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[HowTo] Compiling and Setting Up Build Tools

mklement0 edited this page Nov 5, 2014 · 25 revisions

What is this page about? In this article you will learn how to set up your own build tools for either the server or client side. In the process we will automate the task of compiling your *.js files from *.coffee. You will also learn how to concatenate, compile and minify your application so it results in one very optimised file you can serve to browsers.


cake is coffee's little sister (or so I picture things). If you installed CoffeeScript using npm, then you should already have access to it. If you used cake install, you have in fact had first-hand experience with the tool.

If you have symlinked bin/coffee to a new location on your $PATH, then you should also symlink bin/cake:

$ ln -s /home/stan/public/coffee-script/bin/cake /usr/local/bin/cake

The above assumes /usr/local/bin is in your $PATH.

An empty Cakefile

Running cake outside of CoffeeScript's main directory is very likely to end up throwing an exception and printing out a stack trace. If you look closely, you can see why things don't work just yet:

Error: Cakefile not found in /home/stan/

So, how about we create one:

$ cd ~
$ vim Cakefile

Leave the file empty for the time being. Run cake again:

$ cd ~
$ cake

This should return immediately stating that:

Cakefile defines the following tasks:

(No tasks should be listed)

Hello World!

Yes, we are doing the infamous Hello World example, but with a spin -- inside a Cakefile. If you have worked with rake or make, then you should already have an idea of how things work. You define a task and use cake [task name] to execute it. Let's get started:

$ cd ~
$ vim Cakefile

Define the task as say:hello:

task 'say:hello', 'Description of task', ->
  console.log 'Hello World!'

Save and exit back to the shell. Next, let's run our newly created task:

$ cake say:hello
Hello World!

Running cake again, but without any arguments, you get a list of all available tasks and their description:

$ cake

cake say:hello             # Description of task

Try running cake inside CoffeeScript's main directory, and observe the output.

Setting Up a Task to Compile Scripts (server-side applications)

Using coffee on the command line allows you to compile a directory recursively and output all resulting JavaScript files to another directory while preserving the structure. Let's see how we can do that:

$ cd ~/public/coffee-script
$ coffee --compile --output lib/ src/

The above command will compile all src/*.coffee files to lib/*.js. Your application may have different directories from the ones used above, but for the sake of this example we will assume src and lib. Caveat: None of the compiled files will be executable and none will have shebangs.

Let's move on. Create our compile task inside a new Cakefile under our project's main directory:

$ cd ~/projects/my-coffee-script-project
$ vim Cakefile

Paste the following code:

{exec} = require 'child_process'
task 'build', 'Build project from src/*.coffee to lib/*.js', ->
  exec 'coffee --compile --output lib/ src/', (err, stdout, stderr) ->
    throw err if err
    console.log stdout + stderr

The build task launches the command we used earlier and waits for it to complete. Upon successful compilation it prints any output (nothing usually so add your own indicators) or throws an exception, should coffee have exited with a status code greater than 0, indicating a compilation failure.

Concatenating Files (client-side applications)

If you are working on a browser application, you may want to concatenate all your files into one and serve that instead. The caveat here is that you should concatenate all your source *.coffee files before you compile them. If you simply concatenate the resulting *.js files, you end up with a closure for each file and duplication of utility functions (CoffeeScript produces these when extending classes, binding functions, etc.)

When we are dealing with multiple files, ordering usually matters, unfortunately. We could iterate the src/ directory looking for all *.coffee files using node.js, but the API is asynchronous and the results we get back are not ordered in any way. Instead, we should define an ordered list of files we want to process to build our application file:

fs     = require 'fs'
{exec} = require 'child_process'

appFiles  = [
  # omit src/ and .coffee to make the below lines a little shorter

task 'build', 'Build single application file from source files', ->
  appContents = new Array remaining = appFiles.length
  for file, index in appFiles then do (file, index) ->
    fs.readFile "src/#{file}.coffee", 'utf8', (err, fileContents) ->
      throw err if err
      appContents[index] = fileContents
      process() if --remaining is 0
  process = ->
    fs.writeFile 'lib/', appContents.join('\n\n'), 'utf8', (err) ->
      throw err if err
      exec 'coffee --compile lib/', (err, stdout, stderr) ->
        throw err if err
        console.log stdout + stderr
        fs.unlink 'lib/', (err) ->
          throw err if err
          console.log 'Done.'

We start off by defining the appFiles we want to concatenate and then process. The build task starts by reading all of the files asynchronously and calls process() when all files have been read. process() in turn writes a temporary file under lib/ and compiles that to lib/app.js. Study the source and modify it as you see fit for your own needs.

Another option would be to use a tool to help you deal with your file dependencies. There are many approaches to dealing with file-dependency order out there, so you should pick the option that makes the most sense in your scenario. A few options:

Minify/Compress Your Files

You can easily extend your Cakefile to include a task that calls to a compression utility, once your *.js files have been generated:

task 'minify', 'Minify the resulting application file after build', ->
  exec 'java -jar "/home/stan/public/compiler.jar" --js lib/app.js --js_output_file lib/app.production.js', (err, stdout, stderr) ->
    throw err if err
    console.log stdout + stderr

The above executes Google's Closure Compiler. You can easily tweak it to call the YUI Compressor or any other command-line utility.

Task Options

Tasks in Cakefiles can take options. This is important if you want to be able to provide parameters such as the target environment (e.g., production or development), source or target directory, etc. For more information, check out CoffeeScript's own Cakefile. If you rely on options, make sure you always have sensible defaults in place:

option '-e', '--environment [ENVIRONMENT_NAME]', 'set the environment for `task:withDefaults`'
task 'task:withDefaults', 'Description of task', (options) ->
  options.environment or= 'production'

Then you can execute the task with your defined options:

cake -e "myEnv" task:withDefaults


You should be fairly comfortable writing your own Cakefiles at this point. Study the coffee binary and all its available options (coffee --help). By using node.js and the child_process.exec method you can automate much/all of your build process.

If you find this page to be missing information on a particular topic or an issue you are running into, please feel free to edit it.