Blog Rebuild: Build Systems & Cross-Compiling

August 14, 2014

This is an entry in a series about rebuilding my custom blog with react, CSP, and other modern tech. Read more in the blog rebuild series.

A few years ago I remember being surprised at how popular grunt was getting. Not because it wasn't great software, but because I didn't understand what problem it solved. If I needed to process a few things like CSS before deploying to production, make seemed to work just fine.

Back then I thought things like build steps for JavaScript were an unnecessary complexity. I couldn't have been more wrong. A build system adds some complexity, yes, but a good one like gulp or broccoli is simple enough, and the returns are enormous. A complex Makefile for a JavaScript project would be a mistake, but these build tools are great.

tl;dr I chose gulp as my build system and webpack as my client-side module bundler. My final setup is on github, specifically gulpfile.js and webpack.config.js.

A Practical Approach

I'm going to be as practical as possible during this rebuild. I'm going to investigate newer things like ES6 modules, but if the tools are too immature I will fallback to something like CommonJS. I want something that works now with little effort.

What I need:

  1. A common module format for the client and server. Node uses CommonJS, and currently browsers do not enforce modules.
  2. For client-side code, a way to compile modules to run in the browser.
  3. An extensible pipeline for hooking in compilation stages for both server and client JS. This lets me hook in various JS transformations that I need.
  4. A watcher that will automatically trigger the necessary compilations to get updates automatically (and only re-compile the necessary files)
  5. Ability to define a few basic build tasks for moving files around and running the app

There are lots of things involved in the above requirements: compilation strategies, module bundling, and build task management. I don't know yet which combination of projects will work out, so let's investigate various solutions.

The main drive for a compilation pipeline is to compile out ES6 features into ES5. I don't want to hook something big like Traceur in because there are projects that compile out specific features better. For example, I want to use regenerator to compile out generators and then defs to compile out let. I've always enjoyed this post about ClojureScript's compilation pipeline, and I'm reminded of it when I think of this strategy of incrementally compiling an AST. Ideally, we will pass an AST around, but we'll see if the tools are good enough for that yet.

Of course, I'm a big fan of sweet.js so that will be the first compilation phase. I may compile out some ES6 features with the es6-macros project, but the reality is that the JS community has written mature ES6 transformations in the form of compilers, so it might make sense just to use them. I will still use macros for user-land syntax extensions, which I'll talk more about in future posts.

The Core Problem

I think the core problem is that the client and server are very different beasts. Node requires CommonJS and modules separated out into individual files. Browsers don't have modules and it's desirable to bundle everything together into a single JS file to deploy. To make things harder, everything should be sourcemapped.

The first question to ask is how a build system can help. Since we want to work with modules, we need support for N:M files at each build step. That means that given N files, a build step can produce M files. For example, given 1 file, a module plugin will return 10 files (all the dependencies), and then the next step could bundle them all together into 1 file.

This is important for watching and incremental builds. If a dependency changes, even if it's not listed directly in the files to watch, the build system should recompile. Additionally, it should only recompile the necessary changes, so it should cache each dependency, even if it's not explicitly listed in the original sources.

The second question to ask is what tools are out there for working with modules. The build system is the backbone, but we need plugins for actually doing things with modules. How well the build system supports N:M files affects how much the module loaders need to do.

Lastly, there's one more desirable feature. There are several transformations I want to do to my code (like sweet.jsregeneratordefs). It would be far better to pass an AST through this process rather than passing strings. This means we probably don't want to hook up this whole pipeline through whatever build system we choose, but wrap it up into a single plugin.

Gulp + Webpack

Gulp is a build system built around streams. One thing I like is that it's very simple to use and define new tasks. (Note: I'm going to skip over grunt because its config syntax is really bad and I just don't like it.)

Gulp supports the N:M file builds in the form of stream events. A plugin can take a single file from a stream and output multiple files. If you add a caching layer with gulp-cache, and use the more advanced gulp-watch, you could effectively pass in one JS file and have it watch and rebuild all of its dependencies.

I'm not sure a lot of people understand that you can do this, which emits 2 files for every file that comes down the stream:

function explode() {
  return es.through(function(file) {
    this.emit('data', new gutil.File({
      base: file.base,
      cwd: file.cwd,
      path: path.join(file.base, 'foo.js'),
      contents: new Buffer('boo')

    this.emit('data', file);

gulp.task("explode", function() {

Not very many projects use this to help with module bundling, though. There is one project, amd-optimize, that does basic dependency tracing for AMD modules. Still, the more sophisticated gulp-watch is needed if you want to watch new files from the stream (you could apply it after explode()); it is not builtin. Generally, there is very little mature code that integrates a module bundler into gulp. You have to work at it. So this doesn't really solve our problem of compiling modules for client-side. Everyone just uses browserify or webpack.

