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Webpack vs Gulp – The Best Build Tools for Javascript Projects

When it comes to developing web applications, we have a limited amount of time and resources that we must manage efficiently. For streamlining the development process, there are now several tools that are available. When choosing from the available tools, we often run into the option of webpack vs Gulp. Sometimes, Grunt is also considered instead of Gulp, so we will include that in our discussion as well.

These are some of the most popular tools that developers love to use with their JavaScript-based projects. We will talk about each of these tools today, going over how they work and what tasks they are best equipped to handle. We hope this discussion will help you decide which of these will suit your needs in the best way.

Those of you who are already familiar might be wondering why we are looking at Grunt vs webpack vs Gulp when they are very different in terms of the purposes they serve. Before we delve into that discussion, we must tell you everything you need to know about each of these tools. So let us get right to it.

Here is what we are going to cover today:

  • What is webpack, and what is its purpose?
  • What are two popular task runners?
  • What is Gulp used for?
  • Is Grunt the same as Gulp?
  • Can webpack, Gulp, and Grunt be considered each other’s substitutes?
  • Which build tool is best for you and why?

What is Webpack?

Webpack is a module bundler which helps achieve two major tasks:

  1. It arranges all your JavaScript files in the correct order. That is, it figures out how to sort out the dependencies between the files.
  2. It rolls them up into a single .js source file. This file can then be directly executed when your webpage loads. Thus, it eliminates the need for sending repetitive HTTP requests to the server.

Let’s look at these processes in a little more detail.

What Is Webpack Used For?

When JavaScript programming was not very common, it was much easier to manage the code. Most apps either only had a few lines of JS scripts, or were based on a collection of a fewer number of files. Loading and running the application was thus fairly simple and quick.

Nowadays, with so many scripts all present in many separate files of one single project, it is difficult to keep track of them. When you load the project, the files might all load in a haphazard manner. For example, if file A contains code that depends on file B, but file B loads first, then it will bring up “dependency” errors since some required modules would be missing. This is where the benefits of webpack come in.

what is webpack
What is webpack?

What Does Webpack Do?

The single most important feature of webpack is its ability to build a dependency graph, as illustrated above. In other words, it keeps track of the order in which the files and other static assets of your app need to load. It produces a build file which details this structure. This single build file has details regarding all the modules.

Besides that, webpack is also capable of carrying out other functions that are typically executed by task runners. This means you can use webpack to execute the same tasks that Gulp and Grunt perform. We will come back to this point when we compare Grunt vs webpack vs Gulp in detail.

Basic Webpack Config

At a minimum, we have to specify the environment (production/development) as well as define the entry script, output directory, and filename that webpack should use. If one is in the production environment, webpack will automatically minify the output and remove all duplicated code.

A basic webpack config would look like this:

var webpack = require('webpack');

module.exports = {

context: __dirname,

devtool: process.env.NODE_ENV !== 'production' ? 'inline-sourcemap' : false,

entry: './js/scripts.js',

output: {

path: __dirname + '/js',

filename: 'scripts.min.js'

},

plugins: process.env.NODE_ENV !== 'production' ? [] : [

new webpack.optimize.DedupePlugin(),

new webpack.optimize.OccurenceOrderPlugin(),

new webpack.optimize.UglifyJsPlugin({mangle: false, sourcemap: false}),

],

};

Building the Webpack Package

Building the webpack package is fairly straightforward. Just run the command webpack, and it will generate the unminified output with the sourcemaps. To specify the production environment, run NODE_ENV=production webpack, and it will generate the minified output removing duplicates.

Advantages of Webpack

If I recommended webpack to you out of the blue, you would definitely ask, “Why webpack?” Well, using webpack brings along certain advantages.

  • When a web page loads in a browser, it requests a multitude of files in no particular order and loads them all at the same time. Webpack puts these files in a proper order to avoid confusion and loads them as required. Thus, bundling certain modules together eliminates the heavy load and confusion caused by asynchronous requests.
  • Webpack also removes dead assets and code. This means it detects and deletes those parts of the code that you don’t use.
  • It supports live reloading as well as hot reloading. The former means you can make as many changes in your code as you wish to, and the whole project will be reloaded for the changes to be reflected in the web page on your browser immediately. In the case of hot reloading, that would happen without having to reload the entire application but only those files which underwent any changes.
  • Its automation features make it an excellent replacement for Gulp or Grunt.
  • The documentation available on webpack’s website is very comprehensive and offers a great learning opportunity for beginners.

Disadvantages of Webpack

As is the case with every technology, not everything is perfect about webpack either.

Configuration complexity: The complexity of configuring webpack is perhaps its biggest downside. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to set up a new instance of webpack. Because of that, it can get a little frustrating when you first start using this tool. It might also be difficult to understand the extensive but confusing documentation that is available for it.

Learning curve: This complexity leads to a very steep learning curve for people who are not very experienced with the tool. Therefore, it requires a significant amount of patience before you can excel at using it.

Lack of conciseness and brevity: The code for webpack can get quite confusing – or outright difficult – as it increases in size.


What is Gulp?

