Unless you’re a one person web shop with no team to collaborate with, you’ve experienced the frustration that goes along with file sharing. No matter how hard you try, when multiple people are working on a single project without a version control system in place things get chaotic.
If you work with developers on the build-out and implementation of websites, the merge between front-end templates and back-end functionality can be a scary black hole.
Issues like overwrites, lost files, and the all-too-common “working off a previous version” phenomenon crop up constantly. And once back-end functionality has been put into your templates, you become terrified to touch them for fear of breaking something a developer spent a great deal of time getting to work.
In addition, even if you have a common repository that everyone is pulling from odds are at least one member of your team forgot to grab the latest files and is about to blow things up with their latest additions.
Fear not GitHub is here to save the day, I’ll give you a quick review of GitHub, an excellent version control system.
Version Control – A Quick and Dirty Explanation
Version Control (also known as Revision Control or Source Control Management) is a great way to solve the file sharing problem.
The basic concept is this: there is one main repository for all of the project files. Team members check files out, make changes, and then check them back in (or commit them). The Version Control System (VCS) automatically notes who changed the files, when they were changed, and what about them was new or different.
It also asks you to write a little note about the change so everyone on the project knows at a glance what you did and why. Each file will then have a revision history so you can easily go back to a previous version of any file if something goes horribly wrong.
A good Version Control System also allows you to merge changes to the same file. If you and another person work locally on the same file at the same time, when you push these files back into the main repository the system will merge both sets of changes to create a new and fully up-to-date file. If any conflicts arise during the merge it will highlight them for you.
You’re probably using a very crude Version Control System right now to keep your files straight. If you’re a designer, it looks something like this:
This works well enough for PSDs and other large binary files, which don’t really lend themselves to Version Control System. But there’s a much better way to do it when you are managing the source code for a website.
Benefits to using a Version Control System include:
- Files cannot be overwritten
- There is a common repository that holds all the latest files
- People can work on the same files simultaneously without conflict
- Allows you to revert back to an older version of the file/project if needed
- Making your developers very happy
Even if you don’t work with a team, version control can be a lifesaver. Backing up files is one of the easiest things you can do to save yourself from losing work or having to start over.
The idea of a Version Control System seems daunting at first, especially since most of the documentation is written by and for developers. But once you make the move to incorporate it into your workflow, you’ll find it’s not nearly as hard as it looks.
OK, so now you can see why a Version Control System is a must-have for your web team. If you do a little Googling you’ll see that there are quite a few options out there including SVN, Mercurial, CVS, Bazaar and GitHub. Any one of them could be a good solution for your needs, and I encourage you to do some research before selecting a Version Control System. In this article I’m going to focus on GitHub, the one I use daily. It’s a “rising star” that has gained popularity thanks to a strong Linux fanbase, GitHub and the Rails community.
GitHub is a free open-source Version Control System originally created by Linus Torvalds for Linux kernal development. Linus is a very smart guy; when he sets out to solve a problem, he doesn’t mess around. One of Git’s big differentiators is that unlike SVN and CVS it is a distributed version control system. This means that every user has a complete copy of the repository data stored locally on their machine. What’s so great about that? A few things:
- Everything is local, so you can work offline
- There is no single point of failure. It doesn’t rely on one central server that could crash and burn, taking the only repository for your project with it.
- Because it doesn’t have to communicate with a central server constantly, processes run much faster
Git has a slightly tougher learning curve than SVN, but the trade-off is worth it. Just think how impressed your developer friends will be when you tell them you’re using the new hotness that is Git! In all seriousness, I don’t think the learning curve is all that steep.
Installing Git isn’t fun and games. But there are plenty of resources online to get you through it. It will run on a PC, Mac or Linux box, although installation for Linux and OSX is considerable easier than for Windows.
You can download the latest version of Git here. Once you have the files, try this quick guide to get you started with the installation process. For Windows users, this step-by-step visual guide should be helpful. Mac users, try this guide found on GitHub