December 96 - Be Our Guest:
Be Our Guest:
Source Code Control for the Rest of Us
D. John Anderson and Alan B. Harper
Imagine you're working on a program than runs on both Macintosh and Windows
computers. Suppose you aren't the only programmer working on the project, and
you occasionally want to work from home. Seems like a pretty common situation.
Soon everyone begins to make their own changes to the program and you realize
that you need some kind of source code control. When people think of source
code control, they often picture a safe database that keeps a history of every
change to the project. Most source control systems do a reasonable job of that.
But what surprisingly few people worry about is the much greater need to merge
each programmer's changes into the common code base. For some reason this is
where many popular source code control systems fall flat; here we'll tell you
about one that doesn't.
Many systems require that you check out a file before modifying it. This is so
that two people don't modify the same file at the same time. Unfortunately,
this makes global changes difficult. Something as simple as changing a routine
name from doQMFX to PrintFile doesn't get done because you need to check out
every file and someone else already has them checked out; it's just not worth
the hassle. In the early stages of development, when everyone is changing many
files at the same time, the check-in/check-out model can slow you down even
more. Some systems let a file be checked out by several people, who must then
merge their changes into a single file. Even with the best tools, this process
of merging often requires you to look at every individual change, presumably so
that you can verify each one. But you typically end up incorporating every
change anyway. Why not save a lot of time and headaches by automating this
There are other annoying problems with some source code control systems, such
as limited cross-platform support and difficult or impossible access to the
database from home. And with some systems that use a database, you can't do
simple things like grep through your files. These problems can really get in
the way of getting your work done.
If after reading this far you say, "Yeah, I hate source code control. I wish I
just had a bunch of files and didn't have to think about other people stepping
on my files," then read on. If instead you say, "I don't get what he's talking
about. I don't mind checking files out and back in and merging them by hand,"
then skip to the next article.
Still with us? Great. To avoid these problems, we at Eclectus have developed
three tools based on the GNU diff utility: Merge, Difference, and Undifference.
They accompany this column on this issue's CD and develop
's Web site.
Here's an overview of how our scheme works:
- We put all the files in the project in one directory tree -- named, say,
HotApp-0. We mark all the files read-only and put them on a shared server.
- Each programmer makes a copy of HotApp-0 on his or her local machine.
They do all their work in their own local copy, changing any file they want.
- When everyone agrees that their changes are ready to merge into a new
version, we use Merge, which automatically incorporates the changes into a new
source tree that we name HotApp-1. When two people modify the same line, Merge
reports a conflict that we must look at and resolve. Surprisingly, conflicts
are rare. After fixing the conflicts by hand, we make any changes necessary to
compile the application; then we mark each file read-only and put HotApp-1 on
the shared server.
- All programmers copy HotApp-1 to their local machines and development
Suppose I want to bring some work home with me. I use Difference
to create a difference script of changes between the current version -- say,
HotApp-1 -- and my local working copy. This difference script is usually small
enough to put on a floppy disk or beam over a modem. At home, where I also have
a copy of HotApp-1, I use Undifference to restore the working copy of my
project. I can copy my changes made at home back to work the same way.
If I want a copy of the source for safekeeping, I either copy HotApp-1 from the
shared server or, if I really care about space, I difference HotApp-1 against
HotApp-0 and compress the result, which is tiny.
If the machine I'm working on doesn't get backed up automatically every day, I
can use the same method to back up my work. I just difference my working copy
against the most recent shared copy, compress it, and put it in a safe place --
like on a server that's backed up automatically. Compressed daily difference
files are so small that I can keep a year's worth in only about 20 MB.
Because these tools are based on GNU diff, they're free (thanks to the Free
Software Foundation), the source code is available, and they're extraordinarily
fast. Using Difference, Undifference, and Merge is approximately as fast as
copying an equivalent number of files. We can do a complete n-way merge -- a
merge between n programmers -- in less time than it used to take to check out
just a few files with competitive alternatives. We can difference or
undifference our project (about 4 MB of source) in less than one minute on a
low-end Power Macintosh or a Windows NT computer, and merge two trees in less
than two minutes.
Because the source is freely available, you can easily tweak the tools to add
your favorite features. Of course you'll have to share those features with
everyone else, but that just makes the tools better.
At Eclectus, our current project is a program that runs on both the Mac OS and
Windows platforms, each developed at a different location. Let's say Alan and
John are each modifying their own copy of HotApp-0.
