What is build automation or automated build?
Automated build is when there is no human intervention in the build process. Build automation is the elimination of human intervention. To elaborate, ‘build’ is the process through which the files and assets that the developers handle become finished software products. The steps under build include compiling and then packaging these compiled source files, creating or updating the database, producing installers, running automated tests, etc.
When these steps are completely or partially automated, and no human intervention is required, it is called an automated build. The process of doing so is then called build automation or, automated build process.
Build automation is possible when the steps involved in the build are repeatable, require no human intervention and can be performed using just the information that has already been stored in the source code control repository by the developers.
These automated build processes can be triggered in any of the following ways:
- Manually - A dev requests for the new build manually.
- Schedule - Automatic builds at scheduled intervals.
- Source code - Builds are automatically run after every code commit by teams.
- Post-process - Each time a particular process is complete, builds are run.
Two Types of Build
The two types of build are:
- Full Build - The source files are used to build the entire application. The automation builds the target software components from the source files.
- Incremental Build - Incremental build is used to build on top of an existing build. The automation checks what has been changed since the last build and rebuilds or compiles any file that has been changed since then. These aren’t as reliable as the full build but are better in terms of speed.
Examples of build automation in the past
Build automation isn’t a new concept with multiple instances of its use in the past.
- In 1977, the ‘make’ tool for Unix systems was created, it is a program building file. It was created with the aim of simplifying building program executables that otherwise would need a lot of intervention.
- When the RAD (Rapid app development) tools and IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) gained popularity in the 1990s, the ‘make’ type tools struggled a bit to retain popularity.
- When agile development practices became popular in the 2000s, ‘make’ type build automation saw a major popularity gain.
Benefits that can be expected from an automated build process:
When automation isn’t being used, a single-track, step-by-step process from architecture to deployment is followed in software development. Being a manual process, this often makes the development slow and cumbersome. Errors are also quite common when automation isn’t being used. Automated build allows for flexibility and agility while enabling the firm to keep up with any changes in demand.
Due to this, the expected benefits of automation in building are plenty. Some of these are:
- Elimination of errors: Since the number of variables in automated processes are limited, automated build processes are expected to have lesser errors than manual processes. On the other hand, manual processes are always at risk of defects due to some error.
- Improved efficiency: Automated processes are used to avoid doing repetitive tasks. In this, unnecessary steps and duplication of effort are removed. Hence, the available resources can be used for tasks which are more viable. This directly contributes to improved efficiency of the process.
- Enhanced speed: In manual processes, the steps are dependent on the developers availability and actions. Unless the developer approves a step, the process can’t be taken forward, leading to a lot of time wastage. When the process is automated, the process is streamlined and with the reduced number of errors, time for testing is also reduced.
- Highly scalable: It is way easier to scale automated processes than manual processes as the project grows. Build automation can be scaled without having to make use of too many additional resources.
- Ease of understanding processes: With build automation, the process becomes easier to understand for anyone looking into it. Any individual can analyze and identify the steps and any blocks in it without having to wait for someone to teach the process. The process is transparent and can be easily worked on.
- Monetary savings: When the build is automated, the manual intervention is greatly minimized. Time is saved enabling faster deployment, hence monetary savings are an obvious following benefit.
- Build automation isn’t the same as Continuous Integration. In the case of the latter, the repeated execution of the process is stressed on and unit tests are regularly performed to check the correctness of the result.
- Tools used for continuous integration are also different from those used for build automation.
- Build operations should be capable of being performed outside the IDE. This is because not all operations are supported inside IDEs.
- Build automation processes shouldn’t take too much time to facilitate smooth continuous integration.
Tools used for build automation
Build automation tools are those which are used to automate the software build process. They are used to maximize the benefits of automation and need to be selected with care. It needs to satisfy various requirements such as completely eliminating the manual intervention and fastening the process. There are some features you’d need to consider when selecting a tool for the automated build process.
Features an automated build tool should have
Ideally, a build automation tool should have most of the following features:
- Inbuilt build management tools to manage the process
- An extensive library of plugins to smoothly integrate across various functions
- Should be compatible with the IDEs that are commonly used
- Source code management tools should be present
- There should be a good choice of available UI to suit different needs
- Dependency management needs to be carried out smoothly
- Tests should be conducted parallelly alongside build execution
- The tool should be able to handle and resolve version conflicts
- Should minimize rebuilds so as to deliver the builds at a faster speed
- Presence of collaborative debugging tools is a plus
- Testing and events should be automated when using the tool
- Incremental build ability if required
- Ability to update code and resources without any intervention
- Automated framework initialization and reinitialization is a good to have
- Metrics and performance tracking of the build
- Cacheable tasks and caching of build
Examples of tools used for automation
Build runners are tools for automating processes of building, testing and running source code.
Some examples of build runners are:
- Circle CI
- Azure DevOps Server
- Apache Ant
Version control tools are those which are used to avoid risk of conflicts that could arise when multiple developers are working on a process. These are used to support build automation. They provide the shared central repository for build automation.
Examples of version control tools:
- Helix Core
- Apache Gump
How to automate the build process?
Build automation is a simple and direct process consisting of a few steps. At your workplace, you'd often want to automate processes. The exact steps that you follow when automating the build process may vary, but the basic idea aligns with the following steps:
- Complete writing the code
- Commit this completed code to a shared, centralized repository of choice
- Scan this code
- Begin a code review and compile the code and files present basis the review
- Perform an automated test on this and notify all the contributors so as to resolve any issues which arise.