What do "branch", "tag" and "trunk" mean in Subversion repositories?

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I've seen these words a lot around Subversion (and I guess general repository) discussions. I have been using SVN for my projects the last few years, but I've never grasped the complete concept of these directories.

What do they mean?


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 19 572


Here's a good article I ran across explaining how/when to use trunk, branch, and tags. I'd not used source control before, but this article made it pretty easy for a noob like me to understand. Day-to-day with Subversion

– badmoon – 2008-08-19T14:53:19.043



Hmm, not sure I agree with Nick re tag being similar to a branch. A tag is just a marker

  • Trunk would be the main body of development, originating from the start of the project until the present.

  • Branch will be a copy of code derived from a certain point in the trunk that is used for applying major changes to the code while preserving the integrity of the code in the trunk. If the major changes work according to plan, they are usually merged back into the trunk.

  • Tag will be a point in time on the trunk or a branch that you wish to preserve. The two main reasons for preservation would be that either this is a major release of the software, whether alpha, beta, RC or RTM, or this is the most stable point of the software before major revisions on the trunk were applied.

In open source projects, major branches that are not accepted into the trunk by the project stakeholders can become the bases for forks -- e.g., totally separate projects that share a common origin with other source code.

Jon Limjap

Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 77 541

276The confusion with tags and branches is that in svn there really is no distinction between them, besides the name of the directory. In svn you are able to commit changes to a tag, and in fact it is difficult to prevent this. Most other VCSes treat tags as immutable snapshots (points in time). – Ken Liu – 2009-10-09T18:36:34.633

3Tags directory is also often used for milestones testing and verification by the regular user. This would be a good place to put a prototype too (just some ideas on top of my head). – Jeff Noel – 2012-10-26T07:09:05.810

5@KenLiu There are hooks that can make tags immutable. That is, you can create, and checkout a tag, but not make any changes. Of course, a tag being just part of the repository means the full history is available. If someone changes a tag, you can track that and why. In many VCS, if you modify a tag, there may not be any way to know. – David W. – 2015-03-01T19:33:37.780

2Maybe stable branches should be mentioned: changes made there are normally not merged back into the trunk. – Wolf – 2015-05-06T12:59:20.943

What would be the difference between a stable branch and a tag then? – James Wierzba – 2015-06-29T15:00:37.193

4My understanding is that in a "perfect world" no development should ever happen in the trunk, the trunk should always be either the exact code that is in live or code that is about to be released into live. as such that would make the branches the main body of development. – MikeT – 2015-08-03T09:20:35.153

2Also my understanding of what a tag is supposed to to is that a tag is more like a secondary trunks, ie you have a product on the market that has an active user base. you decide to release version 2 as a seperate product rather than a upgrade, however if a bug is located in version 1 of your product you need to provide support to your existing user base even if they haven't upgraded to version 2, so you would create a tag before moving to v2 and then any bug fixes required on v1 could be performed on branches originating from the v1 tag – MikeT – 2015-08-03T09:23:39.347

I believe a tag should be made everytime the code in trunk (or a branch) is released. By "released" I mean a version x.y.z that can be deployed in test or production. If a bug shows in version x.y.z, but trunk has changed due to new development, tag x.y.z can be copied to branch x.y.z and the bug fixed here. I think the same could be achieved by noticing the SVN-revision number when releasing, and the checking out this revision when fixing the bug in production. But a tag is more explicit. – Vering – 2016-03-03T12:43:04.743

This does not answer the original question. The answer instead gives a (correct) general introduction to the concepts of "Trunk", "Branch" and "Tag" in common usage. HOWEVER: This is NOT how SVN does these things. Namely: The "Tag" concept as an immutable timestamped snapshot has NO support in SVN. And unless you add immutability yourself via a pre-commit hook then a "TAG" in SVN is just a "BRANCH" that you chose to put in a directory that you chose to name "Tag". And all that's stopping you from modifying it afterwards is an unenforced convention.

– StackzOfZtuff – 2018-06-06T11:32:54.960

Some thing goes for "Trunk": The explanation of the general concept is correct. However in SVN "Trunk" gets NO special treatment. It's just another folder name for branches. Enforced by nothing more than convention. For further details see Eric's answer.

