Branching strategies with TFVC

Last Update: 1/25/2017

Do you plan to adopt Team Foundation Version Control (TFVC), and are wondering how to best use branches? We will not delve deep into branching features, as they are well documented in the product documentation and guidance, but will explore a few common branching strategies to help you make the right decision.

Unlike Git branches, which are repository scoped, TFVC branches are path scoped and not as light-weight. Set your bar for creating branches high, to avoid the management it takes to keep track of branches, storage resources and resolution of merge conflicts. Consider branching only if you have multiple teams working on the same codebase, or need isolation for development or release.

Main Only

The Main Only strategy can be folder based or with the main folder converted to a Branch, to enable additional visibility features. You commit your changes to the main branch and optionally indicate development and release milestones with labels.

Main Only

RISK: The mutability and lack of history with TFVC labels can add risk of change control.

Start with the the main only branching strategy, branch strategically and adopt other strategies to evolve into more complex strategies as needed.

Development isolation

When you need to maintain and protect a stable main branch, you can branch one or more dev branches from main, giving you isolation and concurrent development. Work can be isolated in development branches by feature, organization or temporary collaboration.

Developer Isolation

Changes made to main branch, should be forward integrated (FI) to the dev branch and merge conflicts resolved, before changes are reverse integrated (RI) back to main. To maintain the same quality bar across branches, always build and run build verification tests (BVTs) on dev the same way you are doing on main. Optionally combine this branching strategy with other strategies covered herein.

NOTE: With this strategy, teams are likely to keep the dev branch around forever, potentially building a large merge ticket history.

Feature isolation

Feature isolation is a special derivation of the development isolation, allowing you to branch one or more feature branches from main, as shown, or from your dev branches.

Feature Isolation

When you need to work on a particular feature, it might be a good idea to create a feature branch.

You should keep the lifetime of feature work and the associated feature branch short-lived. Forward integrate (FI) changes from the parent branch frequently, but reverse integrate (RI) back to the parent only when some agreed team criteria, for example definition of done, is met. Rollback of features on main can be costly and may reset testing.

Release isolation

Release integration introduces one or more release branches from main, enabling concurrent release management, multiple and parallel releases, and accurate snapshots of your codebase at release time.

Release Isolation

When your codebase has the first release candidate or the release is ready to be locked down, it might be a good time to create a new branch for the release.

Never forward integrate (FI) from main and lock release branches using access permissions, to prevent unintended modifications to a release. Patches and hot fixes made to the release branch can be reverse integrated (RI) back to the main branch.

NOTE: None of the branching scenarios are immutable, which is why you notice emergency hotfixes performed on release branches. Evolve each strategy to match your requirements, without losing sight of complexity and associated cost.

Servicing and Release isolation

Servicing and Release Isolation strategy introduces servicing branches, enabling concurrent servicing management of service packs, and accurate snapshots of your codebase at service and release time.

Service Release Isolation

Consider this strategy if you need a servicing model for customers to upgrade to the next major release and additional service packs per release.

Like the release isolation, the servicing isolation and release branches are created when the release is ready to be locked down. Never forward integrate from main to servicing, or from servicing to release, and lock the release branch to prevent modifications. Future servicing changes can be done on the servicing branch.

Create new servicing and release branches for subsequent releases if you require that level of isolation.

Servicing, Hotfix, Release isolation

Although not recommended, you can continue to evolve the strategies, by introducing additional hotfix branches and associated release scenarios.

Service HotFix Release Isolation

At this point you have successfully explored a few of the common TFVC branching scenarios. You can evolve them, or investigate other strategies such as feature toggling, toggling features on and off to determine whether a feature is available at run time.


Why should branches be short-lived?

By keeping branches short-lived, merge conflicts are kept to as few as possible.

Why only branch if neccessary?

To embrace DevOps you need to rely on automation of build, test and deployment. Change is continuous, frequent and merge operations more challenging as merge conflicts often require manual intervention. It is therefore recommended to avoid branching and rely on other strategies, such as feature toggling.

Why remove branches?

Your goal should be get changes back into main as soon as possible, to mitigate long-term merge consequences. Temporary, unused and abundant branches cause confusion and overhead for the team.

Can a codebase be branched across team projects?

Yes, but it is not recommended, unless teams must share source and cannot share a common process.

What about the code promotion strategy?

The Code Promotion strategy feels like a relic from the waterfall development era. It is typically with long testing cycles, and separate development and testing teams. The strategy is no longer recommended. Refer to the branching guidance for more information.

When merging dev to main branch, why are no changes detected?

You have likely ignored changes in previous merges, for example, using the keep source conflict resolution option. See merging developement branch to main: there were no changes to merge for details.

Are there similarities between TFVC and Git branch strategies?

The TFVC Feature Isolation branching strategy is similar to the Git topic branches.

Authors: Jesse Houwing, Marcus Fernandez, Mike Fourie, and Willy Schaub

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