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Book Review

Ant - The Definitive Guide

Author: Pankaj Kumar
Last Revision Date: 8/21/05, Publication Date: 7/12/05


Apache Ant, the Java replacement for make, belongs to the rare breed of category killer software for automating Java software development tasks. As a long time Ant user, I have written many Ant build scripts, automating my builds and speeding up the overall development cycle, mostly relying on its excellent online documentation. As a Java developer, I have admired its simple and intuitive interface and the modular design. So on getting Ant The Definitive Guide in my hands I wasn't expecting a whole lot new to learn, and thought of using it only as a reference book for occasional use.

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After having the book on my desk for more than a month, and occasionally reaching out to it and flipping through its pages whenever I would otherwise have consulted the online documentation, I must say that I was missing out on something very important: tasks like ftp and war deployment that I was simply not aware of and had never felt the need to lookup, but could very well use. The other interesting thing I noticed was that my build scripts became smaller, more modular and easier to read.

Like most books in the The Definitive Guide series, Ant The Definitive Guide assumes certain level of familiarity with underlying technologies such as Java and XML and focuses on providing complete, reference like details of Ant features and tasks. These description are generously supplemented with examples and code fragments.

But so is the the online documentation for Ant! Will someone gain additional insight in using Ant, or be able to work faster, or make better use of Ant capabilties, if he or she consulted the book, instead of the online documentation for a particular Ant task. To find the answer, I randomly picked two tipics -- filesets, an important and oft-used Ant datatype, and javac, a core Ant task -- and compared their online description with the one in the book. Here is what I found.

Besides the datatype definition, explanation of various attributes, sub-elements, and the examples, the book also covers how to specify conditional inclusion or exclusion of certain filename patterns when a property is set (or unset). Though this can be inferred from online documentation by a determined user, this particular use is far from obvious. The coverage in the book also talks about relationship of fileset datatype with the javac task, pointing out that the fileset attribute dir is equivalent of javac attribute srcdir, as attribute dir will be confusing in javac: is it referring to source directory or destination directory. This is the kind of insight that really helps a user.

The treatment of the javac task in the book is not much different from the one in the online documentation. Both have almost the same material, though the information in the book is better organized for new users. On the other hand, I found the online documentation to be more complete, especially with respect to the compiler specific options and behavior idiosyncrasies.

Here is a run down on what the book covers: Chapter 1, Getting Started is a quick primer on Ant, with sufficient details for a new user to start using Ant for very simple build tasks. Capter 2, Using Properties and Types introduces the building block tasks and datatypes, such as property, condition, fileset, path like structures, selectors and so on, used in other Ant tasks. Chapter 3, Building Java Code covers the tasks and activities around compiling Java source files (ie; javac), organizing the build steps in various targets within a single build scripts and/or across multiple scripts, genrating documentation using javadoc and creating distribution jars and zip files. Rest of the chapters are devoted to tasks for specific purposes: such as launching external programs (Chapter 7, Executing External Programs), copying files and manipulating directories either on the same machine or over the network (Chapter 4, Deploying Builds), running JUnit tests (Chapter 5, Testing Builds with JUnit) and so on. There are also separate chapters covering interation of Ant with XML and XDoclet (Chapter 9, XML and XDoclet) and with Exclipse (Chapter 11, Integrating Ant with Eclipse). The last chapter, Chapter 12, Extending Ant, talks about extending Ant by doing things like adding your own tasks, creating custom filters, writing your own build listeners and loggers etc. This chapter also has a small section on how to embed a script written in one of the supported scripting languages within an Ant script.

As you can see from this outline, the book covers almost everything that is to know about Ant and other related software.

So, what is not so good about this book? Well, I didn't find anything wrong with whatever has been covered. Ofcourse, there are additional things that I would have liked to see in the book: (a) A good sample Ant script which could be used as the starting point for most small to medium size projects; (b) A more thorogh explanation of how dependencies among targets determine the execution sequence and how does this fit-in with explicit invocation of targets; and (c) use of pictures to illustrate some of the concepts such as life cycle of an Ant task, selection of files in a fileset, dependency tree of targets.

Overall, I found this book by Steve Holzner to be comprehensive, well organized, easy to read and good value for money.

© 2005 by Pankaj Kumar. All Rights Reserved. You may use the content of this article, including the source code, in your programs and documentation. In general, you do not need to contact me for permission unless you are reproducing a significant portion of the article or code for commercial purposes. For example, writing a program that uses the code for personal or company use does not require permission. Republishing this article, even with proper attribution, does require permission. Similarly, incorporating the code in a program that you sell for profit requires permission.

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You can contact me by sending e-mail to pankaj.kumar@gmail.com.