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What's in a Build Tool?

Posted 2016-03-04
Strategic Scala Style: Conciseness & NamesDiving Into Other People's Code

A "Build tool" is a catch-all term that refers to anything that is needed to get a piece of software set up, but isn't needed after that. Different programming communities have a wealth of different tools: some use stalwarts like make, some use loose collections of .sh scripts, some use XML-based tools like Maven or Ant, JSON-based tools like Grunt, or code-based tools like Gulp, Grunt or SBT.

Each of these tools does different things and has a different set of trade-offs associated with them. Given all these different designs, and different things each tool does, what are the common features that build tools provide that people want? How to existing tools stack up against the things that people want build tools to do?

About the Author: Haoyi is a software engineer, and the author of many open-source Scala tools such as the Ammonite REPL and the Mill Build Tool. If you enjoyed the contents on this blog, you may also enjoy Haoyi's book Hands-on Scala Programming

This post will go through some common use cases for build tools, pick out and discuss common features, see which boxes existing tools check, and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully in the process, you'll get a good sense of what the frankenstein "essence" of a build tool really is, and if you ever decide to go and write your own you'll be well prepared.

I am not an expert in all the tools presented here, so if there are mistakes anywhere in this post, feel free to post a correction in the comments and I'll update the post accordingly!

At A Glance

Use Cases for Build Tools

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to draw an arbitrary line and say that build tools are used in

This is arbitrary, but it should encompass a large portion of where people consider using "build tools". For example

Production Deployment

Using a build tool in a production deployment is relatively straightforward: you start off with a clean checkout of the source code, and compile whatever you need and generate whatever files you need in order to create a complete, executable environment. You often don't care how responsive things are because this only happens perhaps once-a-week or once-a-day or once-an-hour, so as long as it doesn't take hours to perform it's fine.

Nevertheless, the build tool still has a lot of work to do. In particular, it has to:

You thus have to make sure you perform every step, in order, and feed the outputs from one command into the inputs of another command that needs them.

Naturally, there are always edge cases. For example, Google is famous for performing remote caching of their build artifacts due to how long it takes, while for most smaller codebases you can get away with a clean build every time. Similarly, there are organizations that deploy every commit to production, blurring the line between "Production" and "CI" builds. Nevertheless, the above should describe a relatively typical workload for a "production build".

Continuous Integration

In continuous integration, you are running a build-&-test flow across every commit which lands in your repository, and perhaps even for commits that haven't yet landed. You may be using TravisCI, CircleCI, Jenkins, or your own company-internal system to do so.

The continuous integration (CI) workload is similar to the production deployment workload, but with a few twists:

Thus, the "CI" build often has a different set of requirements than the "production" build: it needs to be faster, since it's happening so often. It needs to be able to isolate its builds from other builds, which may be running different versions of the code on the same cluster or even the same machine.

Therefore you end up looking for features like:

Not every company's or individual's CI system looks the same; not every company or individual even has CI! Nonetheless, I would argue that this is a relatively representative sample of the kind of workload build-systems get in automated builds.

Developer Environments

Using a build tool in development environments is perhaps the most demanding of the three use cases described. In a development environment, a programmer is actively making changes to the codebase, and then executing code to see if the changes have the effect they want. They could be navigating to a local website in the browser that's running their copy of the code and clicking around, or they could be running a unit test (or a whole suite), or they could be opening a REPL, running code interactively, and inspecting the output there.

Regardless of how the programmer is running code, the build system needs to get the code ready to run the first time, as well as constantly "updating" the system as the code changes underneath. Any compiled executables may need to be re-compiled, any generated files may need to be re-generated. When the build tool is done updating the system, the programmer should be able to interact with the system as if the code was always in the current state. And the build tool should ideally work in a fraction of a second: after all, the programmer is sitting there waiting for you!

Given this scenario, these are the features you want your build tool to have, on top of what you already want for CI and Deployment purposes:

Common Features In Build Tools

From the three primary use cases above, here is the list of things that we could conceivably ask a build system to do:

  1. Running ad-hoc commands
  2. Knowing how to order the execution of commands based on dependencies
  3. Caching command output if its inputs don't change
  4. Parallelize different commands
  5. Watch for file-changes and running commands based on them
  6. Using external processes, including compilers
  7. Being used by external processes
  8. Allowing configuration, re-configuration, re-re-configuration
  9. Download dependencies

This isn't an exhaustive list, but it should be a pretty good sampling. This section will discuss each of these features in greater detail.

