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November 3, 2023

What Is Subversion? SVN Explained

Version Control

Subversion (SVN) is one of many version control options available today. Here, we will provide a comprehensive overview of what Subversion is, the history of Subversion software, what an SVN repository is, and potential drawbacks you should consider before switching to SVN.

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What Is Subversion (SVN)?

Subversion software, also called SVN, is an open source version control system. Subversion (SVN) allows teams to look at previous file versions and track their changes over time. 

Subversion was initially released in 2000 by CollabNet. It's now licensed under Apache.  

Subversion software is an open-source, community driven project which has seen minor and infrequent updates over the years. Given the nature of the SVN project, there is no set timetable for their next release.

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What Is Subversion Software Used For?

Subversion software is used for maintaining current and historical versions of projects. Subversion is an open source centralized version control system. It's also referred to as a software version and revision control system.

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Is Subversion (SVN) Still Used?

Subversion software used to be one of the most popular systems. But SVN’s popularity is waning. Many businesses chose SVN to save costs. Subversion was initially appealing since it is open source and was able to work with these businesses’ original scale and project needs.

Switch From Subversion (SVN) to a Better Tool

Many teams have migrated from Subversion (SVN) to Helix Core. That's because Helix Core delivers greater speed, scale, and security than SVN can. See for yourself why SVN users switch. Try Helix Core for free for up to 5 users.

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Is Subversion (SVN) Stable?   

Subversion software is not able to scale as projects expand and file sizes increase. In addition, Subversion becomes harder to work with and inconvenient as teams grow larger and more distributed. 

These factors make SVN an unstable and unreliable version control system.

📘 Related Resource: Tales from Ex SVN Users

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What Is a Subversion (SVN) Repository?

A SVN repository is a database filled with your code, files, and other project assets. It maintains a complete history of every change ever made. Each repo can be accessed various ways depending on where the server is hosted.

📘 Related Resource: More on SVN Repositories

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Is Subversion a Distributed Version Control System?

Subversion is actually a centralized version control system. SVN is different from distributed systems, like Git.

Subversion (SVN) Server Explained

Centralized version control means that the version history is stored in a central server which requires developers to connect with the server as they are making changes.

When a developer wants to make changes to certain files, they pull files from that central server to their own computer. After the developer has made changes, they send the changed files back to the central server.

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How Does Subversion Work?

Now that we've answered the question, "What is SVN?" let's dive into the question, "How does Subversion software work?" Here is an overview of how SVN works. 

SVN originally was designed as a command line interface. This means you would open your Terminal and type text commands.

For Subversion to work, the SVN setup needs two main elements:

  • The server, which has all versions of all source files
  • A local copy of the files, which is on your computer

The files on your computer are called working files. These are the files in which each user makes edits. Then, users commit their changes to the SVN server.

Each time a user commits a change, SVN manages and records it by creating a new version. Like most version control options, users typically work with the most recent version. But if an older version is needed, you can revert to an earlier version.

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What Are Subversion Software Tools?

There are several Subversion tools and clients that are commonly used. TortoiseSVN, the graphical client for Subversion (SVN), is one of the most popular Subversion tools.

📘 Related Resource: What is TortoiseSVN?

You might also consider tools for hosting Subversion, such as Helix TeamHub.

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Are There Drawbacks When Doing Version Control with SVN?

SVN is a popular version control system. But is Subversion software the right choice for your team? Here are some challenges you'll face when doing version control with SVN. 

The Disadvantages of Working with Subversion

Subversion (SVN) Has a Complex Branching Model

The most common complaint about SVN is its tedious branching model. Branches allow you to work on multiple versions of your code simultaneously.

What is SVN's branching model? In Subversion, branches are created as directories inside the server. Many developers dislike this directory structure. But the challenges don’t stop there.

In SVN, users identify branches by naming conventions. If changes are discovered that need to be applied across several development branches, the task to merge back can be complex and error prone. 

The weak branching capability is among the root causes of the widely discussed merging challenges people have with Subversion and adds complexity to implementing a branching strategy in SVN.

Subversion (SVN) Has Limited Performance and Scalability

SVN is a central single-server system which limits performance and scalability. 

As a result, SVN struggles with large repositories and file sizes. It is difficult to find concrete benchmark data for the limitations of Subversion. This makes planning and scaling an even greater challenge.

Subversion (SVN) Only Has Basic Merging Capabilities

Merging is the other big problem that developers often complain about with SVN. If you’re working with a history where a set of changes are made and committed, then another change is made (i.e., linear) and committed, the merge will be easy.

Things get complicated when you have two or more developers working on the same code base and you need to merge. In this case, Subversion fails, and the developers need to resolve the conflicts manually, which wastes hours of their time.

So, Why Subversion?

SVN comes with many challenges. So why is Subversion still used? There are 2 big reasons: cost and inertia.

  • Cost: SVN is open source, which means it’s “free.” Learn more about the real cost of SVN.
  • Inertia: Once a large code base is built up, it’s can be daunting to switch version control systems. SVN has been around since 2004, and the organizations who adopted it could have millions of lines of code in it.

Outgrown Subversion?

Users have begun to realize that SVN can no longer support the demands that are placed on a versioning system in today’s accelerated development environment and are looking for an alternative that solves those problems.

If you’ve outgrown Subversion, Perforce has enterprise version control software that lets you scale without limits. That version control is Helix Core.

Migrating from Subversion to Helix Core can be simple and seamless with the right plan and strategy in place.

📘 Related Resource: SVN Migration Toolkit

Helix Core – Version Control

Perforce Helix Core is centralized version control that has all the benefits of Subversion without the challenges.

You'll get: 

  • A centralized server (which can also be used in a distributed mode) that creates a single source of truth.

  • Easy-to-use tools such as P4EXP (an equivalent tool to TortoiseSVN).

  • Efficient and powerful branching using Streams.

  • The ease of committing changes, even across multiple repositories.

  • Automatic resolution of most merge conflicts.

Helix Core is a compelling solution for those looking to regain productivity and resources lost to SVN. Helix Core will deliver satisfaction to your organization both from a technology perspective and from the standpoint of support and services.

It’s designed for collaboration, scalability, and flexibility. Try the full version of Helix Core. It’s free for up to 5 users.

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