Home > Distributed Version Control, Software Process > Why distributed branching models may not work well on your CVCS

Why distributed branching models may not work well on your CVCS

I’ve been accused before of falsely attributing to distributed version control systems (DVCS) what is really a result of a solid branching model. A certain experiment at work illustrated my point quite well, and I thought it was of general enough interest to share.

When we get close to release, we make what is called a stable label build once a week or so, which is what gets distributed to the testers. Since a lot of destabilizing development is also going on at this time, our process had been to hold off on check ins for a bit unless they are bug fixes for the stable label.

Sometimes this process can take a few days, which causes problems of its own, so someone came up with the idea of an integration branch where developers do all their work, and once a week it would be branched off into a stable label branch, where only bug fixes would be merged over from the integration branch. This is very similar to a master/develop model, which many organizations use quite successfully with git.

Here’s what the integration/stable label branching looks like:

Some feature commits after stable label branches off

The stable label gets branched off from B. C is a new feature that still has some bugs. D is a bug fix that we want to merge in to the stable label. Spot the problem yet? D is dependent on C, meaning it can’t be merged cleanly without some manual finesse.

They broke the cardinal rule of branching:

Remove commits when you create a branch, not when you merge it.

In this case, D branched from C (although it’s not obvious because it’s the only one), but in order to follow the cardinal rule and remove C upon creation, it needed to be branched from B, like this:

Merging a fix into both stable label and feature branches

Now the merge into the stable label branch is no more difficult than a normal check in. No need to manually remove the dependency on C because you never brought it in. If you come from the centralized world, however, you might be thinking, “That’s crazy! Branching from B means every single developer would require their own individual branch every time they check in!” Exactly. The entire premise and strength of DVCS is that branches are cheap and unobtrusive.

To be fair, we could probably accomplish what we want with centralized version control with something like this:

A method of accomplishing task on CVCS

If developers need to do a bug fix, they check out and into the bug fix branch, then merge their change into the features branch. The weekly stable label build is taken from B, after which a new bug fix branch is created from F. This doesn’t violate the cardinal rule, because the features branch is never promoted to the bug fix branch until you are ready to take all the new features.

There are a few weaknesses with that approach compared to DVCS, however:

  • Developers have to frequently switch between two branches, something that our CVCS at least doesn’t support very efficiently without maintaining two separate working trees.
  • It depends on the developer to be dilligent about choosing the right branch and doing the merges, rather than the person responsible for stabilizing the build being able to merge in the fixes he wants after the fact.
  • If a bug fix is inadvertently worked on in the features branch, there is no easy way to move it.

As you can see, DVCS has a distinct advantage in this particular case study.

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