Team Foundation Server is the Lotus Notes of version control tools

About a year ago, Martin Fowler conducted a survey of ThoughtWorks developers to find out what they thought about various source control tools. Not surprisingly, Git came out top. The one that came out bottom? Team Foundation Server. In fact, TFS was unique in getting no positive responses at all: out of 54 respondents who had used it, every single one of them rated it as either “problematic” or “dangerous.”

Team Foundation Server advocates claim it’s unfair to compare TFS to other source control tools, since it’s not just source control, but an integrated end-to-end application lifecycle management solution. Comparing TFS to, say, Subversion, is like comparing Microsoft Office to Notepad, so they say.

Now where have I heard something like that before? Oh yes, Lotus Notes:

The main focus for frustration is Notes’s odd way with email, and its unintuitive interface. But to complain about that is to miss the point, says Ben Rose, founder and leader of the UK Notes User Group (www.lnug.org.uk). He’s a Notes administrator, for “a large automotive group”.

“It’s regarded by many as an email program, but it’s actually groupware,” Rose explains. “It does do email, and calendaring, but can host discussion forums, and the collaboration can extend to long-distance reporting. It will integrate at the back end with huge systems. It’s extremely powerful.”

The thing is, it wasn’t the detractors who were missing the point. It was the Lotus Notes guys. You see, e-mail is right at the heart of any groupware application. It’s the part of the application that users interact with the most. It’s where usability matters the most. And it’s what Notes got wrong the most.

It’s exactly the same with ALM tools. Source control is the part of your ALM tool that is most visible to developers. It’s source control rather than, say, work item tracking or continuous integration, that can make or break your workflow. It is source control where a zero-friction experience is most important.

Team Foundation Server is not zero-friction. Not by a long shot.

I guess if you have only ever used TFS, Visual SourceSafe, and perhaps exclusively trunk-based development in merge-paranoid Subversion teams that use if statements and configuration settings to avoid branching, you would be happy enough with it, since that’s all that you know source control to be capable of. But once you’ve actually used one of the alternatives that offers you fluent, unrestricted branching and merging, a local sandbox, flexible workflows, self-consistent best practices, and source control as an extension of your undo button, the limitations of TFS become so massive that it’s not even funny any more. (Incidentally, if you tot up the figures in Fowler’s survey, you’ll find that his respondents had, on average, experience with six different tools.)

But even if you’ve never used a DVCS and are only comparing it to Subversion, it’s still a usability disaster. Subversion may have pitfalls and gotchas and limitations of its own, but once you know your way around it, you can at least work as fluently with it as is possible with a primarily trunk-based, centralised tool. In TFS, even the simplest tasks become Herculean undertakings. How do you back out a changeset that isn’t the latest, for instance? Why can’t I have a check-in screen that shows only the files that have actually changed since my last commit? Why does it take me half a dozen mouse clicks for each file in my check-in screen to find out that it doesn’t have any changes? Why is it asking me to check in files that don’t have any changes in the first place? Why does it turn Visual Studio into a Berlin Wall around my code with these awful read-only files? Why does it have a lobotomised branching and merging architecture that makes feature branches — pretty much a must-have for a pain-free ALM experience these days — impractical for all but the largest tasks? Why can’t it cache my login credentials to a server on a different domain like Subversion does? Why does the command line interface bring up dialog boxes? Is it a command line interface or isn’t it? And that’s barely scratching the surface of its usability problems. It doesn’t even have a search tool to speak of.

Furthermore, the source control component is the one part of TFS that you can’t swap out for something else. You can use TFS source control with Trac, Mantis, FogBugz or Jira, or with TeamCity or FinalBuilder, but you can’t use TFS work items or TFS build servers with Subversion, or Git, or Mercurial. As far as TFS is concerned, source control is their way or the highway.

End-to-end integration is all very well, but it is hardly a killer feature, and when the most visible component that it integrates is difficult to use and gets in the way, it ceases to be an asset and it becomes a liability. It’s far better to have a selection of separate tools, each of which is designed to do its job well, than a single monolithic application that does everything badly.