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7 Version Control Systems Reviewed

If you’ve ever collaborated with other people on a project, you know the frustration of constantly swapping files. Some do it by email, some through file upload services and some by other methods. It’s a pain in the neck, and every designer and developer knows it. Revision control is an excellent way to combat the problem of sharing files between workers.

Most web-developers have probably worked with some sort of revision control system, but designers may find it a foreign concept. The most obvious benefit of using revision control is the ability to have an unlimited number of people working on the same code base, without having to constantly send files back and forth.

But designers and developers can both benefit from using revision control systems to keep copies of their files and designs. You can instantly browse previous “commits” to your repository and revert to earlier versions if something happens.

This article reviews some of the top open-source version control systems and tools that make setting up a version control system easy.

CVS Link


CVS2 is the grandfather of revision control systems. It was first released in 1986, and Google Code still hosts the original Usenet post announcing CVS. CVS is the de facto standard and is installed virtually everywhere. However, the code base isn’t as fully featured as SVN or other solutions.

The learning curve isn’t too steep for CVS, and it’s a very simple system for making sure files and revisions are kept up to date. While CVS may be an older technology, it’s still quite useful for any designer or developer for backing up and sharing files.

Tortoise CVS3 is a great client for CVS on Windows, and there are many different IDEs, such as Xcode (Mac), Eclipse4, NetBeans5 and Emacs6, that use CVS.

CVS Resources Link

SVN Link


Subversion11 is probably the version control system with the widest adoption. Most open-source projects use Subversion as a repository because other larger projects, such as SourceForge, Apache, Python, Ruby and many others, use it as well. Google Code12 uses Subversion exclusively to distribute code.

Because of Subversion’s popularity, many different Subversion clients are available. If you’re a Windows user, Tortoise SVN13 is a great file browser for viewing, editing and modifying your Subversion code base. If you’re on a Mac, Versions14 is an elegant client that provides a “pleasant way to work with Subversion.” Xcode is Apple’s developer environment and Subversion client that ships with Leopard on a Mac.

SVN Resources Link

Git Link


Git23 is the new fast-rising star of version control systems. Initially developed by Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds, Git has recently taken the Web development community by storm. Git offers a much different type of version control in that it’s a distributed version control system. With a distributed version control system, there isn’t one centralized code base to pull the code from. Different branches hold different parts of the code. Other version control systems, such as SVN and CVS, use centralized version control, meaning that only one master copy of the software is used.

Git prides itself on being a fast and efficient system, and many major open-source projects use Git to power their repositories; projects like:

GitHub26 has recently helped establish Git as a great version control system, providing a beautiful front end for many large projects, such as Rails27 and Prototype28. However, Git isn’t as easy to pick up as CVS or SVN, so it’s much harder to use for a beginner.


Git Resources Link

Mercurial Link

Mercurial is another open-source distributed version control system, like Git. Mercurial was designed for larger projects, most likely outside the scope of designers and independent Web developers. That doesn’t mean that small development teams can’t or shouldn’t use it. Mercurial is extremely fast, and the creators built the software with performance as the most important feature. The name “mercurial” is an adjective that means “Relating to or having characteristics (eloquence, swiftness, cleverness) attributed to the god Mercury.”

Aside from being very fast and scalable, Mercurial is a much simpler system than Git, which is why it appeals to some developers. There aren’t as many functions to learn, and the functions are similar to those in other CVS systems. It also comes equipped with a stand-alone Web interface and extensive documentation on understanding Mercurial if you have been using another system.

Resources for Mercurial Link

  • Mercurial tutorial – An in-depth tutorial on installing and working with Mercurial.
  • List of GUI tools for Mercurial – Tools to use with any platform for working with Mercurial.
  • Understanding Mercurial – A nice document explaining what Mercurial does and doesn’t do.
  • Use Mercurial, you Git!– A pro-Mercurial article highlighting reasons why Mercurial is better than Git.

Bazaar Link


Bazaar34 is yet another distributed version control system, like Mercurial and Git, that offers a very friendly user experience. It calls itself “Version control for human beings.” It supports many different types of workflows35, from solo to centralized to decentralized, with many variations in between.

One of the main features of Bazaar is the fine-grained control you’ll have over the setup. As shown with the workflows, you can use it to fit almost any scenario of users and setups. This is a great revision control system for nearly any project because it’s so easy to modify. It’s also embeddable, so you can add it to existing projects.

Bazaar also has a strong community36 that maintains things like plug-ins37 and lots of third-party tools38, such as GUI software to add a graphical interface to the system.


Bazaar resources: Link

LibreSource Link

LibreSource is a Web portal used to manage collaborative projects. It’s based on Java/J2EE and is more a set of visual collaborative tools to help facilitate projects and teams. While the other systems discussed so far have been designed more on a “command line” level, LibreSource is centered more on tools that don’t have a big learning curve.

It has built-in features such as Wiki pages, forums, trackers, Synchronizers, Subversion repositories, files, download areas, drop boxes, forms, instant messaging and more. Think of LibreSource as a collaboration hub for project development.

LibreSource is perfect for the developer or designer who doesn’t want to learn lots of technical jargon and wants to focus more on communication with the project’s members. Just install the package and start collaborating, without facing much of a learning curve.