- When they decide it's time to merge their changes, Alan beams John his
diffs against HotApp-0 via e-mail.
- John uses Undifference on Alan's diffs to reconstruct Alan's source
code tree. Now both John's source and Alan's source are on John's machine.
- John merges Alan's source code with his own to create a new version,
naming it HotApp-1, and makes any changes necessary to compile HotApp-1 on
- John uses Difference on HotApp-1 against HotApp-0 and beams these
diffs to Alan via e-mail.
- Alan undifferences these diffs against HotApp-0 to construct
HotApp-1, the same new version John now has. Alan might have to make some
changes to get HotApp-1 to compile on the Macintosh because of John's recent
changes that were automatically merged -- for example, John might have
forgotten to ifdef a Windows-specific piece of code. These changes will show up
after the next merge of HotApp.
Development continues, and we repeat this
process whenever we feel it's time to merge again. We usually use a modem or
e-mail to exchange the diffs, since they're small.
This process generalizes to more than two programmers since the merge utility
will handle any number of modified versions. Deciding when to merge is up to
all the programmers. We usually merge when somebody wants to make their changes
available to everyone else and nobody has totally broken their version.
Sometimes months pass between merges, sometimes we merge twice a day. Near the
end of a development cycle we like to merge at least once a day so that a
recent copy is always available for testing.
Automatic merging, tiny diffs files, no time-consuming file checkout? Sounds
great, but there are a lot of details you're probably wondering about.
To merge changes, we use a command-line environment (MPW, ToolServer, and so
on). In the above example, we would use the following Macintosh command to
merge :HotApp-0 :HotApp-John :HotApp-Alan :HotApp-1
this example, HotApp-0 is a directory tree containing the original code that
both John and Alan started with. HotApp-John is a directory tree containing
John's version after his changes, and HotApp-Alan contains Alan's version.
HotApp-1 will contain the result of the merge when the command is finished. If
we had more programmers, we'd just include their directories after Alan's.
(With several programmers, you might think that the time involved in sending
complete source trees back and forth would be prohibitive, but remember that
the only thing that needs to be sent is a small diffs file, and then the source
tree can be rebuilt quickly and locally.)
When conflicts occur in the merge, the conflicting files are renamed by
prefixing an exclamation point (!) to the filename, and the conflicting lines
of code are marked in the merged file. Usually conflicts are solved by editing
the merged file and taking one person's changes. After conflicts are resolved,
you rename the file back to its original name.
Many programmers are suspicious of automatic merges. What if Joe makes a change
that's incompatible with Helen's, but they don't change the same line? Merge
doesn't identify this snafu. To avoid or identify bugs caused by incompatible
changes, Joe and Helen must talk to each other or look at all their changes. If
you're so inclined, you can give Merge an option that will list all the changes
everyone has made so that you can review them individually.
Even so, after seeing automatic merges being used for over 10 years in lots of
different projects with lots of programmers, we've found that the time saved
and the elimination of human error from manual merges more than compensates for
rare cases of incompatible changes. Of course, as you near the shipping date,
it makes sense to have every change to the project carefully code-reviewed.
Yes, as long as you do it right after a merge, when there's only a single copy
of the source tree; otherwise Merge treats renamed files as new and they won't
get properly merged with the previous source. But since Merge identifies files
that were added or deleted from each person's source tree, it's easy to detect
Imagine you created some temporary file named Junk. Merge lists this file as a
newly created file found in your source tree.
If you like, these tools can also ignore certain files based on their filename
extension. We like to put all our derived files, like object files, in a
subdirectory named Derived.i and have Merge, Difference, and Undifference
ignore files and directories that end in ".i". Just edit a table in the source
code to define which extensions you want to ignore.
If two or more people modify the same routine and one of them moves the
routine to a new place, Merge won't be able to merge the changes automatically.
This case is treated the same as if two or more people modified the same line:
you have to look at the changes and sort them out by hand. We often delay
rearranging a lot of code until after a merge, but before we distribute the
If someone has a fix to a bug that they're not ready to merge, but it's holding
up your work, you can just copy their code containing the fix and put it in
your project. Merge doesn't treat this as a conflict even though more than one
person changed the code, because their changes were identical.
Merge automatically handles one person changing a binary file, but not more
than one. In the latter case you must merge by hand. For this reason, we try to
keep as much of our project as possible in text rather than binary files.
T/Maker successfully used our tools for a number of years while developing
WriteNow For Macintosh with five programmers. Various companies with many
programmers working on multiple projects have been using successive automatic
two-way merges for years.
