Using Subversion for a Web Site – Part 2

I need to clarify one thing from my earlier post. I demonstrated how to create a subversion repository on your local computer. Note, this was for demonstration purposes only. To get maximum advantage from using a subversion repository, it needs to be located on a networked server that all site developers can access. OK, you are thinking, “I’m only one person, why do I need to do it this way?” Easy answer: Backup! Not to mention the advantages of using the entire concept of source code management to develop your site.

So, if your repository is on a different server, how do you work with it on a daily basis? That’s what I’m going to describe today. Keep the two locations in mind as the remote server Repository, and the local Working Copy.

Last time when we parted, we had just checked out a local copy from the repository. (Just imagine that repository was remote rather than local to your computer.) Let’s pretend you quit at that point for the day. This is the point you want to be at whenever you quit working–synchronized with the repository. You should never quit working without doing an UPDATE & COMMIT of all of your work. We’ll cover those details momentarily. By doing this, you will always have a backup of your work, as well as have it stored remotely in case you edit from multiple computers and/or locations. For example, I might do some work at my office, and then come home and feel like doing a little more… or end up wanting to work from home the next day. Having the files in the repository allows me access to the current files from wherever I choose. Just connect from the alternate location, and UPDATE.


OK, what exactly is UPDATE? With the UPDATE function subversion compares the files you currently have locally, with the remote copy on the server and downloads files from the server, if they are newer. Note, this is one-way updating. If you have edited any of your files and want to upload them, you do a COMMIT–we’ll cover that in a minute. During an UPDATE there are a few possibilities:

  • No changes–your local files are already up-to-date with the server
  • Newer files on server–none of your copies of the files have been edited locally
  • Newer files on server–some of the same changed files have been edited locally also, but in unrelated ways
  • Newer files on server–changes in files are in the same area as changes made locally

No Changes

While this may seem an obvious answer, it is important to recognize you are at this state. Especially if you are in a multi-developer environment. In this case, no changes will be made either on the server or locally, and the current Revision Number will be displayed.

Newer Files in Repository, No Working Copy Files Changed

In this case, the newer files on the server will be copied to your local working copy. You will see a list of the files that have been updated, as well as what the status of each file is–note each of these possibilities we are covering occur on an individual file basis, so what happens per file might be different. The current Revision number will be updated.

Newer Files in Repository, Unrelated Working Copy Changes

The important thing to ask in this case is, what is an ‘unrelated change’? The key here is that you may have edited a file in one area, say lines #5-10. But, the changes in the repository file–compared to a common base–are in an entirely unrelated area of the file, say lines #50-55. You can probably see that as long as each individual change is in entirely separate areas of the file, with no overlapping, that it is possible to merge the changes without much thought. Note, even if lines are inserted in one location or the other, the context of the surrounding lines identifies where they are in relationship to the base file.

It is important to note that this merging of changes can only be done with text-based files. And while binary files, such as images, can be maintained in subversion, they cannot be merged.

In the no conflict case such as this, subversion will automatically merge the files for you, updating your local copy. In the list of files with changes you receive at the end of the update, you will see a code G next to them indicating a successful automated merge.

Newer Files in Repository, Conflicting Working Copy Changes

As you may have guessed, in this case subversion can’t automate the change. But, it helps! You will be advised of the Conflict, and several copies of the file in question will be put in your local working copy. Your original file will be renamed: filename.mine, there will be two other files with a Revision number appended: filename.r<old rev #> and filename.r<new rev #>. The old rev number is the one you had before you started making changes, the new on is from the server copy. The original file will contain special marks in the file showing both revisions to enable you to compare and figure out which changes should be used, or if you can manually merge the two changes. There are several convenient tools available to ease the process of this editing.

Once you have edited the original filename to contain the changes you really want, you should do an UPDATE (to make sure no more changes showed up while you were working on it!) and then a RESOLVE in order to let the repository know the conflict has been resolved and which changes to keep. Then COMMIT your changes as usual–see below.


Commit is simply the process of uploading your changes to the repository. Remember, as mentioned above, if you have been working for any significant period of time since your last commit and your are in a multi-user environment, do an Update as described above first before doing a Commit. It will also be easier to merge changes if you do an Update on a regular basis to get new changes from the repository even if you are not ready to commit your changes.

When a commit is done, all changed files are updated in one batch. So, best practice is to keep related changes together. If you have to modify a form to be displayed and update it’s related processing code in a separate file, make the changes and commit them together. Every commit will require a Log message, so it makes it easy to describe the related changes and see them together when looking at historical changes.


To wrap things up at this point, I want to point out a couple of resources you can use for the details I have not include here, but will in future installments. The easiest, and free, resource is the online version of the Subversion Book. Several versions are available, including a download PDF. If you are like me, you may like to have a paper reference of it, and the authors would appreciate the purchase of it as well, it is published by O’Reilly Media and is available from Amazon: Version Control with Subversion.

Another good book is the one I use personally, and is part of the Pragmatic Starter Kit Series: Pragmatic Version Control: Using Subversion (The Pragmatic Starter Kit Series)(2nd Edition). This book is a little over 200 pages, and I was able to read it cover-to-cover in a little over a week in my spare moments. Many great ‘pragmatic concepts’ to be learned and applied in the future.

Well, that about wraps it up today. Next time, I will get into explicit demonstrations of these steps. I’ll give you the command line techniques and demonstrations, as well as snapshots of doing the same in TortoiseSVN. Stay tuned!

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