Gulp is one of the most well-known task runners available for JS-based web development. It is, in essence, an automation tool. The term itself is quite self-explanatory. You can automate certain tasks during your web development process by using automation tools such as Gulp.

what is gulp
What is gulp?

What Is Gulp Used For?

We will explain the purpose of Gulp with a small and simple example.

Suppose that your web page has a lot of images of large sizes. If you upload them directly on your page, they will make your website very slow. Therefore, it is necessary to compress the images before they can be loaded in the browser.

Now, imagine if you were compressing each image manually before loading it. It would take a lot of time. On top of that, manual processes are prone to human error. What if you miss a couple of images during the compression stage?

Using an automation tool such as Gulp, you can line up similarly repetitive tasks such as image compression. Gulp will take charge of performing these tasks as and when required/scheduled. Thus, these tasks will become automated, saving you a lot of time and reducing errors.

A typical Gulp task is executed in three steps:

  1. Read the source files.
  2. Perform one or more processes on the files.
  3. Write the final output into a new destination directory.
a typical gulp task
A typical Gulp task

Common Gulp Tasks

Some of the most common Gulp tasks are:

  • .task() — Creates a task
  • .src() — Identifies the files that will be compiled in a particular task
  • .dest() — Writes the resulting file to a specific location
  • .watch() — Identifies the files to detect any changes on

Writing up a Gulp Task

This is what a simple Gulp task would look like:

var gulp = require('gulp');

gulp.task('hello-world', function() {

console.log('My first gulp task');

});

Running gulp hello-world would log ‘My first gulp task’ to the console.

Now, suppose we want to minify our JavaScript files (using two useful plugins, gulp-uglify and gulpif). We will write up a Gulp task and instruct Gulp to look into a directory, pick all the .js files, and minify them. Here is what this Gulp task may look like:

var uglify = require('gulp-uglify');

var gulpIf = require('gulp-if');

gulp.task('uglify-js', function(){

return gulp.src('app/*')

.pipe(gulpIf('*.js', uglify()));

});

We will execute this task by running gulp uglify-js.

Advantages of Gulp

There are certain upsides to choosing Gulp as your core task runner tool.

  • Gulp lets you focus a lot more on your code instead of worrying about the configuration part of automation.
  • The whole Gulp API consists of just four functions, i.e. gulp.src, gulp.dest, gulp.task, and gulp.watch. Everything you need to do in your project relies on these four methods.
  • There is a wide array of plugins available for Gulp.
  • Gulp is very easy to learn and easy to understand.
  • It is also more flexible than its substitutes.
  • It allows the back-to-back processing of multiple files in memory, which makes it quite fast.

Disadvantages of Gulp

There are four major downsides to using Gulp in your projects.

Understanding the underlying concepts: For new Gulp users, it might be a little difficult to understand how Gulp streams and Promises work.

Dependency issues: If you are using a particular plugin which is available in a third-party library, it will have to be in sync with the native version. Any delay in updates will result in unpleasant inconsistencies.

Unreliable plugins: While there are many plugins available for use with Gulp, they are not perfect for use. Many of them have bugs. Others do not have complete documentation on how to use them. Some are even incomplete.

Debugging: The process of taking apart your code to locate and rectify errors is highly frustrating with Gulp. Sometimes, the debugger points to a location that is not related to the actual error at all.


What is Grunt?

Released 1.5 years before the introduction of Gulp, Grunt is another very popular task runner (automation tool) designed especially for JS developers.

Like we mentioned in the previous section, Grunt is a workflow automation tool, much like Gulp. It enables you to perform similar tasks. Grunt helps in keeping your work organised by letting you schedule repetitive tasks every time your app loads. This Gulp alternative also supports many plugins. It is very easy to create and publish your own plugins too.

what is grunt
What is grunt?

Here are a few more examples of the types of tasks that automation tools like Grunt can perform on your behalf:

  • Creating HTML templates
  • Minifying code (As the name suggests, minification involves removing irrelevant characters, such as comments and extra spaces, from your code. This makes it shorter and quicker to serve, reducing load time for your webpages.)
  • Compressing images
  • Refreshing pages

Advantages of Grunt

Grunt, like the other tools, has its own advantages.

  • It is the first task runner to be released for frontend developers and has been an important part of this industry for years.
  • There are over 6000 plugins available for you to use from the Grunt registry.
  • A lot of “behind-the-scenes” activities are hidden from you. You need not bother yourself with the hidden architecture.
  • This makes it seem less complicated than other tools.
  • It gives real-time warnings in case of errors while coding.

Disadvantages of Grunt

Here are a few drawbacks of using Grunt.

  • If your app is considerably large-scale and needs higher levels of configuration, then it might become very complex and hard to manage.
  • There is limited community support. Hence, you might get stuck for long periods when facing problems.
  • Not being able to view and understand the hidden workings of Grunt may lead to confusion and cause inconvenience. If you don’t know what is going on, how will you deal with any unexpected problems that show up?
  • For tasks that are not very common, Grunt is not a very flexible tool.

