Subversion Writeup for CRMDA

Version Control Systems and Subversion (SVN)
Paul Johnson
Nov. 11, 2010

1 Analogy For Microsoft Word Users

I often forget that the people I’m trying to help have a completely different experience than I do. I often plunge into a massive explanation that is completely useless. This section is my effort to avoid that.
Have you ever used “change tracking” in an MS Word document? That’s handy because you can see what changes have been made, you can “reject” a suggested change and go back.
Version control is somewhat like that, except it is more thorough. A version control system keeps track of all of your changes and allows you to “grab” any past version of a file. A version control system facilitates team work by tracking who makes changes and asking them to explain the changes they make.
Version control is harder to set up the first time. It is not automatic.
There are many different programs for version control. The time-honored standard was CVS (Concurrent Version System). Of all of the free software programs I have used, that one had 1) the longest run as the dominant, widely used program and 2) the best user manual. I suspect 1 was in large part driven by 2.
In the early 2000s, the software experts started to want more features, and a proliferation of version control systems emerged. Linus Torvalds, the author of the original Linux kernel, proposed a program “git”. There are many others, “bazaar”, “mercurial”, and so forth. I have not used them.
At the current time, the version control system that is most like CVS is called SVN (short for Subversion). The commands that are used to interact with Subversion are almost the same as CVS, so as a simple user with simple needs, I don’t notice much difference.
But, I have to admit, it is a hassle to get started with version control, but after you do it for a while, you will never want to go back. The alternative is to make a full copy of your project and set it aside frequently. If you have ever done that, then you know it has strengths and weaknesses.
You do need a “Subversion Server” running somewhere. I have Subversion installed in my personal computer, so I can just create a “repository” on my hard disk. If your system does not have Subversion, then you need to use a remote server. That sounds frightening, but it is not too hard. At the University of Kansas, we have Subversion installed on the cluster system known as Users can create their own personal SVN archives, or they can participate in the communal programming effort via SVN.

2 Conceptual Time Flow of Version Control

This document is not a substitute for a comprehensive SVN manual, but it should help us to get off the ground.
First: log into HPC and create a directory that will act as your SVN repository. That’s the vault, where all the code and changes are recorded.
Second: Change to a different directory and create some text that you want to put into the version control system. You can do this on HPC, or you can go to another machine where do the coding. The aim here is to create the “initial” framework. (You can add files and directories later.)
Third: Add those new files to the repository. That is called “committing” or “checking in” your files.
Fourth: Go to another computer, or start a new directory, and “check out” a snapshot of your repository. Fiddle around with those files. When you are ready, you “commit” those changes into the repository. The repository keeps a “current” version and it also keeps the previous versions, which you can recover if you want to.
Fifth: Go back to the initial working directory, the one where you first created your files. Run the update command to scan the repository for changes and integrate them into the current folder. You can fiddle around with those files, commit the changes, and walk away.
The SVN repository, of course, should not be deleted. But you can feel free to delete the initial working directory and any checked out copies of the files. This means that, if you take some project and make a bunch of mistakes, you don’t have to worry. You can always check out the repository again, and if you want to, you can check out the repository as it was on some date in the past. (I’ve been trying to develop a strategy to check out a copy of files as they will exist in the future in order to speed up my development work, but have not yet succeeded. That kind of thing passes for humor among computer programmers.)

3 SVN: Why bother

From Chad Perrin, “Use open source Subversion for personal document management,” March 14, 2007

“A mechanism for automatic revision history management is probably most likely to be familiar to non-programmers because the most famous examples of wiki software employ such a technique for tracking changes to content and allowing undesirable changes to be reversed.

As part of the revision history mechanism, a version control system such as Subversion not only maintains a central data repository copy of the current version of files that have been entrusted to version control, but also maintains a log of changes that have been made from the present all the way back to the moment the files entered version control. Anyone who has been doing software development work for very long should be able to tell you how important the ability to roll back a file to a known-good state can be. This is in fact the central feature of any version control software: the primary reason it exists.