Running ad-hoc commands

The basic requirement here is that you need to be able to run ad-hoc code as part of your build process. The list of things you may want to run are infinite, but includes things like:

There are a lot of things that you can possibly want to do with your code during a "build" in development, CI, and production. Many of them don't apply at all at runtime: they are purely a concern during developing, building and packaging your code.

It's possible for this requirement to be satisfied by a bunch of Shell Scripts used together, a simpler build tool which then does not need to do this, but that has its downsides. For example, it means that the build tool is then unaware of where these commands fit in to the larger scheme of things. For example, if compilation of the "main" codebase depends on the code generated from IDL files, you will then have to manually ensure you run this code-generation script every time the IDL files change.

Knowing how to order the execution of commands based on dependencies

The requirement here is that you should be able to take the output of one command and feed it into another command. Furthermore, you should not need to do the feeding yourself: if I have two commands

I should be able to ask the build tool to run commandA, and it should know that it will need to run commandB first to make it work. Similarly, if I ask it to run commandB alone, it should know not to run commandA.

In a trivial example it's easy enough to do it manually and remember what order to do things in. But when your build grows, and you have things like:

Remembering to do the right things in the right order becomes impossible. You will pull down a patch, which will result in 100 files changing throughout the project, and you want to run test while not doing any redundant work since every task in this build may take 10+ seconds, and not forgetting to do any work since stale results from generateIDL or compile or resources will result in obscure hard-to-debug breakages. In this sort of scenario, you would be very thankful if the build tool would do all the book-keeping for you and not make any mistakes!

Caching command output if its inputs don't change

This is the other common thing build tools do: they avoid doing redundant work.

It is easy to have a simple test.sh script that does everything, every time:

# test.sh

However, this would end up being very slow if you redundantly kept re-bundling resources and re-compiling code if we didn't need to. The build tool should be able to tell what changed and what didn't, and only do the minimal amount of work necessary.

This doesn't matter so much for production deployments, since you tend to run "everything", once, and be done with it. But it does matter a lot for people's development environments, where they're constantly making small tweaks and wanting to get back to work as soon as possible without unnecessary waiting.

Parallelize different commands

If we return to the earlier example-dependency-graph:

If I haven't done anything, and I ask the build tool to package, it should be able to perform compile/generateIDL and resources in parallel. After all, those two tasks do not depend on each other! In this case it could cut the time I spend waiting in half, and in a larger build with more items the savings would be even greater.

Again, it doesn't matter as much if you're running the build once a day for deployment. But if you're running it 4 times a minute any unnecessary slowness results in frustration that adds up quickly!

Watch for file-changes and running commands based on them

Given this dependency graph:

If I edit a file in my hypothetical src/ directory, and I'm currently doing a run, I want it to automatically re-compile, re-package and re-run without me having to flip over to the terminal and do stuff manually.

This can be done at a coarse grain, with sufficiently smart caching: if any file changes, re-do "everything", and let the caching do the work of figuring out which tasks don't actually need to be re-done. On the other hand, finer grained file-watching (kicking off different commands based on different files) would speed thing up over that coarse grained analysis: you wouldn't need to repeatedly check dozens of caches for invalidation, and can instead just do the small amount of work you know you need to do.

Using external processes, including compilers

As builds grow, they tend to require all sorts of things that are not part of the build tool:

There are many other things that a build-tool will end up needing, too many for it to contain them all. A build tool thus should be able to work easily with external programs, even those it has no knowledge of, and integrate them into it's build.

Being used by external processes

A build tool is rarely the be-all end-all of building the project. Inevitably it ends up being used by other tools:

In all these cases, the requirements are relatively straightforward: you need your build-tool to be accessible programmatically. Whether it's being able to programmatically run tasks or programmatically inspect the layout of the project, it needs to be doable from an external process relatively efficiently and easily.

Allowing configuration, re-configuration, re-re-configuration

Builds are probably some of the most configurable pieces of software. It is not uncommon to have "just one tweak" you want to control using a flag, and needing that flag to get propagated throughout the build into multiple sub-processes (e.g. compilers, packagers). Examples include:

There's a lot that you could want to configure in a build, and a build tool needs to let you configure it in a reasonable way.

