Your Subversion repository is like a time machine. It keeps a record of every change ever committed and allows you to explore this history by examining previous versions of files and directories as well as the metadata that accompanies them. With a single Subversion command, you can check out the repository (or restore an existing working copy) exactly as it was at any date or revision number in the past. However, sometimes you just want to peer into the past instead of going into it.

Several commands can provide you with historical data from the repository:

svn diff

Shows line-level details of a particular change

svn log

Shows you broad information: log messages with date and author information attached to revisions and which paths changed in each revision

svn cat

Retrieves a file as it existed in a particular revision number and displays it on your screen

svn list

Displays the files in a directory for any given revision

Examining the Details of Historical Changes

We've already seen svn diff before—it displays file differences in unified diff format; we used it to show the local modifications made to our working copy before committing to the repository.

In fact, it turns out that there are three distinct uses of svn diff:

  • Examining local changes

  • Comparing your working copy to the repository

  • Comparing repository revisions

Examining local changes

As we've seen, invoking svn diff with no options will compare your working files to the cached pristine copies in the .svn area:

$ svn diff
Index: rules.txt
===================================================================
--- rules.txt	(revision 3)
+++ rules.txt	(working copy)
@@ -1,4 +1,5 @@
 Be kind to others
 Freedom = Responsibility
 Everything in moderation
-Chew with your mouth open
+Chew with your mouth closed
+Listen when others are speaking
$

Comparing working copy to repository

If a single --revision (-r) number is passed, your working copy is compared to the specified revision in the repository:

$ svn diff -r 3 rules.txt
Index: rules.txt
===================================================================
--- rules.txt	(revision 3)
+++ rules.txt	(working copy)
@@ -1,4 +1,5 @@
 Be kind to others
 Freedom = Responsibility
 Everything in moderation
-Chew with your mouth open
+Chew with your mouth closed
+Listen when others are speaking
$

Comparing repository revisions

If two revision numbers, separated by a colon, are passed via --revision (-r), the two revisions are directly compared:

$ svn diff -r 2:3 rules.txt
Index: rules.txt
===================================================================
--- rules.txt	(revision 2)
+++ rules.txt	(revision 3)
@@ -1,4 +1,4 @@
 Be kind to others
-Freedom = Chocolate Ice Cream
+Freedom = Responsibility
 Everything in moderation
 Chew with your mouth open
$

A more convenient way of comparing one revision to the previous revision is to use the --change (-c) option:

$ svn diff -c 3 rules.txt
Index: rules.txt
===================================================================
--- rules.txt	(revision 2)
+++ rules.txt	(revision 3)
@@ -1,4 +1,4 @@
 Be kind to others
-Freedom = Chocolate Ice Cream
+Freedom = Responsibility
 Everything in moderation
 Chew with your mouth open
$

Lastly, you can compare repository revisions even when you don't have a working copy on your local machine, just by including the appropriate URL on the command line:

$ svn diff -c 5 http://svn.example.com/repos/example/trunk/text/rules.txt
…
$

Generating a List of Historical Changes

To find information about the history of a file or directory, use the svn log command. svn log will provide you with a record of who made changes to a file or directory, at what revision it changed, the time and date of that revision, and—if it was provided—the log message that accompanied the commit:

$ svn log
------------------------------------------------------------------------
r3 | sally | 2008-05-15 23:09:28 -0500 (Thu, 15 May 2008) | 1 line

Added include lines and corrected # of cheese slices.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
r2 | harry | 2008-05-14 18:43:15 -0500 (Wed, 14 May 2008) | 1 line

Added main() methods.
------------------------------------------------------------------------
r1 | sally | 2008-05-10 19:50:31 -0500 (Sat, 10 May 2008) | 1 line

Initial import
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Note that the log messages are printed in reverse chronological order by default. If you wish to see a different range of revisions in a particular order or just a single revision, pass the --revision (-r) option:

Table 2.1. Common log requests

Command Description
svn log -r 5:19 Display logs for revisions 5 through 19 in chronological order
svn log -r 19:5 Display logs for revisions 5 through 19 in reverse chronological order
svn log -r 8 Display logs for revision 8 only

You can also examine the log history of a single file or directory. For example:

$ svn log foo.c
…
$ svn log http://foo.com/svn/trunk/code/foo.c
…

These will display log messages only for those revisions in which the working file (or URL) changed.

