2014-10-18 Version Control Systems

It is very often the case that one works on a certain document (it might be a scientific paper, it might be a book, it might be a newspaper article, it might be a master’s thesis – whatever) and from time to time one wants to revert some changes („this wasn’t that brilliant idea I thought it was”), or highlight the changes made since the last reading by the advisor, or be able to check which parts of the file were last edited on what date, or any similar thing. In general, knowing what part of the file changed from what and when is occasionally quite useful.

Of course, you can save subsequent versions of your paper under filenames like paper-v1.tex, paper-v2.tex, …, paper-v23.tex and so on (actually, a better idea is to use paper-v01.tex – the padding zeros make lexicographic sorting yield better results). Or better, paper-2014-10-18.tex, using the ISO 8601 standard. But this method is error-prone and cumbersome. And usually, if there is something which is error-prone because it needs a lot of bookkeeping but no creative thinking, it is better to leave that task to a machine.

What is needed in such situations is called a version control system, or VCS. There are plenty of such systems out there. Personally, I used to use Mercurial, but after a few years it became clear that Git is a better choice, and so I made a switch. (Mercurial is easier to use for beginners. Git is more powerful. Don’t care about other ones unless you really have to. For instance, I heard rumors of Subversion (SVN) being a nasty beast, though, so you might want to avoid that one – in general, a so-called distributed VCS seems a more versatile tool anyway.)

What are the advantages of using such systems?

What are the disadvantages? Well, I can think of one: there is some overhead connected with „committing” each change (that is, telling the VCS „hey, this is the next version, please remember it!”). Of course, you can commit only after some major rewrites, but it is usually better to do it more often.

To sum it up: if you work alone, on small projects (say, less than 2 pages of text each), and do backups regularly, you might not need a VCS (but it might come handy anyway). In all other cases, you probably do need it.

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