Download dependencies

Lastly, a build tool should be able to do the language-specific work of downloading dependencies. As mentioned earlier, the compiler is often just another executable that the build tool shells out to, but the dependency management is often language-specific. While there are attempts to make generic, language agnostic dependency management systems like Nix, or apt-get or yum on various linuxes, for many people working within a single Java, Node.js or Python program, it's more likely you'll be getting the bulk of your dependencies from your respective Maven Central, npm, or PyPI repositories.

Traditionally, a you needed to install these dependencies manually beforehand, e.g.

sudo pip install requests
sudo pip install Pillow
sudo pip install numpy
sudo pip install SQLAlchemy
sudo pip install six
sudo pip install simplejson
python test.py

and running your program without doing so would result in arbitrary ImportErrors. And as the dependencies change, you would need to make sure to run the right command to install the new stuff, or you're going to be back to ImportErrors again!

With a build-tool managing this, you would do something like

sbt test

Where and it would automatically pull down everything necessary for the project to be tested the first time, and not bother doing so the second and subsequent times.

Analyzing Build Tools

In this part of the post, I will go over a selection of build tools I've seen. I am not deeply familiar to all of them, so there may be mistakes

This is not a comprehensive listing, but it will give a sense of how build tools across a variety of languages and communities fare against the requirements we listed above.

Note that this list is in no way exhaustive; in particular, it focuses a lot more on "language" build tools: for building application code, in one or a small number of languages. In particular, it ignores a number of other similar tools that can be classified as "build tools", e.g.

These other tools are just as valid considerations as those above, and I just leave them out for brevity. Perhaps in a future blog post I can cover these cases!

Shell Scripts

sudo su

# install a whole lot of stuff
apt-get install --force-yes openssh-server
apt-get install --force-yes ack-grep

apt-get install --force-yes openjdk-7-jdk
apt-get install --force-yes vim
apt-get install --force-yes git
apt-get install --force-yes zip

# setup samba share
apt-get install --force-yes samba
cat <<EOF >> /etc/samba/smb.conf
   path = /
   guest ok = yes
   public = yes
   writable = yes
   force user = lihaoyi
restart smbd


These are probably the first "build tool" that you will bump up against: after setting things up manually the first time, the obvious next step is to put the setup into a shell script so you can run it over and over. At some point, it might grow into a collection of shell scripts, or even a Python script, but the overall setup doesn't change: you have a collection of commands that are run every time you want to do something.

So how does that stack up against the requirements I described above?

  1. Running ad-hoc commands: Good. You can kick off basically any command you could imagine, from anywhere in the script, with minimal fuss.

  2. Knowing how to order the execution of commands based on dependencies: Poor. Loose scripts tend to "just do things", and dependencies between the things they're doing is implicit. If you put things in the wrong order, things just fail in ad-hoc ways.

  3. Caching command output if its inputs don't change: Poor. It's relatively annoying to make loose scripts properly cache things and avoid redundant work. It's definitely possible, e.g. by having code that mtimes every source file before determining whether or not to recompile, but it's hard to get right and often not done at all.

  4. Parallelize different commands: Okay: It's easy to parallelize things in loose scripts, even if it's not done automatically. If you know that two commands can happen independently, you can easily parallelize them using Bash's & syntax

  5. Watch for file-changes and running commands based on them: Poor. Loose scripts just don't do this by default. You could hack something together using Watchman or Watchdog, but it's a pain to get right

  6. Using external processes, including compilers: Good. It's really easy to kick off external processes in a shell script.

  7. Being used by external processes: Good. It's equally easy to kick off shell scripts from external processes.

  8. Allowing configuration, re-configuration, re-re-configuration: Okay. You can reconfigure things and through environment variables and have them automatically propagate everywhere. It's not great, but it's not any worse than anything else in shell-script-land

  9. Download dependencies: Poor. You can hard-code it, but it's just as likely to either fall out of sync because you didn't download enough, or become really slow when you download too many.

