Branching Basics
June 10, 2024

Branching Strategies Guide: Code Branching Strategy Best Practices

Version Control

Having a dedicated branching strategy is key for teams wanting to speed up their workflows, meet tasks on a deadline, and reduce code errors. But with all the different branching strategies – including release branching, trunk-based branching, feature branching, and more – it can be difficult to determine which one best fits your team’s needs.  

This blog explains code branching strategy options and the pros and cons of each, giving you the information you need to decide which to use based on your team size, structure, and projects. Plus, you’ll learn how to start branching and merging in Helix Core, the leading version control solution for game development, virtual production,semiconductor organizations, and more.  Explore how the latest Helix Core features – like Sparse Streams, a new lightweight branching feature from Helix Core – can enhance your code branching strategy and unlock faster, more flexible development.  

Read along or jump to the section that interests you most: 


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What Are Branching Strategies? 

Branching strategies are patterns teams use to determine how they’ll approach change management inside of a given code/asset base. Examples of branching strategies include trunk-based branching, release branching strategy, and task branching. These strategies help teams handle both branching and merging via a consistent model.  

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Why Are Branching Strategies Important? 

Branching strategies are important because they streamline workflows, allowing teams to more easily coordinate changes to an ever-evolving set of code/assets. A clear branching strategy helps prevent delays in work or costly rework and ensures that teams stay on the same page no matter their size.  

With the right code branching strategy, the main branch always remains stable, meaning your team can preserve a single source of truth. Developers can add or modify code without fear of destabilizing the codebase for other developers on the team, thus preventing unnecessary slowdowns.  

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Version Control: The Foundation of Code Branching Strategy 

To start branching, teams need version control. A version control system (VCS) organizes and versions digital assets, including both source code and binary files, allowing teams to make and push changes to those digital assets. 

When team members create branches, the VCS creates a point-in-time snapshot of their codebase. As they modify files, teams can merge back changes after pulling down the latest changes from the parent branch and testing with their own changes in an isolated branch. Branches can be made for features, updating frameworks, creating common components, and managing releases. 

A modern, advanced version control system like Helix Core is the ideal foundation for branching and merging. While older version control systems, like SVN and ClearCase, do not keep track of the relationships between branches, Helix Core allows for more complex, traceable, and visual branching.  

Branching within Helix Core is called Helix Streams. It’s the leading foundation for a wide range of branching strategies. Here’s how Helix Streams uniquely supports your code branching: 

  • Creates and visually shows the dependencies between branches. 
  • Systematically enforces best practices (i.e., merge down and copy up) around moving changes between branches. 
  • Visually indicates when dependent branches are not in sync and which direction(s) changes need to flow to get back in sync. 
  • Switches between branches (codelines) fast. 
  • Sets up developer workspaces automatically upon branch creation. 

 Helix Streams makes branching more customizable and flexible, allowing teams to branch in their preferred way. Within the tool, teams can create the initial mainline, add files, import files from other branches, and more. This flexibility makes maintaining a code branching strategy that fits your workflow and projects easier. Watch the video below to see how it works: 


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Common Branching Strategies: Trunk-Based, Feature-Based, Release Branching Strategy, and More 

The branching strategy your team chooses will impact both developer and deployment workflows. Each of these common branching strategies has upsides and downsides to consider. Additionally, certain branching strategies will be a better approach for specific projects, team sizes, and team structures.  

Developers across industries commonly rely on a few main branching strategies – feature branching, trunk-based branching, task branching, and release branching. Here’s an overview of each, with details that will help you choose which is right for your team.  

Demo New Code Branching Strategy Features in Helix Core 

The much-anticipated Sparse Streams feature in our latest Helix Core release takes your team’s branching strategies to the next level with new lightweight branching capabilities. With this advanced functionality, your team can add new branches instantly, increasing developer velocity, while also reducing metadata creation and storage requirements.  

Our Introducing Sparse Streams: A New Lightweight Branching Option for Helix Core webinar demos this new feature and how it can supercharge your workflow.  



Feature Branching Strategy 

As its name suggests, feature branching is when developers create a branch off the main code base when working on a new feature. They can work on this feature on their own without affecting the mainline.  

Once work is complete, developers merge (or using Helix Streams terminology, “copy up”) the new code back into the main branch (but only after they first “merge down” any new changes from the main branch and test in isolation). Depending on your code review strategy, the changes made in the feature branch may be reviewed either before (pre-commit) or after (post-commit) they are merged into the main branch. 

Typically, teams that focus work in this way generate more branches and prioritize solo developer work.  

Teams may also refer to this as task branching or issue branching. Along with creating new features, this branching strategy can also be an effective way to fix bugs or to respond to a ticket in Jira or another issue-tracking platform.  

