Retooling Build and Test Automation Tools

tl;dr: I had a convention based build automation approach based on Rake we used for the FubuMVC projects that I was proud of, but the world moved on and I’ve been replacing that with newer and hopefully better tools like Fixie, Paket, and gulp.js. What I do today with FubuRake I’ve generally used Rake as my build scripting tool for the last 7-8 years, even on .Net projects and I’ve been mostly happy with it. In a grandiose attempt to simplify the build scripts across the FubuMVC ecosystem, make all the homegrown build tools we’d created easier to adopt, and support a Ruby on Rails style “fubu new” approach to bootstrapping new FubuMVC projects, I created the FubuRake library as an addon to Rake. In its most simple form, a complete working build script using FubuRake can look like this below:

require 'fuburake' do |sln|
	sln.assembly_info = {
		:product_name => "FubuCore",
		:copyright => 'Copyright 2008-2015...'

That simple script above generated rake tasks for:

  1. Generating a “CommonAssemblyInfo.cs” file to embed semantic version numbers, CI build numbers, and git commit numbers into the compiled assemblies
  2. Compiling code
  3. Fetching, building, and publishing nuget with Ripple
  4. Running unit tests with NUnit
  5. Tasks to interact with our FubuDocs tool for documentation generation (and yes, I spent way more time building our docs tool than writing docs)
  6. Tasks to create embedded resource files in csproj files as part of our Bottles strategy for modularizing large web applications

If you typed rake -T to see the task list for this script you’d see this output:

rake ci                # Target used for the CI server
rake clean             # Prepares the working directory for a new build
rake compile           # Compiles the solution src/FubuCore.sln
rake compile:debug     # Compiles the solution in Debug mode
rake compile:release   # Compiles the solution in Release mode
rake default           # **Default**, compiles and runs tests
rake docs:bottle       # 'Bottles' up a single project in the solution with...
rake docs:run          # Runs a documentation project hosted in FubuWorld
rake docs:run_chrome   # Runs the documentation projects in this solution i...
rake docs:run_firefox  # Runs the documentation projects in this solution i...
rake docs:snippets     # Gathers up code snippets from the solution into th...
rake ripple:history    # creates a history file for nuget dependencies
rake ripple:package    # packages the nuget files from the nuspec files in ...
rake ripple:publish    # publishes the built nupkg files
rake ripple:restore    # Restores nuget package files and updates all float...
rake ripple:update     # Updates nuget package files to the latest
rake sln               # Open solution src/FubuCore.sln
rake unit_test         # Runs unit tests for FubuCore.Testing
rake version           # Update the version information for the build

As you’ve probably inferred, FubuRake depended very heavily on naming and folder layout conventions for knowing what to do and how to build out its tasks like:

  • Compile the one and only *.sln file under the /src directory using MSBuild with some defaults (.Net version = 4.0, compile target = Debug)
  • Run all the NUnit tests in folders under /src that end in *.Tests or *.Testing. In the case up above, that meant “FubuCore.Testing”
  • Build and publish all the *.nuspec files found in /packaging/nuget

You could, of course, explicitly override any of the conventional behavior. Any tool using conventions almost has to have an easy facility for overriding or breaking out of the conventions for one off cases. It was fine and great as long as you mostly stayed inside our idioms for project layout and you were okay with using NUnit and Ripple. All in all, I’d say that FubuRake was a mild technical success but time has passed it by. The location of MSBuild changed in .Net 4.5, breaking our msbuild support. Ripple was always problematic and it was frequently hard to keep up with Nuget features and changes. FubuDocs was a well intentioned thing, but the support for it that got embedded into FubuRake has file locking issues that sometimes forced me to shutdown VS.Net in order to run the build. If FubuRake is Roland in the Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels, I’d say that the world has moved on. Time for the world to move on I’ve been quiet on the blogging and even the Twitter front lately because I’ve been working very hard on a near rewrite of our Storyteller tool (more on this soon) that we use at work for executable specifications and integration testing. The new work includes a lot of performance driven improvements in the existing .Net code and a brand new user interface written as a Javascript single page application. At the end of last week my situation looked like this:

  • I needed to start publishing pre-release nugets and we only do that from successful CI builds
  • Our TeamCity CI build was broken because of some kind of problem with our Ripple tool that we use for Nuget management.
  • I had started the new client in a completely separate Github repository and had been using a git submodule to include the Javascript code within the Storyteller .Net code repository for full integration
  • I had no effective automation to attach the submodule if it was missing or do the initial npm install or any of the other hidden things that a developer would have to do before being able to work with the code. In other words, my “time to login screen” metric was terrible right as I’d love to start getting some other developers to start contributing to the project with feedback or patches.
  • I’ve wanted to upgrade or replace several pieces of the build and test automation tools I use in my OSS projects for quite some time anyway — especially where there were opportunities to replace homegrown tools I no longer want to support in favor of actively maintained OSS projects.
  • We have a heavy investment in Rake and Ruby for build automation both at work and on OSS projects. Now that we have so much dependency on Node.js tools for client asset work, we’ve gotten into this situation where project build scripts may include installing gems, nugets, and npm packages and it’s becoming a problem of technology overload and build times.

