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Invalid Maven Project: Sibling Modules

A quick demonstration of a broken approach to modules in a Maven project.

Note: The Invalid Maven project is an attempt to clarify note only best practices but to identify "worst-practices" in Maven. In my time as a working developer I've seen many self-appointed Maven experts push odd and often incorrect approaches to Maven integration. While the books I've written have helped people learn how to use Maven, they haven't covered the negative case: how not to use Maven.

So here it is: How not to use Maven.

Sibling Modules

Explanation, in the Maven Book I don't just warn against creating Maven projects with sibling projects, I tell you it won't work. A few people have asked about this recently, and I'd like to clarify.

What is a sibling module?

Assume you have three projects: module-a, modules-b, and module-c. In a normal multi-module Maven project module-a will be the parent directory of module-b and module-c. module-a will have a pom.xml that lists both projects as modules:

<modules>
  <module>module-b</module>
  <module>module-c</module>
</modules>

This leads to a very predictable outcome for builds. If you build the project from the module-a/ directory, Maven will run a multi-module build including both module-b and module-c which are subdirectories. So the file system looks like this:

module-a/pom.xml
module-a/module-b/pom.xml
module-a/module-c/pom.xml   

Every once in a while, you'll stumble upon a build engineer who has decided that modules can be sibling directories instead of subdirectories.

For example, the projects could still have the same relationships with module-a refering to module-b and module-c as modules with all of the modules being siblings in the same directory. For example, module-a would refer to both modules using the following modules syntax in the pom.xml:

<modules>
  <module>../module-b</module>
  <module>../module-c</module>
</modules>

And, the filesystem would have a flat layout:

module-a/pom.xml
module-b/pom.xml
module-c/pom.xml   

This will work. If you define relative directories for modules, Maven will make this work, but just because it works doesn't mean it is right.

Go ahead and try it. Change directories to module-a and run "mvn clean install". It'll work. Try to load this project into m2eclipse. It'll work. You might think that you are on to something with this sibling module thing.

It's not "invalid", but it'll break assumptions...

But, do me a favor, try running "mvn release:prepare" and just wait until the Release plugin tries to tag something in the SCM. Just know that you will probably see some errors, or maybe you won't. I can guarantee that you are going to be confused. The Release plugin, along with other tools, makes a few assumptions about where modules live.... it wants them to live in a subdirectory.

So that's the problem. Maven may let you do this, but the toolsets and plugins you use often make assumptions. Think about Jenkins or Hudson plugins - in my experience CI plugins are "The Wild West" of Maven support, and I can guarantee you that CI plugins make a lot of assumptions.

I'm caught in a relative directory ghetto

The other reason to shy away from this practice is that you recreate one of the problems that led to the creation of Maven. If your projects depend upon relative directories, it breaks the idea that you can checkout one component of a larger build and not have to worry about anything outside of that one isolated directory.

Carry this approach out a few years and you'll end up with a big directory of directories all of which relate to one another. It will get to the point where you will be afraid to modify one module for fear of some cascading module dependency that isn't apparent (because you decided you knew better than the Maven Book).

But, still, people persist...

Why would people do this?

There are many reasons. First, is a belief that Eclipse (or some other IDE) doesn't support nested directory structures for Maven projects. Second is an idea that a flat project structure is "cleaner". Third, is an attempt to mix and match modules and create multiple project structures using sibling directories as a way to mix and match project. And, last, is this idea that Maven's approach to multi-module project layout is somehow wrong.

Let's address each of these one at a time:

Q1: Is Eclipse incompatible with nested projects?

Before m2eclipse this was very much the case. Eclipse people held on to this idea that Maven project just got it all wrong when it came to project structure. Luckily this is no longer the case.

m2eclipse supports nested projects. If you are not using m2eclipse yet, go get it. If your build engineer is telling you that you need sibling modules for Eclipse, please tell them about m2eclipse. If you are trying to develop Maven projects without m2eclipse you are doing it wrong.

Q2: Is a flat project structure "cleaner"?

The question is based on an invalid premise which is that this is even an assumption of Maven that is up for discussion. It isn't. Maven has certain expectations, one of them is that project modules will be subdirectories. I hate to say it, but if you are using Maven and asking questions like this, it is either very, very late, or you don't understand your project's relationship to Maven.

Maven has a Way about it. If you don't like it, then leave it. No one's going to judge you if you go use Gradle. In fact, Gradle's awesome, especially for people who are going to get hung up on things like sibling modules.

If you are working somewhere and your build engineer insists on sibling modules because they "are cleaner". It's time to do one of two things: 1. Quickly find a replacement, 2. Suggest moving to Gradle immediately, or 3. Seek alternative employment. Honestly, using Gradle would be a better alternative to trying to shoehorn Maven into someone's idea of how it should run.

Q3: Our build person does this to create dynamic module sets, bad?

Very bad, don't do this. But maybe people don't understand what this means? Look at module-d/ in this project. Isn't that great, module-d has a different set of modules than module-a and there's overlap. Some people see this and think that can use this to create different builds for different target environments.

Sure, you could go off on your own, embrace a worst practice, and use this feature to reimplement Maven Profiles. Or you could read the Maven documentation and learn about Maven Profiles. If you really need to be able to change module sets involved in a build. You can define (and redefine modules) in a profile. Do that, don't do this.

Q4: C'mon Maven's approach to multi-module projects is wrong...

...Stop right there. Maven's assumptions are Maven's assumptions. Your opinion or my opinion makes no difference. If you want to go make your own build system from scratch go and do that. Better yet, go use Gradle, Gradle is better for people who find pages like this annoying.

Man, chill out, if I want to do sibling modules, it's my prerogative.

Whatever, go do whatever you want to do, but please don't come crying back to Twitter or your low traffic blog when the Release Plugin starts throwing out springs and spewing smoke. If I had my way, Maven would notice you were trying to do this and print out a big disclaimer form for you to fax into the project's maintainers. If would read something like this:

"The undersigned understands that what they are trying to do is
both backwards and ill-advised.   By signing this document, the
developer agrees not to hold Maven liable on Twitter for the fact
that sibling modules totally screw everything up."

Or, just do whatever. I don't care what you do unless I have to come in and clean up the aftermath, which, if you choose to do this will be somewhat messy once you have a hundred projects all pointing at each other.

You know what it's going to eventually look like? That scene in Reservoir Dogs when they are all ready to shoot each other. In other words, it ain't going to be pretty.

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