Version Control Systems

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Revisions occur in sequence over time, and thus can be arranged in order, either by revision number or timestamp. [note 2] Revisions are based on past revisions, though it is possible to largely or completely replace an earlier revision, such as "delete all existing text, insert new text". In the simplest case, with no branching or undoing, each revision is based on its immediate predecessor alone, and they form a simple line, with a single latest version, the "HEAD" revision or tip. In graph theory terms, drawing each revision as a point and each "derived revision" relationship as an arrow (conventionally pointing from older to newer, in the same direction as time), this is a linear graph. If there is branching, so multiple future revisions are based on a past revision, or undoing, so a revision can depend on a revision older than its immediate predecessor, then the resulting graph is instead a directed tree (each node can have more than one child), and has multiple tips, corresponding to the revisions without children ("latest revision on each branch"). [note 3] In principle the resulting tree need not have a preferred tip ("main" latest revision) – just various different revisions – but in practice one tip is generally identified as HEAD. When a new revision is based on HEAD, it is either identified as the new HEAD, or considered a new branch. [note 4] The list of revisions from the start to HEAD (in graph theory terms, the unique path in the tree, which forms a linear graph as before) is the trunk or mainline. [note 5] Conversely, when a revision can be based on more than one previous revision (when a node can have more than one parent), the resulting process is called a merge, and is one of the most complex aspects of revision control. This most often occurs when changes occur in multiple branches (most often two, but more are possible), which are then merged into a single branch incorporating both changes. If these changes overlap, it may be difficult or impossible to merge, and require manual intervention or rewriting.

The need for a logical way to organize and control revisions has existed for almost as long as writing has existed, but revision control became much more important, and complicated when the era of computing began. The numbering of book editions and of specification revisions are examples that date back to the print-only era. Today, the most capable (as well as complex) revision control systems are those used in software development , where a team of people may change the same files.

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