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Using the APIs

Developing applications against the Subversion library APIs is fairly straightforward. Subversion is primarily a set of C libraries, with header (.h) files that live in the subversion/include directory of the source tree. These headers are copied into your system locations (e.g., /usr/local/include) when you build and install Subversion itself from source. These headers represent the entirety of the functions and types meant to be accessible by users of the Subversion libraries. The Subversion developer community is meticulous about ensuring that the public API is well documented—refer directly to the header files for that documentation.

When examining the public header files, the first thing you might notice is that Subversion's datatypes and functions are namespace-protected. That is, every public Subversion symbol name begins with svn_, followed by a short code for the library in which the symbol is defined (such as wc, client, fs, etc.), followed by a single underscore (_), and then the rest of the symbol name. Semipublic functions (used among source files of a given library but not by code outside that library, and found inside the library directories themselves) differ from this naming scheme in that instead of a single underscore after the library code, they use a double underscore (_ _). Functions that are private to a given source file have no special prefixing and are declared static. Of course, a compiler isn't interested in these naming conventions, but they help to clarify the scope of a given function or datatype.

Another good source of information about programming against the Subversion APIs is the project's own hacking guidelines, which you can find at This document contains useful information, which, while aimed at developers and would-be developers of Subversion itself, is equally applicable to folks developing against Subversion as a set of third-party libraries.[77]

The Apache Portable Runtime Library

Along with Subversion's own datatypes, you will see many references to datatypes that begin with apr_—symbols from the Apache Portable Runtime (APR) library. APR is Apache's portability library, originally carved out of its server code as an attempt to separate the OS-specific bits from the OS-independent portions of the code. The result was a library that provides a generic API for performing operations that differ mildly—or wildly—from OS to OS. While the Apache HTTP Server was obviously the first user of the APR library, the Subversion developers immediately recognized the value of using APR as well. This means that there is practically no OS-specific code in Subversion itself. Also, it means that the Subversion client compiles and runs anywhere that the Apache HTTP Server does. Currently, this list includes all flavors of Unix, Win32, BeOS, OS/2, and Mac OS X.

In addition to providing consistent implementations of system calls that differ across operating systems,[78] APR gives Subversion immediate access to many custom datatypes, such as dynamic arrays and hash tables. Subversion uses these types extensively. But perhaps the most pervasive APR datatype, found in nearly every Subversion API prototype, is the apr_pool_t—the APR memory pool. Subversion uses pools internally for all its memory allocation needs (unless an external library requires a different memory management mechanism for data passed through its API),[79] and while a person coding against the Subversion APIs is not required to do the same, she is required to provide pools to the API functions that need them. This means that users of the Subversion API must also link against APR, must call apr_initialize() to initialize the APR subsystem, and then must create and manage pools for use with Subversion API calls, typically by using svn_pool_create(), svn_pool_clear(), and svn_pool_destroy().

Functions and Batons

To facilitate streamy (asynchronous) behavior and provide consumers of the Subversion C API with hooks for handling information in customizable ways, many functions in the API accept pairs of parameters: a pointer to a callback function, and a pointer to a blob of memory called a baton that carries context information for that callback function. Batons are typically C structures with additional information that the callback function needs but which is not given directly to the callback function by the driving API function.

URL and Path Requirements

With remote version control operation as the whole point of Subversion's existence, it makes sense that some attention has been paid to internationalization (i18n) support. After all, while remote might mean across the office, it could just as well mean across the globe. To facilitate this, all of Subversion's public interfaces that accept path arguments expect those paths to be canonicalized—which is most easily accomplished by passing them through svn_dirent_canonicalize() or svn_uri_canonicalize() (depending on whether you are canonicalizing a local system path or a URL, respectively)—and encoded in UTF-8. This means, for example, that any new client binary that drives the libsvn_client interface needs to first convert paths from the locale-specific encoding to UTF-8 before passing those paths to the Subversion libraries, and then reconvert any resultant output paths from Subversion back into the locale's encoding before using those paths for non-Subversion purposes. Fortunately, Subversion provides a suite of functions (see subversion/include/svn_utf.h) that any program can use to do these conversions.

Also, Subversion APIs require all URL parameters to be properly URI-encoded. So, instead of passing file:///home/username/My File.txt as the URL of a file named My File.txt, you need to pass file:///home/username/My%20File.txt. Again, Subversion supplies helper functions that your application can use—svn_path_uri_encode() and svn_path_uri_decode(), for URI encoding and decoding, respectively.

