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4 reasons why Gradle may be the right Java build tool

When it comes to building Java projects, developers need to pick the right tool for the job. Gradle separates itself from the pack with its emphasis on plugins and flexibility.

If you like a Java build tool that doesn't require XML, accommodates large-scale projects and offers diverse plugin ecosystems, Gradle may be the right choice for you. Here's a look at the advantages of Gradle, especially as compared to alternative Java build tools, like Ant and Maven.

A brief history of Gradle

To appreciate the benefits of Gradle, it helps to understand where it came from.

When Gradle was first released in 2007, the Java ecosystem had already established several viable tools. Ant emerged in 2000. Maven had been around as a stand-alone project since 2004, though its roots actually stretch back a bit further, as it was originally created in 2002 as part of the Apache Turbine project.

So, why launch Gradle when other Java build tools were already available and widely used? The main reasons were:

  1. In some respects, Ant and Maven are not well-suited for Java builds that involve multiple projects.
  2. Ant and Maven require XML, which -- in the eyes of some Java developers -- is a drag.

More than a decade after Gradle's first release, the Java build tool is well-established, though still not the most popular. Maven controls almost three-quarters of the market, according to Baeldung's State of Java survey. Gradle's market share hovers below 20%.

It would seem, then, that Gradle's special features appeal to only a minority of Java developers, though they seem to like them. Let's take a look at the reasons why.

Four reasons to use Gradle

Developers who adopt Gradle likely do so because they fall into the following categories.

You dislike XML

What separates Gradle from Ant and Maven is that Gradle builds are configured with a domain-specific language (DSL) rather than XML. DSL vs. XML depends on your preferences. I'll admit that I prefer the simplicity of XML, and I like that I can use it without learning any new language to configure Java builds. That said, I can certainly appreciate the appeal of Gradle's DSL approach to build configurations. XML can get tedious, and the hierarchical nature of XML files can make it more difficult to quickly modify XML. Gradle build files have the feel of simple scripts. If you're someone who feels much more at ease scripting in Perl or Python than hand-coding HTML, you're probably someone who will prefer Gradle over Ant or Maven.

You like minimalist design

Developers who prefer simple, lean, extensible tools will like Gradle.

From an architectural standpoint, Gradle is similar to Unix in that the core system -- that is, Gradle itself -- is designed to be minimalist. Most of Gradle's actual functionality is achieved via plugins that run on top of Gradle, rather than the core system itself.
This means out-of-the-box Gradle is free of unnecessary components that might bother developers who don't want tools they are not going to use.

It also means that, in order to do anything with Gradle, you have to familiarize yourself with the plugins and learn which ones you need. Some developers might consider that a burden, especially compared to a Java build tool such as Ant, which comes with more built-in functionality. But, again, developers who prefer simple, lean, extensible tools will like Gradle.

In a way, you could compare Gradle to a Linux distribution that comes with a command-line environment and a handful of basic tools. Ant and Maven, on the other hand, arrive with preinstalled software. If you like to build and customize a system to fit your specific needs, Gradle is for you.

You like plugins

Gradle's minimalist design means that you'll be working with lots of plugins. In fact, you need a plugin just to build Java code -- the core function that Gradle was designed to accommodate.

Again, if you're a fan of plugins, Gradle will suit you. That's especially true if you are comfortable with third-party, community-developed plugins, of which Gradle has many. Gradle also has a few dozen standard plugins that are maintained by the core project.

You have lots of projects to build

Perhaps Gradle's most compelling feature is its ability to handle multiple projects efficiently, all as part of the same build.

If your build has multiple objects and not every one of them changes each time you make a new build, you ideally don't want to have to rebuild the unmodified parts. Doing so is a waste of time and resources.

Gradle solves this problem by automatically determining which parts of the build tree are already in the latest version and, therefore, don't need to be rebuilt.

If you work mostly on small-scale builds that have only one or a few components, Gradle's smart build functionality won't add any special value. But it's a big deal if your build involves multiple projects or subprojects.

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