Last modified: February 20, 2018
In this guide, we examine the most relevant task runners and build tools used today, including how they both compete with and compliment each other in building modern front-end applications.
There are several popular task runners used today, including gulp and grunt (npm can also be considered a task runner, but more on that later!).
Grunt is easy to pick up and has a strong community backing it. This means you can find plugins for virtually anything you're trying to automate using Grunt. Grunt also integrates well with npm.
Grunt is significantly slower than other task runners. Grunt can also get more complicated as configuration grows. Many also consider Grunt to be outdated when compared to Gulp.
Gulp is much faster than Grunt. By defining everything as a function, Gulp is more flexible and expressive in nature. Like Grunt, Gulp also has a strong community backing it and you can find plenty of plugins for Gulp.
Gulp takes some getting used to. Specifically, if you aren't as familiar with Node.js streaming (chaining and promises) then Gulp can have a steeper learning curve than other task runners.
Grunt came before Gulp and is generally easier to understand and get started with. Grunt is significantly slower than Gulp because it has to write intermediary files to disk and doesn't make use of Node streams. Many argue that Gulp is quickly replacing Grunt but remember that both have strong communities backing them and can be used to accomplish the same tasks.
Module bundlers combine your static assets to reduce HTTP requests and optimize performance along the way. While the line between task runners and build tools becomes a bit blurred, a key separator is the emphasis on asset bundling seen with tools like Webpack vs a more general task runner like Gulp. Webpack and Browserify are two of the most commonly used module bundlers used today:
Webpack is a highly opinionated build tool that primarily focuses on module bundling but can also be used to replace Grunt and Gulp. Webpack works with a dependency tree followign the CommonJS pattern (require, import). Webpack is designed to help you manage static assets for the front end. For a more detailed explanation on getting started with Webpack, check out 4 Easy Steps to Using Webpack with Your Node.js App.
Webpack is one of the most popular build tools used today. It's extremely versatile as it functions as both a module bundler and task runner. Using Webpack, you can easily bundle your static assets while minifying, converting, etc. along the way. This can eliminate the need to use a more traditional task runner (grunt/gulp) and makes for a more sreamlined development experience. Webpack has a strong community backing it and you can find different "loaders" and plugins to support virtually any build integration.
Webpack can be difficult to set up. While it uses a single configuration file, the implementation varies from version to version and it can be hard to get right. The documentation isn't the greatest either. This means it can take longer to get going with Webpack than other build tools.
Browserify is simple and has a rich ecosystem supporting it. You can do virtually anything you want using Browserify by making use of "transforms" and plugins.
Browserify's strength is also it's weakness. Since it emphasizes module bundling so strongly, it doesn't inherently support linting, minification, etc. like Webpack does. It can also be difficult to configure depending on how you extend it's core functionality.
npm stands for node package manager. It is an integral part of the Node.js ecosystem and can be used to download and manage both front-end and back-end dependencies. For more on npm, check out a beginner's guide to npm.
npm has a strong community backing it and is central to the Node.js ecosystem. Using npm, you can manage both front-end and back-end dependencies. npm can also be used as a task runner by defining different modules in the scripts section of your package.json file.
npm requires an internet connection to install and update dependencies. This can be problematic if you ..well..don't have internet. Using npm can also result in versioning issues where different dependencies are downloaded on different machines.
Yarn is a new and improved package manager developed by Facebook. While Yarn connects to the same npm registry, it adds some extra functionality that makes it arguably better than npm. For more on Yarn, check out yarn vs npm.
For an in-depth comparison of yarn vs npm, check out yarn vs npm.
Build tools take some time to understand but the benefit they add to the development process and performance are hard to ignore in today’s world.