If you want even more information about a file or directory, svn log also takes a --verbose (-v) option. Because Subversion allows you to move and copy files and directories, it is important to be able to track path changes in the filesystem. So, in verbose mode, svn log will include a list of changed paths in a revision in its output:

$ svn log -r 8 -v
------------------------------------------------------------------------
r8 | sally | 2008-05-21 13:19:25 -0500 (Wed, 21 May 2008) | 1 line
Changed paths:
   M /trunk/code/foo.c
   M /trunk/code/bar.h
   A /trunk/code/doc/README

Frozzled the sub-space winch.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

svn log also takes a --quiet (-q) option, which suppresses the body of the log message. When combined with --verbose (-v), it gives just the names of the changed files.

As of Subversion 1.7, users of the Subversion command-line can also take advantage of a special output mode for svn log which integrates a difference report such as is generated by the svn diff command we introduced earlier. When you invoke svn log with the --diff option, Subversion will append to each revision log chunk in the log report a diff-style difference report. This is a very convenient way to see both the high-level, semantic changes and the line-based modifications of a revision all at the same time!

Browsing the Repository

Using svn cat and svn list, you can view various revisions of files and directories without changing the working revision of your working copy. In fact, you don't even need a working copy to use either one.

svn cat

If you want to examine an earlier version of a file and not necessarily the differences between two files, you can use svn cat:

$ svn cat -r 2 rules.txt
Be kind to others
Freedom = Chocolate Ice Cream
Everything in moderation
Chew with your mouth open
$

You can also redirect the output directly into a file:

$ svn cat -r 2 rules.txt > rules.txt.v2
$

svn list

The svn list command shows you what files are in a repository directory without actually downloading the files to your local machine:

$ svn list http://svn.example.com/repo/project
README
branches/
tags/
trunk/

If you want a more detailed listing, pass the --verbose (-v) flag to get output like this:

$ svn list -v http://svn.example.com/repo/project
  23351 sally                 Feb 05 13:26 ./
  20620 harry            1084 Jul 13  2006 README
  23339 harry                 Feb 04 01:40 branches/
  23198 harry                 Jan 23 17:17 tags/
  23351 sally                 Feb 05 13:26 trunk/

The columns tell you the revision at which the file or directory was last modified, the user who modified it, the size if it is a file, the date it was last modified, and the item's name.

Warning
Warning

The svn list command with no arguments defaults to the repository URL of the current working directory, not the local working copy directory. After all, if you want a listing of your local directory, you could use just plain ls (or any reasonable non-Unixy equivalent).

Fetching Older Repository Snapshots

In addition to all of the previous commands, you can use the --revision (-r) option with svn update to take an entire working copy back in time:[8]

# Make the current directory look like it did in r1729.
$ svn update -r 1729
Updating '.':
…
$
Tip
Tip

Many Subversion newcomers attempt to use the preceding svn update example to undo committed changes, but this won't work as you can't commit changes that you obtain from backdating a working copy if the changed files have newer revisions. See the section called “Resurrecting Deleted Items” for a description of how to undo a commit.

If you'd prefer to create a whole new working copy from an older snapshot, you can do so by modifying the typical svn checkout command. As with svn update, you can provide the --revision (-r) option. But for reasons that we cover in the section called “Peg and Operative Revisions”, you might instead want to specify the target revision as part of Subversion's expanded URL syntax.

# Checkout the trunk from r1729.
$ svn checkout http://svn.example.com/svn/repo/trunk@1729 trunk-1729
…
# Checkout the current trunk as it looked in r1729.
$ svn checkout http://svn.example.com/svn/repo/trunk -r 1729 trunk-1729
…
$

Lastly, if you're building a release and wish to bundle up your files from Subversion but don't want those pesky .svn directories in the way, you can use svn export to create a local copy of all or part of your repository sans .svn directories. The basic syntax of this subcommand is identical to that of svn checkout:

# Export the trunk from the latest revision.
$ svn export http://svn.example.com/svn/repo/trunk trunk-export
…
# Export the trunk from r1729.
$ svn export http://svn.example.com/svn/repo/trunk@1729 trunk-1729
…
# Export the current trunk as it looked in r1729. 
$ svn export http://svn.example.com/svn/repo/trunk -r 1729 trunk-1729
…
$


[8] See? We told you that Subversion was a time machine.