Feature branches are typically short-lived and a fit for projects with a more fast-paced turnaround. 

Feature Branching Strategy Pros 

Here are a few key reasons teams might opt for a feature branching strategy:  

  • Increased developer autonomy and productivity. With feature branching, developers can work independently and away from the mainline, merging back to the central code repository only when their work is complete. This ability to self-start can make workflows faster and increase output.  
  • Fewer blockers in larger team workflow. Similarly, developers working largely on their own and isolating their work until complete reduces the need to wait on work or instructions from others. This results in fewer blockers and streamlines project management.  
  • Simplified quality control, testing, and code review. Since each branch is specific to a new feature when using a feature branching strategy, it’s easier to see what code needs to be reviewed and to efficiently conduct this review.  
  • Ability to switch between feature branches and the default branch. Using a feature branching strategy, team members can work on parallel development of multiple features, as well as quickly reference the mainline when needed. 
  • Stability of the main branch. Updating code on separate feature branches ensures that the mainline remains stable, ideal for preserving a single source of truth and avoiding rework.  

Feature Branching Strategy Cons (And Their Solutions) 

Being proactive and aware of feature branching’s potential challenges gives teams the opportunity to identify workarounds. 

  • Potential lapses in communication and collaboration. The opportunity to work in isolation is both a strength and potential drawback of adapting a feature branching strategy. Though it can increase productivity, it can also mean teams aren’t communicating as frequently – leading to possible issues with merge requests, merge conflicts, and working on deadlines. Make sure expectations around communication are clear. 
  • Increased risk of “technical debt” and piling up of branches. Technical debt occurs when teams prioritize working toward short-term solutions that will work for now but may break down or require more work later. The fast-paced nature of feature branching strategy might increase technical debt if teams aren’t mindful, as well as leave bugs and vulnerabilities behind if teams don’t do a thorough code cleanup. Not letting branches pile up is one of the best ways to avoid these risks. It’s also important to keep branches organized through a cohesive naming system.  

Release Branching Strategy 

A release branching strategy is when a codebase is branched before a new release is pushed out.  The release branch should be stable, with few or no changes originating in the release branch itself. The release manager will typically create this release branch later in the development workflow. Some teams will opt to use multiple layers of release branches.  

A release branching strategy is a requirement for teams that need to handle multiple releases and patches over time.  It can also be helpful for teams releasing multiple versions of a product – like an Android or Apple app – or teams that offer product customization. 

Release Branching Strategy Pros 

Wondering if release branching strategy is a good fit for your product and team? Release branching stands out for one key reason:  

  • More control over releases. The biggest motivation for choosing a release branching strategy is if releases are a major and frequent part of your product lifecycle. With a release branching strategy, releases are contained, prioritized, and easier to push out on time. You also have traceability into the exact state of your codebase at the time the release was pushed out. This is helpful if you ever need to determine the source of regression bugs. 

Release Branching Strategy Cons (And Their Solutions) 

Like any code branching strategy, release branching comes with challenges. Anticipate these cons so that your team can overcome them:   

  • Difficulty of managing numerous releases. While this won’t be relevant for all teams or products, some organizations might be managing multiple releases, and hotfixes to previous releases, all at once. This busy workflow increases the need for the comprehensive documentation and visibility that version control provides.    
  • Potential for code instability and regression. One of the core motivations of new releases is to fix bugs and introduce new features. It’s essential to make sure that these updates don’t regress any functions from prior releases. To address this potential challenge and keep code stable, consider the use of a testing tool like Blazemeter from Perforce. 

Trunk-Based Branching Strategy 

While a feature branching strategy and release branching strategy isolate code from the mainline, trunk-based branching strategy centers around committing changes directly to the mainline – also called the “trunk.” 

Development teams using a trunk-based branching strategy commit their changes to the mainline several times a day, resulting in smaller updates.  

Trunk-Based Branching Strategy Pros 

A trunk-based branching strategy has long been a default. There are many reasons why this continues to be a trusted code branching strategy:  

  • Continuous integration and deployment. Committing changes to a central codebase more frequently aligns teams with best practices for continuous integration and deployment and keeps code repositories up to date. 
  • Faster feedback cycles. Since new code is committed multiple times a day, testing and feedback are speedier and more regular.  
  • Enhanced collaboration. As trunk-based branching requires team members to work together more closely, this leads to more in-depth communication 
  • Fewer merge conflicts. Since team members regularly commit their changes under a trunk-based development model, this lessens time spent solving merge conflicts and can promote cleaner code.  
  • Fewer branches to manage and maintain. There are fewer overall branches with a trunk-based development strategy, so your development environment stays organized and manageable.  