Subversion does this and much more. For instance, it also provides the ability to resolve version conflicts when two people have been editing the same file at the same time. In the real world, users who employ good practices such as making regular commits when working on files in version control, and updating local copies before committing changes, rarely run afoul of others’ work. That rarity is nonetheless accounted for by Subversion, with conflict resolution features built in. It also supports easy branching of modified versions of the main development trunk, merging of divergent development branches, varying levels of checkout and update permissions for various classes of user, and a number of other useful features that project managers often find invaluable.

Personal document management

Another benefit of version control systems is that they allow you to work on a single project from a number of different locations, using a number of different computers, without having to keep any USB storage devices or CD-RW media on you at all times. As long as you have a version control client installed on the computer where you’re going to work and have access to the server where the version control magic happens, you can check out the current version of the project and get to work.

Because of the fact that multiple copies of the same data are automatically synchronized to the same state when the checked out copy is updated on multiple client machines, a version control system like Subversion can also serve as an excellent backup system for a collection of files. This covers your everyday personal documents as well as source code; that is, if you interpret "project" to mean any relatively small collection of data--small enough so that you don’t require a bandwidth optimized weekly backup to minimize the time spent copying your data. A personal documents directory usually fits this description perfectly, especially when you don’t keep many files that tend toward multiple-megabyte file sizes (such as music, video, and high resolution image files).

If you are the type of computer user who understands that regular backups are extremely important as a precaution against hardware or file system failures, but just find yourself putting off regular backups because of the effort involved in configuring a traditional backup system or copying data to huge stacks of CD-R media, Subversion could be just what the doctor ordered. The simplicity of a tool like Subversion for personal document backups can save you from yourself, or at least from your own tendency to procrastinate, and all you need is a second computer running the Subversion server software.

Because Subversion is not tied to a single, purpose-specific graphical user interface the way many proprietary systems like Visual SourceSafe and ClearCase are, it is easily adapted to nonstandard uses such as standard document control as well. You can still have your GUI environment, however, because there are a number of stand-alone GUI clients for Subversion, and Subversion has been integrated with a number of other GUI tools, such as Eclipse and even Microsoft’s Windows Explorer file browser, via the TortoiseSVN client.”

4 Create Your Repository “over there” on HPC.

Let’s experiment in a safe way, where it is easy to erase mistakes and erase them and start over. We will create a repository within your personal user account.
SVN is already installed and configured on If you happen to google and find a bunch of instructions about setting up “Apache” or Unix user groups or svn, just ignore that part. We did it already. You just need to use it.
From what I can tell, it will be necessary for you to actually log into hpc and manually create the repository in your personal account. That is a very easy process, as I will demonstrate in the next section.
After that, you can use any SVN “client” program to “get” the files when you want them and “send” them back when you are finished. (More on that later.)
First, I will walk through the process of logging on to and creating the archive. Later, I will learn how to use the free Windows program TortoiseSVN and see what it can do.

