
Fast forward to day 10 of our development cycle. We've
been adding forms and code (all committed to the trunk
by various people) and it's time to do a release. A
release is cut (using whatever process you use here,
the details are not important) and deployed. At that
point we want to tag the release.
Tag and Deploy
Tagging is a way to identify a set of code, a snapshot,
so you can retrieve it later. Once tagged, we can go
back to the revision and all files from that point in
time to rebuild the system. This is mainly a deployment
thing. For example, you tag the release "1.0"
and then continue on. At some point in the future you
can check the code out using that tag, rebuild it, and
it will be the same as the day you deployed it.
We'll tag our release as "1.0". This creates
what looks like an entire copy of the code in the "tags"
folder, but in reality it's all virtual. Unlike "other"
source control systems, this doesn't actually make a
copy and the magic of Subversion will let us pull this
tag out and all the code associated with that later.
To tagging and creating branches is essentially the
same act (it's the same dialog box) but will differ
in where you put the tag. Subversion does not have special
commands for branching or tagging, but uses so-called
cheap copies instead. Cheap copies are similar to hard
links in Unix, which means that instead of making a
complete copy in the repository, an internal link is
created, pointing to a specific tree/revision. As a
result branches and tags are very quick to create, and
take up almost no extra space in the repository.
So while the dialog box says "Copy" you're
creating this cheap copy. Don't get miffed if you're
project is huge, tagging takes next to nothing. Here's
our tag ready to go:
For tagging, you generally won't want to click on the
"Switch working copy to new branch/tag" checkbox.
Tags are just snapshots in time and you go along your
merry way in the trunk. For branches we'll be doing
something different. So after you create the tag, don't
be alarmed when you see this message in TortoiseSVN:
And here's the repository tree after the tag. Note
the tags folder has a new entry, "1.0" which
contains an exact copy of what's in the "trunk",
Now comes the fun. We've tagged the work and deployed.
At any point in time we can go back and redeploy this
version by pulling out the "1.0" tag and building/deploying
from there. At this point is where we branch. We want
to work in a new feature set. This is going to involve
new dialogs and new code.
Branching New Features
Why do we branch? Isn't branching bad?
No. Branching, when used this way keeps your trunk
clean. Remember, there can only be one King (trunk).
Any other work is a servant and will eventually go into
Why again do we branch? Imagine if we didn't branch.
So right after you apply the "1.0" tag start
modifying trunk. Sure, we can go back to "1.0"
but how are we going to get any changes merged together
when we're on a single line? We're also violating the
"One King" rule. Who's the King now? Our new
branch becomes a servant. The King still takes priority
(for example to fix bugs) but work will continue on
in the servant branch.
Walk with me on this, by the end you'll see what the
branch is for and why we want it.
We'll create a new branch just like creating a tag.
Call the branch "1.1" except in this case,
we're going to switch to the branch as our working copy.
Here's the branch dialog:
And here's the repository after the branch. Our work
is now all going to be committed to the "svn-demo/branches/1.1"
branch, keeping the trunk clean.
Work in the 1.1 branch is underway with new features
being added. We've created a few new forms, modified
the main form, and generally added new functionality.
The 1.1 branch is quite different from the original
trunk it came from now:
A couple of scenarios will arise out of this. For example,
if there's a bug found in the 1.0 version we deployed
what do you do? You don't want to dirty the 1.0 tag.
That's why trunk is King (and there is only one King).
"trunk" is still the most important thing
being worked on (at this point its in testing or production
or whatever). Until it's verified, everyone else is
a servant. Any problems found in "trunk" can
be resolved on trunk. So we'll explore that scenario.
Waiter, There's a Bug in my Trunk!
There's a problem with 1.0. The window title is wrong.
It reads "Hello World!" but it should read
Huge problem! Stop the presses. Halt the line. We need
to fix this now!
You may be tempted to create a branch, fix it, then
merge the branch back into trunk. This might be normal,
but our trunk is clean so we can just work with it directly.
Check out a copy of trunk to a local directory and we'll
do the fix. Then commit it back. Now here's the updated
I've highlighted the file that changed in both versions.
"/tags/1.0" is our deployed version (revision
25), "/trunk" is our bug fix update (revision
32). We can still, at any point, re-deploy "1.0"
without any problems.