In general, shell scripts do an OK job at being a build tool, but not great. Their great advantage is their convenience: really easy to get started, really easy to start using other tools or to be used from other tools, and can even (surprisingly?) let you parallelize parts of your build acceptably, if manually. On the other hand, they don't have a model of "what depends on what" inside your build, and so do a lousy job at ensuring things are run in the right order, or ensuring you aren't doing redundant work.


all: hello

hello: main.o factorial.o hello.o
    g++ main.o factorial.o hello.o -o hello

main.o: main.cpp
    g++ -c main.cpp

factorial.o: factorial.cpp
    g++ -c factorial.cpp

hello.o: hello.cpp
    g++ -c hello.cpp

    rm *o hello

Make is a 40 year old build automation tool from the Unix/C tradition. It lets you define multiple shell commands you can do, but more than that it lets you define the inputs and output for each command as a sequence of files. For each of the bullets above, the word before the : (e.g. hello) is the label of the command, and the files after are the files or targets which that command depends on.

That means that if you run hello, it will ensure that main.o, factorial.o and hello.o are all pre-compiled before it links them all into hello. Furthermore, if the timestamps on the already-generated files are more recent than that of the source files, they will be re-used and re-compilation will be avoided.

So how does that stack up against the requirements I described above?

  1. Running ad-hoc commands: Good. Make rules are literally ad-hoc commands, and you can make a rule do anything as long as it generates files on the filesystem somewhere

  2. Knowing how to order the execution of commands based on dependencies: Okay. The dependencies between targets is specified, but there's nothing ensuring that it matches up with the real dependencies of each target. It's up to the programmer to "know" what the dependencies and outputs of each target is: this both results in some duplication (need to specify input files as args to each command, as well as the same files as dependencies of the target) as well ask risk you'll mess up. Still, it's far better than Bash

  3. Caching command output if its inputs don't change: Good. Assuming you got the dependencies right, Make does this transparently by default

  4. Parallelize different commands: Okay: There's no automatic way to parallelize different targets, though you can still parallelize a single target using Bash.

  5. Watch for file-changes and running commands based on them: Poor. Make doesn't do this

  6. Using external processes, including compilers: Good. Make files are all about kicking off external processes

  7. Being used by external processes: Good. make target is easy to run

  8. Allowing configuration, re-configuration, re-re-configuration: Okay. You can reconfigure things using environment variables like Bash, as well as through macros, or passing arguments to make, but it's sufficiently annoying that many people use Autoconf to write out machine-generated make files instead.

  9. Download dependencies: Poor. It usually ends up being punted to other tools like ./configure

In practice, this fixes two large problems with Bash Scripts - the dependency execution order and caching - while still being relatively close to what Bash in most other ways. It integrates trivially with third party programs, and often you can take whatever you would have run at the command-line and paste it directly into a make target. Nevertheless, many of the other problems still remain, and you get the additional annoyance of working with its own, strange syntax.


<?xml version="1.0"?>
<project name="Hello" default="compile">
    <target name="clean" description="remove intermediate files">
        <delete dir="classes"/>
    <target name="clobber" depends="clean" description="remove all artifact files">
        <delete file="hello.jar"/>
    <target name="compile" description="compile the Java source code to class files">
        <mkdir dir="classes"/>
        <javac srcdir="." destdir="classes"/>
    <target name="jar" depends="compile" description="create a Jar file for the application">
        <jar destfile="hello.jar">
            <fileset dir="classes" includes="**/*.class"/>
                <attribute name="Main-Class" value="HelloProgram"/>

Ant scripts are basically isomorphic to shell scripts: they are effectively shell scripts with an XML syntax implemented in Java, but function more or less identically: you run targets with the XML (equivalent to bash functions) and it executes the commands within from top to bottom.

Ant has the following main differences from shell scripts

It's almost like a make-file, converted into XML, running on the Java Virtual Machine rather than using Unix shell commands. The task-execution model is similar to Make, and the innards of each command is similar to Bash, just converted into a verbose XML syntax.

You also gain the ability to run "anywhere with Java", but lose the ability to run "anywhere with Unix", so overall the cross-platform-ness of Ant scripts isn't as much a gain as a sideways-change. It allows usage by some new developers (e.g. those on Windows) at the expense of others (those on Unix without a JVM).


  <!-- model version is always 4.0.0 for Maven 2.x POMs -->

  <!-- project coordinates, i.e. a group of values which
       uniquely identify this project -->


  <!-- library dependencies -->


      <!-- coordinates of the required library -->


      <!-- this dependency is only used for running and compiling tests -->



Maven is another build tool from the Java community. While it's XML-based like Ant, that's where the similarity ends.

