Monday, 11 February 2008

Why I Hate Perforce: 4. It's difficult to defer existing work

This is part of a series of articles explaining why I hate Perforce. Please see "Why I Hate Perforce: The Background" first.

The real world being the way it is work is often started or even mostly completed and then something more important comes along which means that work must be deferred, possibly indefinitely. It is important, if only for programmer self esteem, to archive that work safely before continuing. This needs to be done with the minimal of effort and risk because it generally happens only when something urgent needs to be done.

There are a number of ways of doing this.

1. If the work had been done on a task branch then any pending changes can just be checked in and the branch kept around but not merged for as long as necessary.

Unfortunately task branches have overhead and aren't always used. Creating a task branch retrospectively would seem like a sensible tactic but is hard work with Perforce because there's no equivalent to cvs up -r or svn switch to switch to a branch whilst preserving changes in the working copy. I've tried just updating the client spec to point to the new branch hoping that it would offer to merge the changes but Perforce just complains that it cannot clobber the files since they are opened for editing.

2. Keep the working copy (or client in Perforce terminology) around forever. The downside to this is that a large amount of disk space could be taken up and any finger macros may need to be re-learnt. It is also hard for someone else to continue the work because the Perforce client will be owned by the original author.

3. Archiving the entire working copy as a unit (e.g. using tar(1) or zip(1)) then revert the files in the working copy so that work can continue. This doesn't work well with Perforce because the working copy state is stored on the server. In order to do anything meaningful with the archive you'd need to revert your working copy back to the current revision at the time the working copy was created. If this isn't done there's a risk of confusion as to where changes were made. Other systems that keep sufficient state in the working copy (such as CVS and Subversion) don't suffer from this problem. In fact the working copy can be moved to a different location (or even a different machine) and work can continue there.

4. Produce a patch based on the current state of the depot that can be applied later. This would be a perfectly good solution if it weren't such a pain to generate sensible patch files with Perforce. Having tried hard to make p4 diff generate something acceptable to patch(1) I ended up writing a Ruby script to do it. This script is available from my Perforce Scripts page.

When I had to do this recently I ended up taking option 4. It did seem to work but it was far more effort than I expected. Next time it should be easier because I've already got the script!

Now read about Why I Like Perforce.

Edit 2010/12/01: Since this article was written Perforce 2009.2 has introduced shelving. This is certainly useful but doesn't solve many of the problems raised here. In particular changes can only be unshelved back to the same location in the depot (albeit perhaps on a different client spec or by a different user.) This means that moving the changes to a different branch is just as painful as is creating a branch retrospectively for shelved changes.


Anonymous said...

Try using perforce "shelve" command ...

Mike said...

Anonymous wrote:
Try using perforce "shelve" command ...

That didn't exist when this article was written.

Thanks for the tip though, it prompted me to update the article to mention it.