We'll do a deploy of our new trunk (which we'll call
"1.0.1") and a series of exhaustive and intensive
tests beings. Weeks pass testing our massive change
and finally QA accepts the version and allows it be
deployed to production. This will replace "1.0"
in production with "1.0.1" and the updated
title bar. Tag trunk as "1.0.1" like we did
"1.0" above and we'll now have this in our
The Graph is your Friend
TortoiseSVN has a wonderful feature called "Revision
Graph" which gives you a visual tree of your branches
and tags and revisions. You will live and die by this
tool. Here's ours so far:
From this visual we can assess:
- A tag called "1.0" was created from the
trunk at revision 28, creating revision 29
- A branch called "1.1" was created from
the trunk at revision 29
- Work continues on the "1.1" branch with
daily commits (so far at revision 31)
- A tag called "1.0.1" was created from
the trunk (after a bug fix) at revision 32, creating
At this point I want to point out some major advantages
with this approach:
- You can rebuild any deployed release easily (well,
as long as you tagged it in the first place)
- Fixes can be done to the trunk and deployed quickly
- Work can continue on separate features without disturbing
the main work
Day to Day Merges
So now we have a bit of a disconnect don't we? The
trunk (revision 32) and the re-deployed tagged version
(1.0.1, revision 33) contains the fix we need however
we're working on Feature X in the 1.1 branch. We don't
have that fix. If we were to merge our code back to
the trunk (which we will have to do at some point) we
might miss this fix, or worse yet clobber it.
To avoid this problem, anyone working in a branch follows
one simple rule. Each day (say at the start of the day)
you update your branch from the trunk. In other words,
you pick up any changes that have been applied to the
trunk into your little branched world. Doing this will
avoid any merge issues when you commit your branch back
to the trunk.
We do this with a merge. It's a simple merge but one
that has to happen, and merges can get complicated and
ugly. In your working directory where you're commits
are happening on the branch, you won't see changes to
Here's the merge dialog that we perform on a daily
basis. We'll merge changes from the trunk into the 1.1
A few notes about this merge:
- We merge from the branch and specify the branch
in the top section. This seems backwards but we're
merging "from a point in time" which needs
to be the last revision when the two trees (trunk
and branch) were synchronized. Remember, we're looking
for all the changes "from trunk to branch"
since we branched. The revision graph is essential
in determining this. In our case, this is our first
sync and is when we created the branch (revision 30).
- By default the merge to uses the "From"
value but we want to merge into our branch so uncheck
this and pick the trunk in the "To" section.
For the trunk we're going to pick the HEAD revision
but this happens to be revision 32. Picking either
HEAD or revision 32 here results in the same merge.
- Confirm the location and behaviour you expect in
the bottom section. The working copy should be your
current working folder, and it should end up pointing
at your current branch
- Always (always) do a Dry run first and confirm the
updates your going to do are correct.
So in this merge we expect to get the changes to MainForm.Designer.cs
(that title change bug). If we had selected the HEAD
revision for our branch version rather than the time
where the branch split off from trunk, we would be comparing
all the changes. This would result in the dry run telling
us we have new forms. This is incorrect because a) we
only want the changes from trunk and b) trunk doesn't
know (or need to know) about any new forms we created.
We're only interested in the changes made on trunk that
we don't have yet.
Here's the dry run dialog with the proper response
(based on the last merge dialog):
Perfect! We just want the changes to MainForm.Designer.cs
(or whatever files changed since we last sync' d) and
we got them. Execute this to get the new changes from
trunk into your branch.
When you do a merge, you're merging those changes into
your working copy but you're still one more step away.
This will modify your working code but now you have
to commit it back to the repository. If you check your
updates you'll see that the MainForm.Designer.cs file
has changed. Here's the unified diff of the changes:
@@ -61,7 +61,7 @@
this.Name = "MainForm";
this.StartPosition = System.Windows.Forms.FormStartPosition.CenterScreen;
this.Text = "Hello World!";
this.Text = "Hello World?";
this.Load += new System.EventHandler(this.MainForm_Load);
As you can see, the title bar change is here and replaces
our old (buggy) version.
Commit this to the repository. Your branch now has
the changes from trunk and you can continue on with
your new feature work.
Remember, the key point of working in the branch is
we don't pollute the trunk with our new dialogs or code,
yet doing this daily merge (which will take all of 5
minutes on any codebase, trust me ;) keeps your branch
up to date with any changes that may have happened.