Additionally, you really only care about your local dependencies, not ones pulled from npm. You don't need to run your code transformations on npm dependencies. So it's really easy to just give the native watch all of your modules by just doing gulp.src('src/**/*.js'). Because of this, and the fact that server-side code doesn't require module bundling, gulp works well for transforming server-side code. This code transforms each file from src and generates files in the build folder with sourcemaps.

function makeNodeStream(src, withoutSourcemaps) {
  var stream = src.pipe(cache('src'))
        readableNames: true,
        modules: ['es6-macros']
      .pipe(jsheader('var wrapGenerator = require("regenerator/runtime/dev").wrapGenerator;'))

  if(!withoutSourcemaps) {
    stream = stream.pipe(sourcemaps.write('.'));
  return stream;

gulp.task("src", function(cb) {
    gulp.src(['src/**/*', '!src/**/*.js']).pipe(gulp.dest('build'))
  ).on('end', function() {

An additional complexity is that I have a shared folder that also needs to be transformed and output to a different directory. As for as I could tell, I couldn't combine that into a single gulp.src and gulp.dest, so I created makeNodeStream to run it on both. I also copy anything that's not a JS file from src to the build folder. Lastly, when it's finished it restarts the node process using nodemon.

My transformation pipeline here goes like this: sweet.js → regenerator → header append. I will likely add more steps in the future. This is passing around strings, which I talked about before, when we really should pass around ASTs. One thing I could do is use esnext instead and integrate sweet.js with it, and then do a single pipe to it. It would probably be much faster.

It takes about 2 seconds to compile my whole src directory, which is a bunch of code. But who cares? You don't need to recompile everything when just one file changes! Note that I use the cache('src') step first from gulp-cached; this will cache all files coming through the stream, and only re-emit files that have changed. That means we only transform new files, and it only takes a few hundred ms now.


What about client-side code? As mentioned before, even though gulp could be used as a module bundler, nobody does that since mature projects like browserify and webpack exist. I chose to use webpack since I like the API and documentation better (and it has more features).

This basically requires me to use CommonJS modules for the browser. This route is well-established in the JS community so I benefit from mature tools. Eventually I'd like to use ES6 modules, but the ecosystem isn't quite there yet. I'm being conservative here so that I don't spend too much time on my tools.

Now that I'm using webpack, all of my problems for client-side development are solved. It has everything, from code splitting to hot module replacement. Here is my webpack config:

var config = {
  cache: true,
  entry: './static/js/main.js',
  output: {
    filename: './static/js/bundle.js'
  resolve: {
    extensions: ['', '.js', '.sjs'],
    fallback: __dirname
  module: {
    loaders: [
      {test: /\.js$/,
       exclude: [/static\/js\/lib\/.*\.js$/,
       loader: 'regenerator!sweetjs?modules[]=es6-macros'},
      {test: /\.less$/, loader: "style!css!less"},
      {test: /\.css$/, loader: "style!css"}

Webpack is explicitly a module bundler, so all it needs is just one file and it will walk the dependencies. Everything will be bundled together into a single file bundle.js. This happens by default, so you can see why this doesn't work for server-side code where we just need a 1:1 file mapping.

This uses a loader on JS files to run them through sweet.js and regenerator. Again, I really should look into esnext so that I don't keep re-parsing the code.

It also uses some really cool loaders to deal with stylesheets. less-loader compiles out lesscss. css-loader is an awesome loader that converts all @import and url statements to require so that everything is resolved the same way, and lets you apply loaders on those resources being loaded, allowing things like inlining the url content straight into the stylesheet. Having everything go through the same mechanism (and able to pull from npm dependencies) is extremely liberating.

To top it all off, style-loader is a loader that automatically adds a style tag to the page when the css file is requireed. It also inlines all the CSS into your JavaScript bundle, but you can also make it reference an external CSS file. Either way, all you have to do is require('css/main.css') in your JavaScript and it just works.

There are a few other things I do with gulp and webpack, mostly to get integration with a few modules pulled down from npm (like React) working. I also have a run task that starts my app and uses nodemon to track it so it can be restarted whenever a change happens.

View my final setup on github.

