Version Control Tools: Which should I choose?

Version Control Tools enable us to store and share files with other users, track changes in each revision of the file, and compare different versions of our data. Program developers, designers, and even writers today use version control tools to prevent loss of files and facilitate reverting to previous revisions. Nowadays, Subversion (SVN), an improved version of Concurrent Versions Systems (CVS), is the most widely used centralized version control tool. Distributed version control tools, such as Git and Mercurial, also offer a different workflow functionality to the single repository system of Subversion.

This article reviews the usability of some of the top open-source version control tools available today.

Centralized Version Control Tools

Concurrent Versions Systems (CVS)

Concurrent Versions System (CVS) is one of the oldest version control tools in the market. You may want to use CVS if any of the following is true for you:

  1. You share source code or documents with other people and you want multiple users to be able to edit or change the file at one time. CVS can help merge the changes from different users automatically.

  2. You save your source code or documents on more than one machine. When you edit your files, CVS can help you update the files in both of your machines.

  3. You have a slow Internet connection, and often make local copies of your files and edit them. CVS can help you prevent your files from getting out of sync.

  4. You would like to have a record of all the changes in your files and keep all revisions just in case you may need any of them.

CVS has been used for many years and is considered a mature technology. However, as it is now an older software, it lacks some of the functionalities offered by more current version control tools. For example, CVS is not capable of atomic operation support, which may potentially lead to source corruption. Moving or renaming files in CVS also does not include a version update, as it must be performed by manually modifying the repository files. There are also security risks from symbolic links to files, and branch operations of CVS are expensive, as CVS is not designed for long term branching.

Subversion (SVN)

Subversion is still the most widely used version control system. It was built initially as an alternative to CVS. It fixes some bugs in the CVS system while maintaining high compatibility with its workflow. SVN is released free as open-source software. Unlike CVS, SVN employs atomic operations which prevent corruption in the database. Either all of the changes made to the files are applied at once, or none of them are applied, so no partial commits can break the original source. Also, SVN offers cheaper branch operations and wide variety of plug-ins for integrated Development Environments (IDEs).

However, SVN still relies on having access to a centralized repository to perform many operations, unlike the peer-to-peer model adopted by some of the new distributed version control systems.

Distributed Version Control Tools


Git was originally written by Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. The original concept for Git was to create a version control tool that is faster and based on a distributed system, unlike SVN or CVS. Git is equipped with a variety of tools that help users navigate the history and merge complex changes easily.

Git uses a distributed repository model. Hence, anyone in the team can have their own complete copy of a repository on their machine, and they are free to work offline if required. While this may have its benefits, some organizations prefer the additional centralized control offered by systems such as SVN and CVS. Also, Git is considerably more complex to understand than SVN or CVS and it has historically had limited Windows support compared to its excellent support in Linux.


Mercurial is very similar to Git, however its interface presents a much simpler system, which is is why it appeals to some developers. Developers will notice that Mercurial share some features with SVN. Thus, those who are familiar with SVN as version control tool learns Mercurial quickly. The documentation for Mercurial is also more complete and user-friendly, hence it facilitates the learning process.

Which Version Control Tools?

So which version control tool should you choose? If you are new to source control, have a small team or if you want a single master source tree, then SVN is the first system you should try. SVN is reliable and is easy to learn. If you are working with a large, distributed team, and you will be working at different times and will be submitting several updates to the code simultaneously, Git is a great choice. Git is fast and has an improved brnach management over centralized systems. If you are somewhere in the middle, or if you find the complexity of Git confusing, you can always try Mercurial.

All of these version control tools are freely available and fully functional (except perhaps for some of the limitations of CVS). So, consider the nature of your project and your team and choose the version control tool that suits your project best!

Version Control

Leave a Reply