– StackzOfZtuff – 2018-06-06T11:43:33.837

Wikipedia) defines trunk as the unnamed branch (version) of a file tree under revision control. Trunk is a concept used primarily in SVN. The default branch in Git is called a master branch. There isn't any unnamed branch in Git, hence no trunk. – Chris Voon – 2018-09-04T07:13:06.680


First of all, as @AndrewFinnell and @KenLiu point out, in SVN the directory names themselves mean nothing -- "trunk, branches and tags" are simply a common convention that is used by most repositories. Not all projects use all of the directories (it's reasonably common not to use "tags" at all), and in fact, nothing is stopping you from calling them anything you'd like, though breaking convention is often confusing.

I'll describe probably the most common usage scenario of branches and tags, and give an example scenario of how they are used.

  • Trunk: The main development area. This is where your next major release of the code lives, and generally has all the newest features.

  • Branches: Every time you release a major version, it gets a branch created. This allows you to do bug fixes and make a new release without having to release the newest - possibly unfinished or untested - features.

  • Tags: Every time you release a version (final release, release candidates (RC), and betas) you make a tag for it. This gives you a point-in-time copy of the code as it was at that state, allowing you to go back and reproduce any bugs if necessary in a past version, or re-release a past version exactly as it was. Branches and tags in SVN are lightweight - on the server, it does not make a full copy of the files, just a marker saying "these files were copied at this revision" that only takes up a few bytes. With this in mind, you should never be concerned about creating a tag for any released code. As I said earlier, tags are often omitted and instead, a changelog or other document clarifies the revision number when a release is made.

For example, let's say you start a new project. You start working in "trunk", on what will eventually be released as version 1.0.

  • trunk/ - development version, soon to be 1.0
  • branches/ - empty

Once 1.0.0 is finished, you branch trunk into a new "1.0" branch, and create a "1.0.0" tag. Now work on what will eventually be 1.1 continues in trunk.

  • trunk/ - development version, soon to be 1.1
  • branches/1.0 - 1.0.0 release version
  • tags/1.0.0 - 1.0.0 release version

You come across some bugs in the code, and fix them in trunk, and then merge the fixes over to the 1.0 branch. You can also do the opposite, and fix the bugs in the 1.0 branch and then merge them back to trunk, but commonly projects stick with merging one-way only to lessen the chance of missing something. Sometimes a bug can only be fixed in 1.0 because it is obsolete in 1.1. It doesn't really matter: you only want to make sure that you don't release 1.1 with the same bugs that have been fixed in 1.0.

  • trunk/ - development version, soon to be 1.1
  • branches/1.0 - upcoming 1.0.1 release
  • tags/1.0.0 - 1.0.0 release version

Once you find enough bugs (or maybe one critical bug), you decide to do a 1.0.1 release. So you make a tag "1.0.1" from the 1.0 branch, and release the code. At this point, trunk will contain what will be 1.1, and the "1.0" branch contains 1.0.1 code. The next time you release an update to 1.0, it would be 1.0.2.

  • trunk/ - development version, soon to be 1.1
  • branches/1.0 - upcoming 1.0.2 release
  • tags/1.0.0 - 1.0.0 release version
  • tags/1.0.1 - 1.0.1 release version

Eventually you are almost ready to release 1.1, but you want to do a beta first. In this case, you likely do a "1.1" branch, and a "1.1beta1" tag. Now, work on what will be 1.2 (or 2.0 maybe) continues in trunk, but work on 1.1 continues in the "1.1" branch.

  • trunk/ - development version, soon to be 1.2
  • branches/1.0 - upcoming 1.0.2 release
  • branches/1.1 - upcoming 1.1.0 release
  • tags/1.0.0 - 1.0.0 release version
  • tags/1.0.1 - 1.0.1 release version
  • tags/1.1beta1 - 1.1 beta 1 release version

Once you release 1.1 final, you do a "1.1" tag from the "1.1" branch.

You can also continue to maintain 1.0 if you'd like, porting bug fixes between all three branches (1.0, 1.1, and trunk). The important takeaway is that for every main version of the software you are maintaining, you have a branch that contains the latest version of code for that version.

