Illustration: Version Control
March 31, 2023

What Is a Version Control System (VCS)? The Ins and Outs of Version Control Software

Version Control

What is version control software? At a basic level, version control is the process of tracking and managing changes to files over time, and version control software helps automate this process. But that is only the beginning of what it does and why it’s important.

Read on to learn more or jump to the section that interests you most:

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What is Version Control?

Version control refers to the process of tracking and managing changes to digital assets over time. There are many ways to implement version control, including simply adhering to a file naming and organizational process. However, the discussion of version control typically refers to version control software/version control systems. These are tools that are designed to help teams work in parallel and prevent loss of important work.

(Note: “version control” is often used interchangeably with the term “source control,” which is specific to tracking source code.)

Version control software is essential for development teams across all industries. It not only enables them to manage changes to code and files over time, but also allows them to work on the same project simultaneously. A good version control system allows for better collaboration and faster development, and it gives you a complete history of your digital assets. 

Let’s dive into what a version control system is and does, and why it’s important.

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What is a VCS (Version Control System)?

A version control system (VCS) or version control software automates the process of version control. It tracks changes to a file or set of files over time so that you do not have to manage file versions manually or with custom automation scripts. A version control system keeps a complete history of your code and other files, allowing you to return to a previous version if needed. 

Branching and Merging in Version Control Software

Branching is a key functionality in version control systems. The diagram below shows a set of historical changes to assets along a diverging hierarchy. The centerline shows the history of a trunk line of assets. Each divergence is considered to be a branch of the trunk line, which is also referred to as the “mainline.” 

A typical version control system will call these divergences “branches.” Branches help protect the mainline from unintended problems created by changes in the branch. This isolation is important to the integrity of the overall project. As change progresses over time in each branch (and in the mainline), the divergence, or differences, between the branch and the mainline become greater and greater. To capture the important work in a branch, the changes in the branch must be merged back to the origin branch they came from (usually, the mainline). This is generally referred to a “merge.” 

When merges happen, there can be conflicts between the merged branches. These conflicts must be (or should be) resolved to allow the project to progress without error. Doing so preserves the good working assets in the mainline and prevents problems from being carried forward. A good version control philosophy maintains that a “good” mainline be maintained. Doing this is necessary to ensure that branches can be created from the mainline to build on previous work or fix errant behavior that was inadvertently created (also known as “bug fixes”).

📘 Related Reading: Branching Best Practices

Illustration: version control software tracks changes over time


Why Is Version Control Software Important?

Version control is important for keeping track of changes to code, files, and other digital assets. You should use version control software for all assets and development projects that multiple team members will collaborate on. 

Version control software needs to do more than just manage and track files, though. It should help you develop and ship products faster. This is especially important for DevOps workflows where delivery of the latest versions can be tested or built during submission of the change. Good version control systems will flag potential conflicts before they enter the mainline of the project. This means the developer can fix the problem and not promote the problem further downstream.

Using the right version control software:

  • Improves visibility.
  • Minimizes file conflicts and wasted effort.
  • Helps teams collaborate around the world.
  • Accelerates product delivery.
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What Are Some Key Version Control Software Benefits?

Using a version control system to manage complex projects has several benefits, from better collaboration to accelerated development. Every version control system is different, but below are some general version control benefits. 

Version Control Gives Your Team a Single Source of Truth

One of the primary benefits of using a version control system is that it gives your entire team a single source of truth. This means your whole team is working with the same set of data (files, code, etc.) and can access it in a common location.

Version Control Maintains a Full File History & Improves Visibility

A good version control system allows you to see every change made to every file, who made the changes, and when. A version control system that keeps a full audit history is especially important if you have governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) or regulatory needs. Audit log history is especially key in the automotive, aerospace, medical device, and semiconductor industries.

Furthermore, version control software increases visibility. It allows you to see who is currently working on a file, which helps teams avoid duplicated effort or overwritten files. It also allows you to easily revert to a previous version of a file if you run into an issue.

Version Control Enables Concurrent Development

As your development projects get more complex, you will face a growing need to manage multiple versions of code and files — and entire products. You will likely have many team members contributing to the same project at one time.

A good version control system enables concurrent and parallel development. In an essence, this means multiple developers and designers can work on the same set of files without worrying that they are duplicating effort or overwriting other team members’ work. It also means you can develop and get products to market faster.

Let’s say you're managing an IoT deployment for high-end internet-connected security cameras. Over the product lifecycle, you may use ten different types of cameras, each with a different chip. As a result, each will have different software.

Using the right version control software means you can maintain multiple versions of your code to manage the specific functionality of each camera's chip and operating system. In our example diagram, this might mean that each different camera is developed on its own code line branch, and any common elements or good work could then be merged back to the mainline to be used later. This idea of code reuse is very important in a good version control system.

So, when you need to deploy a critical security patch to prevent hackers from hijacking those cameras, it is easy. You will instantly see which code is impacted, make the changes, and deploy a fix.

Version Control Enables Better Team Collaboration

Having visibility into who is working on what and the ability to work on the same project at the same time makes for better collaboration. For large, complicated development projects with multiple contributors, version control is a necessity for efficient collaboration.

Additionally, companies operate where the talent lives. You may need a way to provide global access to your team members at all your facilities. Having a single source of truth –– with appropriately secured identity and access management –– is critical for your success. With the right version control system, each team member can easily access and work on the latest version of a project. 

Version Control Supports Automation Within Development

Higher quality and increased productivity are top priorities for today’s development teams. And your team can reach your goals by automating tasks, such as testing and deployment.

In software development, Continuous Integration (CI) with automated builds and code reviews are a standard operating procedure.