Broccoli + ES6 modules

Broccoli is a rather new build tool that operates on tree structures, so it gets good incremental rebuilds and watches for free. See the annoucement blog post for more details.

I'm not sure if broccoli competes more with gulp or webpack. It sits somewhere in the middle. It doesn't have any concept of tasks, so I can't make a run task that restarts my server on changes. But it's also not nearly as specific as webpack, and doesn't dictate anything specific about modules or how things are bundled.

I think broccoli makes it a lot easier to write something like webpack, and that's the idea. Basically, in broccoli plugins are always passing around whole trees of files, and a plugin can easily expand a tree into a much bigger tree if needed. This makes it easy to expand dependencies but still leverage the build system to handle them. So watching for changes in dependencies works great, and incremental builds are really fast because it can easily figure out what to do. Webpack has to figure all of this stuff out itself.

I like the idea of broccoli, and because working with modules is easy people are doing a lot of great work to get a workflow for compiling ES6 modules. This plugin integrates es6-module-transpiler with broccoli and does all the dependency stuff.

The thing broccoli could solve for me is not only using ES6 modules, but also to unify the JS transformation between server-side and client-side. Using gulp and webpack, I have two completely separate processes.

This was my first Brocfile.js to see how it would work out:

var pickFiles = require('broccoli-static-compiler');
var sweetjs = require('broccoli-sweetjs');
var transpileES6 = require('broccoli-es6-module-transpiler');

var src = pickFiles('src', {
  srcDir: '/',
  destDir: '/'

src = sweetjs(src, {
  modules: ['es6-macros']

src = transpileES6(src, { type: 'cjs' });
module.exports = src;

Unfortunately, I immediately ran into a bug and it wouldn't compile my code. Somehow I was using an older version that didn't work with nested yields (I guess a newer version needs to be pushed to npm). These kinds of bugs can easily be fixed.

I also ran into a bigger issue though: that project does not have a good story for integration with npm dependencies yet (more discussion here). With webpack, I could require just require dependencies and it would look in node_modules, and it worked awesomely. I don't know why we can't do something similar with ES6 modules.

There was also another big issue in general with broccoli: sourcemaps. The sourcemap story for broccoli is very vague (es6-module-transpiler supports them just fine, but I don't know how to expand with sweet.js and pass it the result & sourcemaps and make it combine them). The standard project broccoli-filter which is supposed to be used by plugins that simply map files 1:1 states right in the README that is does not support sourcemaps. That is insane to me and I can't think about using broccoli until sourcemaps are deeply integrated through and through. Also see this discussion.

In gulp, it's really easy with the awesome gulp-sourcemaps project. You just hook into the stream and write sourcemaps to a directory:


Plugins have a standard method of applying sourcemaps. The sourcemap is attached to the File instances that are passed through the stream, and combined using vinyl-sourcemaps-apply. It looks like this:

var applySourceMap = require('vinyl-sourcemaps-apply');
// ...
if(myGeneratedSourceMap) {
  applySourceMap(file, myGeneratedSourceMap);

That incrementally combines sourcemaps as they are applied through the streams. It has worked out really well for me.

Even without all these problems, the story in general for browser-side module bundling isn't nearly as strong as browserify or webpack, which have tons of features specific for browser modules. So until we get a solid build system that has plugins that implement most of those features of a module bundler, right now using gulp/broccoli + browserify/webpack works pretty darn well.

Most likely, I will switch my project to ES6 modules when can find a good cross-compiler that works well with CommonJS and my current build system.

I could use broccoli and webpack, but at this point I'm just going to stick with gulp. It's easy to use and works really well with server-side transformation and sourcemaps. As for broccoli, I understand the design and I like it, but it does make plugin development very complicated and I'm not entirely sold on it, especially when you can do N:M compilations with gulp. Lastly, it uses temporary files so gulp is potentially faster with streams.

Stream of Thought EOF

There are several other build systems out there and a million ways to combine them. I can't possibly cover all of them, but I hope this gave some insight into my process for researching. I have something that works well, and the only thing I'll improve in the future is using ES6 modules instead of CJS.

View the full repo to see all the glorious code. Specifically, check out the full gulpfile.js and webpack.config.js. What's neat about this set up is I can run webpack from the CLI like normal, but it's also defined as a task so gulp webpack will work and it can be used as a task dependency (for tasks like gulp all). I can switch between the systems easily.

I'm sure I have made some errors in this post, as it was mostly stream of thought as I was doing my research. If something is completely off, let me know.