Using Languages Other Than C and C++

If you are interested in using the Subversion libraries in conjunction with something other than a C program—say, a Python or Perl script—Subversion has some support for this via the Simplified Wrapper and Interface Generator (SWIG). The SWIG bindings for Subversion are located in subversion/bindings/swig. They are still maturing, but they are usable. These bindings allow you to call Subversion API functions indirectly, using wrappers that translate the datatypes native to your scripting language into the datatypes needed by Subversion's C libraries.

Significant efforts have been made toward creating functional SWIG-generated bindings for Python, Perl, and Ruby. To some extent, the work done preparing the SWIG interface files for these languages is reusable in efforts to generate bindings for other languages supported by SWIG (which include versions of C#, Guile, Java, MzScheme, OCaml, PHP, and Tcl, among others). However, some extra programming is required to compensate for complex APIs that SWIG needs some help translating between languages. For more information on SWIG itself, see the project's web site at

Subversion also has language bindings for Java. The javahl bindings (located in subversion/bindings/java in the Subversion source tree) aren't SWIG-based, but are instead a mixture of Java and hand-coded JNI. Javahl covers most Subversion client-side APIs and is specifically targeted at implementors of Java-based Subversion clients and IDE integrations.

Subversion's language bindings tend to lack the level of developer attention given to the core Subversion modules, but can generally be trusted as production-ready. A number of scripts and applications, alternative Subversion GUI clients, and other third-party tools are successfully using Subversion's language bindings today to accomplish their Subversion integrations.

It's worth noting here that there are other options for interfacing with Subversion using other languages: alternative bindings for Subversion that aren't provided by the Subversion development community at all. There are a couple of popular ones we feel are especially noteworthy. First, Barry Scott's PySVN bindings ( are a popular option for binding with Python. PySVN boasts of a more Pythonic interface than the more C-like APIs provided by Subversion's own Python bindings. And if you're looking for a pure Java implementation of Subversion, check out SVNKit (, which is Subversion rewritten from the ground up in Java.

Code Samples

Example 8.1, “Using the repository layer” contains a code segment (written in C) that illustrates some of the concepts we've been discussing. It uses both the repository and filesystem interfaces (as can be determined by the prefixes svn_repos_ and svn_fs_ of the function names, respectively) to create a new revision in which a directory is added. You can see the use of an APR pool, which is passed around for memory allocation purposes. Also, the code reveals a somewhat obscure fact about Subversion error handling—all Subversion errors must be explicitly handled to avoid memory leakage (and in some cases, application failure).

Example 8.1. Using the repository layer

/* Convert a Subversion error into a simple boolean error code.
 * NOTE:  Subversion errors must be cleared (using svn_error_clear())
 *        because they are allocated from the global pool, else memory
 *        leaking occurs.
#define INT_ERR(expr)                           \
  do {                                          \
    svn_error_t *__temperr = (expr);            \
    if (__temperr)                              \
      {                                         \
        svn_error_clear(__temperr);             \
        return 1;                               \
      }                                         \
    return 0;                                   \
  } while (0)

/* Create a new directory at the path NEW_DIRECTORY in the Subversion
 * repository located at REPOS_PATH.  Perform all memory allocation in
 * POOL.  This function will create a new revision for the addition of
 * NEW_DIRECTORY.  Return zero if the operation completes
 * successfully, nonzero otherwise.
static int
make_new_directory(const char *repos_path,
                   const char *new_directory,
                   apr_pool_t *pool)
  svn_error_t *err;
  svn_repos_t *repos;
  svn_fs_t *fs;
  svn_revnum_t youngest_rev;
  svn_fs_txn_t *txn;
  svn_fs_root_t *txn_root;
  const char *conflict_str;

  /* Open the repository located at REPOS_PATH. 
  INT_ERR(svn_repos_open(&repos, repos_path, pool));

  /* Get a pointer to the filesystem object that is stored in REPOS. 
  fs = svn_repos_fs(repos);

  /* Ask the filesystem to tell us the youngest revision that
   * currently exists. 
  INT_ERR(svn_fs_youngest_rev(&youngest_rev, fs, pool));

  /* Begin a new transaction that is based on YOUNGEST_REV.  We are
   * less likely to have our later commit rejected as conflicting if we
   * always try to make our changes against a copy of the latest snapshot
   * of the filesystem tree. 
  INT_ERR(svn_repos_fs_begin_txn_for_commit2(&txn, repos, youngest_rev,
                                             apr_hash_make(pool), pool));

  /* Now that we have started a new Subversion transaction, get a root
   * object that represents that transaction. 
  INT_ERR(svn_fs_txn_root(&txn_root, txn, pool));
  /* Create our new directory under the transaction root, at the path
  INT_ERR(svn_fs_make_dir(txn_root, new_directory, pool));

