On Version Control


Version Control is the management of of changes to documents, computer programs, large web sites, and other collections of information. The set of files under version control is kept in a repository.

The Version Control System (VCS) is the application responsible for keeping track of the successive versions of a repository.

The basic workflow is:

  1. A user clones the repository and creates a local working copy of the files. (The local copy can itself be a local repository under version control).

  2. The user works on the local copy of the files. (Note that not every change to every file is registered as a revision).

  3. When the user wants to (e.g. when a new version of a document is quite complete, or every day at 6:14pm ...), a group of new or modified files (or changeset) can be committed as a revision to the local working copy.

  4. The user can also choose when to commit the revisions back into the original repository.

  5. If the local revisions are merged into the original repository, a new revision point is created therein.

    The merge can be performed automatically by the version control system:

    1. if the user has the required permissions to commit (push) to the original repository;
    2. and if no conflict is detected (e.g. while the user was working in the local copy, someone else committed a revision to same files).
  6. If the user does not have the required permissions to commit to the original repository, a pull request can be sent to the owner of the repository.

    The owner reviews the proposed changes, and accepts or rejects the changeset.

The following storyboard illustrates this steps.

Storyboard #1 - The basic workflow

This storyboard depicts a simplified workflow, using a simplified hierarchy. (In real-world use, links can exist between any two different actors and repositories. The technology allows networks with arbitrary configuration.)

Network of actors

Consider a typical hierarchy:

Network of actors
  • The ‘blue’ actor only works and knows the ‘green’ actors.
  • Each ‘green’ actor works with a distinct group of ‘yellow’ actors.
  • The blue actor’s responsibility is to collate the green actors’ contributions (changes) and to resolve any conflicts between different changes proposed by distinct green actors.
  • Each green actor’s responsibility is similar, with regard to the yellow actors.

Networks of trust

This hierarchy is a particular type of network (...a directed acyclic network or ‘tree’).

It can be viewed as 3 distinct “networks of trust”.

Networks of trust

The concept of “network of trust” simplifies the work:

  • The blue actor trusts the green actor to review the work done by his yellow co-workers.
    • From the blue actor’s point of view, the specific configuration of each ‘green & yellow’ network is irrelevant.
    • It is also irrelevant whether the all network is really a tree (or if a given yellow actor participates in two distinct subnetworks).
  • Each actor needs only trust (and interact with) his immediate neighbourhood:
    • The green actor accepts any upstream changes approved by his blue neighbour.
    • The green actor approves (or declines) changes made by his yellow neighbours (or resolves conflicts between different changes).
  • By definition, the blue actor can directly commit changes to his own blue repository of information. So can the green actors to their own green repositories.
  • Each actor can also ‘pull’ into his repository any changes that his immediate neighbours have made.

Cloning a repository

The initial workflow is depicted below:

  1. Mr Blue creates the original repository.
  2. Mr Green clones Blue’s repository
  3. thus obtaining a working copy.
Cloning a repository

Distributed repositories

The repository is then distributed to all the team:

  1. Each yellow actor can obtain their working copy, by cloning Green’s repository.
  2. Mr Green’s repository is now the master repository for all the yellow actors.
  3. Mr Blue’s repository is now the upstream repository for all the yellow actors.
Distributed repositories

Synchronising repositories

The repositories must be explicitly synced. For example, suppose that:

  1. Mr Green changed some files and then made a ‘local commit’. Green’s repository now has a new revision (which does not exist in any other repository).
  2. One of the yellow actors synchronises the local working copy everyday, to ensure that he has the latest files. His local working copy is updated with the latest revision made by Mr Green to the master repository.
  3. The other yellow actors didn’t update their local working copies, and still have the previous revision.
  4. Meanwhile, Mr Blue is unaware of any changes in the downstream repositories.
Synchronising repositories

Commit and merge

Changes can also by propagated upstream. Suppose that:

  1. A yellow actor has changed some files and made a ‘local commit’. The local repository has a new revision (jargon: ‘the local repository is one commit ahead of the master repository’).
  2. The yellow actor notifies Mr Green and asks him to merge the changeset into Mr Green’s repository (jargon: ‘sends Mr Green a pull request’).
  3. Mr Green reviews the changes, approves them (or not...) and merges the changeset into his own repository.
  4. Meanwhile, Mr Blue is still unaware of any changes in the downstream repositories (he has received no pull requests).
Commit and merge