5 Start on HPC, Assuming that You Want To Be Great Like Me!

This is a nice way to “get your feet wet” in Linux. It is not a completely stupid task, it is useful, and it is not too difficult either.
On a workstation, use “some terminal program.” (Putty in Windows is OK, xterm or gnome-terminal in Linux is OK).
On a Linux workstation, I’d just open the terminal and type this to “go” over to HPC:
> ssh
For username, I put “pauljohn”. It is not necessary to include “username@”, but I try to remember to do that in case I’m logged in with a different user name. If you only have one login name on all systems, it will be OK to just let the system assume you always have the same name. Run
> ssh
If you are in Windows, there is a free program called Putty, and if you double-click the icon for that, and make sure the “ssh” button is selected, then it will give you the right menu you need to log in.
After giving a password, you see this:
Last login: Thu Sep 30 15:50:44 2010 from
Access to electronic resources at the University of Kansas is restricted to employees, students, or individuals authorized by the University or its affiliates. Use of this system is subject to all policies and procedures set forth by the University located at Unauthorized use is prohibited and may result in administrative or legal action. The University may monitor the use of this system for purposes related to security management, system operations, and intellectual property compliance. 
[username@hpc ~] $
The dollar sign is the prompt. Type there!
One silly preliminary. Run this:
$ export SVN_EDITOR=nano
The SVN system will want to know what editor you will use when you need to interact with it. I suggest the simple editor “nano” for now. “nano” is based on the editor that was used in the email system pine, which virtually everybody at KU was using in the late 1980s and 1990s. If you don’t do this, SVN will get mad and it won’t work right.
If you don’t already have a temporary directory “tmp”, make one:
$ mkdir tmp
Then change to the tmp folder as the working directory.
$ cd tmp
Create an SVN repository for testing. Mine is named PJtestsvn
$ svnadmin create PJtestsvn
PJtestsvn appears as a directory inside my tmp folder, which is in my $HOME, so the full path to it is “/home/pauljohn/tmp/PJtestsvn”.
The command “cd” by itself bumps you back to your home folder. See what I mean? Run the command “pwd” to see where you are.
$ cd
$ pwd
Now create some empty files somewhere so we have something to test with.
$ mkdir TmpWorkDir
$ cd TmpWorkDir
$ touch rawdata.txt
$ touch coolcode.R
$ touch something.txt
The “touch” command has the effect of creating an empty file if none exists, or, if one does exist, it gives it a current time stamp.
We tell the svn repository that we want to add these files in the repository’s top folder.
$ svn import -m "initial" \ 
When that works, you see this output
Adding rawdata.txt 
Adding coolcode.R 
Adding something.txt 

About my svn command. The backslash (“\”) is only needed because my command ran onto a second line. It is not needed if yours fits on one line. The option -m “initial” is optional. If I don’t do that, then the svn system wants to make me open an editor and type out an explanation of what these files are. The -m “initial” option just lets me give the message “initial” so I will be able to tell in the future this is the initial check in.

Now test that the repository works. Back out of “TmpWorkDir”
$ cd ..
$ mkdir TmpWorkDir2
$ cd TmpWorkDir2
$ svn checkout svn+ssh:// 
A PJtestsvn/rawdata.txt 
A PJtestsvn/coolcode.R 
A PJtestsvn/something.txt
Checked out revision 1.
$ ls
you should see that a new directory called PJtestsvn was created. That’s your “working copy” of the repository. Change into that directory
$ cd PJtestsvn
$ nano rawdata.txt
Put some stuff in there (anything you want), save it, close nano. I just put in gibberish like “iasdf ajsdkfl; ...” to see that the svn system works. Then commit it to the repository.
$ svn commit -m "Some random characters I chose"
The -m option gives a check in message. If I don’t do that, svn will want me to use an editor to type a file. I don’t mind that, but you might find it confusing at this point. The result is:
Sending rawdata.txt 
Transmitting file data . 
Committed revision 2.
Back out of there
$ cd ..
Create yet one more working directory. We will test the newly uploaded file.
$ mkdir TmpWorkDir3
$ cd TmpWorkDir3
This downloads a current snapshot of the repository.
$ svn co svn+ssh://
A PJtestsvn/rawdata.txt
A PJtestsvn/coolcode.R
A PJtestsvn/something.txt
Checked out revision 2.
Use “cat” to display the contents of the file “rawdata.txt”. See, it is still the same bunch of crap I started with:
$ cat PJtestsvn/rawdata.txt
iasdf ajsdkfl;ajdsf ;
Good. The file is there.
Then I edit rawdata.txt with nano
$ cd PJtestsvn
$ nano rawdata.txt
and put in some different crapola. Then I send it to the repository.
$ svn commit -m "some random crapola" 
Sending rawdata.txt 
Transmitting file data . 
Committed revision 3.
Now, If I go to the other working directory, and run
$ svn update
It should find the new information in the repository and integrate it with your current working version.
Now try to add a directory. Hopefully, I am currently still in /home/pauljohn/tmp/TmpWorkDir3. (Run “pwd” to make sure). Check what I’ve got so far:
$ ls
Good, that’s the copy of the repository. Change in there:
$ cd PJtestsvn/
It appears I have the right stuff:
$ ls
$ mkdir SomethingElse
$ svn add SomethingElse
A SomethingElse
$ cd SomethingElse
$ touch anotherFile.txt
$ cd ..
$ svn commit -m "here’s something" SomethingElse
Adding SomethingElse
Committed revision 4
$ cd SomethingElse
$ svn status
? anotherFile.txt
That means the svn system does not recognise “anotherFile.txt”. So apparently I have to manually add it.
$ svn add anotherFile.txt
A anotherFile.txt
And then commit this version
$ svn commit -m "here’s some file" anotherFile.txt
Adding anotherFile.txt
Transmitting file data .
Committed revision 5.