  /* Commit the transaction, creating a new revision of the filesystem
   * which includes our added directory path.
  err = svn_repos_fs_commit_txn(&conflict_str, repos, 
                                &youngest_rev, txn, pool);
  if (! err)
      /* No error?  Excellent!  Print a brief report of our success.
      printf("Directory '%s' was successfully added as new revision "
             "'%ld'.\n", new_directory, youngest_rev);
  else if (err->apr_err == SVN_ERR_FS_CONFLICT)
      /* Uh-oh.  Our commit failed as the result of a conflict
       * (someone else seems to have made changes to the same area 
       * of the filesystem that we tried to modify).  Print an error
       * message.
      printf("A conflict occurred at path '%s' while attempting "
             "to add directory '%s' to the repository at '%s'.\n", 
             conflict_str, new_directory, repos_path);
      /* Some other error has occurred.  Print an error message.
      printf("An error occurred while attempting to add directory '%s' "
             "to the repository at '%s'.\n", 
             new_directory, repos_path);


Note that in Example 8.1, “Using the repository layer”, the code could just as easily have committed the transaction using svn_fs_commit_txn(). But the filesystem API knows nothing about the repository library's hook mechanism. If you want your Subversion repository to automatically perform some set of non-Subversion tasks every time you commit a transaction (e.g., sending an email that describes all the changes made in that transaction to your developer mailing list), you need to use the libsvn_repos-wrapped version of that function, which adds the hook triggering functionality—in this case, svn_repos_fs_commit_txn(). (For more information regarding Subversion's repository hooks, see the section called “Implementing Repository Hooks”.)

Now let's switch languages. Example 8.2, “Using the repository layer with Python” is a sample program that uses Subversion's SWIG Python bindings to recursively crawl the youngest repository revision, and to print the various paths reached during the crawl.

Example 8.2. Using the repository layer with Python


"""Crawl a repository, printing versioned object path names."""

import sys
import os.path
import svn.fs, svn.core, svn.repos

def crawl_filesystem_dir(root, directory):
    """Recursively crawl DIRECTORY under ROOT in the filesystem, and return
    a list of all the paths at or below DIRECTORY."""

    # Print the name of this path.
    print directory + "/"
    # Get the directory entries for DIRECTORY.
    entries = svn.fs.svn_fs_dir_entries(root, directory)

    # Loop over the entries.
    names = entries.keys()
    for name in names:
        # Calculate the entry's full path.
        full_path = directory + '/' + name

        # If the entry is a directory, recurse.  The recursion will return
        # a list with the entry and all its children, which we will add to
        # our running list of paths.
        if svn.fs.svn_fs_is_dir(root, full_path):
            crawl_filesystem_dir(root, full_path)
            # Else it's a file, so print its path here.
            print full_path

def crawl_youngest(repos_path):
    """Open the repository at REPOS_PATH, and recursively crawl its
    youngest revision."""
    # Open the repository at REPOS_PATH, and get a reference to its
    # versioning filesystem.
    repos_obj = svn.repos.svn_repos_open(repos_path)
    fs_obj = svn.repos.svn_repos_fs(repos_obj)

    # Query the current youngest revision.
    youngest_rev = svn.fs.svn_fs_youngest_rev(fs_obj)
    # Open a root object representing the youngest (HEAD) revision.
    root_obj = svn.fs.svn_fs_revision_root(fs_obj, youngest_rev)

    # Do the recursive crawl.
    crawl_filesystem_dir(root_obj, "")
if __name__ == "__main__":
    # Check for sane usage.
    if len(sys.argv) != 2:
        sys.stderr.write("Usage: %s REPOS_PATH\n"
                         % (os.path.basename(sys.argv[0])))

    # Canonicalize the repository path.
    repos_path = svn.core.svn_dirent_canonicalize(sys.argv[1])

    # Do the real work.

This same program in C would need to deal with APR's memory pool system. But Python handles memory usage automatically, and Subversion's Python bindings adhere to that convention. In C, you'd be working with custom datatypes (such as those provided by the APR library) for representing the hash of entries and the list of paths, but Python has hashes (called dictionaries) and lists as built-in datatypes, and it provides a rich collection of functions for operating on those types. So SWIG (with the help of some customizations in Subversion's language bindings layer) takes care of mapping those custom datatypes into the native datatypes of the target language. This provides a more intuitive interface for users of that language.