As a result, I’ve spent the last couple days swapping out tools and generally trying to make the new build automation a lot easier to use for other people. I’ve merged the client javascript code into the old Storyteller repository to avoid the whole git submodule mess. I created a new build script that does everything necessary to get both the Javascript and C# code ready for development work. And lastly, I took the very unusual step (for me) of trying to document how to use the code in a readme. All told I:

  • Replaced our old NUnit-based SpecificationExtensions I ripped off from Scott Bellware ages ago with Shouldly. I chose Shouldly because I liked how terse it is, it was an easier switch than Should or Fluent Assertions would have been, and I love their error messages. It went smoothly
  • Replaced Ripple with Paket for managing Nuget dependencies. Ripple is effectively dead, I didn’t want to invest any more time in it, and Paket has a strong, active community right now. Using Nuget out of the box is completely out of the question for me, so Paket was really the only alternative. So far, so good. I hit a few quirks with Paket using multiple feeds, but quickly learned to just be very particular about version numbers. The proof for me will be when we start using Paket across multiple upstream and downstream repositories like we did with our “floating” nuget dependencies in Ripple. It’s my hope though that tools like Paket or Ripple are no longer necessary in ASP.Net vNext but we’ll see.
  • Built a small gulp.js script to compile the .Net code and run the C# unit tests. I leaned heavily at first on Mike O’Brien’s blogpost about building .Net projects with gulp. It didn’t go as smoothly as I’d like and I partially retreated to doing some things in npm scripts instead. I think this is definitely something I’m going to watch and reconsider moving forward. EDIT 3/25: I’ve already given up on gulp.js for the .Net build and I’m in the process of just using simple Javascript files called from NPM as a replacement. Oh well, no harm done.
  • Completely replaced NUnit with Fixie, but used Fixie’s ability to emulate NUnit’s attributes and behavior as a temporary measure. The FubuMVC team has wanted to do this for quite a while because of Fixie’s crazy flexible feature set and performance — and this was the perfect opportunity to finally pull that off. I’m very happy with how this has turned out so far and I’m even seeing the promised performance improvement with the test suite consistently taking 75% of the runtime that NUnit was taking on my machine. Going forward, I’m going to look to slowly remove the NUnit attributes in favor of the cleaner Fixie idioms. I’m happy with Fixie right off the bat.
  • Finally, to make sure it all “just works,” I created an overarching “npm run build” script with a matching “build.cmd” shortcut to do everything you need to do to build both the Javascript and C# code and pull down all of the various dependencies. So now, if you do a fresh clone of the Storyteller code and you already have both .Net 4.5 and Node.js >+ v10 installed, you should be able to execution “npm run build” and go straight to work. And I’ll keep patching things until that’s certified to be true by other developers;)

In case you’re wondering, the Javascript code is built with Webpack through npm scripts that also delegate to mocha and karma for testing. Ironically, I’m using gulp.js to build the .Net code but not the Javascript code, but that’s a subject for someone else to blog;)

More on Replacing Rake with Gulp

I personally like Ruby better than Javascript, especially for the kind of scripting you do for build and test automation. From time to time I still see folks wishing that the browsers would adopt Ruby as the embedded scripting language instead of Javascript, but that metaphorical ship has long since sailed and I think more developers are going to be familiar with JS than Ruby.

I gave some thought to just trying to use pure console tools for the build automation, and some of my coworkers want to investigate using make, but there’s just a little bit of programmatic manipulation here and there for picking up build versions and arguments from the CI server that I wanted to retain some kind of scripting language. I put this very question of replacing Rake to the StructureMap community and got myriad suggestions: F# based tools, C# tools using scriptcs, and Powershell based tools all made an appearance. My stance at this point is that the build script is best done with a low ceremony scripting language and preferably one that’s commonly understood so as to not be a barrier to entry. As much as I liked Rake personally, Ruby was a problem for us with many .Net developers. By choosing a Javascript based tool, we’re investing in what’s arguably the most widely used programming language going. And while this also forces developers to have a working installation of Node.js on their box, I think that’s going to be pretty common anyway.


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