Rather than describing a build as a sequence of commands to run in response to each named target, Maven describes your build as a set of modules. Each module lists out metadata such as:

Along with a list of phases

  1. validate
  2. generate-sources
  3. process-sources
  4. generate-resources
  5. process-resources
  6. compile
  7. process-test-sources
  8. process-test-resources
  9. test-compile
  10. test
  11. package
  12. install
  13. deploy

You run commands via

mvn test

Which automatically will run all necessary phases in all modules up to the test phase, which will run the unit tests for you.

You can also run tests for a single module

mvn -pl submodule test

Which will run all phases in the submodule submodule, as well as all modules that it depends on, before running its tests.

In general, if you have a task that you want to do that does not fit into the default set of phases, you need to write a Maven Plugin to do so.

There's a lot more to Maven than can be described in a few paragraphs, but overall how does it fare against the list of features we decided we wanted in a build tool?

  1. Running ad-hoc commands: Poor. Maven actually makes it relatively clunky to have an extra phase to "do something" that's not part of the default. You have to go through the rigmarole of defining a plugin and then using the plugin in your build, which is no-where near as convenient as writing an ad-hoc shell script to do something.

  2. Knowing how to order the execution of commands based on dependencies: Good. Maven knows what the order of commands is and can ensure it runs all the phases necessary before running the phase you want. You won't find yourself running mvn test and having it crash because you forgot to run some other command earlier.

  3. Caching command output if its inputs don't change: Good. Maven does this.

  4. Parallelize different commands: Good. Maven didn't let you do this originally, but in Maven 3 the ability to run builds in parallel appeared:

mvn -T 4 install -- will use 4 threads mvn -T 1C install -- will use 1 thread per available CPU core

  1. Watch for file-changes and running commands based on them: Okay. Maven doesn't do this by default, but there's a Maven Plugin that does it for you without too much difficulty in https://github.com/rzymek/watcher-maven-plugin. It doesn't let you run arbitrary goals when things change, but at least you can watcher:run

  2. Using external processes, including compilers: Okay. Maven comes with the Java compiler built-in, but doing anything else requires custom plugin code. It's not hard to write, but definitely less convenient than invoking something from Bash.

  3. Being used by external processes: Good. Maven's "dumb" XML config means that it's easy for third-party IDEs like IntelliJ to inspect the build and know how a project is laid out

  4. Allowing configuration, re-configuration, re-re-configuration: Good. Maven supports POM Inheritance, allowing you to configure things once and re-use the configuration, with tweaks, in multiple modules.

  5. Download dependencies: Good. Maven does this automatically, and treats remote dependencies the same as it does local dependencies. You shouldn't ever need to worry about manually downloading or installing .jar files when dealing with Maven projects.


task :build_refact => [:clean] do
  target = SITE_DIR + 'refact/'
  mkdir_p target, QUIET
  require 'refactoringHome'
  OutputCapturer.new.run {run_refactoring}

file 'build/dev/rake.html' => 'dev/rake.xml' do |t|
  require 'paper'
  maker = PaperMaker.new t.prerequisites[0], t.name

Rake is a contraction of "Ruby Make", and its overall structure is very similar to that of a Makefile: you define tasks, each one "doing something", and define the dependencies between them. Once that's done, you can run individual tasks using the rake executable similar to how you run Makefile targets using make.

The primary differences from Make arise from the fact that your tasks are defined in Ruby rather than in its own ad-hoc language.

In addition to these things, the Ruby world has standardized on the gem tool for pulling down dependencies, so although it's not strictly part of Rake (it used to be) for all intents and purposes the "downloading dependencies" problem is solved for people using Rake in Ruby codebases

Overall, the main contribution Rake makes to the space of build tools is the idea that your build tool can be in a real, concise, high-level programming language. When programs were written in C or Java, code is so verbose that it seems unreasonable to write your build rules in C or Java. As a result, you'd rather invent your own syntax like Make, write everything in XML like Ant or Maven, or just rely on loose collections of shell scripts to do what you want.

