Feature Branches

A feature branch is the sort of branch that's been the dominant example in this chapter (the one you've been working on while Sally continues to work on /trunk). It's a temporary branch created to work on a complex change without interfering with the stability of /trunk. Unlike release branches (which may need to be supported forever), feature branches are born, used for a while, merged back to the trunk, then ultimately deleted. They have a finite span of usefulness.

Again, project policies vary widely concerning exactly when it's appropriate to create a feature branch. Some projects never use feature branches at all: commits to /trunk are a free-for-all. The advantage to this system is that it's simple—nobody needs to learn about branching or merging. The disadvantage is that the trunk code is often unstable or unusable. Other projects use branches to an extreme: no change is ever committed to the trunk directly. Even the most trivial changes are created on a short-lived branch, carefully reviewed, and merged to the trunk. Then the branch is deleted. This system guarantees an exceptionally stable and usable trunk at all times, but at the cost of tremendous process overhead.

Most projects take a middle-of-the-road approach. They commonly insist that /trunk compile and pass regression tests at all times. A feature branch is only required when a change requires a large number of destabilizing commits. A good rule of thumb is to ask this question: if the developer worked for days in isolation and then committed the large change all at once (so that /trunk were never destabilized), would it be too large a change to review? If the answer to that question is “yes,” then the change should be developed on a feature branch. As the developer commits incremental changes to the branch, they can be easily reviewed by peers.

Finally, there's the issue of how to best keep a feature branch in “sync” with the trunk as work progresses. As we mentioned earlier, there's a great risk to working on a branch for weeks or months; trunk changes may continue to pour in, to the point where the two lines of development differ so greatly that it may become a nightmare trying to merge the branch back to the trunk.

This situation is best avoided by regularly merging trunk changes to the branch. Make up a policy: once a week, merge the last week's worth of trunk changes to the branch.

At some point, you'll be ready to merge the “synchronized” feature branch back to the trunk. To do this, begin by doing a final merge of the latest trunk changes to the branch. When that's done, the latest versions of branch and trunk will be absolutely identical except for your branch changes. So in this special case, you would merge back with the --reintegrate option:

$ cd trunk-working-copy

$ svn update
At revision 1910.

$ svn merge --reintegrate http://svn.example.com/repos/calc/branches/mybranch@1910
U    real.c
U    integer.c
A    newdirectory
A    newdirectory/newfile

Another way of thinking about this pattern is that your weekly sync of trunk to branch is analogous to running svn update in a working copy, while the final merge step is analogous to running svn commit from a working copy. After all, what else is a working copy but a very shallow private branch? It's a branch that's only capable of storing one change at a time.