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title lunr draft date author metaTags tags image
Building with Gulp 3 and 4 Part 3 Writing transformers
2015-04-28 15:30:00 -0700
Thomas Roch
node,nodejs,javascript,gulp,gulpjs,build automation,build tool,streams,task runner,vinyl,vinyl-fs,npm,gulp 4,event-stream,map-stream
javascript,nodejs,build automation,gulpjs

Building with Gulp 3 and 4 (Part 3: Writing transformers)

When building with Gulp, we rely on available plugins for atomic or specific operations (like adding a file header or footer, concatenating files, ...). But what if there is no plugin for what you are trying to achieve? It is fairly simply to write a custom stream transformer, and if you think it can benefit others then publish your gulp plugin using npm. Make sure you first read the guidelines.

When writing this article, I was trying to find a plugin idea for illustrating this article but could not find something simple which doesn't already exist in the large Gulp plugins ecosystem. Instead, I will use a replace operation as example (covered by gulp-replace) and then finish with a concatenation example using a reduce plugin.

In and out

Each Gulp plugin receives vinyl objects (representing files) and is expected to pipe to the next plugin transformed vinyl objects. Depending on what a plugin does, it could return:

  • No vinyl objects at all
  • Only one vinyl object (gulp-concat)
  • The same untouched vinyl objects (gulp-jshint)
  • The same vinyl objects with transformed contents (gulp-header)
  • Extra vinyl objects

All (or almost all) Gulp plugins will need to access contents of a file. In Part 2: Gulp's anatomy, we briefly mentionned the contents property being a buffer. Contents are not always buffers and can also be streams. Most of Gulp plugins will only deal with buffers and throw an exception if used with streams (like gulp-concat), gulp.src() itself will return vinyl ojbects with buffered contents by default. Most of the common building tasks I can think of will need to read the whole contents of a file before carrying on:

  • If replace was used with streams, portions of a file to replace could be split over two chunks of data
  • Javascript linters and uglifiers need to parse entire scripts to get their Abstract Syntax Tree (AST)
  • CSS pre-processors can not compile one chunk at a time
  • Etc...

I hear you are confused. Isn't Gulp the streaming build system afterall? Yes it is, don't forget vinyl objects are streamed through the pipeline. Then file contents can be streamed or buffered, you can see this as a two dimension stream. So why bother with streaming contents? When building an application, sooner or later files will need to be buffered. However for certain tasks like copying files, streams can be used.

If you want to use streams, use gulp.src() with option {buffer: false} to return non-buffered vinyl objects. In this article, we won't deal with streams but if you'd like to explore further, you can look at Gulp official documentation on dealing with streams.

Using map-stream

Using map-stream is the quickest way to get going. First install map-stream:

$ npm install --save-dev map-stream

Let's see an example where we want to replace all instances 'abc' by '123' (I know this is totally pointless):

var gulp = require('gulp');
var map  = require('map-stream');

gulp.task('replace', function() {
    return gulp.src('src/**/*.js')
        .pipe(map(function (file, cb) {
            var contents = file.contents.toString('utf8');
            contents = contents.replace(/abc/g, '123');
            file.contents = new Buffer(contents, 'utf8');
            cb(null, file);

Using through2

through2 has an .obj() function for object streams:

$ npm install --save-dev map-stream
var gulp    = require('gulp');
var through = require('through2');

gulp.task('replace', function() {
    return gulp.src('src/**/*.js')
        .pipe(through.obj(function (file, enc, cb) {
            // Replacing takes place here
            cb(null, file);
            // Or
            // this.push(file);
            // cb();

Using event-stream

event-stream is a package containing various functions to write more functional code when working with streams. event-stream creates Node 0.8 streams (compatible with Node 0.10 streams) but since we are only interested in mapping functions, this is not an issue. event-stream has a .mapSync() function as well as a .map() function, mapSync is useful in our example as it removes one line of code in our transformer:

$ npm install --save-dev event-stream
var gulp = require('gulp');
var es   = require('event-stream');

gulp.task('replace', function() {
    return gulp.src('src/**/*.js')
        .pipe(es.mapSync(function (file) {
            // Replacing takes place here

A plugin example: reduce

Let's now write a plugin for performing reduce operations on files. It takes two arguments:

  • fileName: the file name we want to give to our reduced file (String)
  • iteratee: a reduce function called for each value in the array (except the first one). It takes 3 arguments: firstFile, file and cb.
var through2 = require('through2');
var File = require('vinyl');
var path = require('path');

// This is our plugin
function myReducePlugin(fileName, iteratee) {
    var firstFile;

    return through2.obj(function(file, enc, cb) {
        if (!firstFile) {
            firstFile = file;
        iteratee(firstFile, file, cb);
    }, function () {
        firstFile.path = path.join(firstFile.base, fileName);

Now we can use this practical plugin for concatenating files (you can try it):

gulp.task('concat', function () {
    return gulp.src('src/**/*.js')
        .pipe(myReducePlugin('concat.js', function (firstFile, file, cb) {
                firstFile.contents = Buffer.concat([