For hardware development, such as semiconductors, automation can include:

  • Testing with field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs).
  • Integration with simulation verification and synthesis systems.

Such FPGAs or verification and testing systems must themselves be controlled and versioned, along with potentially very large data files. It is vital that even small changes are tracked and managed. This means your version control software is the center of the IP universe. The right one can handle millions of automated transactions per day with millions of files.

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How Does Version Control Software Work?

Version control software automates the process of version control. It automatically keeps track of changes made to a file or set of files over time. 

Here is a simplified explanation of how most version control software works:

  1. A repository is created, where files and all their versions will be stored over time.
  2. As changes are made to files that are stored in the repository, they are automatically tracked so you can see what was changed, when, and by whom.
  3. If one team member wants to work on a file, they can check out the file, make changes, and then commit those changes/check them into the repository once they are done. Checking out the file in this way ensures others on the team know that it is being worked on, which prevents them from overwriting the other’s changes. Once changes are checked back in, the new latest file version becomes available to the rest of the team. Good version control software will allow a team member to “lock” a file to prevent changes from happening beneath their work. This is especially important when working with large binary assets that cannot be easily merged.
  4. If a team member wants to make changes to a project without impacting other users — for example, if they want to experiment with a new feature — they can create a new branch. This is essentially a copy of the project. They can work in isolation on their changes in their own branch, then merge it back into the main branch.

Watch the video below to learn more about how version control works.


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Types of Version Control Systems

What types of version control systems are available for your business?

The two most common types of version control systems are centralized and distributed. Centralized version control stores all changes in one central location, giving quick access to the most recent files. With distributed version control, each team member makes changes to a local copy of the repository on their computer, enabling some users to make changes fast and work offline.

Centralized Version Control

In a centralized version control system (CVCS), one single server stores all of the versions and changes to all files. With this type of version control, users can check out a file to work on it and make changes before checking it back into the central server. Or they can create a separate branch of the project, work on it alone, and merge it back into the main branch. All changes — all commits and merges — are synced to the central server. 

One of the main benefits of a centralized VCS is that every user has quick access to the latest version of a file. This greatly reduces the possibility of overwriting each other’s work, duplicating effort, or wasting effort by making changes to files that cannot be merged (like binary files).

Distributed Version Control

With a distributed version control system (DVCS), each user downloads a copy of the repository so they can make changes to files locally (on their own machine). There is a main repository, but rather than storing every file and all of its changes, this main repository just saves the differences between files (except in the case of binary files).

One advantage of this type of version control is that it can be quicker for users to commit changes than some centralized version control systems. It is also allows users to work offline.

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Version Control Examples

There are many version control systems on the market. Some are free, some are proprietary, and all have their own advantages and disadvantages. Here is a summary of some of the most popular version control tools available:

  • Helix Core — Helix Core, one of the leading version control examples, is a centralized version control system by Perforce Software. It’s the leading version control system for game developers and is also used in media & entertainment and semiconductor design, among other industries. It offers visibility to collaborative teams, showing when others are using the same data, and it provides a locking strategy to prevent the overwriting of critical data. It is free for up to five users.
  • Git — Git is a widely popular, distributed control system for developers. Git source control is open-source and therefor free to use. It offers easy branching and is great for small projects but has file and repo size limits.
  • SVN — SVN (short for Subversion) is another free, open-source version control system developed by Apache. It is a centralized version control system. It offers good concurrent development processes, but its branch and merge functions are not strong.
  • ClearCase — IBM Rational ClearCase, or simply ClearCase, is a software configuration management tool used for version control. It is a centralized system. This version control example is not free to use. 
  • Mercurial — Mercurial is a free, distributed version control system that launched in 2005. It is considered simpler and easier for beginners to use than more complex systems, like Git.
  • Plastic SCM/Unity Version Control — This version control tool was developed by Codice Software and is now owned by Unity. It is a distributed version control system. It is not free to use.
  • TFS — Microsoft TFS (Team Foundation Server), now rebranded as Azure DevOps Server, is a tool for version control, issue tracking & reporting, and application lifecycle management.

Learn more about the differences between the top version control systems. Check out this chart to see key strengths and weaknesses of the most popular tools.   
Compare version control systems >>

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What Is Git Source Control?

Git source control is open source, meaning anyone can use it. It's a distributed, free version control software, and it is one of the most popular options. 

But there are some drawbacks to using Git source control. Git lacks security. It's impossible to scale. It was not designed for artists, designers, and other teams who need to version large binary and art files. It also makes it very difficult to get a single source of truth. That's why teams who choose Git source control often add other tools on top of it to better suit their needs. 

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What is Helix Core Version Control?

As explained above, Helix Core is a centralized version control system developed by Perforce Software, a leading provider of DevOps solutions. Here is a rundown of what sets Helix Core apart from other types of version control systems, including Git source control:

  • It serves as a single source of truth for your entire team, from developers to artists. 
  • It is lightning-fast, even for remote and globally dispersed teams. It can handle 10,000+ concurrent commits without slowing down.
  • It offers enterprise-grade security and granular access control, down to an individual file and IP address. 
  • It offers advanced branching capabilities with its built-in tool, Perforce Streams.
  • It scales endlessly without sacrificing performance.

You Can Use Helix Core for Free

Get all the benefits of version control software free for your team. Perforce Helix Core is free for up to 5 users — with no limits on functionality. Start small and scale, or use it free for your small team, forever.

Using Helix Core helps your development team work simultaneously, automate tasks, track changes, and ensure high availability/disaster recovery.

Get started with free version control software today.

➡️Get Free Version Control Software

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