Merge, Difference, and Undifference are written in C and currently run on the
Mac OS (MPW with CodeWarrior 10 tools and libraries), Windows NT or 95
(Microsoft Visual C++ 4.0), and NeXT (GNU C). If you need to support a new
platform, these tools should be easy to port as long as your platform has an
ANSI C compiler.
Some special issues arise when working on cross-platform projects. Let's
suppose I have all the code for a Macintosh project and I want to move it to
Windows NT or 95.
- I difference my source code tree against an empty directory on the
Macintosh, resulting in a text file that I move to Windows.
- Windows uses different end-of-line characters, so I run a little
utility, MacToWin, to change the end-of-line characters. Going in the opposite
direction, CodeWarrior IDE and BBEdit on Macintosh can automatically change
- I undifference against an empty directory on Windows and my files are
reconstructed. Even binary files are transferred correctly.
- Finally, I name the directory containing the code HotApp-0 on both
Windows and Macintosh.
We continue to develop as before, except we each
have a separate copy of HotApp-0 on our respective platforms, rather than a
shared copy on a single server. If I were to share a single server from both
platforms, I would have two separate directory trees, one for each platform,
each with the correct end-of-line characters. This would let you use tools like
grep in each platform to search through the files in the project. When you need
to synchronize the two source trees, you'll convert one of them to the other
platform for the merge.
If you work on two different platforms at the same time, you could make a
separate copy on each platform and treat each one as if it were owned by a
Better yet, if you use CodeWarrior or BBEdit for editing on the Macintosh, the
end-of-line problem goes away completely and you can keep just one source tree
for both platforms.
When you use Undifference and Merge on a Macintosh, they take the resource fork
for the new file from the original directory tree -- that is, HotApp-0 in the
above example. This means that after a merge, any changes you made to the
resource fork since the last merge must be made by hand. However, once it's in
a directory tree that everyone copies -- HotApp-1 in the example -- the
resource fork will automatically be propagated to new versions by Undifference
When you use Undifference and Merge on other platforms to incorporate changes
from a Macintosh, resource forks are ignored. This means that you need to store
any resources that you regularly edit in a text file and use a resource
compiler like Rez.
Undifference preserves the date and time of a file in a new modified directory
tree when there were no changes to the file. This means that you can iterate
through many merge cycles and files that weren't changed will still have the
same dates and times.
The Mac OS, Windows, and UNIXreg.
platforms differ in their
interpretation of characters outside the 7-bit ASCII range. These characters
are usually not a problem when they're in a file used on only one platform.
However, when one of these characters occurs in a file used on more than one
platform, it's often a bug. Difference and Undifference identify files that
contain non-ASCII characters to help detect this potential problem.
When developing on more than one platform, you're limited to the lowest common
denominator filename length and path length, since the same file must have the
same name on all platforms.
The tools don't require you to add change comments. If you want them, you must
manually add them when you edit your code.
These tools exist because of the Free Software Foundation. They provide the
source code to many useful programs, including the GNU utilities upon which
these tools were based. (GNU is short for "GNU's Not UNIX.") Note that any
modifications to their code must be made freely available under the same terms.
You can contact them via e-mail at email@example.com
These tools grew out of our frustration with existing source code control
systems. After using them for many years, we've found them to be indispensable
to our development. They've served us well because they're simple, fast, and
easy to adapt to new situations. We hope that you'll enjoy using them as much
as we do -- and if you don't, perhaps you'll improve them.
D. JOHN ANDERSON (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Alan are Eclectus Software. Together they
write cross-platform applications for Windows and the Mac OS. Someday they plan
to rule the consumer applications market. John lives in La Honda, California,
where he writes software outdoors in a large tent with its very own ISDN line.
At other times you might see him running or bicycling through the redwoods. His
latest hobby, casting molds from faces, was inspired by the video "Better
One-Piece Head Molds From Life."*
ALAN B. HARPER (email@example.com) learned recursive descent from John 15 years
ago. His latest accomplishment is a fast cross-platform persistent object store
-- which means he can now write programs without worrying about serialization,
undo, byte order, garbage collection, or running out of memory. In his off
hours, Alan can be seen with other volunteers of the Golden Gate Raptor
Observatory following radio-tagged hawks as they migrate through California.*
Thanks to Helen Casabona, Pete Gontier, Andy Jeffrey, and Tim Maroney for
reviewing this column.*
develop welcomes guest columns on a variety of subjects. Please submit
your column draft or idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.