Why Subversion’s “svn:externals” is bad

Subversion provides a property (svn:externals) to include references to other projects into a given location within your source code tree. This is pretty much the same as a symbolic link (symlink) in Unix/Linux. But while the usage of symlinks is good practice to de-couple things in the file system, it is just the other way around for svn:externals, at least in my opinion.

Interestingly enough, there is a number of sources that recommend its usage. I disagree here and strongly discourage people from making use of it for a number of reasons:

  1. It creates a lock-in into Subversion, because many other Version Control Systems (VCS) do not have a comparable feature. And even if they had, an automated migration will most likely be cumbersome, to say the least. One would have to find and extract all svn:externals properties, build a dependency tree (hopefully without circular dependencies) and and process things in the appropriate order. This is far from trivial!
  2. On a conceptual level svn:externals is not about version control but dependency management. This is even more important an argument than the lock-in effect.
    • Dependency management and version control are two entirely different things, which should not be mixed. Having a somewhat implicit mechanism to define the dependencies will make it easier for people to not have a clear understanding about this separation.
    • Dependencies are hidden and only show up during VCS operations. To find out a project’s dependencies, in theory one could dig through the repository with a special browser but this is not feasible for a large enough project.
    • Different dependencies can occur at different stages of an artifact’s life-cycle: compilation, unit testing, run-time etc. There is no way to reflect this requirement.
    • Other dependency management systems (e.g. Maven or Ivy for Ant) offer way more functionality and can be extended for additional requirements. Those customisations would have to go into hook scripts for Subversion (which, on top of things, would probably be OS-specific).
  3. Quite often the dependencies will be about artifacts that are not source code at all (usually third-party libraries). You may not want to have compiled artifacts in your VCS.
  4. Also, the dependency could be about source code that is maintained by an external organisation. If they are not using Subversion you could not link directly there but would have to set up a mirror internally. (Admittedly, you may want to do that anyway.)

I had used svn:externals when I started out with Subversion and have gone through quite some headaches since then because of that. Practically, most of them were around the lock-in effect. Nevertheless, I still think the conceptual argument is more important in the long run.

One thought on “Why Subversion’s “svn:externals” is bad

  1. This could have been much more useful if you had suggested some alternatives. Since I’m stuck with svn at my current position, externals (with pegged revs) are looking like the best tool for the shared module / dependency tracking job.

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