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Subversion for Web Developers

I switched from Ubuntu Linux to a Mac last week. I knew the new system would force me to adapt my workflow a bit so I figured it would be a good opportunity to break some bad habits.

One of those bad habits was how I manage site and code updates. My typical cycle was to build the site on a local development server, upload the site, present to client, then go through a tweak → upload → tweak → upload cycle until the site was perfect. This development approach, although popular, is flawed for a few reasons:

  • No revision backups are maintained, unless you are manually doing them. You break it, you buy it.
  • The constant uploading for tweaks is inefficient and slow.
  • It simply breaks down when trying to work with others on the same code.

Enter Subversion. It solves all these problems and has some other really nice features to boot. Luckily, right about the time my Mac arrived, Circle 6 did a fantastic right up on using SVN to manage your websites. If you aren’t familiar with Subversion, go read their series now, the rest of this will make a lot more sense.

My situation is a little different from their’s. I don’t need or want to keep a Subversion repository on my live server. I’m the only one that needs access to it, so I wanted to host my repository and development server locally. The first step is to get all the necessary software installed:

  1. If you are doing PHP development, install a MAMP environment from MacPorts (tutorial here)
  2. Install Subversion from Martin Ott’s binary.
  3. Create ~/svn folder for repositories and use ~/Sites for my checkouts and development.
  4. Test.

Once you’ve got everything is working, lets create our first project.


cd ~/svn
svnadmin create domainname.tld
mkdir -p domainname.tld/trunk/public_html

At this point, if you have existing project files, move them into public_html (or whatever you want to call it). If you have any files that you want to keep outside of the web directory, but in subversion, copy them into the trunk directory.

Now import your files into the project.


cd ~/svn/domainname.tld
svn import trunk file:///Users/shortname/svn/domainname.tld/trunk -m "initial import"

Our repository is ready for action, now let’s checkout a copy to work on.


mkdir ~/Sites/domainname.tld
cd ~/Sites/domainname.tld
svn co file:///Users/shortname/svn/domainname.tld/trunk trunk

Edit to your heart’s content, commit changes, test the site locally using MAMP, WEBrick, Django’s development server, whatever.

Once we’re done, we need to upload the changes to the production server. This is where I got a little stuck. Logging into the live server and doing an svn update or export seemed like too much work and I wasn’t thrilled about opening up my personal network for access. I needed to be able to push updates to my webserver. Subversion wasn’t really what I needed, but Rsync was perfect for the job.

I created a quick shell script that would run this command:


rsync -avuz --exclude-from='exclude-files.txt' trunk/public_html/ myuser@domainname.tld:~/public_html

Save outside of your Subversion repository in ~/Sites/domainname.tld as and make it executable. Notice the exclude-files.txt file in that command? We’ll create that in the same directory and put a list of files we don’t want to upload like Subversion information and development config files. Here is a sample one from a WordPress project.



Manually upload any necessary config files one time and then just run ./ to update. If you wanted to update the live server on every commit, you could move to ~/svn/hooks/post-commit.

So far, this system has worked very well for me. Got a better solution? I’d love to hear it. Tune in next week for details on automatically creating a message in Basecamp on every commit.

Peter Baumgartner

About the author

Peter Baumgartner

Peter is the founder of Lincoln Loop, having built it up from a small freelance operation in 2007 to what it is today. He is constantly learning and is well-versed in many technical disciplines including devops, …