Chapter 9: Source Control Integration with IDEs
This is part of an online book called Source Control HOWTO, a best practices guide on source control, version control, and configuration management.
Background: What is an IDE?
The various applications used by software developers are
traditionally called "tools". When we speak of "developer tools", we're
talking about the essential items that programmers use every day, like compilers
and text editors and syntax checkers and Mountain Dew. Just as a master carpenter
uses her tools to build a house, developers use their tools to build software
In the old days, each developer would assemble their own
collection of their favorite tools. Back around 1991, my preferred toolset
looked something like this:
- gcc (for compiling source code)
- gdb (for debugging)
- make (for managing builds)
- rcs (for managing versions)
- emacs (for editing source code)
- vi (for editing the emacs makefile)
Fifteen years later, most developers would consider this
approach to be strange. Today, everything is "integrated". Instead of
selecting one of each kind of tool, we select an Integrated Development
Environment (IDE), an application which collects all the necessary tools
together in one place. To continue the metaphor, we would say that the focus today
is not on the individual tools, but rather, on the workshop in which those
tools are used.
This trend is hardly new. Ever since Borland released Turbo Pascal in 1983, IDEs
have become more popular every year. In the last ten years, many IDE products have
disappeared as the industry has consolidated. Today, it is only a small exaggeration
to say that there are just two IDEs left: Visual Studio and Eclipse.
But despite the industry consolidation, the trend is clear.
Developers want their tools to be very well integrated together. Most
recently, Microsoft's Visual Studio
Team System takes this trend to a higher level than we have previously seen.
Mainstream IDEs in the past have provided base operations such as editing,
compiling, building and documentation. Now Visual Studio also has unit tests, visual
modeling, code generators, and work item tracking. Furthermore, the IDE isn't
just for coders anymore. Every task performed by every person involved in the
software development process is moving into the IDE.
Benefits of source control integration with IDEs
Source control is one of the development tools which has
been commonly integrated into IDEs for quite some time. The fit is very
natural. Here at SourceGear, our source control product has two main client
- A standalone client application which is specifically
designed to talk with the source control server.
- A client plugin which adds source control features into
Unsurprisingly, the IDE client is very popular with our
users. Many of our users would never think about using source control without
Why does version control work so nicely inside an IDE? Because
it makes the three most common operations a lot easier:
When using the
checkout-edit-checkin model, files must be checked out before they are edited.
With source control integrated into an IDE, this task can be quite automatic.
Specifically, when you begin to edit a file, the IDE will notice that you do
not have it checked out yet and check the file out for you. Effectively, this
means developers never need to remember to checkout a file.
A common and frustrating mistake is
to add a new file to a project but forget to place it under source control. So
when I am done with my coding task, I checkin my changes to the existing files,
but the newly added file never makes it into the repository. The build is
When using source control
integration with an IDE, this mistake is basically impossible to make. Most
IDEs today support the notion of a "project", a list of all files which are
considered part of the build process. When used with source control, the IDE
decides what files to place under source control because it knows every file
that is part of the project. The act of adding a file to the project also adds
it to source control.
IDEs excel at nagging developers.
The user interface of an IDE has special places to nag the developer about
compiler errors and unsaved files and even unfixed bugs. Similarly, visual
indicators in the IDE can be used to remind the developer that he has not yet
checked in his changes.
When source control is integrated into an IDE, developers
don't have to think about it very much. They don't have to try to remember to
Checkout, Add or Checkin because the IDE is either performing those actions
automatically or reminding them to do it.
Once you integrate source control into an IDE, you open the
possibility for cool features that go beyond the basics. For example, source
control integration can be incredibly helpful when used with refactoring. When
I use the refactoring features of Eclipse to rename a Java class, it is
obviously nice that Eclipse figures out all the changes that need to be made.
It's even nicer that Eclipse automatically handles all the necessary source
control operations. It even performs the name change of the source file.
For another example, here is a screen shot of a Blame
feature integrated into Eclipse:
The user story for this feature goes like this: The
developer is coding and she encounters something that deserves to be on The Daily WTF. She wants to immediately
know who is responsible, so she right-clicks on the offensive line and selects
the Blame feature. The source control plugin queries the repository for
history and determines who made the change. The task was simpler because the
Blame feature is conveniently located in the place where it is most likely to
Tradeoffs and Problems
For source control, IDE integration is great in theory, but it
has not always been so great in practice. The tradeoffs of having your IDE do
source control for you are the same as the tradeoffs of having your IDE do
anything else. It's easier, but you have less control over the process.
Before I continue, I need to make a confession:
I personally have never used source
control integration with an IDE. Heck, for a long time I didn't use IDEs at
all. I'm a control freak. It's not enough for me to know what's going on
under the hood. Sometimes I prefer to just do everything myself. I don't like
project-based build systems where I add a few files and the IDE magically
builds my app. I like diving make systems where I can control exactly where everything
is and where the build targets are placed.
