Unix as IDE: Revisions

Version control is now seen as an indispensable part of professional software development, and GUI IDEs like Eclipse and Visual Studio have embraced it and included support for industry standard version control systems in their products. Modern version control systems trace their lineage back to Unix concepts from programs such as diff and patch however, and there are plenty of people who will insist that the best way to use a version control system is still at a shell prompt.

In this last article in the Unix as an IDE series, I’ll follow the evolution of common open-source version control systems from the basic concepts of diff and patch, among the very first version control tools.

diff, patch, and RCS

A central concept for version control systems has been that of the unified diff, a file expressing in human and computer readable terms a set of changes made to a file or files. The diff command was first released by Douglas McIlroy in 1974 for the 5th Edition of Unix, so it’s one of the oldest commands still in regular use on modern systems.

A unified diff, the most common and interoperable format, can be generated by comparing two versions of a file with the following syntax:

$ diff -u example.{1,2}.c
--- example.c.1    2012-02-15 20:15:37.000000000 +1300
+++ example.c.2    2012-02-15 20:15:57.000000000 +1300
@@ -1,8 +1,9 @@
 #include <stdio.h>
+#include <stdlib.h> 

 int main (int argc, char* argv[]) { printf("Hello, world!\n");
-    return 0;
+    return EXIT_SUCCESS; }

In this example, the second file has a header file added, and the call to return changed to use the standard EXIT_SUCCESS rather than a literal 0 as the return value for main(). Note that the output for diff also includes metadata such as the filename that was changed and the last modification time of each of the files.

A primitive form of version control for larger code bases was thus for developers to trade diff output, called patches in this context, so that they could be applied to one another’s code bases with the patch tool. We could save the output from diff above as a patch like so:

$ diff -u example.{1,2}.c > example.patch

We could then send this patch to a developer who still had the old version of the file, and they could automatically apply it with:

$ patch example.1.c < example.patch

A patch can include diff output from more than one file, including within subdirectories, so this provides a very workable way to apply changes to a source tree.

The operations involved in using diff output to track changes were sufficiently regular that for keeping in-place history of a file, the Source Code Control System and the Revision Control System that has pretty much replaced it were developed. RCS enabled “locking” files so that they could not be edited by anyone else while “checked out” of the system, paving the way for other concepts in more developed version control systems.

RCS retains the advantage of being very simple to use. To place an existing file under version control, one need only type ci <filename> and provide an appropriate description for the file:

$ ci example.c
example.c,v  <--  example.c
enter description, terminated with single '.' or end of file:
NOTE: This is NOT the log message!
>> example file
>> .
initial revision: 1.1

This creates a file in the same directory, example.c,v, that will track the changes. To make changes to the file, you check it out, make the changes, then check it back in:

$ co -l example.c
example.c,v  -->  example.c
revision 1.1 (locked)
$ vim example.c
$ ci -u example.c
example.c,v  <--  example.c
new revision: 1.2; previous revision: 1.1
enter log message, terminated with single '.' or end of file:
>> added a line
>> .

You can then view the history of a project with rlog:

$ rlog example.c

RCS file: example.c,v
Working file: example.c
head: 1.2
locks: strict
access list:
symbolic names:
keyword substitution: kv
total revisions: 2; selected revisions: 2
example file
revision 1.2
date: 2012/02/15 07:39:16;  author: tom;  state: Exp;  lines: +1 -0
added a line
revision 1.1
date: 2012/02/15 07:36:23;  author: tom;  state: Exp;
Initial revision

And get a patch in unified diff format between two revisions with rcsdiff -u:

$ rcsdiff -u -r1.1 -r1.2 ./example.c 
RCS file: ./example.c,v
retrieving revision 1.1
retrieving revision 1.2
diff -u -r1.1 -r1.2
--- ./example.c 2012/02/15 07:36:23 1.1
+++ ./example.c 2012/02/15 07:39:16 1.2
@@ -4,6 +4,7 @@
 int main (int argc, char* argv[])
     printf("Hello, world!\n");
+    printf("Extra line!\n");
     return EXIT_SUCCESS;

It would be misleading to imply that simple patches were now in disuse as a method of version control; they are still very commonly used in the forms above, and also figure prominently in both centralised and decentralised version control systems.

CVS and Subversion

To handle the problem of resolving changes made to a code base by multiple developers, centralized version systems were developed, with the Concurrent Versions System (CVS) developed first and the slightly more advanced Subversion later on. The central feature of these systems are using a central server that contains the repository, from which authoritative versions of the codebase at any particular time or revision can be retrieved. These are termed working copies of the code.

For these systems, the basic unit of the systems remained the changeset, and the most common way to represent these to the user was in the archetypal diff format used in earlier systems. Both systems work by keeping records of these changesets, rather than the actual files themselves from state to state.

