Apr 20, 2011

Ant and Maven

Last time I have written about general rules of engagement for Java developers if they want to make lives of packagers easier. Today I'll focus on specifics of two main build systems in use today: Ant and Maven, but more so on Maven for reasons I'll state in a while.


Ant is (or at least used to be) most widely deployed build system in Java ecosystem. There are probably multiple reasons for it, but generally it's because Ant is relatively simple. In *NIX world Ant is equivalent of pure make (and build.xml of Makefile). build.xml is just that: an XML, and it has additional extensions to simplify common tasks (calling javac, javadoc, etc.). So the question is:
I am starting a new java project. How can I use Ant properly to make life easier for you?
The most simple answer? DON'T! It might seem harsh and ignorant of bigger picture and it probably is. But I believe it's also true that Ant is generally harder to package than Maven. Ant build.xml files are almost always unique pieces of art in themselves and as such can be a pain to package. I am always reminded of following quote when I have to dig through some smart build.xml system:
Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it.

  --Brian Kernighan
And I have a feeling some people try to be really clever when writing their build.xml files. That said, I understand there are times when using Ant is just too tempting so I'll include a few tips for it anyway.

Use apache-ivy extension for dependencies

One of main problem with and is handling of various dependencies. Usually, they are in some subdirectory of main tree, some jars versioned, some not, some patched without any note about it...in other words nightmare in itself. Apache-ivy extension helps here because it works with dependency metadata that packagers can use to figure out real build dependencies including versions. We can also be sure that no dependencies are patched in one way or the other.

Ivy is nice for developers as well. It will make your source tarballs much smaller (You do have source tarballs right?!) and your build.xml nicer. I won't include any examples here because I believe that Ivy documentation is indeed very good.

One lib/ to rule them all

In case you really don't want to use Ivy, make sure you place all your dependencies in one directory in top level of your project (don't scatter your dependencies, even if you are using multiple sub-projects). This directory should ideally be called lib/. It should contain your dependencies named as ${name}-${version}.jar. Most of the time you should include license files for every dependency you bundle, because you are becoming distributors and for most licenses this means you have to provide full text of the license. For licenses use identical name as jar filenames, but use ".license" suffix. All in all, make it easy to figure out your build dependencies and play with them.

Don't be too clever

I can't stress this enough. Try to keep your build.xml files to the bare minimum. Understanding ten 30 KiB big build.xml files with multiple-phase build and tests spread through 10 directories is no fun. Please think of poor packager when you write your build.xml files. I don't mind having grey hair that much, but I'd rather if it came later rather than sooner.


And now we are coming to my favourite part. Maven is a build and project management tool that has extensive plugin support able to do almost anything developer might ask for. And all that while providing formal project structure, so that once you learn how Maven works in one project you can re-use your knowledge in other projects.

Maven goodies

Maven provides several good things for packagers such as providing clear dependencies and preventing simple patched dependencies from sneaking in. Most important advantage for packagers coming with Maven is the fact that problems are the same in all projects. Once you understand how certain Maven plugin works, you will know what to expect and what to look for. But Maven is nice not just for packagers, but also for developers.

Declarative instead of descriptive

You don't tell Maven:
Add jar A, jar B to the classpath, then use this properies file to set-up test resources. Then compile tests (Have you compiled sources yet?) and then ... and run them with X
Instead you place test files and resources into appropriate directories and Maven will take care of everything. You just need to specify your test dependencies in nice and tidy pom.xml.

Project metadata in one place

With Maven you have all project information in one place:
  • Developer contact information
  • Homepage
  • SCM URLs
  • Mailinglists
  • Issue tracker URL
  • Project reports/site generation
  • Dependencies
  • Ability modify behaviour according to architecture, OS or other property
Need I say more? Fill it out, keep it up-to-date and we will all be happy.

Great integration with other tools

Ecosystem around Maven has been growing in past years and now you will find good support for handling your pom.xml files in any major java IDE. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are Maven plugins adding all kinds of additional tool support. Running checkstyle on your code, helping with licensing, integration with gpg, ssh, jflex and making releases. There are plugins for that and more.

Support for Ant

If you are in process of migrating your build system from Ant to Maven, you can do it in phases. For parts of your builds you can easily run Ant with maven-ant-plugin. Good example of such migration in progress is checkstyle. In version 5.2 they introduced Maven build system while preserving their old layout and running Ant for tests.

Maven messier side

A.K.A What you need to be aware of. It's generally quite hard to do something bad in Maven, because it won't let you do that easily. That said, there are plugins that can make it hard for us to package your software.


This specific goal can potentially cause problems because it allows to copy classes from dependencies into resulting jar files. As I wrote last time, this is unacceptable because it creates possible licensing, security and maintenance nightmares. If you need even just one class from another project, rather than copying it, add it as a dependency into pom.xml


Shade plugin is a very shady plugin (pun intended). It can be used to weave depdencies inside your jars while changing their package names and doing all kinds of modifications in the process. I'll give you a small test now :-) Let's say you have jar file with following contents:
Can you tell, from looking at jar contents where is org.packager.signature subpackage coming from? Take your time, think about it. Nothing? Well here's a hint:
I believe this demonstrates why usage of shade plugin is evil (in 99% of cases at least). This is especially problematic if the shaded packages are part of public API of your project, because we won't be able to simply fix this in one package, but it will cascade up the dependency chain.


Bundle is one of the more controversial plugins, because it can be used both for good and bad :-) One of the most important good use cases for bundle plugin is generating OSGI bundles. Every project can easily make their jar files OSGI compatible by doing something like this:
Easy right? Now to the darker side of bundle plugin. I have another example to test your skills. This one should be easier than shade plugin:
Problem is the same as with shade plugin (bundling of dependencies), but at least here it's more visible in the contents of the jar and it will not poison API of the jar. Just for the record, this is how it was created:


Today I wrote about:
  • Ant and why you shouldn't use it (that much)
  • Ant and how to use it if you have to
  • Maven and why it rocks for packagers and developers
  • Maven and its plugins and why they suck for packagers sometimes
There are a lot more things that can cause problems, but these are the most obvious and easily fixed. I'll try to gather more information about things we (packagers) can do to help you (developers) a bit more and perhaps include one final part for this guide.



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  1. As an Ant guy i'm intrigued by Maven if it can standardize projects but my small experiences with it have left much to be desired. As in, stuff didn't work out of the box, the error was obscure and the pom.xml is completely unreadable for a ant/make guy.

  2. That is surprising to me. I'll be first to point out that maven has weird error messages at times and some customisations are not easily done. But whole idea of Maven is that it works out of the box (if you follow best practices about putting files in right directories etc.). For that matter I believe Maven 3 improved error handling somewhat.

    Readability of pom is what it is. It has its own "language" that you have to learn so there is certain learning curve to it. But you only do it once, whereas basic Ant tasks are simple to understand, but developers always combine them and create new things you have to understand from scratch for every new project you start hacking on.