Based on the discussion over here: roots/roots/pull/1257.

These days your web project probably has a build step. Your build step takes your styles, scripts, and other assets and packages them for the browser. Maybe you are using gulp, grunt, or even make to orchestrate all your compilation steps. This post covers a couple methods for deploying projects with compiled assets and each method’s respective gotchas.

General Rules of Thumb

  • Never commit compiled files to source control. Believe it or not, source control is for source files.
    1. Compiled files in a repo make it difficult to use the merge and rebase features in git.
    2. Compiled files muddy the history and increase the size of the repo.
    3. It just doesn’t make sense to put “binaries” in your source control.
  • Deployments are completely automated and driven by your version control repository. Whether you are using something like Capistrano, a hand-rolled git deploy process or a PaaS that gives you git deploy options: you should have one codebase tracked in revision control and many deploys.
  • Ideally Dev matches Production exactly. You should have a reproducible, portable development environment which exactly matches the environment your production app runs in. The most conventional way to do this is to use Vagrant. The new hotness is Docker.

Deployment Patterns

So at this point your source control drives your many deploys. Your build process outputs compiled files optimized for the browser. You are banned from checking any of these compiled files into source control. So how do the compiled files get to the proper place on the application server? It really depends on who or what is going to be running the build.

1. Locally Compile and Upload Assets

As a part of your deployment process on your local development machine:

  • Build the project
  • Copy compiled files to the remote destination

Where this falls apart:

  • No single source of truth: When you have multiple people deploying and compiling there is a lack of “single source of truth”. This becomes a problem when working on a team or when you hand off a project. You run the risk of differences in a particular developer’s setup causing differences in the compiled output. Although this doesn’t happen often if you are diligent about locking down dependency versions: when it does it is extremely frustrating and expensive. It amounts to a ping-pong of intermittent issues based on who is actually deploying.
  • Everyone Requires Credentials: Anyone who needs to deploy has to have access credentials for the server. This requires discipline and lots of work to keep credentials from floating around in the wild.
  • Uploading is slow: uploading a bunch of files, especially over SCP, is generally pretty slow.
  • Requires Discipline: You cannot run a deploy while there are uncommitted changes in your local source assets, intentional or not. You will have to stash any changes before deploying. In addition, you have to be on the exact branch your target stage relies on. Otherwise, the assets you upload will not match the application files in git. For instance:
    1. You are trying to deploy to “Staging” which pulls code from the “Develop” branch.
    2. You unknowingly find yourself with the master branch checked out while running the deploy.
    3. The deploy process will pull the latest code from the “Develop” branch.
    4. Your local machine will upload the compiled assets from the master branch.
    5. Uh oh! Now, among other things, your templates don’t match your JavaScript or your styles! You done goofed everything.

Recommendation:

If you are a lone developer with no project handoff in sight, there is probably nothing wrong with this pattern. It is crude but easy to setup. Also, if you do not have the ability to install dependencies on the remote box you might be forced to use this pattern.

2. Compile on the Application Server

As a part of your initial server provisioning process:

  • Install build dependencies and runtimes. If, for instance, you are using gulp to build your project’s assets you would install Node.js and npm.

As a part of your deployment process trigger on the remote application server:

  • Update, prune, rebuild project build dependencies. (example)
  • Trigger the build

The application server becomes the single source of truth.

Where this falls apart:

  • Everyone Requires Credentials
  • Additional Dependencies Required on Application Server: most people prefer to keep their application servers as lean as possible. Having your application server “know” about the build process and its dependencies goes against this principle. Additional dependencies means additional provisioning time as well.
  • Not Suitable for Resource Intensive Build Processes: If you have a super duper large build process this can steal resources from app for the duration of the build process. In all likelihood, your development machine is a quad core machine with 16GB of memory. Your application servers are probably single core nodes with 1GB of memory or less. A minute long build process on your dev machine could take 10 minutes on your lean application server.

Recommendation:

Generally for web projects this is a safe bet. The setup is cheap and simple. Due to the nature of web assets having to be consumed by a browser: building them is usually not a big deal. In my experience, the benefit of reproducible builds for team environments (especially remote teams) for little to no setup cost is greater than any hemming and hawing about additional dependencies being installed on the server.

3. Continuous Integration

Use something like Jenkins or a hosted solution like Travis. Your CI server watches your repo for new commits. When a commit happens the CI server:

  • Runs any pre-deploy checks (tests, linters, etc.)
  • Runs deploy
  • compiles and uploads assets

So:

  • Continuous integration server becomes the single source of truth
  • Developers only need access to the source code to be able to contribute to a project. The CI server has all the privileged access under lock and key.
  • Application server is as lean as possible, reduce server provisioning time.
  • Discipline is enforced by CI server so when building human error is not a thing. You can make sure tests must pass and style guides must be followed before code makes it to production.

Where this falls apart:

This doesn’t fall apart unless your CI server falls apart. However, the upfront cost is significant. A CI server is definitely only worth it in the case of:

  • Team environment
  • Long-lived project or lots of projects/modules to subsidize the upfront cost
  • Continuous development

Recommendation:

This is probably the most ideal deployment setup, but it is definitely only worth the effort in certain cases. Continuous integration requires continuous development. If you are working on a long-lived product in a team environment CI is pretty much required. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. For open source projects: Travis is free and it is awesome. Run your tests, linting or style guide against any and all contributions. Automatically build and update your docs.

Conclusion

There are lots of ways to skin this cat. The right solution depends heavily on the context of the project. The good news is: if you are doing something resembling any of the above you are probably on the right track.

How do you run your builds?