Subversion's copy-modify-merge version control model lives and dies on its data merging algorithms—specifically on how well those algorithms perform when trying to resolve conflicts caused by multiple users modifying the same file concurrently. Subversion itself provides only one such algorithm: a three-way differencing algorithm that is smart enough to handle data at a granularity of a single line of text. Subversion also allows you to supplement its content merge processing with external differencing utilities (as described in the section called “External diff3”), some of which may do an even better job, perhaps providing granularity of a word or a single character of text. But common among those algorithms is that they generally work only on text files. The landscape starts to look pretty grim when you start talking about content merges of non-textual file formats. And when you can't find a tool that can handle that type of merging, you begin to run into problems with the copy-modify-merge model.

Let's look at a real-life example of where this model runs aground. Harry and Sally are both graphic designers working on the same project, a bit of marketing collateral for an automobile mechanic. Central to the design of a particular poster is an image of a car in need of some body work, stored in a file using the PNG image format. The poster's layout is almost finished, and both Harry and Sally are pleased with the particular photo they chose for their damaged car—a baby blue 1967 Ford Mustang with an unfortunate bit of crumpling on the left front fender.

Now, as is common in graphic design work, there's a change in plans, which causes the car's color to be a concern. So Sally updates her working copy to HEAD, fires up her photo-editing software, and sets about tweaking the image so that the car is now cherry red. Meanwhile, Harry, feeling particularly inspired that day, decides that the image would have greater impact if the car also appears to have suffered greater impact. He, too, updates to HEAD, and then draws some cracks on the vehicle's windshield. He manages to finish his work before Sally finishes hers, and after admiring the fruits of his undeniable talent, commits the modified image. Shortly thereafter, Sally is finished with the car's new finish and tries to commit her changes. But, as expected, Subversion fails the commit, informing Sally that her version of the image is now out of date.

Here's where the difficulty sets in. If Harry and Sally were making changes to a text file, Sally would simply update her working copy, receiving Harry's changes in the process. In the worst possible case, they would have modified the same region of the file, and Sally would have to work out by hand the proper resolution to the conflict. But these aren't text files—they are binary images. And while it's a simple matter to describe what one would expect the results of this content merge to be, there is precious little chance that any software exists that is smart enough to examine the common baseline image that each of these graphic artists worked against, the changes that Harry made, and the changes that Sally made, and then spit out an image of a busted-up red Mustang with a cracked windshield!

Of course, things would have gone more smoothly if Harry and Sally had serialized their modifications to the image—if, say, Harry had waited to draw his windshield cracks on Sally's now-red car, or if Sally had tweaked the color of a car whose windshield was already cracked. As is discussed in the section called “The Copy-Modify-Merge Solution”, most of these types of problems go away entirely where perfect communication between Harry and Sally exists. [15] But as one's version control system is, in fact, one form of communication, it follows that having that software facilitate the serialization of nonparallelizable editing efforts is no bad thing. This is where Subversion's implementation of the lock-modify-unlock model steps into the spotlight. This is where we talk about Subversion's locking feature, which is similar to the “reserved checkouts” mechanisms of other version control systems.

Subversion's locking feature serves two main purposes:

  1. Serializing access to a versioned object. By allowing a user to programmatically claim the exclusive right to change to a file in the repository, that user can be reasonably confident that energy invested on unmergeable changes won't be wasted—his commit of those changes will succeed.

  2. Aiding communication. By alerting other users that serialization is in effect for a particular versioned object, those other users can reasonably expect that the object is about to be changed by someone else, and they, too, can avoid wasting their time and energy on unmergeable changes that won't be committable due to eventual out-of-dateness.

When referring to Subversion's locking feature, one is actually talking about a fairly diverse collection of behaviors, which include the ability to lock a versioned file [16] (claiming the exclusive right to modify the file), to unlock that file (yielding that exclusive right to modify), to see reports about which files are locked and by whom, to annotate files for which locking before editing is strongly advised, and so on. In this section, we'll cover all of these facets of the larger locking feature.

[15] Communication wouldn't have been such bad medicine for Harry and Sally's Hollywood namesakes, either, for that matter.

[16] Subversion does not currently allow locks on directories.