Trunk-Based Branching Strategy Cons (And Their Solutions) 

If you’re considering a trunk-based branching strategy for your team, here are a few potential cons to keep in mind and how to manage them:  

  • Work is immediately visible to everyone. This is equal parts the strength and drawback of trunk-based branching. New code being visible to everyone helps team members collaborate openly and stay on the same page but can also lead to interference or duplicate work. A VCS that supports file locking can be especially helpful in these scenarios. 
  • Branch instability. Since all developers are working in a common branch, it is very easy for one developer’s changes to destabilize the branch for everyone else. This leads to reduced developer velocity and increased developer frustration.  
  • Challenging to scale. It can be difficult for a trunk-based branching strategy to handle multiple developers committing at the same time or committing large changes. Address this challenge with version control like Helix Core, which can efficiently scale and eliminate potential issues with concurrent transactions.  
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Big-Picture Best Practices for All Branching Strategies 

No matter what branching strategies your team opts for, it’s important to follow several essential branching and merging best practices. Meeting these standards will help ensure efficient workflows and quality code.  

Know and Communicate Your Code Branching Strategy for a Project 

Once you decide on a branching strategy, you need to document it and communicate it to your team. As part of this process, you’ll want to outline some key details: 

  • When should a developer branch? 
  • Where should they branch to? 
  • When should developers merge, and to where? 

Defining this workflow across teams is vital. This is usually done through documentation, folder structures, or on a whiteboard. Using Helix Streams for branching within Perforce Helix Core avoids the need for documenting your branching strategy on a whiteboard. The built-in Stream Graph is a living and breathing representation of your branching model, eliminating questions about whether the separately maintained documentation is stale.  

Consider Mixing and Matching Branching Strategies 

Trunk-based, feature-based, and release-based branching strategies don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  For instance, you may decide that small changes can be made directly on the mainline (or trunk), whereas larger changes should be isolated to a feature (or task) branch.  And, when you’re ready to ship a release, you may want to consider creating a release branch off the mainline (trunk) – only after all features living in feature branches for the release have been merged (copied back) into the mainline, of course. 

Minimize How Long Code Is Checked Out 

Whether your development team works with a few branches or many, limiting the time code is isolated from the mainline helps prevent common merging conflicts. 

Developers should regularly merge down code into isolated branches to ensure they have the most up-to-date files. The longer something is isolated, the higher the odds that complicated merge conflicts will arise.  

Figure Out Your Dependencies 

If you are working on a hotfix or feature, you need to know what versions or teams it will impact. Before you branch, it is important to think about how changes need to be propagated, and where code needs to be integrated. 

Review Your Merge/Integration Process 

Let’s say a developer is making multiple changes on an isolated branch. Before they merge (copy up) those changes back into the parent branch, they should first merge down the latest changes from the parent branch, produce a build, and test in isolation.  Then, when everything proves stable, they can copy up their changes to the parent branch and be confident that they will not destabilize it. 

Simply put, living by the mantras “commit early, commit often” as well as “merge early, merge often” allows team members to quickly isolate an issue and respond proactively.  

Prioritize Testing and Validation 

Testing and validating your code frequently can help make sure bugs and vulnerabilities don’t go unaddressed. Continuous integration and automatic testing validate new branches and prevent surprise errors from popping up later.  

Pick the Right Version Control System 

Following these other best practices becomes easier with the right version control tool. When you think about picking a version control system, branching is only one part of the overall foundation this technology provides. You’ll also want to prioritize a system that can handle the number of files, contributors, and build demands – with the performance to back it up.  

Top companies across industries choose Helix Core as their version control system, relying on not only its sophisticated branching capabilities, but also its ability to scale, its ability to version seamlessly with their existing tool suite, and its granular security permissions. It’s the version control foundation your team won’t outgrow.  

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How Helix Core Elevates and Simplifies Your Code Branching Strategy 

Every aspect of branching becomes easier, more efficient, and more visual with Helix Core version control. The leading version control system for teams of any size, Helix Core scales so teams can branch and merge at scale and from anywhere. 

With Helix Streams, sophisticated branching from Helix Core, your teams no longer need a whiteboard or heavy scripts. Developers can merge with confidence and avoid time-zapping merges and late-stage regressions. Helix Streams functionality helps developers avoid common mistakes, preventing them from copying up their changes until they’ve merged all necessary updates into the isolated branch. Plus, it separates mature code from immature code, keeping your codebase stable. 

The recent Helix Core 2024.1 release takes branching to another level with the introduction of Sparse Streams, a new and unparalleled lightweight branching feature. This option allows Helix Core users to instantaneously create a stream, or branch, regardless of how many files reside in the parent stream. This results in less metadata and wait time, along with more speed and flexibility.  

Get Helix Core – which is free for small teams of up to 5 people – to explore this new feature and discover how a strong control foundation can propel your code branching strategy and development.  


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