States in Version Control Systems

Elijah has been writing an interesting series of articles comparing different version control systems. While the previous articles have been very informative, I think the latest one was a bit muddled. What follows is an expanded version of my comment on that article.

Elijah starts by making an analogy between text editors and version control systems, which I think is quite a useful analogy. When working with a text editor, there is a base version of the file on disk, and the version you are currently working on which will become the next saved version.

This does map quite well to the concepts of most VCS’s. You have a working copy that starts out identical to a base tree from the branch you are editing. You make local changes and eventually commit, creating a new base tree for future edits.

In addition to these two “states”, Elijah goes on to list three more states that are actually orthogonal to the original two. These additional states refer to certain categorisations of files within the working copy, rather than particular versions of files or trees. Rather than simplifying things, I believe that mingling the two concepts together is more likely to cause confusion. I think this is evident from the fact that the additional states do not fit the analogy we started with.

Versioned and Unversioned Files

If you are going to use a version control system seriously, it is worth understanding how files within a working copy are managed. Rather than thinking of a flat list of possible states, I think it is helpful to think of a hierarchy of categories. The most basic categorisation is whether a file is versioned or not.

Versioned files are those whose state will be saved when committing a new version of the tree. Conversely, unversioned files exist in the working copy but are not recorded when committing new versions of the tree.

This concept does not map very well to the original text editor analogy. If text editors did support such a feature, it would be the ability to add paragraphs to the document that do not get stored to disk when you save, but would persist inside the editor.

Types of Versioned Files

There are various ways to categorise versioned files, but here are some fairly generic ones that fit most VCS’s.

  1. unchanged
  2. modified
  3. added
  4. removed

Each of these categorisations is relative to the base tree for the working copy. The modified category contains both files whose contents have changed and whose metadata has changed (e.g. files that have been renamed).

The removed category is interesting because files in this category don’t actually exist in the working copy. That said the VCS knows that such files did exist, so it knows to delete the files when committing the next version of the tree.

Types of Unversioned Files

There are two primary categories for unversioned files:

  1. ignored
  2. unknown

The ignored category consists of unversioned files that the VCS knows the user does not want added to the tree (either through a set of default file patterns, or because the user explicitly said the file should be ignored). Object files and executables built from source code in the tree are prime examples of files that the user would want to ignore.

The unknown category is a catch-all for any other unversioned file in the tree. This is what Elijah referred to as “limbo” in his article.

Differences between VCS’s

These concepts are roughly applicable to most version control systems, but there are differences in how the categories are handled. Some of the areas where they differ are:

  • Are newly created files in the working copy counted as added or unknown?
    Some VCS’s (or configurations of VCS’s) don’t have a concept of unknown files. In such a system, newly created files will be treated as added rather than unknown.
  • Are unknown files allowed in the working copy when committing?
    One of the issues Elijah brought up was forgetting to add new files before commit. Some VCS’s avoid this problem by not letting you commit a tree with unknown files.
  • When renaming a versioned file, does it count as a single modified file, or a removed file and an added file?
    This one is a basic question of whether the VCS supports renames or not.
  • If I delete a versioned file, is it put in the removed category automatically?
    With some VCS’s you need to explicitly tell them that you are removing a file. With others it is enough to delete the file on disk.

These differences are the sorts of things that affect the workflow for the VCS, so are worth investigating when comparing different systems.