Externals Definitions

Sometimes it is useful to construct a working copy that is made out of a number of different checkouts. For example, you may want different subdirectories to come from different locations in a repository, or perhaps from different repositories altogether. You could certainly set up such a scenario by hand—using svn checkout to create the sort of nested working copy structure you are trying to achieve. But if this layout is important for everyone who uses your repository, every other user will need to perform the same checkout operations that you did.

Fortunately, Subversion provides support for externals definitions. An externals definition is a mapping of a local directory to the URL—and ideally a particular revision—of a versioned directory. In Subversion, you declare externals definitions in groups using the svn:externals property. You can create or modify this property using svn propset or svn propedit (see the section called “Manipulating Properties”). It can be set on any versioned directory, and its value is a multi-line table of subdirectories (relative to the versioned directory on which the property is set), optional revision flags, and fully qualified, absolute Subversion repository URLs.

$ svn propget svn:externals calc
third-party/sounds             http://sounds.red-bean.com/repos
third-party/skins              http://skins.red-bean.com/repositories/skinproj
third-party/skins/toolkit -r21 http://svn.red-bean.com/repos/skin-maker

The convenience of the svn:externals property is that once it is set on a versioned directory, everyone who checks out a working copy with that directory also gets the benefit of the externals definition. In other words, once one person has made the effort to define those nested working copy checkouts, no one else has to bother—Subversion will, upon checkout of the original working copy, also check out the external working copies.


The relative target subdirectories of externals definitions must not already exist on your or other users' systems—Subversion will create them when it checks out the external working copy.

Note the previous externals definition example. When someone checks out a working copy of the calc directory, Subversion also continues to check out the items found in its externals definition.

$ svn checkout http://svn.example.com/repos/calc
A  calc
A  calc/Makefile
A  calc/integer.c
A  calc/button.c
Checked out revision 148.

Fetching external item into calc/third-party/sounds
A  calc/third-party/sounds/ding.ogg
A  calc/third-party/sounds/dong.ogg
A  calc/third-party/sounds/clang.ogg
A  calc/third-party/sounds/bang.ogg
A  calc/third-party/sounds/twang.ogg
Checked out revision 14.

Fetching external item into calc/third-party/skins

If you need to change the externals definition, you can do so using the regular property modification subcommands. When you commit a change to the svn:externals property, Subversion will synchronize the checked-out items against the changed externals definition when you next run svn update. The same thing will happen when others update their working copies and receive your changes to the externals definition.


Because the svn:externals property has a multiline value, we strongly recommend that you use svn propedit instead of svn propset.


You should seriously consider using explicit revision numbers in all of your externals definitions. Doing so means that you get to decide when to pull down a different snapshot of external information, and exactly which snapshot to pull. Besides avoiding the surprise of getting changes to third-party repositories that you might not have any control over, using explicit revision numbers also means that as you backdate your working copy to a previous revision, your externals definitions will also revert to the way they looked in that previous revision, which in turn means that the external working copies will be updated to match they way they looked back when your repository was at that previous revision. For software projects, this could be the difference between a successful and a failed build of an older snapshot of your complex codebase.

The svn status command also recognizes externals definitions, displaying a status code of X for the disjoint subdirectories into which externals are checked out, and then recursing into those subdirectories to display the status of the external items themselves.

The support that exists for externals definitions in Subversion is less than ideal, though. First, an externals definition can only point to directories, not files. Second, the externals definition cannot point to relative paths (paths like ../../skins/myskin). Third, the working copies created via the externals definition support are still disconnected from the primary working copy (on whose versioned directories the svn:externals property was actually set). And Subversion still only truly operates on non-disjoint working copies. So, for example, if you want to commit changes that you've made in one or more of those external working copies, you must run svn commit explicitly on those working copies—committing on the primary working copy will not recurse into any external ones.

Also, since the definitions themselves use absolute URLs, moving or copying a directory to which they are attached will not affect what gets checked out as an external (though the relative local target subdirectory will, of course, move with renamed directory). This can be confusing—even frustrating—in certain situations. For example, say you have a top-level directory named my-project, and you've created an externals definition on one of its subdirectories (my-project/some-dir) which tracks the latest revision of another of its subdirectories (my-project/external-dir).

$ svn checkout http://svn.example.com/projects .
A    my-project
A    my-project/some-dir
A    my-project/external-dir
Fetching external item into 'my-project/some-dir/subdir'
Checked out external at revision 11.

Checked out revision 11.
$ svn propget svn:externals my-project/some-dir
subdir http://svn.example.com/projects/my-project/external-dir


Now you use svn move to rename the my-project directory. At this point, your externals definition will still refer to a path under the my-project directory, even though that directory no longer exists.

$ svn move -q my-project renamed-project
$ svn commit -m "Rename my-project to renamed-project."
Deleting       my-project
Adding         my-renamed-project

Committed revision 12.
$ svn update

Fetching external item into 'renamed-project/some-dir/subdir'
svn: Target path does not exist

Also, the absolute URLs that externals definitions use can cause problems with repositories that are available via multiple URL schemes. For example, if your Subversion server is configured to allow everyone to check out the repository over http:// or https://, but only allow commits to come in via https://, you have an interesting problem on your hands. If your externals definitions use the http:// form of the repository URLs, you won't be able to commit anything from the working copies created by those externals. On the other hand, if they use the https:// form of the URLs, anyone who might be checking out via http:// because their client doesn't support https:// will be unable to fetch the external items. Be aware, too, that if you need to re-parent your working copy (using svn switch --relocate), externals definitions will not also be re-parented.

Finally, there might be times when you would prefer that svn subcommands would not recognize, or otherwise operate upon, the external working copies. In those instances, you can pass the --ignore-externals option to the subcommand.