The Lock-Modify-Unlock Solution

Many version control systems use a lock-modify-unlock model to address the problem of many authors clobbering each other's work. In this model, the repository allows only one person to change a file at a time. This exclusivity policy is managed using locks. Harry must “lock” a file before he can begin making changes to it. If Harry has locked a file, then Sally cannot also lock it, and therefore cannot make any changes to that file. All she can do is read the file and wait for Harry to finish his changes and release his lock. After Harry unlocks the file, Sally can take her turn by locking and editing the file. Figure 1.3, “The lock-modify-unlock solution” demonstrates this simple solution.

Figure 1.3. The lock-modify-unlock solution

The lock-modify-unlock solution

The problem with the lock-modify-unlock model is that it's a bit restrictive and often becomes a roadblock for users:

  • Locking may cause administrative problems. Sometimes Harry will lock a file and then forget about it. Meanwhile, because Sally is still waiting to edit the file, her hands are tied. And then Harry goes on vacation. Now Sally has to get an administrator to release Harry's lock. The situation ends up causing a lot of unnecessary delay and wasted time.

  • Locking may cause unnecessary serialization. What if Harry is editing the beginning of a text file, and Sally simply wants to edit the end of the same file? These changes don't overlap at all. They could easily edit the file simultaneously, and no great harm would come, assuming the changes were properly merged together. There's no need for them to take turns in this situation.

  • Locking may create a false sense of security. Suppose Harry locks and edits file A, while Sally simultaneously locks and edits file B. But what if A and B depend on one another, and the changes made to each are semantically incompatible? Suddenly A and B don't work together anymore. The locking system was powerless to prevent the problem—yet it somehow provided a false sense of security. It's easy for Harry and Sally to imagine that by locking files, each is beginning a safe, insulated task, and thus they need not bother discussing their incompatible changes early on. Locking often becomes a substitute for real communication.