Rake shows that with Ruby, you can in fact have a full-blown programming language inside your build tool, while still being almost (though not quite) as concise as your own hand-crafted syntax, and still getting all the "nice" dependency-tracking and other features that traditional custom build-languages or build-XML-files provided.


module.exports = function(grunt) {

    jshint: {
      files: ['Gruntfile.js', 'src/**/*.js', 'test/**/*.js'],
      options: {
        globals: {
          jQuery: true
    watch: {
      files: ['<%= jshint.files %>'],
      tasks: ['jshint']


  grunt.registerTask('default', ['jshint']);


Grunt is pretty similar to Maven in its overall structure: you pass in an almost-dumb-struct to the grunt.initConfig function, and that configures the entire build telling it where files are, what sources need to be compiled, where the output should go, what files it needs to watch, and so on. It's not quite a dumb struct, as you end up having some simple logic e.g. the '<%= jshint.files %>' string above, which will get evaluated based on the value of the jshint.files configuration option.

Like Maven, and unlike Ant or Make or Shell Scripts, a Grunt build doesn't contain imperative code. All the code that actually does the work of dealing with files or shelling out the jshint is pushed to plugins, e.g. grunt-contrib-jshint and grunt-contrib-watch above, and the "main" build configuration only deals with configuring these plugins.

So how does that stack up against the requirements I described above?

  1. Running ad-hoc commands: Okay. While most plugins work via the configuration passed in through grunt.initConfig, you can also write custom tasks via grunt.registerTask to do ad-hoc work.

  2. Knowing how to order the execution of commands based on dependencies: Poor. While grunt lets you define tasks, you cannot define dependencies like you can in Make or Rake, nor does Grunt have a standardized-lifecycle like Maven that would allow you to make sure things run "in the right order" via their placement in the lifecycle.

  3. Caching command output if its inputs don't change: Poor. Grunt doesn't provide any support for caching by default. It's left to the individual plugins to do their own caching and avoid redundant work.

  4. Parallelize different commands: Poor: Grunt doesn't run things in parallel. There are plugins that attempt to do this, but none of them are widespread or ubiquitous

  5. Watch for file-changes and running commands based on them: Good. Grunt doesn't do this either, but unlike the plugins for parallelizing tasks, the grunt-contrib-watch plugin is pretty ubiquitous. Everyone is using it, and it works.

  6. Using external processes, including compilers: Poor. You need to write grunt plugins for all the various external processes you want to kick off.

  7. Being used by external processes: Good. Calling grunt foo is easy and fast.

  8. Allowing configuration, re-configuration, re-re-configuration: Good. While you can't easily write Javascript code to do things in your grunt build, it is pretty easy to use Javascript code to configure things. The grunt.initConfig function is just a Javascript call, and you can perform whatever logic you want to configure and re-configure the build before you pass it to Grunt.

  9. Download dependencies: Good. Perhaps not by virtue of Grunt, but most people using Grunt are using Javascript which has NPM, which does a decent job at downloading dependencies.

Grunt Is both similar and different from the tools we saw earlier. It provides the ability to define ad-hoc tasks like Ant/Make/Rake, while at the same time providing a "Build Config" structure similar to what you have in Maven where all your config lives in one XML tree.

Unlike Ant/Make/Rake, Grunt does not allow you to easily define dependencies between tasks. Thus even if you-as-a-programmer know that taskA depends on taskB, Grunt only allows you to fail-if-taskB-is-not-run via this.requires('taskB'), and doesn't support running taskB automatically. The tasks and plugins also do not fit into any sort of standard "lifecycle" like they do in Maven, which would have allowed coarse-grained ordering.

Like Rake, you can define ad-hoc tasks and perform build configuration in a high-level language (Javascript) rather than XML or some custom syntax. Grunt is also probably one of the earlier build systems that supports the "live" watch-files-and-run-tasks workflow, avoiding needing to keep re-running grunt commands manually while you work.


gulp.task('less', function () {
  return gulp.src('./client/styles/*.less')
    .pipe(less({paths: [path.join(__dirname, 'client', 'styles')]}))

gulp.task('clean', function () {
  return gulp.src('./client/.index.js', { read: false })

gulp.task('emberate', ['clean'], function () {
  return emberate('./client', { pods: true })

gulp.task('browserify', ['emberate'], function () {
  return browserify('./client/.index.js')
    //Pass desired output filename to vinyl-source-stream
    // Start piping stream to tasks!

gulp.task('watch', function () {
  gulp.watch('./client/styles/*.less', ['less']);
  gulp.watch('./client/**/*.{js,hbs}', ['browserify']);

gulp.task('default', ['less', 'browserify', 'watch']);

Gulp is a popular alternative to Grunt in the Javascript build landscape. Rather than having the triple of Config/Plugins/Tasks, Gulp basically only has Tasks. Like Rake, tasks are defined via a task() function, which takes a task name, a function that the task executes, and optionally a list of dependencies that the task requires.