Resources for LibreSource Link

  • LibreSource Documentation – Tons of articles and tutorials for getting familiar with LibreSource.
  • LibreSource vs. Subversion43 – A table showing the differences between LibreSource and Subversion.

Monotone Link

Monotone44 is the baby of the distributed revision control bunch. While many of Monotone’s peers focus on performance, Monotone places higher value on integrity than performance. In fact, it can take quite a bit of time for a new user of Monotone to simply download the initial repository due to the extensive validation and authentication required.

Monotone is fairly easy to learn if you’re familiar with CVS systems, and it can import previous CVS projects. However, it’s not quite as popular as other version control systems.

Version Control Tools Link

  • QCT GUI commit tool45
    A version control commit tool that supports Mercurial, Bazaar, Cogito (Git), Subversion, Monotone, and CVS.
  • Meld46 is a merge and diff tool that allows you to compare two or three files and edit them in place, while updating automatically. It works with CVS, Subversion, Bazaar and Mercurial.

Version Control Resources Link

Footnotes Link

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Glen Stansberry is the editor at Web Jackalope, a blog about creative Web development.

  1. 1

    Wow, thanks, never used any of those applications but I will certainly check out some of those. Thanks.

  2. 2

    Russell Heimlich

    September 18, 2008 9:54 am

    My favorite GUI SVN Client is SmartSVN. Cross platform and easy to use. The compare tool is one of the best I’ve seen.

  3. 3

    I used to use svn with Versions, but I can’t really say I enjoyed the experience. If you’re not afraid of terminal, I’d recommend you give Git a try. Once you have figured out how to set it up, it’s a breeze to use.

  4. 4

    I’ve recently switched over to Mercurial (abbreviated Hg after Mercury) after using SVN for years and finding Git’s mish-mash of sub-programs horrendous to use (the quality varies so much, whereas Hg is pure Python code throughout). Also, how come you didn’t mention Mozilla use Hg for Firefox etc? I just wish their were more GUI clients for Hg on Mac.

  5. 5

    best tool is textmate’s integrated svn :)

  6. 6

    I recently switched to Git although it took a little while to pick things up it was worthwhile. I stringly suggest getting the Peepcode Screencast on Git. It was the best $9 I’ve spent and well worth the hour to run through it.

  7. 7

    Toshio Kuratomi

    September 18, 2008 11:23 am

    I’d like to note that the Fedora Project doesn’t use git in quite the way you represent. Packaging, the major use of version control for Fedora is currently done in cvs with many people exploring how we can move to one or more other version control systems.

    The link you have is actually to the service that we run. The canonical URL is We have hosting services for various upstream projects. We support git, hg (, bzr (, and subversion in fedorahosted.

  8. 8

    I just switched to using SVN for my web development projects and I will never go back. For OS X using Versions Versions has been a pleasant way to implement SVN into my workflow. Combine Versions with Changes Changes for diff comparison and I’m pretty sure you’ll never go back to “file.htm.old” again.

  9. 9

    My favorite goes to Subversion (hosted @ Beanstalk) with Tortoise as client.
    The ultimate combo !

  10. 10

    I always used Tortoise CVS it works great!
    Have to check the other ones out ass well soon.

    nice post again….

  11. 11

    One major downside to CVS is that it doesn’t support binary diffs. So if you use it for more than code you end up with a lot of duplication. The other tools are more efficient so if for example you have a website project you can include images, mock-ups and such in the repository as well.

  12. 12

    I use CVS and SVN quite a lot, never knew about the others

  13. 13

    I’m using the subversion way, with svn on Ubuntu as client. Nice listing by the way

  14. 14

    Erica McGillivray

    September 18, 2008 11:48 am

    Excellent list. Also very helpful.

  15. 15

    André Faria Gomes

    September 18, 2008 11:53 am

    I think that Git is becaming more and more popular because of the Rails Community, but Mercurial and Baazar are also good choices.
    Very Nice Listing. Thanks!

  16. 16

    Thomas Dedericks

    September 18, 2008 1:46 pm

    Great article! I’ll definitely give a chance to Bazaar.

    jQuery tips, version control… looks like some developpers are sneaking inside SM :)

  17. 17

    VersionsVersions for Mac OSX is great! It’s still in Beta, but far superior and more user-friendly than all of the other SVN clients I’ve tried for either Mac or PC.

  18. 18

    I use TortiseSVN on Windows and svnX for Mac. For Hosted SVN we use Springloops which is similar to Beanstalk but has a friendly UI and Deployment actually makes sense.

  19. 19

    Luciano Moretti

    September 18, 2008 9:19 pm

    We use SVN from long time and is very great as a versioning tool. As a client we use mixed, TortoiseSVN (admin, advanced users) and SVN for Dreamweaver (visual developers, HTML coders).
    This 2 combination is the best we find out.

  20. 20

    I appreciate the article. But I’d like to extend the question. I’m a lone and very basic developer with no current experience with version control systems. A friend recommended SVN but I’ve barely gotten my hands around Eclipse and Mysql. which are the current backbone of my development environment. I am using the Brit, Eclipse based, report writer against MySql databases.(I’m on windows, XP and vista with Freeware only) I’ve looked at the Svn documentation, but am very wary of adding that complexity into the environment I barely understand. I’d like to continue to set up an environment that can grow, (languages and tools) as I do. I only have so much bandwidth for learning!

    What advice does this much smarter crowd have to offer???


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