Rumblings in the Subversion community as WANdisco claims to be “shaking it up”

Subversion is an open source version control system used by developers to manage source code; it was an improvement over CVS which it to some extent replaced. Everyone loved it until Linus Torvalds came up with an alternative called Git which is better suited for the distributed development typical of large open source projects like Linux. Now everyone loves Git – with a bit of love left over for another distributed system called Mercurial – and Subversion has become a tad unfashionable, though still widely used.

David Richards is president and CEO of WANdisco, which has a source code management suite based on Subversion. He has announced his intention to “shake up Software Change Management” by fixing Subversion’s weak points. He writes:

Enough is enough. Subversion gets a lot of criticism due to the shortcomings of branching and merging, especially when compared with GIT and others, and we simply don’t have the time to debate whether or not this should be done when it clearly should be.

Why so combative? Well, there a few curious points here. Subversion was originally sponsored by Collabnet, which has its own ALM (Application Lifecycle Management) suite which uses Subversion, as well as a free product called Subversion Edge which packages the official open source release with some convenient tools. Subversion did not become a top-level Apache project until February 17 2010. According to Richards, there is now competition between commercial companies to be seen as the primary Subversion sponsors. In a blog post today, Richard refers to “commercial interests that are dependent on the perception that they are the ones developing Subversion” and adds:

We also believe it’s unhelpful when certain unscrupulous committers decide to commit trivial changes in large files to simply get their stats up.

Richards feels that Subversion development has stagnated:

Didn’t the community just announce a road map? Yes they did, but that’s pretty much all that happened (and that really pisses us off.) The commit logs (code committed by developers to the project) tell the real story. We are not happy with the volume, speed or participation on the project right now. Blogging, or answering questions on user lists are important, but so is writing source code.

The not-so-veiled threat in Richards’ post is that he will fork Subversion if necessary. He says “we don’t believe that [forking] is necessary” but when he adds later that “we would prefer that this be a community effort” it seems clear that forking is an option.

Richard says that WANdisco held a “summit” of companies with a vested interest in Subversion and that there was “a common theme: branching and merging must improve.”

Personally I like Subversion though it is also obvious that Git is superior for many projects. Richards does not help his cause by accusing “GIT Fanatics” of being unfair in their criticisms.  The comments to his post are worth reading, for example:

I used Subversion without prejudice over CVS because it was better. Today I use Git without prejudice over the other two. Git has changed how I work. I use facilities in Git that are not possible with Subversion or CVS.

Developers who take this view will not care much now about Subversion. Still, a lot of people still use it, probably many more than those who use Git, and improvements would be welcome. I am not clear though why the CEO of WANdisco is sounding so embattled, or what politics or difference of opinion is dividing the Subversion community, and would like to hear more about it.

Update: clarified that Subversion Edge is a free product

Update 2: The Apache Software Foundation replies in a blog post:

WANdisco’s false implication that it is in some kind of steering position in Subversion development discredits the efforts of other contributors and companies … we welcome WANdisco’s involvement in Subversion, and failure on WANdisco’s part to address the above concerns will have no effect on the acceptance of technical work funded by WANdisco. We simply felt it necessary to clarify WANdisco’s role in Apache Subversion, for the benefit of our users and potential contributors.

7 thoughts on “Rumblings in the Subversion community as WANdisco claims to be “shaking it up””

  1. Just a point of clarification, CollabNet Subversion Edge is not a competitor to Subversion, it is a packaging/distribution of regular open-source Subversion aimed at making it easier to install, configure and manage a Subversion server. Subversion Edge itself is also free and open-source. Subversion Edge is just one of a number of ways that CollabNet continues to invest in and sponsor Subversion and addresses one of the areas that users were always having trouble with.

  2. I don’t really think that we are being combative towards any individual or group. We are certainly ready and inclined to fight for the future of Subversion. Certain things needed to be said and I said them. There’s no point pretending everything is fine and dandy when there is real work to do. Talk is cheap – I would prefer that we are measured on what we actually manage to deliver.

  3. I find it a bit odd that Git got such a fan base. Mercurial and even bazaar have man workflows that git won’t support and they are both cross platform in ways git isn’t still today. I also find it odd to start a new DVCS when there were 4 or 5 if you can’t darcs available at the time Linus decided to make his own (which I think has taken alot of concepts from monotone) instead of improving one of the existing instead.

    DVCS are not superior to traditional VCS:es in all aspects. Working with large binary files for instance is not a fun thing unless you have shallow checkout ala bazaar. DVCS didn’t event easy merging, it might just have seemed to to CVS/SVN users, there were plenty of comercial VCSs that did this and still do and does it really well too. Also really large repos aren’t much fun either, although you do get backups built in =)

    It is really odd that SVN doesn’t have proper merging after all these years, and I would also hope for proper branching instead of a directory based view, branches should be first class citizens, even TFS seems to have figured that out by now.

  4. “It is really odd that SVN doesn’t have proper merging after all these years, and I would also hope for proper branching instead of a directory based view, branches should be first class citizens, even TFS seems to have figured that out by now.”

    I agree and that is the driving force behind this effort.

  5. (I’ve posted this on David richards’ blog, it’s awaiting moderation as I write this)

    In the press release it says:

    “With more active developers from the Subversion project on staff than any other company, WANdisco will”

    in this blog it says:

    “We are not happy with the volume, speed or participation on the project right now.”

    So, if there is a problem, who’s to blame?

    Why are you [WanDisco] issuing a press release that amounts to “our staff are not good enough, we’ll do better?”

    Speaking personally I don’t trust or respect companies who make these kinds of noises in open source projects. Stop blaming everyone else and take responsibility – that’s the way community led open source projects work.

    This is marketing drivel and bears no relation to the work of SVN committers, including your own. Hell if I was on your staff and I saw this I’d be seriously p***ed off.

    Mr President and CEO of WanDisco – how come you don’t get it?

  6. The Subversion PMC issued its response to WANDisco today via the Apache Software Foundation blog. You can read it here:

    A few other members of the PMC have now blogged about it as well, including me:


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