There has been much clamor of late about the proper way to configure front-end build systems.
So, when there are so many build systems out there, why
- it is supported on almost all systems
- it is easy to integrate with existing workflows
- it is understood by many engineers from different domains
- it has excellent dependency management
We have been using
make in our frontend build process for over four years, and we love it.
Makefiles are not without their mysteries, however, and integrating them into a production build system is not entirely obvious.
This post is a walkthrough describing how we think about
make for production CSS. We
specifically address the issue of correctly, efficiently, and automatically managing the
Getting started with
For small projects, you can express a build process with a short Makefile. Add a couple of lines to the Makefile that describe how to build the target CSS.
To build the target file
app.less and any files it depends on, we can use a
build/app.css: src/app.less lessc src/app.less > build/app.css
(Note that Makefiles must use hard tabs for indentation.)
In this case, we indicate the target
build/app.css, followed by a colon and the prerequisite
src/app.less used to create that target. The line below is then the recipe invoked to actually
run the build process.
Given the file above, running
make will generate the file we're looking for. By default,
make will output all of the commands it's running, so we can visually verify that the
compiler is invoked:
$ make lessc src/app.less > build/app.css
(note you'll need to run
gmake on BSD systems, as the Makefile described here is not
Now, if we were to type
make again, nothing will happen.
make uses the list of prerequisites
to determine when it needs to rebuild a target. In this case, none of the prerequisites have
changed, so there is no need to run the recipe. Let's try it out:
$ make make: `build/app.css` is up to date.
But when we edit the source
src/app.less and save it, we would expect that the target
build/app.css would be rebuilt. Indeed, when we run
make at this point, we see the target
$ vim src/app.less # make edits and save $ make lessc src/app.less > build/app.css
This is the essence of a Makefile, and we're well on our way to having a reasonable build process.
As framed above, there is some redundancy in our Makefile. Let's take care of that.
For starters, we notice that the strings
app.css are repeated in several places.
Happily, make automatically defines two variables we can use:
$@, which will contain the file
we're building, and
$<, the first dependency:
build/app.css: src/app.less lessc $< > $@
Let's consider a more complex example, where we have not only app.css but a separate CSS file for our application's landing page:
build/app.css: src/app.less lessc $< > $@ build/landing.css: src/landing.less lessc $< > $@
Again, we find ourselves with some obvious redundancy. Happily again, make lets us define patterns, instructing it how to build any CSS file from any LESS file:
build/%.css: src/%.less lessc $< > $@
make interpreted the single build target as its default, and invoking
simply build that target. Now, however, when we run
make in the shell, there is no default
$ make make: *** No targets. Stop.
One way to specify a target to
make is to just pass it on the command line:
$ make build/app.css build/landing.css lessc src/app.less > build/app.css lessc src/landing.less > build/landing.css
We won't want to list all the CSS files to build on the command line every time, so instead,
make to build a fake file called
all, and have
all depend on all the actual
CSS files we need built:
build/%.css: src/%.less lessc $< > $@ all: build/app.css build/landing.css
$ make lessc src/app.less > build/app.css lessc src/landing.less > build/landing.css
@import and the dependency chain
One of the great features of modern CSS is that we can use
@import to build up CSS files from
smaller files that contain variables, mixins, and rules. As a result, any
imply a dependency.
/* app.less */ @import "imports/colors.less"; @import "imports/layout.less"; /* app.css specific rules... */
When any of the imported files changes, we know that
app.css should be rebuilt. So, we need
make about this dependency chain. As always,
make will only rebuild the files
that need to be rebuilt.
build/%.css: src/%.less lessc $< > $@ build/app.css: src/imports/colors.less src/imports/layout.less build/landing.css: src/imports/colors.less all: build/app.css build/landing.css
(Note that the prerequisites for a target can be specified across multiple lines.
for example, understand that
build/app.css depends on three files.)
As you can imagine from this simple case, managing dependencies across a large project quickly becomes is an exercise in tedium and is inevitably prone to error.