When the work assigned to Mr Green’s team is ready:

  1. Mr Green send a ‘pull request’ to Mr Blue.
  2. Mr. Blue reviews and accepts the changes, and updates his repository.
  3. Everyone else can synchronise their repositories to the latest version.
Commit and merge

Storyboard #2 - Using branches to manage the document translation process

Trunk and branches

Consider the following network:

  • Mr Grey is the technical writer responsible for the English version of the ‘User Manual’ and ‘Project Handbook’. Mr Grey is also responsible for the templates and stylesheets that will be used in the various documents.
  • Mr Πράσινος is responsible for the Greek language version.
  • Mr Жълт is responsible for the Bulgarian language version.
  • Mr Azul is responsible for the Portuguese language version.
Trunk and branches

When the translation process begins:

  1. Mr Grey creates a repository with the English documents (e.g. one file per chapter) and with the image files (e.g. the application screenshots), templates and stylesheets required to build the final document.

  2. Messrs Πράσινος, Жълт and Azul all clone the English language repository and create their own working copies.

  3. Each of them also creates a local branch: a replica of the files so that each can work on translating the text to their own language while reusing the image files and the stylesheet.

    In this example, the English version is the trunk. Each localised version is a branch.

Trunk and branches

When new documents are ready to be translated:

  1. Mr Grey completes a new chapter and commits it to the repository.

    Mr Grey also changes some of the images.

    A new revision is now available.

  2. Messrs Πράσινος, Жълт and Azul synchronise their working copies with the master repository (only the trunk is updated).

  3. Each of them also updates the local branch.

Trunk and branches

What if Mr Πράσινος detects some spelling errors in the English version?

  1. Mr Πράσινος changes the English files in the trunk, makes a local commit and notifies Mr Grey.

  2. Mr Grey reviews the changes and accepts the pull request.

    The last revision of the master repository now includes the changes made by Mr Πράσινος (but not the Greek branch).

  3. Messrs Жълт and Azul synchronise their working copies with the master repository.

    The working copies of the trunk are updated. Each team member must update their specific local branches.

Trunk and branches

Branches can function as different versions...

  1. Mr Πράσινος changes the default stylesheet, including some styles that improve its use with the Greek alphabet.

    Changes are made only in the Greek language branch.

  2. Mr Жълт makes a similar change, due to the Cyrillic alphabet.

    Changes are made only to the Bulgarian language branch.

  3. Mr Azul dislikes the colour of chapter headings and changes the stylesheet in the Portuguese language branch.

    Mr Azul decides to submit the changes to Mr Grey, so that the trunk can also be changed.

  4. Mr Grey reviews the changes made by Mr Azul, but does not accept them.

    The trunk stylesheet is not changed.

Trunk and branches


An approved revision of a file from which subsequent changes can be made.
A set of files under version control may be branched (forked) at a point in time. From that time forward, the two copies of the files may develop in different ways, independently of each other.
A change (or diff, or delta) represents a specific modification to a file under version control.
A collection of files that have changes.
See ‘clone’.
To clone is to create a local working copy from the repository. A user may specify a revision or obtain the latest. In centralised version control systems (with a single central repository), the term ‘checkout’ is also used. The term ‘checkout’ can be used as a noun to describe the working copy.
To commit is to write or merge the changes made in the working copy back to the repository. The terms ‘commit’ and ‘checkin’ can also be used as nouns to describe the revision that is created as a result of committing.

A conflict occurs when different parties make changes to the same file, and the system is unable to reconcile the changes.

A user must resolve the conflict by combining the changes, or by selecting one change in favour of the other.

See ‘branch’.

The most recent revision, either to the trunk or to a branch.

The trunk and each branch have their own head. HEAD is sometimes used to refer to the head of the trunk.


A merge is an operation in which two sets of changes are applied to a file or set of files under version control.

A user updates their working copy with changes made to the repository by other users.

A user tries to update a repository with changes made to a working copy.

The repository is where the files’ current and historical data are stored, often on a server.
The act of user intervention to address a conflict between different changes to the same file.
A revision (version) is any registered “snapshot” in time of the repository.
See ‘update’.
The trunk is the “main” line of development to the collection of information under version control, consisting only of ‘baseline’ (approved) files.
An update (or sync) merges changes made in the original repository (by other users, for example) into the local working copy.
See ‘revision’.
working copy
A working copy is a local copy of files from a repository, made at a specific time (revision).