Popular Version Control Systems Compared

Have you ever collaborated with other people to work on a project? Did you experience the pain of swapping files to make changes, edits and revisions? Large, fast-changing projects with multiple users need systems that facilitate storage and sharing of files; and track changes in each revision of the file.

A version control system (VCS) is software that facilitates the efficient management of files and directories. Many programmers and designers use VCS nowadays to facilitate tracking of changes in their projects.

Subversion is still the most widely used version control system, which is a more enhanced version of Concurrent Version Systems (CVS), which had had been the number one VCS in the market before other alternatives became more available. Recently, many programmers are starting to use distributed Software Configuration Management (SCM) tools such as Git and Mercurial, that also function as version control systems.

This post reviews some of the top open-source version control systems and tools available today.

Centralized Version Control Systems

Concurrent Version Systems (CVS)

Concurrent Versions System (CVS) is one of the oldest VCS in the market. It was developed by Dick Grune as a series of scripts in 1986. CVS is a very simple system that makes sure that all files and revisions are up to date. It still proves useful for designers and software engineers that want to backup and share their files.

CVS has still many clients including Tortoise for CVS on Windows. Also, many integrated development environment (IDE) such as Xcode, Eclipse, and Emacs still support CVS.

Subversion (SVN)

Subversion is still the most used version control system, especially in corporate environments. It is distributed as free software under the Apache License. Many open-source projects use Subversion as a repository. This is because other larger open-source projects, such as SourceForge, Apache, Python, Ruby, use it to manage their project development and releases.

What are some benefits of using SVN? Firstly, working copy of files are always writable and all changes done to it are local until it is committed to the repository. There is also an easy access to commit logs that describe the change history, and an ease in reverting unwanted changes. SVN also integrates with almost everything, such as Windows and various websites. And it is known for its ease of setup and administration.

Distributed Version Control Systems

Distributed version control systems offer new functionality over the central repository systems used by CVS/Subversion (SVN). Unlike SVN and CVS, which use centralized version control, distributed SCMs do not necessarily have to have a centralized code or master copy of the software. Imagine if your team is working on a project, and you have a repository on your server. You can clone the entire repository to your laptop, and take it away with you. You can then work at home, on a park, or wherever you wish. Also, distributed version control systems (DVCS) have more functionality to offer, but they are also a little more complicated.


Git was originally created by Linus Torvalds to manage the source code for the Linux Kernel project. It is free software distributed under GNU General Public License. It is the most widely used DVCS and is known to be a fast and efficient system.

Git has many remote hosted repositories, with services like GitHub popular with open-source projects. The distributed nature of Git makes it easy for users to contribute on a large project with minimal centralized coordination. However, Git isn’t as easy to understand for beginners unlike CVS or SVN, and some organisations prefer the centralized control offered by SVN/CVS.


The second most popular distributed version control system is Mercurial. The name “mercurial” means relating to or having characteristics (which include fluency, agility, cleverness) attributed to the god Mercury. The creator and lead developer of Mercurial is Matt Mackall.

It is very similar in many ways to Git, although it is a much simpler system that is why it appeals to some programmers. Mercurial was also designed for large projects, but that doesn’t mean that small programming teams could not use it. It is superbly fast given that the creators made the software with performance as its number one feature.

These are four of the most popular version control systems in the market today. Although there are many others available, these are the VCS that you are most likely to encounter. Choosing Git or Subversion for your next project will ensure your version control system is best understood and supported by your developers.

Version Control

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