The Future of Revision Control: From Git to What's Next?

The Evolution of Revision Control Tools: A Look Into the Past and Future


Revision control tools have played a crucial role in the software development lifecycle for decades. From the early days of SCCS (Source Code Control System) in 1973 to the modern era of Git, developers have relied on these tools to manage and track changes in their codebase. But how have these tools evolved over time, and what does the future hold for revision control?

A recent post by an experienced developer on an online forum listed all the revision control tools they have used throughout the years, along with the years of their creation and the year the poster last used them. The list includes well-known tools such as SCCS, RCS, CVS, ClearCase, Perforce, Subversion, Mercurial, and Git.

Interestingly, the author notes that these tools typically last around 15 years in their workflow. However, when the author tells junior developers that Git might be a distant memory for them when they reach the author’s age, they are met with confusion. This leads to the question: Will Git be the final take on the problem of revision control, or can we expect a future replacement?

The author acknowledges that the rate of change of revision control tools slows down over time as the problem domain becomes more well-understood. Similar to the evolution of office software like Excel, which has reached a point of fundamental stability, revision control tools have also seen a convergence in terms of functionality.

Git, a distributed version control system, has been highly successful and has earned its popularity among developers. The author predicts that Git could last double the length of time as the previous tools listed, given its robust data model and ongoing additions like git-lfs (Git Large File Storage).

However, the future of revision control may depend on the emergence of a new tool or an evolution of Git itself. Just as Ethernet has been replaced multiple times while still retaining the name, the author speculates that a future replacement for Git might still be called “Git” but with significant improvements.

One potential area of improvement could be the adoption of directed acyclic graphs (DAGs) instead of trees as the basis for Git. This would enable the ability to work with changesets that are still developing across multiple branches without maintaining separate copies. Additionally, the author mentions a desire to rebase subtrees (sub-DAGs) instead of individual branches.

The author also introduces the concept of a stacked pull request (PR) workflow, which they believe is the future of team collaboration. They highlight Git’s limitations in supporting this workflow, but note that its adaptability has led to the development of tools on top of Git, addressing this gap in functionality.

Despite the potential for improvements, the author acknowledges that it has become increasingly difficult to displace established revision control tools. Developers have become accustomed to the existing command-line interfaces and workflow patterns, making it challenging for new tools to gain traction.

The article also touches on the perceived complexities of Git and the misconceptions surrounding its usage. Different workflows, such as GitHub’s PR model versus pushing a branch or rebasing versus merging, can cause disagreements among developers. The author emphasizes that these are mostly local disagreements and highlights the importance of distinguishing between local and social disagreements.

Finally, the article mentions alternative revision control tools, such as Fossil, which takes a different approach by bundling all functionality into a single standalone binary. While some developers prefer this approach, others argue for a more modular and component-based system.

In conclusion, revision control tools have evolved significantly over the years, with Git emerging as a dominant force in the software development industry. While it is difficult to predict the future, it seems likely that Git will continue to play a significant role. However, the emergence of a new tool or an evolution of Git itself could bring further advancements to the field of revision control. Regardless, developers will always seek tools that simplify collaboration, ensure code integrity, and improve their productivity.

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