Evolving beyond Version Control for Agile Development

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Summary:
This article looks at satisfying the principles of Configuration Management with varying degrees of tool support, which we classify from Version Control at one end, to true CM tools (and beyond!). Many agile developers restrict themselves to tools that are more on the version control end, so we aim to highlight the differences, and particularly point out certain features which can make your life a lot easier.

We will use the CMMI (Capability Maturity Model Integrated) definition of Configuration Management:

The purpose of Software Configuration Management is to establish and maintain the integrity of the products of the software project throughout the project's software life cycle. Software Configuration Management involves identifying configuration items for the software project, controlling these configuration items and changes to them, and recording and reporting status and change activity for these configuration items.

At its heart, CM is intended to eliminate the confusion and error brought about by the existence of different versions of artifacts. Artifact change is a fact of life: plan for it or plan to be overwhelmed by it. Changes are made to correct errors, provide enhancements, or simply reflect the evolutionary refinement of product definition. CM is about keeping the inevitable change under control.

Can you "do" CM using only Version Control tools—absolutely! But the better you understand the principles, and the better you understand what tools can do for you and how they have evolved, particularly over the last 10 years or so, the easier you can make your life.

Most Popular Tools
Sometimes we're asked what are the "top three version control tools today." People expect us to answer what our personal top three favourites are—instead we tell them what the three most popularly used ones are. The provocative answer is...(drum roll please):

#3: CVS—because it is "free", and comes "out of the box" on most Unix/Linux systems (note this is slowly evolving towards Subversion)

#2: VSS (Visual SourceSafe)—because it comes as "part of the package" with many purchases of Microsoft's Visual Studio IDE

and the #1 version control tool in use today is ...

"Version control? What's that mean? Isn't that what backups are for? I already do that!"

While this may seem apocryphal, one of us very recently came across an organisation where some teams are still using just the file system to do version control—manually copying changed files between directories, etc.

History of Version Control and Configuration Management
Principles of Configuration Management have been understood throughout civilisation, particularly in the military arena. A thread on CMCrossroads points out the discovery of timbers from ships from the time of Nelson and Napoleon showing identification of configuration items and an understanding of management of configurations which was perhaps one contributing factor to Britannia ruling the waves in that era!

The OS/360 development team made famous by Fred Brooks' "Mythical Man Month" and working in the 60's, did configuration management but without direct tool support. They used what they called a "vault" system, which was simply a set of "backed-up" storage areas (integration workspaces) for each "promotion level" they needed. They had a development "vault" (an integration workspace for development), a more formal "vault" for what they would periodically release to integration+test, and finally a "release" or "production vault" for what they actually shipped.

The first widely used tool for version control was SCCS, originally written by Marc Rochkind in 1972. The simple model of being able to check-out and check-in, saving versions and showing differences between them, was a big advance on previous manual methods.

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About the author

Steve Berczuk's picture Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and Scrum Master at Fitbit. The author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, he is a recognized expert in software configuration management and agile software development. Steve is passionate about helping teams work effectively to produce quality software. He has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT, and is a certified, practicing ScrumMaster. Contact Steve at steve@berczuk.com or visit berczuk.com and follow his blog at blog.berczuk.com.

About the author

Brad Appleton's picture Brad Appleton

Brad Appleton is a software CM/ALM solution architect and lean/agile development champion at a large telecommunications company. Currently he helps projects and teams adopt and apply lean/agile development and CM/ALM practices and tools. He is coauthor of the bookSoftware Configuration Management Patterns, a columnist in The CM Journal and The Agile Journal at CMCrossroads.com, and a former section editor for The C++ Report. You can read Brad's blog at blog.bradapp.net.

About the author

Robert Cowham's picture Robert Cowham

Robert Cowham has long been interested in software configuration management while retaining the attitude of a generalist with experience and skills in many aspects of software development. A regular presenter at conferences, he authored the Agile SCM column within the CM Journal together with Brad Appleton and Steve Berczuk. His day job is as Services Director for Square Mile Systems whose main focus is on skills and techniques for infrastructure configuration management and DCIM (Data Center Infrastructure Management) - applying configuration management principles to hardware documentation and implementation as well as mapping ITIL services to the underlying layers.

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