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Why we still use Apache Ant tool in Java build and deploys

Plenty of companies still use the Apache Ant tool in Java development cycles and as part of their continuous deployments. Here's why Apache Ant is still a great choice for CI/CD.

If you're a Java developer, you know that there are several options available for building, compiling and packaging your code. Most IDEs will build code for you. You can also compile code on the command line using a stand-alone tool, like Javac.

Those approaches are useful. But for large-scale, automated builds, Java build tools, like Apache Ant, are better. They enable you to automate the process of compiling Java code, and they can be integrated with continuous integration servers, like Jenkins, in order to facilitate complete CI/CD pipelines for Java applications.

Yes, more modern build tools, such as Maven and Gradle, address some of Apache Ant's shortcomings, but that doesn't mean you necessarily have to migrate. Here are just a few reasons why using Apache Ant in Java development cycles still makes sense, regardless of the alternatives that currently exist in the industry.

1. Apache Ant is well-established

Developers have been using Apache Ant in Java development cycles longer than any other build tool. Apache Ant, which debuted in 2000, is the oldest, still widely used Java build tool. As a result, it has a well-established user base. Apache Ant plug-ins exist for most platforms, and it's easy to find documentation about building a given Java application with Ant.

2. Ant is open source

Organizations prefer open source tools, which is another compelling reason to use Apache Ant in Java build cycles. Most other popular Java build tools fall into this category as well, but it's still worth pointing out that Apache Ant is open, free to use and easily extendable, thanks to its open source code base.

3. Apache Ant email support

Apache Ant, which debuted in 2000, is the oldest, still widely used Java build tool.

Apache Ant has built-in support for sending automatic emails to notify developers about build status.

You can configure other Java build tools, including Gradle and Maven, to send emails as well. But that typically requires plug-ins. Apache Ant's email feature is fully integrated, which is nice if you prefer having this functionality out of the box.

4. Apache Ant extensibility

Speaking of plug-ins, when it comes to adding extra functionality to Ant that is not included out of the box, Ant has a large and dynamic ecosystem of externally maintained tasks. They make it easy to extend Ant builds with additional features, without having to write them yourself.

5. Apache Ant uses XML formatting

One of the motivations for creating Ant was to provide a simpler formatting style than the conventions of Unix makefiles. Ant builds are configured using XML formatting rather than the makefile format.

Arguably, XML is better than the makefile format because it's a universal formatting style already familiar to most developers when they go to create their first Ant project.

6. Flexible testing

Ant offers the advantage of being compatible with virtually any software testing framework. It has a built-in unit testing framework called AntUnit that can do some basic testing. It also integrates well with JUnit and TestNG. You can even use Ant with Selenium WebDriver if you want.

Ant vs. Maven and Gradle

As we've noted, not all of the features described above are strictly unique to Apache Ant. Other Java build tools offer similar features in many respects. This is true especially of Maven and Gradle, the most common alternatives to Ant.

Why would you choose Ant instead of Maven or Gradle? Ant's most significant standout features include:

  • Ant's status as the first widely used Java build tool still matters. Maven and Gradle go back a ways (specifically, to the mid-2000s), too, but they have not been around as long as Ant.
  • Ant still uses the familiar XML formatting. Some other Java build tools, such as Maven, also use XML formatting for build configurations, but others, like Gradle, use a scriptlike format (or, more precisely, a domain-specific language).

Whether these features make Apache Ant in Java build processes the right tool for you depends on your needs. Some folks may argue that XML formatting, with its hierarchical nature, is not actually better than a scriptlike approach. And Ant's status as the longest-established Java build tool also means that it lacks some of the design innovations of newer alternatives.

In general, though, it's hard to go wrong with Ant. It's a tried-and-true Java build tool that has been around for nearly two decades. In most cases, though, it will at least get the job done.

This was last published in May 2018

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What justification do you make for using the Apache Ant tool in Java build cycles, or for that matter, why do you think organizations should be moving to Maven or Gradle?
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Though I love Apache Ant for its high customizability, I would recommend Maven for newer projects.
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@cpeter001 Interesting. I have never thought of there being a big difference in build customizability needs between legacy projects and new ones. But that's just based on my experience. Which types of "newer" projects are you doing that don't need customizable builds as much?
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Really interesting. I really like to use Ant for all my brand new Java 1.3 projects. So flexible! Do you think I could also use it for my Cobol 64 projects as well?

Like has been stressed out in this article, it's really cool that Ant can send emails, as it's really the right tool for that job. BTW, I think I will create Ant scripts for sending some emails. Sounds like a bright idea!

I'm just wondering: shouldn't I rather use pure javac for my builds?

Now, please excuse me while I go back to writing my Struts-based application.
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What is great about Maven is that it is possible to import Maven project to all major IDEs like it was native.
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