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When you compare Java build tools, Maven comes out on top

What is the best Java build tool on the market? Is it Gradle? Do people still use Ant? Here, we explore why Maven is still one of the industry's most popular Java build tools.

There are dozens of Java build tools available, but only a few of them truly dominate. When it's time to choose one, the key runners in the race are Maven, Ant and Gradle. All three are effective in their own right, which makes the decision a challenge. They are similar in many ways, and none have any outright deficiencies.

But there are core features that set these three Java build tools apart. In this article, we take a look at the distinguishing features of Apache Maven and explain what makes Maven the best for certain scenarios.

A brief history of Maven

Maven is not the oldest Java build tool still in widespread use today. That title goes to Apache Ant, which debuted in 2000.

Maven does, however, come close. It traces its roots to 2002, when it was created as a subproject of the Apache Turbine servlet framework platform. In 2004, Maven transitioned into a stand-alone Apache project.

Why was Maven created if Ant already existed? Some developers thought Ant required too much explicit configuration. They promoted Maven as a Java build tool that offered a more streamlined build configuration and delivery process.

How to use your Java build tool

Let's look at Maven's most attractive features.

Maven is open source. Since the start, Maven has been freely available. Most other popular build tools are, too, but it's still a point in Maven's favor for developers who prefer their build tools to be free and extensible.

Maven uses XML formatting. Maven uses XML files -- which are usually named pom.xml -- to configure Java builds. That's an advantage if you are already familiar with the core principles of XML, which most developers are, because it lowers the Maven learning curve.

Maven minimizes explicit configuration requirements. Compared to Ant, Maven build files are typically shorter and faster to write. Maven offers a series of built-in commands that can be used to trigger common tasks, without having to specify each step of the task manually within the build file. You shouldn't have to write long, detailed XML for each build file. In fact, it was one of the main motivations for creating Maven as an alternative to Ant.

Maven supports child-parent build configurations. If you have a series of Java projects that you need to build, Maven enables you to configure a parent build file and have child files inherit properties from it. This eliminates the need to maintain redundant build configurations for related projects.

Maven's automated dependency management. Maven also enables developers to specify build dependencies within pom.xml files. Maven will manage these dependencies automatically, including downloading them if necessary. Similar functionality can be achieved with Ant with the Apache Ivy package manager, but Ivy didn't exist until after the launch of Maven. For that reason, automatic dependency management was an early selling point for Maven vs. Ant.

Maven plug-in ecosystem. Maven has a rich ecosystem of officially supported plug-ins, as well as community-developed plug-ins, such as Checkstyle and SonarQube. These plug-ins make it easy to extend Maven's functionality without having to write new tools from scratch.

Maven standardizes project organization. Unlike Ant, Maven expects projects to be organized in a standardized way. While this restricts the flexibility of Maven projects in some respects, it offers the advantage of enabling developers to understand the structure of any Maven project quickly. And if you don't like the Maven organizational standard, you can override it.

Maven vs. Ant vs. Gradle

Not all of these Maven features are unique. Other Java build tools offer similar functionality in many areas. Plus, less manual configuration, an emphasis on convention and XML formatting may not be advantages for all developers.

If having open-ended flexibility to configure Java build files in whichever way you want is more important to you than conventions and standardization, Ant may be a better choice. If you find XML hierarchies tedious, you might prefer Gradle instead of Maven.

This was last published in September 2018

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