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9. Handling binary files

The most common use for CVS is to store text files. With text files, CVS can merge revisions, display the differences between revisions in a human-visible fashion, and other such operations. However, if you are willing to give up a few of these abilities, CVS can store binary files. For example, one might store a web site in CVS including both text files and binary images.

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9.1 The issues with binary files

While the need to manage binary files may seem obvious if the files that you customarily work with are binary, putting them into version control does present some additional issues.

One basic function of version control is to show the differences between two revisions. For example, if someone else checked in a new version of a file, you may wish to look at what they changed and determine whether their changes are good. For text files, CVS provides this functionality via the cvs diff command. For binary files, it may be possible to extract the two revisions and then compare them with a tool external to CVS (for example, word processing software often has such a feature). If there is no such tool, one must track changes via other mechanisms, such as urging people to write good log messages, and hoping that the changes they actually made were the changes that they intended to make.

Another ability of a version control system is the ability to merge two revisions. For CVS this happens in two contexts. The first is when users make changes in separate working directories (see section Multiple developers). The second is when one merges explicitly with the `update -j' command (see section Branching and merging).

In the case of text files, CVS can merge changes made independently, and signal a conflict if the changes conflict. With binary files, the best that CVS can do is present the two different copies of the file, and leave it to the user to resolve the conflict. The user may choose one copy or the other, or may run an external merge tool which knows about that particular file format, if one exists. Note that having the user merge relies primarily on the user to not accidentally omit some changes, and thus is potentially error prone.

If this process is thought to be undesirable, the best choice may be to avoid merging. To avoid the merges that result from separate working directories, see the discussion of reserved checkouts (file locking) in Multiple developers. To avoid the merges resulting from branches, restrict use of branches.

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9.2 How to store binary files

There are two issues with using CVS to store binary files. The first is that CVS by default converts line endings between the canonical form in which they are stored in the repository (linefeed only), and the form appropriate to the operating system in use on the client (for example, carriage return followed by line feed for Windows NT).

The second is that a binary file might happen to contain data which looks like a keyword (see section Keyword substitution), so keyword expansion must be turned off.

The `-kb' option available with some CVS commands insures that neither line ending conversion nor keyword expansion will be done.

Here is an example of how you can create a new file using the `-kb' flag:

$ echo '$Id$' > kotest
$ cvs add -kb -m"A test file" kotest
$ cvs ci -m"First checkin; contains a keyword" kotest

If a file accidentally gets added without `-kb', one can use the cvs admin command to recover. For example:

$ echo '$Id$' > kotest
$ cvs add -m"A test file" kotest
$ cvs ci -m"First checkin; contains a keyword" kotest
$ cvs admin -kb kotest
$ cvs update -A kotest
# For non-unix systems:
# Copy in a good copy of the file from outside CVS
$ cvs commit -m "make it binary" kotest

When you check in the file `kotest' the file is not preserved as a binary file, because you did not check it in as a binary file. The cvs admin -kb command sets the default keyword substitution method for this file, but it does not alter the working copy of the file that you have. If you need to cope with line endings (that is, you are using CVS on a non-unix system), then you need to check in a new copy of the file, as shown by the cvs commit command above. On unix, the cvs update -A command suffices. (Note that you can use cvs log to determine the default keyword substitution method for a file and cvs status to determine the keyword substitution method for a working copy.)

However, in using cvs admin -k to change the keyword expansion, be aware that the keyword expansion mode is not version controlled. This means that, for example, that if you have a text file in old releases, and a binary file with the same name in new releases, CVS provides no way to check out the file in text or binary mode depending on what version you are checking out. There is no good workaround for this problem.

You can also set a default for whether cvs add and cvs import treat a file as binary based on its name; for example you could say that files who names end in `.exe' are binary. See section The cvswrappers file. There is currently no way to have CVS detect whether a file is binary based on its contents. The main difficulty with designing such a feature is that it is not clear how to distinguish between binary and non-binary files, and the rules to apply would vary considerably with the operating system.

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