6 Accessing Your Personal Repository from MS Windows with TortoiseSVN

A free program called TortoiseSVN is available. It is easy to install, and it runs as a Windows File Explorer “addon.”
After installing TortoiseSVN, I wondered if I could recover the files from my repository.
I made a Windows folder, navigated into it, and then right clicked on the background. There should be two TortoiseSVN related options.
Click the one with the little arrow by it, and choose “Repo-Browser”. We can use that to go see what we left on HPC.
The only really annoying part of this is that it asks me for my password three times in a row.
You can navigate the repository in the usual way, and when you get to the directory that you want to work with, right click and choose “check out”. TortoiseSVN will then ask you where you want to keep your working copy. I chose “C:\Users\pauljohn\Desktop\whatever”.
The current versions of the SVN files are downloaded and I could edit them.
When I created a folder, or files in a folder, I noticed I could right click, choose the TortoiseSVN commit, and then a menu appeared asking me if I wanted to add some files or directories to the SVN repository. I did so, it uploaded them.
Then I went to another system, grabbed the same repository, and the new stuff was in it.
Problem solved.
Because TortoiseSVN is point-and-click inside the Explorer, it is not so easy to tell you exactly what to do. But, I suppose the point of that is that you should be able to figure it out on your own if you can point-and-click at it.

7 Sharing a Repository with Other Users

This is the way “big time” software development works. People expect cooperative work effort on a common set of files.
On HPC, we have set aside a folder in the common storage system for this purpose. The system-wide SVN repository is stored in /projects/svn. As of November, 2010, the following SVN registered projects exist:
HPC example is a collection of programs that use cluster computing.
md is the “missing data” simulation project.
Ordinary users in the HPC system are not allowed to create new project folders, but they can make requests for new projects to “”.
The permissions on those folders are set as follows:
drwxr-xr-x 6 pauljohn pauljohn 8 Jun 2 11:53 hpcexample 
drwxrwxr-x 6 pauljohn mdgroup 8 May 7 2010 md
The “hpcexample” folder is owned by pauljohn and the group is pauljohn, that means, as it currently stands, only pauljohn can write in there, but other system users are able to read that material. That means any user in HPC can check out “hpcexample,” but cannot commit changes to it. Rather than repeat myself about access to “hpcexample”, I would refer the reader to the web page where the details have already been committed.
Perhaps, at some point in the future, there will be other qualified users and a group can be created to make changes in hpcexample.
The “md” folder is owned by pauljohn, but its group is mdgroup. Note the group permissions are “rwx”, so that anybody in the mdgroup can check in changes.
To grab a snapshot of the md directory, this should do it:
svn co svn+ssh:// 

8 There’s a Lot More to Do & Learn

Subversion is an industrial-sized, team ready production tool. It can do all kinds of stuff most ordinary humans like you and me never really need. When a program is finished and ready for packaging, it can be tagged with a version number, and then exported. Revisions can be created on “branches,” and changes can be merged back onto the main “trunk” of the project.
We do that kind of stuff in software development, but you probably won’t need to if you are just using Subversion to keep track of your personal software and document development. If you decide to convert your R code into an R package, well, the additional power of SVN will help you out.
Finally, yes, I realize there are abbreviations and shortcuts that will work to make some of the commands here shorter. Inside one system, it is not generally necessary to access files through “svn+ssh” because a more simple access protocol is available, for example. But, if svn+ssh does work, why bother learning another style? For abbreviations, it is true that one replace “commit” with “ci” and “checkout” with “co”. Run “svn help” to see a list of abbreviations.
2010-11-10 Revision 1.2

About pauljohn

Paul E. Johnson is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. He is an avid Linux User, an adequate system administrator and C programmer, and humility is one of his greatest strengths.
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