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Tutorial: Apache Subversion Best Practices

Jessica Thornsby

It‘s still the most popular software version control for a reason. Former JAX Magazine editor Jessica Thornsby guides through the common pitfalls when picking up Subversion.

control is a useful tool for software development, particularly
when a project involves more than one developer, and Apache Subversion
remains one of the world’s most popular open source version control
systems. It’s also one of the most established, with a vibrant
ecosystem of client tools, GUIs and plugins for all your version
control needs.

However, there are some potential pitfalls to
watch out for, especially for Subversion newbies. How should you
structure your repository? And how do you implement a branching and
merging strategy that won’t give you a headache?

In this article, we’ll cover some essential best
practices for Apache Subversion, including repository structure,
project layout, and finally branching and merging with SVN.

Repository Structure

Apache Subversion doesn’t impose a strict file
structure, which allows you to optimize the repository layout to
suit a project’s particular needs. However, all of this freedom can
result in unnecessary admin overhead – implementing the correct
project layout from the beginning is crucial.

One of the first questions you’ll need to answer
when starting a new project is: should I use a single repository
for multiple projects, or a separate repository for each

Single Repository

Single repositories are typically best suited to
multiple projects that require cross-tracking and
cross-referencing. The benefits of a single repository approach is
that there’s a single location where all the code can be accessed,
and resources (e.g libraries) can be shared easily between
projects. There is also typically less administrative overhead, as
new projects don’t require a new repository, and data can be moved
between projects without losing any versioning information.
However, there are some downsides: performing admin tasks such as
dumping and loading one huge repository will be more
time-consuming, especially since projects have a tendency to
increase in size. Another issue worth bearing in mind, is that
Subversion applies its revision numbers to entire trees; this means
that the revision number of all your projects will increase
simultaneously, regardless of the changes being made.

Multiple Repositories

These are typically used for multiple, unrelated
projects. Multiple repositories give users the freedom to tailor
each repository to suit the individual project, and ensures that
the version number is meaningful to each project. However, sharing
code can become a problem as Subversion does not support merging
code between repositories, and the merged code will subsequently
appear in the new repo with no history.

Project Layout

Once you’ve decided whether to organize your
project(s) in a single or multiple repository structure, the next
step is to plan your project layout. Putting some thought into
planning your layout in advance can save you the administrative
hassle of moving files around later.

For most projects, it’s good practice to follow
the trunk/branch/tags layout and to make a clear distinction
between the code contained in each:

Trunk – this is where you
should store current release code – only! The trunk should always
be stable and compilable.

Tags – these are used to
provide a snapshot of the code at a specific point in your
project’s history

Branches – useful for working
on significant changes, variations of code etc, without disrupting
the stable code in the trunk. 

Figure 1: An
illustration of how a Subversion Repository evolves using
branching, tagging and a code trunk 

A quick internet search will uncover countless tales of
branching and merging hell but when used correctly, branching and
merging can be an invaluable tool for the Subversion user.
Following a few best practices can ensure you get the most out of
Subversion’s powerful branching and merging functionality.

Merging Best Practices 

  • Always start with a checkout or an update
    always ensure you have the latest code from the trunk, and have
    committed all of your changes before you begin a merge.

  • Merge on logical checkpoints – in most cases,
    it makes sense to merge when your branch has reached a certain
    level of stability and maturity. Never merge when an experimental
    change has been made to a branch.

  • Always use log messages – these can be an
    invaluable source of information a few months down the line, when
    you need to check when a merge happened, what changes it included,
    etc. The more relevant information you provide in log messages, the

  • Merge soon – the quicker you can perform a
    merge and commit your changes back to the repository, the sooner
    the rest of your team can take your changes into account in their
    own part of the development effort.

  • Isolate the merge – it can be tempting to merge
    and then make some additional changes before performing a commit.
    However, this will make it difficult to separate which changes came
    from the merge, and which changes are part of the rest of the
    development effort, if you ever need to revisit this revision.

  • Run Frequent ‘SVN Updates’ – even if it seems
    your branch has little to do with the work going on in the trunk,
    by the time you’ve finished perfecting your branch, the trunk could
    have evolved to the point where it’s a struggle to merge. Perform
    regular updates to ensure any new commits fit with your own

  • Run into problems? Just start over! – if your
    merge doesn’t go to plan, you can always discard the changes in
    your working copy and start over. A revert overrides any local
    changes with the code in the repository. It uses the ‘svn revert’
    command, followed by the location of the working copy
    (Figure 2):

Figure 2: Revert if

Tip: TortoiseSVN,
the popular Subversion client for Windows, has a useful
‘tsvn:logminsize’ property that can ensure all team members leave
log messages. To set this property:

Select the properties option from the
TortoiseSVN menu. In the subsequent properties dialog, select ‘New’
property and click ‘Log sizes.’ (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Log


Specify the minimum number of characters for a
commit message. TortoiseSVN will block any commits with a log
message shorter than the characters specified. (Figure

Figure 4: Specify characters for commit

Branching Best Practices 

  • Delete Unwanted Branches – deleting branches
    in Subversion has no effect on repository size, because the branch
    is only removed from the revision in question and all subsequent
    revisions. A deleted branch still exists in all previous revisions,
    and can be viewed and recovered at any time. Although deleting
    branches doesn’t save you space, you should still delete unwanted
    branches if: You’ve successfully performed a
    – after a merge, the branch becomes completely
    redundant and should be deleted. You’ve ran the
    -reintegrate command
    – this command instructs Subversion
    to compare the trunk and a branch, and apply the resulting
    differences to the trunk. Once a ‘–reintegration’ merge has been
    performed, the branch can no longer be used for development, as any
    future reintegration will be interpreted as a trunk change. To
    avoid this, branches should always be deleted after a reintegration
    merge. Or for General Housekeeping – regularly deleting branches
    helps to reduce the clutter in the branches directory, making it
    easy to see active development at a glance.
  • Test, Test, Test – consider CI and assertion
    testing on feature branches, which is a useful way to indicate code
    maturity and progress.
  • Keep track of your branches – if you’re
    maintaining several concurrent branches, it’s easy to lose track.
    TortoiseSVN’s ‘Revision Graph’ function helps you keep up with the
    different branches, by analyzing the revision history and creating
    a graphical representation of the relationships between

In the Revision Graph, each node represents a
revision where something changed, and each change is represented by
a different coloured shape. (Figure 5)

Figure 5: Revision


  • Added or copied items – an item has either
    been added to Subversion, or created by copying an existing
  • Branch tip revision – this represents the HEAD
    revision nodes for each branch. Note, that HEAD does not refer to
    the latest revision in the repository; but to the latest revision
    committed on that path. (Figure 6)
Figure 6: Branch
tip revision
  • Deleted items – branches that have been
  • (Optional) Working copy revision – if you
    select the ‘Show WC revision’ option from the ‘View’ menu, the BASE
    revision will be displayed with a bold outline. (Figure
Figure 7: Deleted
items and copy revision

If you’re after more Subversion tips, tricks and
best practices, WANdisco runs frequent free training webinars for
the SVN community. Visit the WANdisco training
for the full programme of upcoming webinars.

Author Bio: Jessica Thornsby is
the Technical and Creative Copywriter at WANdisco. She writers
regular tutorials on Apache Subversion, TortoiseSVN, uberSVN, and
all things version control at www.blogs.wandisco.com. She spends her spare time
editing the CD reviews over at www.leedsmusicscene.net, contributing to A Short
Fanzine About Rocking, and researching her family tree. 

This tutorial originally appeared in JAX
Magazine: New Horizons in September. Download that and other issues

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