Another use of branches is for features. This is where you branch trunk (or one of your release branches) and work on a new feature in isolation. Once the feature is completed, you merge it back in and remove the branch.

  • trunk/ - development version, soon to be 1.2
  • branches/1.1 - upcoming 1.1.0 release
  • branches/ui-rewrite - experimental feature branch

The idea of this is when you're working on something disruptive (that would hold up or interfere with other people from doing their work), something experimental (that may not even make it in), or possibly just something that takes a long time (and you're afraid if it holding up a 1.2 release when you're ready to branch 1.2 from trunk), you can do it in isolation in branch. Generally you keep it up to date with trunk by merging changes into it all the time, which makes it easier to re-integrate (merge back to trunk) when you're finished.

Also note, the versioning scheme I used here is just one of many. Some teams would do bug fix/maintenance releases as 1.1, 1.2, etc., and major changes as 1.x, 2.x, etc. The usage here is the same, but you may name the branch "1" or "1.x" instead of "1.0" or "1.0.x". (Aside, semantic versioning is a good guide on how to do version numbers).


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 18 227

6@baruch - That's completely wrong. Tags are lightweight and are (as far as Subversion itself is concerned) identical to branches. – Josh Kelley – 2014-07-14T14:08:16.623

6Love the use-case detail. Thanks @gregmac. – Jeromy French – 2014-12-02T17:02:54.137

2Can I get a quote on where it's stated that tags/branches are lightweight? It doesn't seem that way.. – Cardin – 2015-05-08T02:45:05.080

2This should be the accepted answer which is so much better ^^ – Nam G VU – 2015-12-17T07:27:06.503

3@Cardin I don't have reference right now, but important to note tags are lightweight on the server, but not client. If you checkout all tags, you'll get that many full copies. However, if you look at repository size on server, it will only increase by a few bytes per tag. This is why you should not checkout the root directory, generally speaking. – gregmac – 2016-02-02T21:19:07.787

1It is not true that in SVN tags are lightweight. In SVN, tags are a full code export, and lose any reference to where in the source tree they cam from. – Baruch – 2011-09-27T11:07:14.743


In addition to what Nick has said you can find out more at Streamed Lines: Branching Patterns for Parallel Software Development

enter image description here

In this figure main is the trunk, rel1-maint is a branch and 1.0 is a tag.


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 11 086

1You are not talking about Subversion, right? – Wolf – 2015-05-06T13:31:56.500

1@Wolf he could be - that diagram is pretty generic regardless of the tooling. All SCMs use different words but the same concepts, there's no difference between trunk and Main; or trunk and master. That diagram shows how my current company uses SVN. – gbjbaanb – 2015-05-27T10:58:56.900

@gbjbaanb Thanks for sharing. ...and tags seem not to be addressed by the question. Is it pure coincidence (also in your current company) that that no merges go from main to from maintained branches? – Wolf – 2015-05-27T11:17:58.073

@Wolf No coincidence - only branch from trunk, do work, merge back onto trunk. Then branch off trunk to a tag branch. We're considering another 'trunk' called Integration that has finished branches merged to it for testing that doesn't constitute a release, trunk is still used for those branches that we decide to put in the next release. The only time you merge from trunk to a branch is to update a long-running branch, but its better (and easier) to simply create a new branch off trunk and merge your old branch's changes to it if you need that. – gbjbaanb – 2015-05-27T12:10:50.447


In general (tool agnostic view), a branch is the mechanism used for parallel development. An SCM can have from 0 to n branches. Subversion has 0.

  • Trunk is a main branch recommended by Subversion, but you are in no way forced to create it. You could call it 'main' or 'releases', or not have one at all!

  • Branch represents a development effort. It should never be named after a resource (like 'vonc_branch') but after:

    • a purpose 'myProject_dev' or 'myProject_Merge'
    • a release perimeter 'myProjetc1.0_dev'or myProject2.3_Merge' or 'myProject6..2_Patch1'...
  • Tag is a snapshot of files in order to easily get back to that state. The problem is that tag and branch is the same in Subversion. And I would definitely recommend the paranoid approach:

    you can use one of the access control scripts provided with Subversion to prevent anyone from doing anything but creating new copies in the tags area.