At Thumbtack, for example, we manage around 100 production CSS files with complex dependency chains. Building all CSS files from scratch requires upwards of 60 seconds, so it's important for developer productivity that our development build process only rebuild out of date files and no more.
Conveniently, since version 1.4,
lessc supports a
-M flag to output dependency lists that
are dervied from the
@import chain. Let's try it out:
$ lessc -M src/app.less build/app.css build/app.css: src/app.less src/imports/colors.less src/imports/layout.less
(Note that you need to pass in an additional argument that will be used as the name
of the target in the Makefile. In the example above we use the name of the built file
We can save the output of that command into another Makefile, which we will then include with
a directive into our top-level Makefile. We'll make use of one more automatic variable
match the pattern from the target's
build/%.css: src/%.less lessc -M $< $@ > $*.d lessc $< > $@ -include app.d landing.d all: build/app.css build/landing.css
The hyphen before
include will inform
make to ignore these files if they don't exist. This
will likely be true the first time we run
We are using the
.d extension to indicate dependency files.
This Makefile accomplishes our goal of automatic dependency management.
updating our dependencies for us every time we run
To confirm, we can edit one of the imported CSS files and re-run
make. We expect both of
our CSS files to be rebuilt:
$ vim src/imports/colors.less # edit and save... $ make lessc src/app.less > build/app.css lessc src/landing.less > build/landing.css
Excellent, we've made great progress. There's just one more thing. What happens when we delete a dependency altogether.
$ rm src/imports/colors.less $ vim src/landing.less # remove reference to colors.less $ vim src/app.less # remove reference to colors.less $ make make: *** No rule to make target `src/imports/colors.less', needed by `build/app.css'. Stop.
.d file still holds a reference to the now-missing file.
make is correctly informing
us that its understanding of the dependency graph indicates an error. However, we know that the
.d file is simply out of date.
It turns out there is a very important paragraph in the GNU make manual (documented also by Scott McPeak):
If a rule has no prerequisites or recipe, and the target of the rule is a nonexistent file, then
makeimagines this target to have been updated whenever its rule is run. This implies that all targets depending on this one will always have their recipe run.
In other words, by following this advice, we can have
make ignore missing prerequisites.
app.d dependency file, therefore, could be better expressed as follows:
build/app.css: src/app.less src/imports/colors.less src/imports/layout.less src/app.less: src/imports/colors.less: src/imports/layout.less:
To make this happen automatically, we alter the recipe for the CSS files to append to the related
.d files rules with no prerequisites or recipe. This is accomplished with the following line
(commented for clarity):
# pipe the list of prerequisites sed -e 's/^[^:]*: *//' < build/app.d | \ # into `tr` and split them with newlines tr -s ' ' '\n' | \ # put a colon at the end of each line sed -e 's/$$/:/' \ # and concatenate back into the dependency file >> build/app.d
The resulting Makefile is therefore:
build/%.css: src/%.less lessc -M $< $@ > $*.d sed -e 's/^[^:]*: *//' < build/$*.d | \ tr -s ' ' '\n' | \ sed -e 's/$$/:/' \ >> build/$*.d lessc $< > $@ -include app.d landing.d all: build/app.css build/landing.css
And with that, we have automatic dependency management for our CSS files with
One more thing
We see now that we have manually listed the
.css files. We can use
shell and pattern substitution tools to handle this automatically for us:
SOURCES = $(shell ls src/*.less) TARGETS = $(patsubst src/%.less,build/%.css,$(SOURCES)) -include $(TARGETS:.css=.d) all: $(TARGETS)
make is a powerful tool for your front-end build environment. We've demonstrated that with
make we can
- Mimic the dependency graph from
@imports automatically in Makefiles
- Rebuild dependent targets when their dependencies change
- Rebuild dependent targets when dependencies are added
- Rebuild dependent targets when dependencies are deleted
- Only build the files that are out of date (and no more)
Wrapping a Makefile with a service (like Watchman) is now trivial, can you can always be assured your CSS files are perfectly up to date.
Thanks to Justin Tulloss for writing about his recent success with
make and inspiring