The Subversion Python bindings can be used for working copy operations, too. In the previous section of this chapter, we mentioned the libsvn_client interface and how it exists for the sole purpose of simplifying the process of writing a Subversion client. Example 8.3, “A Python status crawler” is a brief example of how that library can be accessed via the SWIG Python bindings to re-create a scaled-down version of the svn status command.

Example 8.3. A Python status crawler

#!/usr/bin/env python

"""Crawl a working copy directory, printing status information."""

import sys
import os.path
import getopt
import svn.core, svn.client, svn.wc

def generate_status_code(status):
    """Translate a status value into a single-character status code,
    using the same logic as the Subversion command-line client."""
    code_map = { svn.wc.svn_wc_status_none        : ' ',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_normal      : ' ',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_added       : 'A',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_missing     : '!',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_incomplete  : '!',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_deleted     : 'D',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_replaced    : 'R',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_modified    : 'M',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_conflicted  : 'C',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_obstructed  : '~',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_ignored     : 'I',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_external    : 'X',
                 svn.wc.svn_wc_status_unversioned : '?',
    return code_map.get(status, '?')

def do_status(wc_path, verbose, prefix):
    # Build a client context baton.
    ctx = svn.client.svn_client_create_context()

    def _status_callback(path, status):
        """A callback function for svn_client_status."""

        # Print the path, minus the bit that overlaps with the root of
        # the status crawl
        text_status = generate_status_code(status.text_status)
        prop_status = generate_status_code(status.prop_status)
        prefix_text = ''
        if prefix is not None:
            prefix_text = prefix + " "
        print '%s%s%s  %s' % (prefix_text, text_status, prop_status, path)
    # Do the status crawl, using _status_callback() as our callback function.
    revision = svn.core.svn_opt_revision_t()
    revision.type = svn.core.svn_opt_revision_head
    svn.client.svn_client_status2(wc_path, revision, _status_callback,
                                  svn.core.svn_depth_infinity, verbose,
                                  0, 0, 1, ctx)

def usage_and_exit(errorcode):
    """Print usage message, and exit with ERRORCODE."""
    stream = errorcode and sys.stderr or sys.stdout
    stream.write("""Usage: %s OPTIONS WC-PATH

  Print working copy status, optionally with a bit of prefix text.

  --help, -h    : Show this usage message
  --prefix ARG  : Print ARG, followed by a space, before each line of output
  --verbose, -v : Show all statuses, even uninteresting ones
""" % (os.path.basename(sys.argv[0])))
if __name__ == '__main__':
    # Parse command-line options.
        opts, args = getopt.getopt(sys.argv[1:], "hv",
                                   ["help", "prefix=", "verbose"])
    except getopt.GetoptError:
    verbose = 0
    prefix = None
    for opt, arg in opts:
        if opt in ("-h", "--help"):
        if opt in ("--prefix"):
            prefix = arg
        if opt in ("-v", "--verbose"):
            verbose = 1
    if len(args) != 1:
    # Canonicalize the working copy path.
    wc_path = svn.core.svn_dirent_canonicalize(args[0])

    # Do the real work.
        do_status(wc_path, verbose, prefix)
    except svn.core.SubversionException, e:
        sys.stderr.write("Error (%d): %s\n" % (e.apr_err, e.message))

As was the case in Example 8.2, “Using the repository layer with Python”, this program is pool-free and uses, for the most part, normal Python datatypes.

[Warning] Warning

Run user-provided paths through the appropriate canonicalization function (svn_dirent_canonicalize() or svn_uri_canonicalize()) before passing them to other API functions. Failure to do so can trigger assertions in the underlying Subversion C library which translate into rather immediate and unceremonious program abortion.

Of particular interest to users of the Python flavor of Subversion's API is the implementation of callback functions. As previously mentioned, Subversion's C API makes liberal use of the callback function/baton paradigm. API functions which in C accept a function and baton pair only accept a callback function parameter in Python. How, then, does the caller pass arbitrary context information to the callback function? In Python, this is done by taking advantage of Python's scoping rules and default argument values. You can see this in action in Example 8.3, “A Python status crawler”. The svn_client_status2() function is given a callback function (_status_callback()) but no baton—_status_callback() gets access to the user-provided prefix string because that variable falls into the scope of the function automatically.

[77] After all, Subversion uses Subversion's APIs, too.

[78] Subversion uses ANSI system calls and datatypes as much as possible.

[79] Berkeley DB is an example of such a library.

[80] Redistributions in any form must be accompanied by information on how to obtain complete source code for the software that uses SVNKit and any accompanying software that uses the software that uses SVNKit. See for details.