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Jeremy Jameson - Founder and Principal

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Why I'm Not a Fan of WspBuilder

Note
This post originally appeared on my MSDN blog:

Since I no longer work for Microsoft, I have copied it here in case that blog ever goes away.

After 3 years, 2 months, and 30 days, my involvement with migrating a large customer from a legacy Web platform to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 came to an end a few weeks ago. Since then, I have joined another team helping a different customer with a MOSS 2007 solution.

One of the challenges with integrating into a team of developers is handling various development styles and approaches.

One such issue that quickly came to light on this most recent venture is using WspBuilder to create the WSP files for deploying custom features to a SharePoint farm. The issue isn't with the actual WSPs created by WspBuilder, but how WspBuilder works --or, rather how it doesn't work. Specifically, I am referring to the lack of true dependency checking (i.e. determining whether any of the files packaged in the WSP have changed since the last build) and consequently the impact this can have on build times and developer productivity.

Note that this issue really applies only to larger SharePoint solutions. If you typically work with a Visual Studio solution containing only a handful of projects and one or two WSPs -- then you likely aren't experiencing long build times even if you are using WspBuilder and you've already read more of this post than you needed to ;-)

However, if you routinely work with a Visual Studio solution with dozens of projects and numerous WSPs, then by all means, keep reading!

On my previous project, we had 52 projects in our solution. On this new project, there were 27 projects when I first joined, and we've since added a few and now stand at 30 projects.

One of the first issues that I noticed is that the new solution would take a long time to build, even for trivial changes (for example, adding a comment to a unit test).

Using a simple stopwatch utility, I just timed the build for the new solution after adding a comment to a unit test. I chose this scenario because there are no dependencies on the unit test project (and thus you would expect the incremental build time to be very short). On the contrary, the build took 1 minute 52 seconds from the time I pressed CTRL+SHIFT+B to the time I received the "Build: 30 succeeded or up-to-date, 0 failed, 0 skipped" message in the Output window.

For comparison purposes, I fired up the solution from my previous project and performed a similar test (i.e. timing the build after adding a comment to a unit test). For this solution, the build took a mere 28 seconds from the time I pressed CTRL+SHIFT+B to the time I received the "Build: 51 succeeded, 0 failed, 1 up-to-date, 0 skipped" message in the Output window. While I'd certainly like it if this were even less than 28 seconds, I'm also trying to be realistic in light of the thousands of files that comprise the solution.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that this is somewhat of an "apples to oranges" comparison, meaning that the underlying projects (and code) have almost nothing in common. They were, after all, created by two completely disparate teams with no common team members (ignoring for the moment that I joined the project a couple of weeks ago).

However, simply for the sake of comparison, consider that the solution with 30 projects has ~23K lines of code, whereas the solution with 52 projects has ~39K lines of code (as calculated by the new Code Metrics feature in Visual Studio 2008). Also note on my previous project, we chose to partition our solution into a fairly large number of WSPs (17 to be exact), whereas the current team chose to minimize the number of WSPs that need to be deployed (specifically four).

To summarize:

Comparison of Visual Studio Solution Build Times
Visual Studio Solution Number of Projects Lines of Code Number of WSPs Incremental Build Time
Solution1 30 23,110 4 00:01:52
Solution2 52 38,905 17 00:00:28

From the data in this table, we can clearly see that something is amiss. The smaller solution (i.e. with 40% less code and 1/4 as many WSPs) takes almost four times longer to incrementally build! Ouch.

As I told my new teammates shortly after joining the project, WspBuilder doesn't have the "smarts" to determine that no work needs to be done when nothing has changed in any of the items included in a WSP (i.e. there is no need to rebuild the WSP when you press CTRL+SHIFT+B and then CTRL+SHIFT+B again immediately after the previous build completed). This is effectively the same as using post-build events in Visual Studio to invoke makecab.exe to package the WSP.

As I pointed out about a year ago, there is actually a much better way of building WSPs (and CAB files) by avoiding post-build events and leveraging true dependency checking in MSBuild.

Note that the purpose of this post is not to bash WspBuilder or say that WspBuilder should be abandoned around the world. Honestly, prior to joining this team, I had only read about WspBuilder -- I'd never actually used it before. I love the fact that it takes the grunt work out of creating and maintaining a Diamond Definition File (DDF) to define the structure of your CAB file, er, I mean WSP.

However, offloading this effort from the development team comes at a very steep price for larger solutions (i.e. lengthy build times). In speaking with other team members about this, most of them said they avoided CTRL+SHIFT+B and instead would right-click on a specific project and then click Build in order to avoid having to wait for the whole solution to build. They would then manually copy files to the GAC and/or the "SPDir12" folder (%ProgramFiles%\Common Files\Microsoft Shared\web server extensions\12).

Up until a few weeks ago, they were also excluding the WspBuilder projects from the Debug configuration (to minimize build times). However, I found this to be very problematic, since developers may forget to switch to the Package configuration when getting latest and redeploying the entire solution to update their local environment. Even worse, though, is the fact that the Package configuration specifies the Release builds of the various assemblies -- and therefore whenever developers would rebuild in "package" mode to update their environment, all of the deployed assemblies would not have DEBUG fined. I'll admit, there are times when developers need to deploy Release builds to their local environments for debugging purposes, but these occasions are extremely rare (i.e. a bug that cannot be reproduced in the Debug build).

We have since configured the Debug configuration to package the WSPs -- thus avoiding the need for developers to routinely toggle the build configuration. As a result of this, the time it takes to build the Debug configuration increased substantially (and hence the purpose of this post).

Are there ways of mitigating the lengthy build times caused by using WspBuilder without giving up CTRL+SHIFT+B and building individual projects? Absolutely! It relies on using an apparently little-known feature in Visual Studio that has been around since (at least) the Visual C++ 4.0 days: loading and unloading projects. I cover this in a separate post.

So, when deciding whether or not to use WspBuilder, think about the tradeoffs between creating and managing the DDF files yourself (which, honestly, is rather easy once you have a pattern to copy/paste from) versus structuring your SharePoint projects so that WspBuilder can automatically detect the files and structure when building the WSP.

Personally speaking -- and again, this is just my opinion here -- I prefer makecab.exe and hand-crafted DDF files. However, this is obviously influenced by the fact that I built lots of these on my previous project that I can reference ;-)

Update (2009-03-31)
Note that I have posted an update on WSPBuilder based on some feedback I received from Carsten Keutmann, the creator of WSPBuilder.

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