Sporadically delivered thoughts on Continuous Delivery

Maven: Great Idea, Poor Implementation (Part 3)

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In the first post in this series, I explained why I think Maven Maven is a good idea. Most projects need pretty much the same thing from a build system, but using Ant normally results in complex, non-standard build system which becomes a headache to maintain.

In theory, Maven should be a better way to run a build. By offering a standardised build out of the box, you would massively reduce the setup and learning curve for new joiners to the development team and take advantage of a healthy ecosystem of plugins that can be simply dropped into your build, and save loads of setup and maintenance hassle.

End of the Road sign

Although its goes pretty far towards the first two of these advantages, in my second post I described how Maven’s configuration is too complex even for simple things.

I note that the Maven site doesn’t currently mention “convention over configuration”, although I’m sure it used to in the past, and there are plenty of references to it around the web. The Wikipedia entry for convention over configuration lists Maven as a poster-child, and Sonatype, the commercial company supporting Maven, names a chapter of their reference book named after the concept.

But it’s a load of bollocks.


My final point (for this series, anyway) is on flexibility. The tradeoff between configuration complexity is normally flexibility. This is certainly the case with Ant; the complexity which makes every Ant-based build system a painfully unique snowflake buys you the capability to do damn near anything you want with it.

But Maven’s complexity does not buy us flexibility.

My team wants to divide up its testing into multiple phases, following the “Agile testing pyramid” concept as mentioned by Mike Cohn.

So we’d like to have four layers to our pyramid, unit tests running first; database integration tests running next; web service tests third; and only if all of these pass do we run web UI tests. These test groups run in order of increasing heaviness, so we get feedback on the simple stuff quickly.

Maven supports two levels of testing, unit tests and integration tests. The failsafe plugin which provides integration testing support seems fairly new, and is actually pretty good if you only need one phase of integration testing. It lets you configure setup and teardown activities, so you can fire up an app server before running tests, and make sure it gets shut down afterwards.

If we could get failsafe to run three times during the build, each time carrying out different setup and teardown activities, and running different groups of tests, my team would be fairly happy with Maven.

It is possible to use build profiles to set up different integration tests in this way, but to get them to run, you need to run the build three times, and each time the preceding steps will be re-run - compiling, unit tests, packaging, etc. So it’s kind of nasty, brutish, and too long.

The right way to achieve what we’re after is probably to customise the build lifecycle, or create a new build lifecyle. Either way, it involves creating custom plugins, or extensions, or both. I’ve taken a stab at working out how, but after burning a couple of evenings without getting anywhere, I’ve shelved it.

I have no doubt it can be done, but it’s just easier to do it in Ant and move on to other tasks. And that’s pretty much the bottom line for me. I still like the idea of Maven, I have hopes it will continue to improve (it’s a thousand times more usable than it was a few years ago), and maybe even go through a shift to embrace convention over configuration for real.

In the meantime, I’m likely to reach for Maven when I need something quickly for a project that seems likely to fit its paradigm, but for heavier projects (most of the ones I’m involved with for client projects), Ant is the pragmatic choice.