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Build Automation


Build automation refers to automating the creation of software builds you can run, which includes compiling source code into binary code, packaging binary code, and other related tasks.

It is an essential component of the Continuous Integration (CI) and Continuous Delivery (CD) processes, aiming to streamline, standardize, and speed up the development cycle.

With benefits far outweighing the drawbacks, build automation has become a cornerstone for software development teams by streamlining critical delivery processes and ensuring consistent software quality.

Build Automation Components

Let’s review the high-level elements that are part of build automation:

  • Source Code Repository: This is where developers store and manage their code. Popular tools include Git (with platforms like GitHub or GitLab) and Mercurial.
  • Build Scripts: Scripts, often written using tools like Make, Ant, Maven, or Gradle, define how the source code should be transformed into runnable software, including the steps for compilation, packaging, and other tasks.
  • Continuous Integration Servers: These tools, such as Jenkins, Travis CI, CircleCI, and GitLab CI/CD, monitor the source code repository. When changes are detected, they trigger the build process and often run a suite of tests to ensure code quality.
  • Artifact Repository: After the build process, the resulting binaries or artifacts are often stored in a repository, like Artifactory or Nexus, for future deployment or distribution.  

Benefits and Challenges

Like other things in life, the Build Automation process provides pros and cons. Key benefits include:

  • Consistency: With automation, every build is executed with the same process, reducing inconsistencies that can be introduced when processes are handled manually.
  • Speed: Automated builds can be executed faster than manual processes, speeding up the development and release cycle.
  • Efficiency: Developers can focus on writing code and solving problems rather than dealing with build-related issues.
  • Error Reduction: Automated processes reduce the risk of human error, leading to more reliable builds.  

Challenges of Build Automation include:

  • Complexity: Setting up an automated build process can be complex and time-consuming, especially for large projects.
  • Maintenance: As with any tool or system, maintaining the build automation setup can sometimes be tedious, requiring updates and tweaks as the software evolves.
  • Initial Learning Curve: Teams unfamiliar with automation tools or processes might initially face a steep learning curve.

Evolution of Tools and Practices

In the early days of software development, when projects were small in scale, and teams were localized, developers would write code using text editors and then use compilers to turn that code into executable programs.

The pain points of the manual building process led to the creation of early build automation tools. 

For instance, in the late 1970s, the ‘make’ tool was introduced for UNIX systems, which allowed developers to write ‘makefiles’ that described how to derive the target program from the source files.

Following ‘make’, several other tools were developed, like Ant (primarily for Java applications) and later Maven, which automated builds and managed project dependencies.  

With the rise of agile methodologies in the 2000s, Continuous Integration (CI) practices became popular, emphasizing the importance of integrating code into a shared repository several times daily.

Each integration is then automatically verified by an automated build and automated tests to ensure that code changes do not break existing functionality.

Tools like Jenkins, Travis CI, and Bamboo were developed to support these CI practices.  

Conclusion

Build automation has come a long way from humble beginnings with basic compilers and ‘make’.

Today, it’s an integral part of a larger ecosystem supporting rapid, reliable, and collaborative software development.  

Furthermore, the IT world is moving towards a DevOps culture, where the line between development and operations is blurred.

Build automation is evolving into a broader set of practices known as DevOps automation, encompassing not just building code but also testing, deploying, monitoring, and managing infrastructure.

DevOps Overview including Build Automation – 7 mins  

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