Last year I started using Rake for my .NET build scripts and it has been a quite pleasant experience that I wanted to share with you. “Hmmm, isn’t Rake one of those scary Ruby tools from the other side of the fence?” you might ask. Yes, indeed, it is a Ruby tool! Many good things have come from the Ruby community but sadly many .NET developers seem to be scared of even learning about them. “Yuck, strange Ruby stuff from the Linux world! I can’t use my .NET knowledge and that must be a bad thing, doesn’t it?” Well, that’s a shame! Rake can be used on Windows! And besides, I think it never hurts to at least dip a toe in the ocean once in a while and experience something different than the usual stuff you work with. When a tool helps you to accomplish things with simple elegancy it couldn’t hurt to try it.
So what is Rake?
Rake is a tool for creating build scripts. It is a modern variant of the good old Make tool where you describe different tasks and the dependencies between them. Each task is a series of Ruby statements to be executed when the task runs. The flexible nature of the Ruby language makes the task descriptions very brief and elegant.
Here is an example of a task called “deploy” that copies files:
task :deploy do
src_path = File.join(BASE_PATH, "Output/bin/.")
dest_path = File.join(BASE_PATH, "Deploy")
puts "Deploying files..."
FileUtils.cp_r src_path, dest_path
Why use Rake?
Okay, now we know a little about what Rake is, but you may still ask why do we need build scripts at all? Can’t we do everything with Visual Studio and some pre/post build commands?
Sure, we can do quite well with just Visual Studio for small projects. But in larger and more complex projects we often run into situations that require some form of automation and we don’t want to do them every time we build with VS. We need scripts to do various stuff such as deployment and packaging. Maybe we need to update some files with version info, compile an installation kit, upload it via ftp to a server and so on. I’m sure you can come up with a range of time consuming stuff you do on a regular basis that could be done more quickly and reliably by a script instead. The more you can automate the tedious repetitive tasks the more time you can spend doing things that really matter to the customer.
So why not use a simple bat file to run some commands? Yes, that’s one solution but bat files have some significant problems. One is that the error handling is quite cumbersome, you have to use goto statements for flow control and you cannot easily reuse functionality across different bat files. In my experience, as soon as the complexity of the build script rises it will quickly blow up in your face and become a maintenance nightmare. Another glaring omission is the ability to express dependencies between tasks. That is one pretty important thing for structuring a build script successfully that bat files lack.
But what about MSBuild? Wasn’t it created for this purpose exactly? Yes, I have used MSBuild (and before that NAnt) and it sort of works, but it feels very limited. Both MSBuild and NAnt are XML based and declarative. For me, declarative programming is not very intuitive (XSLT anyone?). I feel that I have to think harder before I get things right, instead of just describing what to do in the order I would do it when performing the task manually. With MSBuild I get these set of predefined tasks that I can use, but if they don’t do exactly what I want I’m out in the cold. To me, it feels much more powerful and flexible to write code to do what I want in a build task, and easier to understand and maintain too. Maybe it’s a matter of taste so ultimately you’ll have to decide for yourself…
Many people are scared because they think it is difficult to setup Ruby and Rake on Windows. This is not the case. To get started you simply run the Ruby Installer that you can download here:
After installing Ruby, hit the Windows key and type “Ruby”. Then click “Start Command Prompt with Ruby” in the list that appears. This will bring up a command window where you can use Ruby commands.
To install stuff in Ruby you use “gem”. To install Rake simply type:
C:\>gem install rake
Now you are good to go!
Your first script
By default Rake will look for a file called “rakefile.rb” so create a text file with that name and write your first build task like this:
task :default do
puts "Wonderful world!"
Then launch this script like this:
Pretty simple, wasn’t it?
In a future post I will show some more examples of what the build scripts may look like, so stay tuned!