Except for a brief and passionate
affair with Think C during
the late eighties, I didn't really start using IDE project files until Visual
Studio .NET. Today, I am gradually becoming more and more of an IDE user, but
I still prefer to do all source control operations using a standalone GUI
client. Eventually, that will change, and my transformation to IDE user will
Anyway, for the sake of completeness, I will explain the
tradeoffs I see with using source control integration with IDEs. This should
be taken as information, not as an argument against the feature. IDE
integration is the most natural way to use source control on a daily basis.
The first observation is that IDE clients have fewer
features than standalone clients. The IDE is great for basic source control
operations, but it is definitely not the natural place to perform all
source control operations. Some things, such as branching, don't fit very well
at all. However, this is a minor point which merely illustrates that an IDE
client cannot be the only user interface for accessing a source control
repository. If this were the only problem, it would not be a problem. This is
the sort of tradeoff that I would consciously accept.
The real problem with source control integration for IDEs is
that it just doesn't work very well. For this sad state of affairs, I put most
of the blame on MSSCCI.
It's pronounced "misskee", and it stands for Microsoft
Source Code Control Interface. MSSCCI is the API which defines the interaction
between Microsoft Visual Studio and source control tools.
A source control tool which wants to support integration
with Visual Studio must implement this API. Basically, it's a DLL which
defines a number of documented entry points. When configured properly, the IDE
makes calls into the DLL to perform source control operations as needed or as
requested by the user.
Originally, Microsoft's developer tools were the only host
environments for MSSCCI. Today, MSSCCI is used by lots of other IDEs as well.
It has become sort of a de facto standard. Source control vendors implemented
MSSCCI plugins so that their products could be used within Microsoft IDEs. In
turn, vendors of other IDEs implemented MSSCCI hosting so that their products
could be used with the already-available source control plugins.
The ubiquity of MSSCCI is very unfortunate. MSSCCI was
designed to be a bridge between SourceSafe and early versions of Microsoft Visual
Studio. It served this purpose just fine, but now the API is being used for
lots of other version control tools besides SourceSafe and lots of other IDEs
besides Visual Studio. It is being used in ways that it was never designed to
be used, resulting in lots of frustration.
The top three problems with MSSCCI are:
- Poor performance. SourceSafe has no support for
networking, but the architecture of most modern version control tools
involves a client and a server with TCP in between. To get excellent
performance from a client-server application, careful attention must be
paid to the way the networking is done. Things like threading and
blocking and buffering are very important. Unfortunately, MSSCCI makes
this rather difficult.
- No Edit-Merge-Commit. SourceSafe is basically
built around the Checkout-Edit-Checkin approach, so that's how MSSCCI
works. Building a satisfactory MSSCCI plugin for the Edit-Merge-Commit
paradigm is very difficult.
- No Atomic transactions. SourceSafe has no support
for atomic transactions, so MSSCCI and Visual Studio were not designed to
use them. This means that sometimes modern version control tools like
Vault can't group things together properly at commit time.
On top of all this, all the world's MSSCCI hosts tend to implement
their side of the API a little differently. If you implement a MSSCCI plugin and
get everything working with Visual Studio 2003, you have approximately zero
chance of it working well with Visual Basic 6, FoxPro or Visual Interdev.
After you code in all the special hacks to get things compatible with these
fringe Microsoft environments, your plugin still has no real chance of working
with third party products like MultiEdit.
Every IDE requires some different tweaks and quirky behavior to make it work.
By the time you get your plugin working with some of these other IDEs, your
regression testing shows that it doesn't work with Visual Studio 2003 anymore.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Most developers who work with MSSCCI eventually turn to
recreational pharmaceuticals in a futile effort to cope.
A brighter future
Luckily, MSSCCI is fading away. Earlier in this article I
flippantly joked that Visual Studio and Eclipse were the only IDEs left in the
world. This is of course an exaggeration, but the fact remains that these two
products have the lion's share, so we can take some comfort in their dominance
when we think about the prevalence of MSSCCI in the future:
- Eclipse does not use MSSCCI. It has its own source
control integration APIs.
- Visual Studio 2005 introduced a new and greatly improved API
for source control integration.
So, the two dominant IDEs today inspire us to dream of a
MSSCCI-free world. The planet will certainly be a nicer place to live when
MSSCCI is a distant memory.
Here at SourceGear, the various problems with MSSCCI have
caused us to hold a cautious and reserved stance toward IDE integration. Most
of our customers really would prefer an IDE client, so we give them one. But
we consider our standalone GUI client to be the primary UI because it is faster
and more full-featured. And internally, most of us on the Vault team use the
standalone GUI client for our everyday work.
But our posture is changing dramatically. We are currently
working on an Eclipse plugin as well as a completely new plugin for the new
source control API in Visual Studio 2005. Sometime in early 2007, we will be
ready to consider our IDE clients to be primary, with our other client
applications to be available for less common operations. What do I mean when I
say "primary"? Well, among other things, I mean that the IDE clients will be
the way we use our own product. Including me. :-)
It's not yet terribly impressive to look at, but here's a
screen shot of our new Visual Studio 2005 client:
The direction of this industry right now is toward more and
more integration. This is a very good thing. We're going to see many new
improvements. Users will be happier. Just as a spice rack belongs near the
stove, source control should always be available where the developer is