06 October 2021

Tags: gradle micronaut

Today I’d like to share a small example of what not to do with Gradle. Some of you may already know that I recently joined the Micronaut team at Oracle, and part of my job is to improve the build experience, be it for Micronaut itself or Micronaut users. Today I’m going to focus on an example I found in the Micronaut build itself.

TL/DR: If you use dependsOn, you’re likely doing it wrong.

When should you use dependsOn?

In a nutshell, Gradle works by computing a graph of task dependencies. Say that you want to build a JAR file: you’re going to call the jar task, and Gradle is going to determine that to build the jar, it needs to compile the classes, process the resources, etc…​ Determining the task dependencies, that is to say what other tasks need to be executed, is done by looking up at 3 different things:

  1. the task dependsOn dependencies. For example, assemble.dependsOn(jar) means that if you run assemble, then the jar task must be executed before

  2. the task transitive dependencies, in which case we’re not talking about tasks, but "publications". For example, when you need to compile project A, you need on classpath project B, which implies running some tasks of B.

  3. and last but not least, the task inputs, that is to say, what it needs to execute its work

In practice, it’s worth noting that 2. is a subset of 3. but I added it for clarity.

Now let’s look at this snippet:

task docFilesJar(type: Jar, description: 'Package up files used for generating documentation.') {
    archiveVersion = null
    archiveFileName = "grails-doc-files.jar"
    from "src/main/template"
    doLast {
        copy {
            from docFilesJar.archivePath
            into "${buildDir}/classes/groovy/main"

jar.dependsOn docFilesJar

First, let’s realize that this snippet is years old. I mean, very years old, copied from Grails, which was using early releases of Gradle. Yet, there’s something interesting in what it does, which is a typical mistake I see in all builds I modernize.

It’s tempting, especially when you’re not used to Gradle, to think the same way as other build tools do, like Maven or Ant. You’re thinking "there’s a task, jar, which basically packages everything it finds in classes/groovy/main, so if I want to add more stuff to the jar task, let’s put more stuff in `classes/groovy/main`".

This is wrong!

This is wrong for different reasons, most notably:

  • when the docsFilesJar task is going to be executed, it will contribute more files to the "classes" directory, but, wait, those are not classes that we’re putting in there, right? It’s just a jar, resources. Shouldn’t we use resources/groovy/main instead? Or is it classes/groovy/resources? Or what? Well, you shoudn’t care because it’s not your concern where the Java compile task is going to put its output!

  • it breaks cacheability: Gradle has a build cache, and multiple tasks contributing to the same output directory is the typical example of what would break caching. In fact, it breaks all kinds of up-to-date checking, that is to say the ability for Gradle to understand that it doesn’t need to execute a task when nothing changed.

  • it’s opaque to Gradle: the code above executes a copy in a doLast block. Nothing tells Gradle that the "classes" have additional output.

  • imagine another task which needs the classes only. Depending on when it executes, it may or may not, include the docsFileJar that it doesn’t care about. This makes builds non-reproducible (note that this is exactly the reason why Maven build cannot be trusted and that you need to run clean, because any "goal" can write to any directory at any time, making it impossible to infer who contributed what).

  • it requires to declare an explicit dependency between the jar task and the docsFileJar task, to make sure that if we execute jar, our "docs jar" file is present

  • it doesn’t tell why there’s a dependency: is it because you want to order things, or is it because you require an artifact produced by the dependent task? Something else?

  • it’s easy to forget about those: because you may run build often, you might think that your build works, because jar is part of the task graph, and by accident, the docsFileJar would be executed before

  • it creates accidental extra work: most often a dependsOn will trigger too much work. Gradle is a smart build tool which can compute precisely what it needs to execute for each specific task. By using dependsOn, you’re a bit using a hammer and forcing it to integrate something in the graph which wasn’t necessarily needed. In short: you’re doing too much work.

  • it’s difficult to get rid of them: when you see a dependsOn, because it doesn’t tell why it’s needed, it’s often hard to get rid of such dependencies when optimizing builds

Use implicit dependencies instead!

The answer to our problem is actually simpler to reason about: reverse the logic. Instead of thinking "where should I put those things so that it’s picked up by jar", think "let’s tell the jar task that it also needs to pick up my resources".

All in all, it’s about properly declaring your task inputs.

Instead of patching up the output of another task (seriously, forget about this!), every single task must be thought as a function which takes inputs and produces an output: it’s isolated. So, what are the inputs of our docsFileJar? The resources we want to package. What are its outputs? The jar itself. There’s nothing about where we should put the jar, we let Gradle pick a reasonable place for us.

Then what are the inputs of the jar task itself? Well, it’s regular inputs plus our jar. It’s easier to reason about, and as bonus, it’s even shorter to write!

So let’s rewrite the code above to:

task docFilesJar(type: Jar, description: 'Package up files used for generating documentation.') {
    archiveVersion = null
    archiveFileName = "grails-doc-files.jar"
    from "src/main/template"

jar {
    from docFilesJar

Can you spot the difference? We got rid of the copy in the docFilesJar task, we don’t want to do this. What we want, instead, is to say "when you build the jar, also pick this docsFileJar. And that’s what we’re doing by telling from docsFileJar. Gradle is smart enough to know that when it will need to execute the jar task, first, it will need to build the docsFilesJar.

There are several advantages to this:

  • the dependency becomes implicit: if we don’t want to include the jar anymore, we just have to remove it from the specification of the inputs.

  • it doesn’t pollute the outputs of other tasks

  • you can execute the docsFileJar independently of jar

All in all, it’s about isolating things from each other and reducing the risks of breaking a build accidentally!

All things lazy!

The modified code isn’t 2021 compliant. The code above works, but it has one drawback: the docFilesJar and jar tasks are going to be configured (instantitated) even if we call something that doesn’t need it. For example, imagine that you call gradle compileJava: there’s no reason to configure the jar tasks there because we won’t execute them.

For this purpose, to make builds faster, Gradle provides a lazy API instead:

tasks.register('docFilesJar', Jar) {
    description = 'Package up files used for generating documentation.'
    archiveVersion = null
    archiveFileName = "grails-doc-files.jar"
    from "src/main/template"

tasks.named('jar', Jar) {
    from docFilesJar


As a conclusion:

  • avoid using explicit dependsOn as much as you can

  • I tend to say that the only reasonable use case for dependsOn is for lifecycle tasks (lifecycle tasks are tasks which goal is only there to "organize the build", for example build, assemble, check: they don’t do anything by themselves, they just bind a number of dependents together)

  • if you find use cases which are not lifecycle tasks and cannot be expressed by implicit task dependencies (e.g declaring inputs instead of dependsOn), then report it to the Gradle team