What is Version Control? Definition and Best Practices

Version control refers to the tools and processes DevOps teams use to track all of the changes, called commits, each team member makes to a software project’s source code. These commits are stored indefinitely, which creates a starting point for troubleshooting in the event of an error or bug down the road.

Any company in the software development business must be familiar with version control. It’s a key component of the DevOps framework, which employs strategic practices and tools that increase an organization’s ability to deliver IT services faster than traditional methods. 

Version control software facilitates better collaboration among all team members and ensures consistency in the software development process. Before implementing this software, though, it’s important to understand the types, benefits, challenges, best practices, and use cases for version control.

Related: Key DevOps Principles & Practices for Success

What are the types of version control systems?

The three main types of version control systems (VCS) are local, centralized, and distributed. 

Local VCS

The most restricted is local, where all the programming files are stored on a user’s local computer. If anything happens to this computer, all the files will be lost. A developer doing their home project can use a local VCS, but it would be wise to back up all files to an external hard drive to avoid a worst-case scenario.

Centralized VCS

A centralized VCS uses a single server that contains all the file versions. Several developers can access files on the server and download (pull) to their local computers concurrently. Administrators have oversight of the server and manage who can pull and upload (push) to the server. A centralized VCS is generally easier to learn and promotes collaboration among developers and other team members.  

A centralized VCS requires developers to communicate with the server for every command, so developers must have a constant internet connection to communicate with the server. If the centralized server crashes and the files are not backed up, all the software version changes are lost except for the files developers will have on their local computers. A centralized VCS is easy to use and a good starting point for a company with developers unfamiliar with version control systems.

Distributed VCS

A distributed VCS allows developers to get an entire clone of what is in the shared master repository, including the whole file history. After developers have a complete local copy of the software project, they can make updates and changes to code while working offline. 

When developer updates are completed, they are committed as “change sets” to the local repository and tested before going to the master repository. After successful testing, the developer pushes the changes to the master repository. A distributed VCS works well when developers are in different geographic locations. 

Version control benefits

One of the biggest benefits of version control software is the efficiency it brings to a business’s DevOps practices. It accomplishes this by providing a macro view of the software development process, which allows managers and key stakeholders to pinpoint trends and blockers and act on them appropriately.

Other benefits of version control include the following:

  • Traceability tracks all changes in source code during the development process and the order in which the changes occurred.
  • Document history provides historical information on any changes to the source code and why the changes were made.
  • Identification features allow the development team to identify all prior versions and quickly access the latest version.
  • Error reduction helps minimize errors during the development process by ensuring the corrected source code is the latest version available to all team members.
  • Branching features allow team members to work on separate features or software modules concurrently and merge them into the broader project.

Version control challenges

Each development team will have its own set of challenges with version control depending on its unique positioning and requirements. One of the most common challenges is related to how non-developers understand the value of version control software.

Artists, designers, producers, and quality assurance staff may find version control software challenging to use and understand. Likewise, getting non-developers to understand the importance of version control software can be a challenge. 

A dedicated training session will help non-developers understand the value of version control software, so they can see how their actions might introduce an error into the shared repository. Demonstrating version control best practices will also give non-developers a sense of how version control software is used to track down errors.

Other version control challenges include the following:

  • Developer productivity downtime occurs when testing and waiting for code reviews prevent developers from taking further action.
  • Distributed development teams can lead to infrequent commits and merges, which can stall software development.
  • Artifacts oversight and management become increasingly difficult as software becomes more intricate and detailed.

Explore tools to help with training on TechnologyAdvice: Best Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Version control best practices

DevOps teams must follow best practices for using version control software to optimize its use and maintain developer productivity. 

Keep commit changes atomic

Bundling associated files together in a commit helps maintain project consistency. However, grouping multiple unrelated changes in one commit can make it difficult to isolate errors. It can also create challenges for situations where source code needs to be reverted without also reverting unrelated changes that were included in the same commit. 

Write consistent, detailed commit information

It’s important to provide meaningful details about why a commit was executed, and identify all associated source code files tied to the commit. This helps provide context for troubleshooting and testing later.

Don’t break builds

Before pushing a source code commit to the shared repository, make sure the source code stub has been thoroughly tested by running it through a build loop machine. This prevents individual work from negatively impacting the broader project. 

For example, suppose a developer introduces an error-filled code stub into the shared repository. It will likely crash the entire program in the shared repository, and all development will cease until the code stub is found and corrected.

Make sure every commit is traceable

Similarly, developers must ensure the new source code passes all test cases before pushing a commit. Providing the author of the code change, reviewer comments, and other applicable information is necessary to efficiently track down any problems introduced into the code.

How is version control used in a business?

Businesses using project management tools to track software development progress will need to estimate milestones and due dates accurately. Integrating version control into a structured DevOps process reduces development time and significantly increases the rate of successful deployments. 

In the long run, the added efficiency and reduced development time that come with integrating version control software will make it easier to meet customers’ expectations and save on overall costs.

Read next: Best DevOps Tools

Don Hall
Don Hall
Don Hall has been employed as an IT Manager/Supervisor in the U.S. Government for over twenty years. He has managed programmers, cyber security, and infrastructure/networking personnel during his management career. Hall currently works as an IT Operations Officer that requires him to have general knowledge of various IT topics to assist his Command in making informed decisions or recommendations on behalf of the customers we support.

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