Maven fail

By , October 7, 2010 8:18 pm

In my recent work I have encountered Apache Maven, and I think the following snippet of real-world Maven code nicely sums up why Maven is not the idea replacement for the horror that is ant:


Dear god. 34 lines and a plug-in, just to change the permissions on a file in a platform-specific way??

I should add that the above was written by an extremely smart guy who is a top-notch programmer; no, I don’t think the author is at fault here. Even if there’s a more concise/portable way of achieving the same result in Maven (and there might well be – I admit I’m still a Maven newbie), there’s still the undeniable fact that XML is horrendously verbose, and any code written in it is by nature unnecessarily difficult to maintain. To this end I applaud the ongoing efforts supporting the use of YAML to implement the Maven POM.

It’s worth seeing what the above would look like if we wrote it in rake:

require 'pathname'

desc "Make binary executable"
task :chmod do + "").chmod(0755)

I don’t think I need to make a case for which is more legible or maintainable. Oh, and the Ruby version is cross-platform.

To continue an anti-XML rant which has been made countless times already: what the ant and Maven people don’t seem to realise is that XML is not a real programming language and is therefore not expressive enough to deal with many cases that a build system needs. The clue’s in the name, guys! “M” is for “markup” not “Turing-complete“. That’s why every time you need to do something vaguely unusual for which there isn’t an ant taskdef or Maven plugin, you have to write hundreds of lines more Java/XML just to cope with that case. That’s why Maven needs so many damn plugins.

The accidental silver lining to this is that because it takes so much effort to accomplish simple tasks, Maven developers find themselves compelled to reuse and share plugins, and to be fair, Maven has some good ideas on how to do this, even if the implementation isn’t always the best. For example, the built-in plug-in repository management and plug-in dependency management seem to work nicely, but unfortunately for some reason it has a propensity to download plug-ins on most runs, far more frequently than any sensible caching layer should.

DSL issues aside, I’m not convinced by the fixed lifecycle philosophy behind Maven either. I wonder if it was borne out of frustration with the lack of proper dependency checking in ant.

That said, I do like how Maven encourages standardization of the build lifecycle and phase namespace thereof, since newcomers to a project immediately know some familiar entry points. But the same could be said of 99% of projects which use Make and use standard rule target names such as install and clean. And I suspect that many developers suffer when they try to shoe-horn their own project’s build requirements into Maven’s standard lifecycle.

My concern with this phased approach is that it is too linear.  The expectation is that a build process is a one-dimensional sequence of steps, and you get to choose your starting point but not much else.  This seems fundamentally wrong to me.  A build dependency tree is well understood to be a DAG, and any build system which doesn’t model this properly seems to me to be burying its head in the sand.  On the other hand, if it does model it properly, which includes implementing proper dependency resolution, the required build lifecycle should emerge naturally without having to dictate that generate-sources comes before compile which comes before test and so on.

I’ve had some ideas of what the ideal build system looks like, and how to get there from the conventional Java world. More on that soon.


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