Dozens of articles outline the detailed technical reasons Git is better than Subversion, but if you’re like me, you don’t necessarily care about minor speed differences, the elegance of back-end algorithms, or all of the hardcore features that you may only ever use once.  You want to see clear, major differences in your day-to-day interaction with software before you switch to something new.  After several weeks of trials, Git seems to offer major improvements over Subversion.  These are my reasons for jumping on the Git bandwagon.

Let’s start with a few assumptions for the scenarios we’ll walk through:

  • you’re one of many developers for a project
  • all changes going into production must first be peer-reviewed
  • you all use simple GUI text editors like TextMate or an equivalent
  • you have 4 features that you’re working that are due soon

Let’s get to work.

Endless, Easy, Non-File-System-Based, Local Branches

You’d like to work on each of your 4 features A, B, C, and D independently and somewhat in parallel, though B looks like a quick win.  Let’s compare the branching features offered by both Git and Subversion side-by-side as we get going:

Task Git Subversion
1. Get a copy of the project on your local machine. `git clone /srv/repos /local/copy` `svn checkout /srv/repos /local/copy`
2. Create branches A-D to represent the features you're working on. `git checkout -b A`
`git checkout -b B`
`git checkout -b C`
`git checkout -b D`
`svn copy /srv/repos/trunk /srv/repos/branches/A`
`svn checkout /srv/repos/branches/A /local/copy/branches/A`

`svn copy /srv/repos/trunk /srv/path/repos/branches/B`
`svn checkout /srv/repos/branches/B /local/copy/branches/B`

`svn copy /srv/repos/trunk /srv/path/repos/branches/C`
`svn checkout /srv/repos/branches/C /local/copy/branches/C`

`svn copy /srv/repos/trunk /srv/path/repos/branches/D`
`svn checkout /srv/repos/branches/D /local/copy/branches/D`
3. Feature B is very simple and you want to knock it out and get it into production ASAP. `git checkout B`
[work in editor]
`git commit -a`
[peer review]
`git format-patch`
`git send-email` [options will vary]
[peer gives you "thumbs up"]
`git checkout master`
`git merge B`
`git push`
[open text editor for branch B]
[work in editor]
`svn commit`
[peer review]
[send email to peer with branch name]
[peer checks out your branch locally to review]
[peer gives you "thumbs up"]
`cd /local/copy/trunk`
`svn merge /local/copy/branches/B .`
`svn commit`
4. Get rid of unnecessary branch B. `git branch -d B` `svn delete /srv/repos/branches/B`
`svn update`

Note the key advantages Git offered in each step:

  1. Git creates a full repository with this command.  With Subversion, you’re just checking out the files in the repository.
  2. With each branch, no new files are created in the project file hierarchy on your system.  Since you have a full local repository, Git creates the files you need on the fly by processing the recorded changes.  With Subversion, you have to create every branch remotely on the server.  This can get messy depending on the size of your team.  If you decide to control branching to keep things clean, you forfeit the power branching offers.
  3. With Git, we only push our work to the server AFTER collaboration (more below).  With Subversion, it all hits the server.
  4. Again, no file system work.  Since we’re using a local repository, we let Git handle the details of removing the branch.  With Subversion, you still have the old copy until you update.  You either have to clean up manually, or “update” to clean up local and remote copies.

In addition, try to do this scenario on your laptop while not connected to the Internet.  With Git, no issues, the repository is local; however, with Subversion, you’re out of luck.  Your new branches will have to wait. The advantages of Git for branching are clear in this simple branching scenario.  Let’s continue to look at our scenario with non-trivial features A, C, and D that we’re working on.

Stashing Temporary Work

You start working on A and you’re about 100 lines of code into it when you get stumped on a math function.  The math wiz on your team is out for the day and you’d rather not continue until you consult him.  You’ve got some ideas for C, so you decide shift gears and get started.

Task Git Subversion
1. Switch to branch A, write 100 lines of code `git checkout A` [open text editor for branch A]
2. Switch to branch C  while waiting on a co-worker's advise for A `git stash`
`git checkout C`
[close text editor for branch A]
[open text editor for branch C]
3. Work on C for a while, get advise from co-worker and resume work on A `git stash`
`git checkout A`
`git stash list`
`git stash apply [stash name]`
[close text editor for branch C]
[open text editor for branch A]

At a glance, you might get the impression that Subversion is simpler, and you’re probably right.  However, this is one case where simple may not be what you’re looking for.  Let’s look at each step:

  1. The key thing to note in this and every step is how we switch between branches.  In Git, the repository handles this. With Subversion, you’re literally just working on a separate set of files.  Ultimately, it’s up to you to manage retrieving and editing these files.  If you’re using TextMate, you’ll probably save a TextMate project file every time you branch simply to give you quick access to the branch.  If you branch a lot, this quickly becomes annoying, time consuming, and non-productive.  With Git, when you checkout a separate branch, it “magically” changes all of the files on your file system for you.  That means 1 project file is all you ever need.  Git handles the rest.
  2. Git will “float” uncommitted changes.  This means that if simply did a “git checkout C,” you’d bring with you all of the uncommitted work you did for A.  However, you don’t want to commit A because it’s not in a good working state.  Instead, you “stash” your work.  Stash is like a work in process commit.  Using it will tuck away your WIP changes without a formal commit, which allows you to change to C without “floating” any of your A changes.  The Subversion method is simpler, but you could potentially end up with several half-baked branches and no record of when you abandoned them.  Git’s stash allows you to list all stashes, and even write a message when you stash.  It is far more powerful in this scenario.
  3. Same as 2, but shows the “git stash list” feature.

So now we can work smoothly between multiple branches without worry of the consequences of interruption.  Git thus far has shown immense strength in two key areas, but let’s revisit collaboration to seal the deal.

Collaboration Before Public Commits

It’s now weeks later and you’re working on D.  After some round table discussions with the team, you all agree that D may not be the best approach.  A co-worker starts working on his own branch E and a few days later wants to review it with you.

Task Git Subversion
1. Review co-workers suggested changes in his branch E [check your email for patch]
[review patch]
`svn checkout /srv/repos/branches/E /local/copy/branches/E`
[open text editor for branch E]
`svn log [to find changes]`
`svn diff [to view changes]`
[review branch]
2. Agree that E is better and destroy your branch D `git branch -D D` `svn delete /srv/repos/branches/D`
`svn update`

Git offers power by putting collaboration up front before commits are public for all to see.  Consider in each step:

  1. Git has a nice feature to create “patches.”  They are simply changes to code, very similar to a diff.  The idea is that you create patches from commits you’ve only made on your local copy of the repository.  When your co-worker sent you the patch for E, no one else on the team had to see his commit logs, branches, etc., in the public repository because they never existed there.  You are collaborating about E via emailed patches.  With Subversion, it’s all on the server, all the time.
  2. With Git, deleting an abandoned branch is simple and clean.  The work done in D will never be seen by the public, i.e., your team.  You’ve spared the team clutter both in the logs and on their file systems.  With Subversion, the clean up is on you.  Should you forget to delete D, it’s has the potential to get used and that could be bad.  Conversely, someone else may have quietly checked out D and been working on something.  When you delete it from the public repository, their commit will surely fail.

Conclusion

There are literally hundreds of features for both Git and Subversion.  While you may have detailed reasons to choose one over the other, I think these 3 high level reasons are strongly convincing in favor of Git.  If you have differing opinions, I’d love to hear them.