Why Boot is Relevant For The Clojure Ecosystem

Boot is a build system for Clojure projects. It roughly competes in the same area as Leiningen but Boot's new version brings some interesting features to the table that make it an alternative worth assessing.

Compose Build Steps

If you've used Leiningen for more than packaging jars and uberjars you likely came across plugins like lein-cljsbuild or lein-garden, both compile your stuff into a target format (i.e. JS, CSS). Now if you want to run both of these tasks at the same time — which you probably want during development — you have two options: either you open two terminals and start them separately or you fall back to something like below that you run in a dev profile (this is how it's done in Chestnut):

(defn start-garden []
  (print "Starting Garden.\n")
  (lein/-main ["garden" "auto"])))

Now there are issues with both of these options in my opinion. Opening two terminals to initiate your development environment is just not very user friendly and putting code related to building the project into your codebase is boilerplate that unnecessarily can cause trouble by getting outdated.

What Boot allows developers to do is to write small composable tasks. These work somewhat similar to stateful transducers and ring middleware in that you can just combine them with regular function composition.

A Quick Example

Playing around with Boot, I tried to write a task. To test this task in an actual project I needed to install it into my local repository (in Leiningen: lein install). Knowing that I'd need to reinstall the task constantly as I change it I was looking for something like Leiningen's Checkouts so I don't have to re-install after every change.

Turns out Boot can solve this problem in a very different way that illustrates the composing mechanism nicely. Boot defines a bunch of built-in tasks that help with packaging and installing a jar: pom, add-src, jar & install.

We could call all of these these on the command line as follows:

boot pom add-src jar install

Because we're lazy we'll define it as a task in our project's build.boot file. (Command-line task and their arguments are symmetric to their Clojure counterparts.)

(require '[boot.core          :refer [deftask]]
            '[boot.task.built-in :refer [pom add-src jar install]])

(deftask build-jar
  "Build jar and install to local repo."
  (comp (pom) (add-src) (jar) (install)))

Now boot build-jar is roughly equivalent to lein install. To have any changes directly reflected on our classpath we can just compose our newly written build-jar task with another task from the repertoire of built-in tasks: watch. The watch-task observes the file system for changes and initiates a new build cycle when they occur:

boot watch build-jar

With that command we just composed our already composed task with another task. Look at that cohesion!

There Are Side-Effects Everwhere!

Is one concern that has been raised about Boot. Leiningen is beautifully declarative. It's one immutable map that describes your whole project. Boot on the other hand looks a bit different. A usual boot file might contain a bunch of side-effectful functions and in general it's much more a program than it is data.

I understand that this might seem like a step back at first sight, in fact I looked at it with confusion as well. There are some problems with Leiningen though that are probably hard to work out in Leiningen's declarative manner (think back to running multiple lein X auto commands.

Looking at Boot's code it becomes apparent that the authors spent a great deal of time on isolating the side effects that might occur in various build steps. I recommend reading the comments on this Hacker News thread for more information on that.

When To Use Boot, When To Use Leiningen

Boot is a build tool. That said it's task composition features only get to shine when multiple build steps are involved. If you're developing a library I'm really not going to try to convince you to switch to Boot. Leiningen works great for that and is, I'd assume, more stable than Boot.

If you however develop an application that requires various build steps (like Clojurescript, Garden, live reloading, browser-repl) you should totally check out Boot. There are tasks for all of the above mentioned: Clojurescript, Clojurescript REPL, Garden, live reloading. I wrote the Garden task and writing tasks is not hard once you have a basic understanding of Boot.

If you need help or have questions join the #hoplon channel on freenode IRC. I'll try to help and if I can't Alan or Micha, the authors of Boot, probably can.

@martinklepsch, November 2014