There are two main novelties to Gulp:

So how does that stack up against the requirements I described above?

  1. Running ad-hoc commands: Okay. You can run arbitrary code, but you need to provide a specific interface if you want it to fit into Gulp's .pipes.

  2. Knowing how to order the execution of commands based on dependencies: Good. In Gulp, not only do top-level tasks allow you to specify dependencies, within a task you can easily use .pipe to make sure that things happen in the correct order and that the different steps all hook up properly and read/write files from the same places

  3. Caching command output if its inputs don't change: Poor. Gulp doesn't provide any support for caching by default. It's left to the individual plugins to do their own caching and avoid redundant work.

  4. Parallelize different commands: Poor: Grunt doesn't run things in parallel. There are plugins that attempt to do this, but none of them are widespread or ubiquitous.

  5. Watch for file-changes and running commands based on them: Good. Gulp has built-in the ability to watch files and run tasks when they change.

  6. Using external processes, including compilers: Okay. You need to write gulp plugins for all the various external processes you want to kick off.

  7. Being used by external processes: Good.

  8. Allowing configuration, re-configuration, re-re-configuration: Good. It's all Javascript.

  9. Download dependencies: Good. NPM does a reasonable job.

In general, Gulp does a much better job at managing dependencies between tasks than earlier build systems. At a macro-level it provides the same task definition as Make or Rake or Ant: a Task is a name + dependencies + command, but within a task it makes it easy to chain together multiple small steps. For example, the following task:

gulp.task('script', function(){
    return gulp.src('./js/src/*.js')

Takes the .js code in a js/src folder and passes it through multiple phases: caching (via cached and remember), minification (via uglify), concatenation into a single file, and copying into a destination folder. You do not need to define files to store these intermediate results in and make sure they stay in sync (and don't collide with each other!): you just pipe the stages together and Gulp figures out the rest.


// Set the project name to the string "my-project" and the version to 1.0.0.
name := "my-project"

version := "1.0.0"

// Add a single dependency, for tests.
libraryDependencies += "junit" % "junit" % "4.8" % "test"

// Add multiple dependencies.
libraryDependencies ++= Seq(
  "net.databinder" %% "dispatch-google" % "0.7.8",
  "net.databinder" %% "dispatch-meetup" % "0.7.8"	

// Use the project version to determine the repository to publish to.
publishTo := Some(
  if (version.value endsWith "-SNAPSHOT") "http://example.com/maven/snapshots" 
  else "http://example.com/maven/releases"

// Apart from the "root" project, a SBT build can have sub-projects with their
// own configuration, or their own custom tasks associated.

val sampleStringTask = taskKey[String]("A sample string task.")
val sampleIntTask = taskKey[Int]("A sample int task.")

lazy val commonSettings = Seq(
  organization := "com.example",
  version := "0.1.0-SNAPSHOT"

lazy val library = (project in file("library")).
  settings(commonSettings: _*).
    sampleStringTask := System.getProperty("user.home"),
    sampleIntTask := {
      val sum = 1 + 2
      println("sum: " + sum)

SBT used to be called the "Simple Build Tool", but on account of its reputation of complexity and non-simple-ness the name has been since ret-conned to mean "Scala Build Tool". It is the primary build tool used by the Scala community, although some use Maven or Ant and Gradle, and SBT itself supports other JVM languages (e.g. Java) as well.

SBT is comparatively different from any build tool we've seen so far, and shares ideas with many of them:

SBT also has some novel ideas that haven't really been seen in earlier tools discussed in this post.

So how does that stack up against the requirements I described above?

  1. Running ad-hoc commands: Okay. You can run arbitrary code, but you need to define a taskKey[T] and some other boilerplate. It's not terrible, but it's slightly inconvenient.

  2. Knowing how to order the execution of commands based on dependencies: Good. SBT executes things based on the dependency graph between tasks, which is known before-hand before any of the tasks run.