A tag is final. Its content should never change. NEVER. Ever. You forgot a line in the release note? Create a new tag. Obsolete or remove the old one.

Now, I read a lot about "merging back such and such in such and such branches, then finally in the trunk branch". That is called merge workflow and there is nothing mandatory here. It is not because you have a trunk branch that you have to merge back anything.

By convention, the trunk branch can represent the current state of your development, but that is for a simple sequential project, that is a project which has:

  • no 'in advance' development (for the preparing the next-next version implying such changes that they are not compatible with the current 'trunk' development)
  • no massive refactoring (for testing a new technical choice)
  • no long-term maintenance of a previous release

Because with one (or all) of those scenario, you get yourself four 'trunks', four 'current developments', and not all you do in those parallel development will necessarily have to be merged back in 'trunk'.


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 823 003

See also "When to branch?": http://stackoverflow.com/questions/2100829#2107672

– VonC – 2010-01-27T13:04:06.983


In SVN a tag and branch are really similar.

Tag = a defined slice in time, usually used for releases

Branch = also a defined slice in time that development can continue on, usually used for major version like 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, etc, then when you release you tag the branch. This allows you to continue to support a production release while moving forward with breaking changes in the trunk

Trunk = development work space, this is where all development should happen, and then changes merged back from branch releases.

Nick Berardi

Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 44 961


They don't really have any formal meaning. A folder is a folder to SVN. They are a generally accepted way to organize your project.

  • The trunk is where you keep your main line of developmemt. The branch folder is where you might create, well, branches, which are hard to explain in a short post.

  • A branch is a copy of a subset of your project that you work on separately from the trunk. Maybe it's for experiments that might not go anywhere, or maybe it's for the next release, which you will later merge back into the trunk when it becomes stable.

  • And the tags folder is for creating tagged copies of your repository, usually at release checkpoints.

But like I said, to SVN, a folder is a folder. branch, trunk and tag are just a convention.

I'm using the word 'copy' liberally. SVN doesn't actually make full copies of things in the repository.

Eric Z Beard

Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 27 372


The trunk is the development line that holds the latest source code and features. It should have the latest bug fixes in it as well as the latest features added to the project.

The branches are usually used to do something away from the trunk (or other development line) that would otherwise break the build. New features are often built in a branch and then merged back into the trunk. Branches often contain code that are not necessarily approved for the development line it branched from. For example, a programmer could try an optimization on something in a branch and only merge back in the development line once the optimization is satisfactory.

The tags are snapshots of the repository at a particular time. No development should occur on these. They are most often used to take a copy of what was released to a client so that you can easily have access to what a client is using.

Here's a link to a very good guide to repositories:

The articles in Wikipedia are also worth reading.


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 29 268


Now that's the thing about software development, there's no consistent knowledge about anything, everybody seems to have it their own way, but that's because it is a relatively young discipline anyway.

Here's my plain simple way,

trunk - The trunk directory contains the most current, approved, and merged body of work. Contrary to what many have confessed, my trunk is only for clean, neat, approved work, and not a development area, but rather a release area.

At some given point in time when the trunk seems all ready to release, then it is tagged and released.

branches - The branches directory contains experiments and ongoing work. Work under a branch stays there until is approved to be merged into the trunk. For me, this is the area where all the work is done.

For example: I can have an iteration-5 branch for a fifth round of development on the product, maybe a prototype-9 branch for a ninth round of experimenting, and so on.

tags - The tags directory contains snapshots of approved branches and trunk releases. Whenever a branch is approved to merge into the trunk, or a release is made of the trunk, a snapshot of the approved branch or trunk release is made under tags.

I suppose with tags I can jump back and forth through time to points interest quite easily.


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 336


I found this great tutorial regarding SVN when I was looking up the website of the author of the OpenCV 2 Computer Vision Application Programming Cookbook and I thought I should share.

He has a tutorial on how to use SVN and what the phrases 'trunk', 'tag' and 'branch' mean.

Cited directly from his tutorial:

The current version of your software project, on which your team is currently working is usually located under a directory called trunk. As the project evolves, the developer updates that version fix bugs, add new features) and submit his changes under that directory.

