Over the last years, the version control system community has fought, what some people would call the “VCS war”. People were arguing on IRC, conferences, mailinglists, they wrote blog posts and upvoted HN articles about which was the best version control system out there. The term “VCS war” is borrowed from the “Editor wars”. A constant fight which people argue which of the major editors VIM, or Emacs and later TextMate or Sublime, or again Vim and Emacs is the best editor. It is similar to programming language discussions, shell environments, window manager and so on and so forth. What they all have in common is that they are tools that are used daily by software engineers, and therefore a lot of people have an opinion on it.
When in 2005 both Git and Mercurial were released and Bazaar followed shortly after, the fight who is the best system of the three started. While early Mercurial versions seemed to be much easier to use than Git, Git was already used in the Linux kernel and built up a strong opinion. Things were even till 2008 Github launched and changed the OpenSource world and is what people would consider Git’s “killer app”. Mercurial’s equivalent Bitbucket never reached the popularity of Github. But people were still writing articles, arguing about merging and rebasing, arguing about performance and abilities to rewrite history, wrote long blog posts about confusing branching strategies. Those were complicated enough that they had to write helper tools, about which they could write articles again….and so on and so forth.
Recently things have become quiet. But why is that? What happend to Git, Mercurial and Bazaar?
I haven’t followed bazaars history much. It’s most notable users were MySQL and Ubuntu. In the early development bazaar lacked performance and couldn’t keep up with Git and Mercurial. It tried to solve this by changing the on-disk format a few times, requiring their users to upgrade their servers and clients. The development was mostly driven by Canonical and they had a hard time reaching out for more active developers. In the end there isn’t much to say about Bazaar. It development slowly deceased and it’s been widely considered the big looser of the VCS wars. Bazaar is dead.
Mercurial started out for the very same reason Git was created and was developed at the same time Linux wrote Git. They both had a fast growing active development group and were equally used in the first years. While Git was the “faster” decentralized version control system, Mercurial was widely considered the more user-friendly system. Nevertheless with the rise of Github, Mercurial lost traction. However the development continued and while more and more people used Git and Github, the Mercurial community worked on some new ideas. Python picked it as it’s version control system in 2012 and Facebook made moved to Mercurial in 2013. So what’s so interesting about Mercurial?
- Mercurial is extensible: It’s written mostly in Python and has a powerful extension API. Writing a proof of concept of a new backend or adding additional data that is transferred on cloned is fairly easy. This is a big win for the Python or the Mozilla community that makes it easy for them to adapt Mercurial to their needs.
- Mercurial caught up on Git features and performance: Mercurial added “bookmarks”, “rebase” and various other commands to it’s core functionality and constantly improved performance.
- Mercurial has new ideas: Mercurial came up with three brilliant ideas in the last 3 years. They first introduced a query language called “revsets” which helps you to easily query the commit graph. Second, they introduced “phases”. A barrier that prevents user from accidentally changing or rebsaing already published changesets – a common mistake for Git users. And last, but not least Evolution Changeset, a experimental feature that helps you to safely modify history and keep track of the history of a changing commit.
So while Mercurial is certainly not the winner, it found a niche with a healthy and enthusiastic community. It’s worth a shot trying it if you are not 100% happy with Git.
The big winner obviously is Git. With the introduction of Github pushed Git usage. Github’s easy to approach fork&merge mechanism revolutionized OpenSource development to a point where most younger projects don’t use mailinglists anymore but rather rely on pull-requests and discussion on Github issues. Github’s feature and community is attractive enough for people to learn git. In addition, Git had a healthy and vocal community creating blog posts, introduction videos and detailed technical explanations. Noways Git market share is big enough that companies move from Subversion to Git because a new hire will more likely know Git than any other version control system (maybe SVN). As an open source developer, there is no way around Git anymore. Moreover the development is going on in rapid pace and the community constantly improves performance and is slowly reaching the v2.0 milestone. It’s yet to be seen if they are going to port some of the ideas from Git. A major challenge for Git however, still, is to deal with large repositories, something that at least the Mercurial community has partly solved. If you haven’t learned it, learn it, there isn’t going to be a way around it anyway – deal with it.
The war is over, and we are all back on working on interesting features with our favorite Version Control System. Nobody needs to write blog posts anymore which system is better and you certainly won’t be able to circumvent Git entirely.