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What is Subversion?

What is Subversion and why you need to use it.

The following is a very basic introduction to Subversion and what it does.
For a full online instruction book on how to use Subversion, visit, which is available on the Subversion website.

The following notes are taken from TortoiseSVN Help

What is Subversion?

"Subversion is version control: the art of managing changes to information."

Programmers have used version control for years to manage the changes to their software when checking or debugging.
It was introduced to prevent programmers, working on the same files, from overwriting each others software, possibly reintroducing bugs some poor programmer has spent ages removing.

It is for a similar reason that the Computer Laboratory has introduced Subversion.

Why you need to use it

"But I only work on a few files, and I like the way I do things, why should I change when it looks like more work for me and a bit more confusing? "

You're right!
Subversion is going to make your simple editing work more of a challenge, but there are various reasons why we are introducing it:

  • It is bad form not to
    It is generally expected that large sites, such as the Computer Laboratory's (which is edited by numerous authors), should be properly managed.
    Version control is, therefore, being introduced to avoid unnecessary overwriting of files and stem the confusion caused by dupliate or outdated files.
  • The website is dynamic
    At this present time of writing, the website is undergoing a general overhaul, but the long-term aim is to keep the website current and relevant.
    New authors have been introduced to achieve this, which means there is a potential for different people to be editing the same pages simultaniously, even if they are working on different sections.
    Subversion will ensure that files are not overwritten, but information merged.

Subversion introduces a system that remembers every change ever written to its repository, such as:
addition, deletion, and rearrangement of files and directories.

What this means for you is:
  • Your time and efforts are not wasted by having your work overwritten and lost
  • You don't have to wait for other people to finish their edits on a file before you can access it
  • You can track the changes made to a file, who made them and when
  • You can retrieve an older version of a file should the need arise, and be precise about the date of file you want to retrieve

How it works

Note: You may or may not find this section of interest, but as you get used to using Subversion, you may find it of use to understand what is happening behind the scenes.

Files are stored in a central repository, similar to an ordinary file server, except that it remembers every change ever made to the files and directories.
This allows you to recover older versions of your files and examine the history of how and when your data changed, and who changed it.

The Repository

The Repository
  • The repository stores information in the form of a filesystem tree
    - a typical hierarchy of files and directories, as illustrated here.
  • Any number of clients connect to the repository, and then read or write to these files.
  • By writing data, a client makes the information available to others.
  • By reading data, the client receives information from others.

To manage the multiple file versions, Subversion uses a Copy-Modify-Merge model as an alternative to locking.
In this model, each user's client reads the repository and creates a personal working copy of the file or project.
Users then work in parallel, modifying their private copies.
Finally, the private copies are merged together into a new, final version.
The version control system often assists with the merging, but ultimately a human being is responsible for making it happen correctly.

This is much more efficient than the Lock-Modify-Unlock method which means only one person can be editing a file at a time.

An example

copy-modify-merge model
  • Harry and Sally each create working copies of the same project, copied from the repository.
  • They work concurrently, and make changes to the same file "A" within their copies.
  • Sally saves her changes to the repository first.
  • Harry attempts to save his changes later, but the repository informs him that his file A is out-of-date; file A in the repository has somehow changed since he last copied it.
  • So Harry asks his client to merge any new changes from the repository into his working copy of file A (we assume here that there are no conflicts).
  • Both sets of changes are integrated, and Harry saves his working copy back to the repository.


But what if Sally's changes do overlap with Harry's changes causing a conflict?
copy-modify-merge model
  • Harry asks his client to merge the latest repository changes into his working copy,
  • Harry's copy of file A is flagged as being in a state of conflict
  • Harry can view both sets of conflicting changes, and manually choose between them.
  • Harry resolves the overlapping changes (perhaps by discussing the conflict with Sally!)and safely saves the merged file back to the repository.
The software can't automatically resolve conflicts.
Only authors do this as they are capable of understanding and making the necessary intelligent choices.

The copy-modify-merge model may sound a bit chaotic, but in practice, it runs extremely smoothly, as users work in parallel, never waiting for one another.

When they work on the same files, it turns out that:
  • most of their concurrent changes don't overlap at all
  • conflicts are infrequent
  • the amount of time it takes to resolve conflicts is far less than the time lost by a locking system, or rewriting a page

How the Subversion repository works at the Computer Lab

This diagram illustrates how Subversion works in the Computer Lab:
SVN Housekeeping diagram