At any given point in time, you may want to freeze a version and capture a snapshot of the software as it is at this stage of the development. This generally corresponds to the official versions of your software, for example, the ones you will deliver to your clients. These snapshots are located under the tags directory of your project.

Finally, it is often useful to create, at some point, a new line of development for your software. This happens, for example, when you wish to test an alternative implementation in which you have to modify your software but you do not want to submit these changes to the main project until you decide if you adopt the new solution. The main team can then continue to work on the project while other developer work on the prototype. You would put these new lines of development of the project under a directory called branches.


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 111


The trunk directory is the directory that you're probably most familiar with, because it is used to hold the most recent changes. Your main codebase should be in trunk.

The branches directory is for holding your branches, whatever they may be.

The tags directory is basically for tagging a certain set of files. You do this for things like releases, where you want "1.0" to be these files at these revisions and "1.1" to be these files at these revisions. You usually don't modify tags once they're made. For more information on tags, see Chapter 4. Branching and Merging (in Version Control with Subversion).


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 7 385


One of the reasons why everyone has a slightly different definition is because Subversion implements zero support for branches and tags. Subversion basically says: We looked at full-featured branches and tags in other systems and did not found them useful, so we did not implement anything. Just make a copy into a new directory with a name convention instead. Then of course everyone is free to have slightly different conventions. To understand the difference between a real tag and a mere copy + naming convention see the Wikipedia entry Subversion tags & branches.


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 11 143


Tag = a defined slice in time, usually used for releases

I think this is what one typically means by "tag". But in Subversion:

They don't really have any formal meaning. A folder is a folder to SVN.

which I find rather confusing: a revision control system that knows nothing about branches or tags. From an implementation point of view, I think the Subversion way of creating "copies" is very clever, but me having to know about it is what I'd call a leaky abstraction.

Or perhaps I've just been using CVS far too long.


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 3 277

An alternative perspective is that the opposite is true, that imposing the concept of tags on subversion's object model would be leaky abstraction in the opposite direction. As I'm guessing you know, subversion was a reaction to CVS, an attempt to "do CVS right." I couldn't find the reference, but the original subversion designers have said they threw out the concept of tags 100% deliberately, that the distinction between branches and tags is purely a policy issue. If teams want to impose policy and convention on top of subversion's object model, so be it. That's exactly what we have today. – Darryl – 2013-05-28T18:11:02.863


I think that some of the confusion comes from the difference between the concept of a tag and the implementation in SVN. To SVN a tag is a branch which is a copy. Modifying tags is considered wrong and in fact tools like TortoiseSVN will warn you if you attempt to modify anything with ../tags/.. in the path.

denis phillips

Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 10 685


I'm not really sure what 'tag' is, but branch is a fairly common source control concept.

Basically, a branch is a way to work on changes to the code without affecting trunk. Say you want to add a new feature that's fairly complicated. You want to be able to check in changes as you make them, but don't want it to affect trunk until you're done with the feature.

First you'd create a branch. This is basically a copy of trunk as-of the time you made the branch. You'd then do all your work in the branch. Any changes made in the branch don't affect trunk, so trunk is still usable, allowing others to continue working there (like doing bugfixes or small enhancements). Once your feature is done you'd integrate the branch back into trunk. This would move all your changes from the branch to trunk.

There are a number of patterns people use for branches. If you have a product with multiple major versions being supported at once, usually each version would be a branch. Where I work we have a QA branch and a Production branch. Before releasing our code to QA we integrate changes to the QA branch, then deploy from there. When releasing to production we integrate from the QA branch to the Production branch, so we know the code running in production is identical to what QA tested.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on branches, since they probably explain things better than I can. :)


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 22 466


Trunk : After the completion of every sprint in agile we come out with a partially shippable product. These releases are kept in trunk.

Branches : All parallel developments codes for each ongoing sprint are kept in branches.

Tags : Every time we release a partially shippable product kind of beta version, we make a tag for it. This gives us the code that was available at that point of time, allowing us to go back at that state if required at some point during development.


Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 372


For people familiar with GIT, master in GIT is equivalent to trunk in SVN.

Branch and tag has same terminology in both GIT and SVN.

Desert Rose

Posted 2008-08-19T13:22:03.750

Reputation: 2 742