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Common Branching Patterns

There are many different uses for branching and svn merge, and this section describes the most common.

Version control is most often used for software development, so here's a quick peek at two of the most common branching/merging patterns used by teams of programmers. If you're not using Subversion for software development, feel free to skip this section. If you're a software developer using version control for the first time, pay close attention, as these patterns are often considered best practices by experienced folk. These processes aren't specific to Subversion; they're applicable to any version control system. Still, it may help to see them described in Subversion terms.

Release Branches

Most software has a typical life cycle: code, test, release, repeat. There are two problems with this process. First, developers need to keep writing new features while quality assurance teams take time to test supposedly stable versions of the software. New work cannot halt while the software is tested. Second, the team almost always needs to support older, released versions of software; if a bug is discovered in the latest code, it most likely exists in released versions as well, and customers will want to get that bug fix without having to wait for a major new release.

Here's where version control can help. The typical procedure looks like this:

  1. Developers commit all new work to the trunk. Day-to-day changes are committed to /trunk: new features, bug fixes, and so on.

  2. The trunk is copied to a release branch. When the team thinks the software is ready for release (say, a 1.0 release), /trunk might be copied to /branches/1.0.

  3. Teams continue to work in parallel. One team begins rigorous testing of the release branch, while another team continues new work (say, for version 2.0) on /trunk. If bugs are discovered in either location, fixes are ported back and forth as necessary. At some point, however, even that process stops. The branch is frozen for final testing right before a release.

  4. The branch is tagged and released. When testing is complete, /branches/1.0 is copied to /tags/1.0.0 as a reference snapshot. The tag is packaged and released to customers.

  5. The branch is maintained over time. While work continues on /trunk for version 2.0, bug fixes continue to be ported from /trunk to /branches/1.0. When enough bug fixes have accumulated, management may decide to do a 1.0.1 release: /branches/1.0 is copied to /tags/1.0.1, and the tag is packaged and released.

This entire process repeats as the software matures: when the 2.0 work is complete, a new 2.0 release branch is created, tested, tagged, and eventually released. After some years, the repository ends up with a number of release branches in maintenance mode, and a number of tags representing final shipped versions.

Feature Branches

A feature branch is the sort of branch that's been the dominant example in this chapter (the one you've been working on while Sally continues to work on /trunk). It's a temporary branch created to work on a complex change without interfering with the stability of /trunk. Unlike release branches (which may need to be supported forever), feature branches are born, used for a while, merged back to the trunk, and then ultimately deleted. They have a finite span of usefulness.

Again, project policies vary widely concerning exactly when it's appropriate to create a feature branch. Some projects never use feature branches at all: commits to /trunk are a free-for-all. The advantage to this system is that it's simple—nobody needs to learn about branching or merging. The disadvantage is that the trunk code is often unstable or unusable. Other projects use branches to an extreme: no change is ever committed to the trunk directly. Even the most trivial changes are created on a short-lived branch, carefully reviewed, and merged to the trunk. Then the branch is deleted. This system guarantees an exceptionally stable and usable trunk at all times, but at the cost of tremendous process overhead.

Most projects take a middle-of-the-road approach. They commonly insist that /trunk compile and pass regression tests at all times. A feature branch is required only when a change requires a large number of destabilizing commits. A good rule of thumb is to ask this question: if the developer worked for days in isolation and then committed the large change all at once (so that /trunk were never destabilized), would it be too large a change to review? If the answer to that question is yes, the change should be developed on a feature branch. As the developer commits incremental changes to the branch, they can be easily reviewed by peers.

Finally, there's the issue of how to best keep a feature branch in sync with the trunk as work progresses. As we mentioned earlier, there's a great risk to working on a branch for weeks or months; trunk changes may continue to pour in, to the point where the two lines of development differ so greatly that it may become a nightmare trying to merge the branch back to the trunk.

This situation is best avoided by regularly merging trunk changes to the branch. Make up a policy: once a week, merge the last week's worth of trunk changes to the branch.

When you are eventually ready to merge the synchronized feature branch back to the trunk, begin by doing a final merge of the latest trunk changes to the branch. When that's done, the latest versions of branch and trunk are absolutely identical except for your branch changes. You then merge back with the --reintegrate option:

$ cd trunk-working-copy

$ svn update
Updating '.':
At revision 1910.

$ svn merge --reintegrate ^/calc/branches/mybranch
--- Merging differences between repository URLs into '.':
U    real.c
U    integer.c
A    newdirectory
A    newdirectory/newfile
 U   .

Another way of thinking about this pattern is that your weekly sync of trunk to branch is analogous to running svn update in a working copy, while the final merge step is analogous to running svn commit from a working copy. After all, what else is a working copy but a very shallow private branch? It's a branch that's capable of storing only one change at a time.