Getting back to trunk
As we continue with our day to day work in the 1.1
branch, more changes might happen with trunk. More bug
fixes, etc. However we don't introduce new features.
We only add things on our branch. In the rare instance
we're building a new feature while another feature is
in play, we might create another branch with another
team. I would however keep the number of active branches
going on to a minimum. It'll just get ugly later in
In any case, we continue with our branch until we're
ready to deploy. At this point we probably have a stable
trunk (we should always have a stable trunk) with a
number of tags. All changes in the trunk are in our
branch and the team has decided it's time to deploy
a new version to replace 1.0.1. This is our 1.1 branch
and we need to merge all the new stuff in 1.1 back into
Here's our repository as it stands:
- The 1.1 branch contains all of our new work, 3 additional
forms and some changes to the main form to invoke
our new forms
- As a result of our daily "merge from trunk"
routine, we have any bug fixes or changes that were
done in trunk
- Our trunk is clean and the version that was deployed
(with various tags in our tags folder)
To merge back into the trunk it's the opposite of what
we do on a daily basis. Rather than merging into the
branch, we reverse it and merge into trunk. Also, you'll
need a working copy of trunk to merge into. Check out
trunk into a folder and invoke the merge. Again, the
key point here is to pick the right revision. For the
branch it'll be the HEAD revision. For trunk, it's the
last point of synchronization which in this case is
revision 32. Here's the merge dialog to commit our 1.1.
features to the trunk.
In this case, we're committing to a working folder
with a copy of trunk checked out to it. Click on Diff
to see what changes are going to be applied:
Here we've added our new forms and there's changes
to the MainForm.cs and MainForm.Designer.cs (we've added
buttons to invoke the new dialogs). Here's the unified
diff of MainForm.Designer.cs (with some lines removed
--- MainForm.Designer.cs (.../trunk)
+++ MainForm.Designer.cs (.../branches/1.1)
@@ -28,13 +28,49 @@
this.button1 = new System.Windows.Forms.Button();
this.button2 = new System.Windows.Forms.Button();
this.button3 = new System.Windows.Forms.Button();
this.button1.Location = new System.Drawing.Point(12,
this.button1.Text = "Search";
this.button2.Location = new System.Drawing.Point(12,
this.button2.Text = "Admin";
this.button3.Location = new System.Drawing.Point(12,
this.button3.Text = "Customers";
this.Name = "MainForm";
this.StartPosition = System.Windows.Forms.FormStartPosition.CenterScreen;
this.Text = "Hello World?";
@@ -44,6 +80,10 @@
Note towards the bottom of this diff, this.Text = "Hello
World?". This was the result of our daily merge
so there's nothing to be applied back to trunk. We're
in sync here. Only the changes/additions/deletions are
applied which will bring "trunk" up to par
with the 1.1 branch work. Again, do your dry run. You
should see only the new work done in the branch as being
applied to trunk. If not; stop, drop, and roll and recheck
Again, the trunk now is merged together with the 1.1
branch. At this point you'll want to load the solution
up, build it, run unit tests, etc. and do a sanity check
that everything works as expected. You would probably
do your deployment and tag the new trunk as "1.1".
You can just simply ditch the branch folder or leave
it there in the repository. After all, it's just a symbolic
link and doesn't take up much space (we have a new tag
created in our repository on every CruiseControl.NET
build so there are hundreds of tags, no big deal).
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Now you're back on the trunk. Trunk is King, there
is only one King, and your day to day work continues
with whatever feature you're working on. You have the
option to "always live in the branch" which
might be an idea but this requires that daily merge
from trunk and could cause problems. There's no problem
"running on trunk" and building from it. The
point at which you branch should be when you do a release
and want to continue on with new (different) work, otherwise
daily commits to trunk by the entire team is fine.
When a new feature comes along, branch, move part of
the team (or the entire team) to that branch and keep
trunk clean, doing any bug fixes as they come up. Then
merge back from the feature branch back into trunk at
the appropriate time. Keep doing this as often as necessary,
until you run out of money or the team quits. Sit back,
relax, and enjoy the simplicity of life.
It may seem complicated but it's really pretty basic
when you boil it down. Just follow a few simple rules:
- On a daily basis, developers in branches merge changes
from the trunk into their branch
- Merge branch features back into trunk when you're
ready to deploy
- Bug fixes are performed on the trunk then tagged