  3. Caching command output if its inputs don't change: Okay. The built in Scala compilation caches and re-uses parts of the compiled code, and there is the built-in FileFunction.cached helper, but it's awkward to use.

  4. Parallelize different commands: Good: SBT runs unrelated tasks in parallel based on the dependency graph.

  5. Watch for file-changes and running commands based on them: Good. SBT does this by default. It's a bit finnicky sometimes, e.g. you can't easily watch different sets of files and run different commands based on which files change, but it does an acceptable job.

  6. Using external processes, including compilers: Okay. Shelling out from SBT isn't as convenient as Rake, but it's not bad

  7. Being used by external processes: Poor. SBT boots up terribly slowly, on the order of 5-10 seconds. This is fine when being used interactively, but if some other script wants to run sbt compile it will be paying this heavy startup each time. e.g. IDEs like IntelliJ take forever to extract a sensible project model from SBT due to its slow bootup. This is totally independent of the cost of Scala compiler warm up, and its own issue.

  8. Allowing configuration, re-configuration, re-re-configuration: Good. SBT is probably one of the most re-configurable build tools out there. Every setting can be over-ridden, such that even baked-in defaults like "where to put your files" can be re-configured. You can even e.g. re-configure your dependencies to depend on your scalaVersion if you so wished, since they're all tasks. You can easily take a large blob of configuration and re-use it in a another sub-project with miner tweaks, letting you maintain consistency across lots of different sub-modules while avoiding copying & pasting code.

  9. Download dependencies: Good. SBT by default uses Ivy which deals with Java and Scala dependencies just fine. It could be faster, but it's acceptable

In general, SBT takes a lot of steps forward from previous build tools analyzed here. While Gulp allows finer-grained ad-hoc dependency graphs to be build up using .pipe, SBT does it to an even greater degree, such that every constant or string in your build configuration: version, scalaVersion, libraryDependencies, name, all that participates in the dependency graph and can depend on things or be depended on. Furthermore, SBT's multi-module support is relatively unprecedented, letting you easily maintain consistency across a lot of different sub-modules.

SBT has its problems: apart from the boot-slowness mentioned above, there are also often complaints about the impenetrable build syntax, as well as impenetrable build semantics that makes everything trivial, but only if you know the magic incantation that is difficult to derive from first principles. Those complaints, while valid, largely fall outside of the feature-comparison of this post.

Round Up

Here's the rough round-up of where the various tools fall in the various features that we decided were desirable. I left out Ant and Rake, since they follow the featureset of Make pretty closely albeit in new languages.

Shell Scripts Make Ant Maven Rake Grunt Gulp SBT
Running ad-hoc commands Good Good Poor Okay Okay Okay
Dependency-based execution Poor Okay Good Poor Good Good
Caching command output Poor Good Good Poor Poor Okay
Parallelizing different commands Okay Okay Good Poor Poor Good
Running commands on file change Poor Poor Okay Good Good Good
Using external processes Good Good Okay Poor Okay Okay
Being used by external processes Good Good Good Good Good Poor
Configuration & re-configuration Okay Okay Good Good Good Good
Downloading dependencies Poor Poor Good Good Good Good

This is no where near a comprehensive guide to build tool functionality. Apart from being an arbitrary set of features, and an arbitrary set of judgements on each feature, it also leaves out other tools like Pants, Buck, Bazel, Salt or Puppet from the comparison.

There are a lot of different ways a build tool can be designed: from command-based tools like Rake or Gulp, to configuration-based tools like Maven or Grunt, to hybrids like SBT. Different build tools have different conceptions of "dependencies": from shell scripts having none at all, to Maven with its single, linear lifecycle, to Make/Rake/Ant with its command-based dependencies and Gulp/SBT with their fine-grained dependencies.

Hopefully this post gave a good walk through of the space of various build tools, and demonstrates the progression of the field over-time as features appear and evolve. Hopefully this gave some understanding in what a build tool is, a basis in which to compare them, and perhaps guidance if some day you decide existing tools are lacking and you want to build your own!

About the Author: Haoyi is a software engineer, and the author of many open-source Scala tools such as the Ammonite REPL and the Mill Build Tool. If you enjoyed the contents on this blog, you may also enjoy Haoyi's book Hands-on Scala Programming

Strategic Scala Style: Conciseness & NamesDiving Into Other People's Code

Updated 2016-03-04