Other concepts introduced by this generation of systems were of branching projects so that separate instances of the same project could be worked on concurrently, and then merged into the mainline, or trunk with appropriate testing and review. Similarly, the concept of tagging was introduced to flag certain revisions as representing the state of a codebase at the time of a release of the software. The concept of the merge was also introduced; reconciling conflicting changes made to a file manually.

Git and Mercurial

The next generation of version control systems are distributed or decentralized systems, in which working copies of the code themselves contain a complete history of the project, and are hence not reliant on a central server to contribute to the project. In the open source, Unix-friendly environment, the standout systems are Git and Mercurial, with their client programs git and hg.

For both of these systems, the concept of communicating changesets is done with the operations push, pull and merge; changes from one repository are accepted by another. This decentralized system allows for a very complex but tightly controlled ecosystem of development; Git was originally developed by Linus Torvalds to provide an open-source DVCS capable of managing development for the Linux kernel.

Both Git and Mercurial differ from CVS and Subversion in that the basic unit for their operations is not changesets, but complete files (blobs) saved using compression. This makes finding the log history of a single file or the differences between two revisions of a file slightly more expensive, but the output of git log --patch still retains the familiar unified diff output for each revision, some forty years after diff was first being used:

commit c1e5559ddb09f8d02b989596b0f4100ad1aab422
Author: Tom Ryder <tom@sanctum.geek.nz>
Date:   Thu Feb 2 01:14:21 2012

Changed my mind about this one.

diff --git a/vim/vimrc b/vim/vimrc index cfbe8e0..65a3143 100644
--- a/vim/vimrc
+++ b/vim/vimrc
@@ -47,10 +47,6 @@
 set shiftwidth=4
 set softtabstop=4
 set tabstop=4

-" Heresy
-inoremap <C-a> <Home>
-inoremap <C-e> <End>
 " History
 set history=1000

The two systems have considerable overlap in functionality and even in command set, and the question of which to use provokes considerable debate. The best introductions I’ve seen to each are Pro Git by Scott Chacon, and Hg Init by Joel Spolsky.


This is the last post in the Unix as IDE series; I’ve tried to offer a rapid survey of the basic tools available just within a shell on Linux for all of the basic functionality afforded by professional IDEs. At points I’ve had to be not quite as thorough as I’d like in explaining certain features, but to those unfamiliar to development on Linux machines this will all have hopefully given some idea of how comprehensive a development environment the humble shell can be, and all with free, highly mature, and standard software tools.

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Unix as IDE.

Bash job control

Oftentimes you may wish to start a process on the Bash shell without having to wait for it to actually complete, but still be notified when it does. Similarly, it may be helpful to temporarily stop a task while it’s running without actually quitting it, so that you can do other things with the terminal. For these kinds of tasks, Bash’s built-in job control is very useful.

Backgrounding processes

If you have a process that you expect to take a long time, such as a long cp or scp operation, you can start it in the background of your current shell by adding an ampersand to it as a suffix:

$ cp -r /mnt/bigdir /home &
[1] 2305

This will start the copy operation as a child process of your bash instance, but will return you to the prompt to enter any other commands you might want to run while that’s going.

The output from this command shown above gives both the job number of 1, and the process ID of the new task, 2305. You can view the list of jobs for the current shell with the builtin jobs:

$ jobs
[1]+  Running  cp -r /mnt/bigdir /home &

If the job finishes or otherwise terminates while it’s backgrounded, you should see a message in the terminal the next time you update it with a newline:

[1]+  Done  cp -r /mnt/bigdir /home &

Foregrounding processes

If you want to return a job in the background to the foreground, you can type fg:

$ fg
cp -r /mnt/bigdir /home &

If you have more than one job backgrounded, you should specify the particular job to bring to the foreground with a parameter to fg:

$ fg %1

In this case, for shorthand, you can optionally omit fg and it will work just the same:

$ %1

Suspending processes

To temporarily suspend a process, you can press Ctrl+Z:

$ cp -r /mnt/bigdir /home
[1]+  Stopped  cp -r /mnt/bigdir /home

You can then continue it in the foreground or background with fg %1 or bg %1 respectively, as above.

This is particularly useful while in a text editor; instead of quitting the editor to get back to a shell, or dropping into a subshell from it, you can suspend it temporarily and return to it with fg once you’re ready.

Dealing with output

While a job is running in the background, it may still print its standard output and standard error streams to your terminal. You can head this off by redirecting both streams to /dev/null for verbose commands:

$ cp -rv /mnt/bigdir /home &>/dev/null

However, if the output of the task is actually of interest to you, this may be a case where you should fire up another terminal emulator, perhaps in GNU Screen or tmux, rather than using simple job control.

Suspending SSH sessions

As a special case, you can suspend an SSH session using an SSH escape sequence. Type a newline followed by a ~ character, and finally press Ctrl+Z to background your SSH session and return to the terminal from which you invoked it.

tom@conan:~$ ssh crom
tom@crom:~$ ~^Z [suspend ssh]
[1]+  Stopped  ssh crom

You can then resume it as you would any job by typing fg:

tom@conan:~$ fg %1
ssh crom