Webpack vs Gulp and Grunt – An In-Depth Comparison

The most important distinction that we have already established between webpack vs Gulp is that the first one is what you call a module bundler, while the other one is a task runner. Like Gulp, Grunt is also a task runner. Perhaps tools like Browserify or Parcel would be more appropriate webpack alternatives.

Now, let’s get to the central part of our discussion about the two main build tools, webpack vs Gulp, along with a few comments on Grunt.

Main Purpose

While webpack vs Gulp vs Grunt are all types of build tools, they serve different purposes.

Webpack Gulp Grunt
Module bundler Task runner Task runner
May also act as an automation tool Solely an automation tool Solely an automation tool

Installation Requirements

Webpack Gulp Grunt
Requires Node and npm

(Version 4 onwards also requires you to install the webpack CLI)

Requires Node and npm Requires Node and npm

Configurations

Webpack Gulp Grunt
v4 onwards, a config file is not required but is still supported. All the config data is stored in one single Gulpfile. All the config data is stored in one single Gruntfile.

How It Works

Let’s have a look at the work strategies of webpack vs Gulp,  along with Grunt.

Webpack Gulp Grunt
Processing takes place during development Focuses on in-memory processing, minimising writes to disk Saves the result from each task
Based on Node streams Based on temp files
Draws up a dependency graph, clearly defining which modules need to be loaded and in what sequence Puts tasks in a pipe, to execute one after the other Carries out one task at a time
Works on JS data Works on JSON data Works on JS data
Prefers coding over config Prefers config over coding

Benefits

While we have discussed the upsides to each tool in detail, let’s go over some of the comparative advantages of webpack vs Gulp vs Grunt.

Webpack Gulp Grunt
Great for large-scale projects Great for less complex projects Great for less complex projects
Supports complex bundling and code splitting Good for basic bundling Good for basic bundling

Limitations

Webpack Gulp Grunt
Code may become too expressive (descriptive)

Steep learning curve

Difficult for new users to understand streams and Promises

Debugging may become very difficult for bigger projects

 

 

Becomes complex for larger projects

Not flexible for less common tasks

May be challenging to understand hidden architecture

Popular Users

Here are some popular users of each of the three tools:

Webpack Gulp Grunt
Soundcloud

Airbnb

Pinterest

Instagram

Udemy

Asana

9GAG

Intuit

Myntra

Netflix

Trigger

Sellsuki

Typeform

Mailgun

Pubu

Avocode

Bootstrap

Mozilla

jQuery

Twitter

Adobe Systems

Walmart

WordPress

Opera

Popularity

Here is an overview of the comparison of search volumes for webpack vs Gulp. We have also included Grunt to illustrate how it does against Gulp.

Can Webpack Replace Gulp?

By now, you must have noticed that comparing all three of these tools is like comparing apples, oranges, and bananas. They are very different from each other at their core. However, recently, it has been observed that Gulp, webpack, and Grunt have become substitutes of each other. That is because there is a great overlap of tasks that all these tools can perform.

webpack is not the same as gulp or grunt
Webpack is not the same as Gulp or Grunt

It is also possible to use Gulp with webpack, but it would be highly redundant. Webpack already offers almost all the functionalities that task runners do. It would be pointless to use Gulp with it because it would serve no real purpose. Hence, it’s just better to pick one.

You should be able to choose either Gulp or webpack depending on your project needs. For large-scale projects, webpack would be the perfect choice as a build tool. You could try using the Gulp bundle plugin to increase the functionality of Gulp, but that would not improve the performance of your app. On the other hand, if you try to use webpack for smaller projects, it will do more harm than good and incur greater overhead. In such cases, it is better to stick to the simpler option, i.e. Gulp.

The only tasks that webpack would not be able to perform on its own are linting and unit testing. For these, too, there is a workaround. You can opt for npm scripts, thus eliminating the need for a separate task runner once again.

It is also important to note that while it is possible to replace Grunt or Gulp with webpack, you cannot treat these tools as webpack alternatives. You can never have Grunt or Gulp replace webpack entirely.

Our Final Word on Webpack vs Gulp and Other Build Tools

After looking at the various options for your JavaScript project, there are a few things you should remember when it comes to choosing from webpack, Gulp, and other build tools.

Your tool of choice depends mainly on your own needs. If your project is quite large-scale, with lots of scripts all over the place, and many files using libraries that depend on each other, then a module bundler would be absolutely necessary. On top of that, a bundler such as webpack would also take care of the functionality of an automation tool.

On the other hand, if your project is not as complex, and requires only the additional automation that is provided by Grunt and Gulp, then you could eliminate the need for a bundler. An easy project would do well with Grunt, while Gulp would act as a great automation tool for more advanced projects.

All of that advice, however, is not set in stone. Personal preference for a certain tool is also a valid justification for choosing that particular tool. What if you are better at configuring webpack than you are at setting up Gulp or Grunt? It would make no sense to go for something you are not very skilled at. Would you go for Gulp if you were looking to use a particular plugin that was only available with Grunt? Of course, you would not.

Hence, choosing from Gulp, webpack, and Grunt depends on what you want to achieve, and what path you wish to take to reach that end goal.

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Sasha Reeves

The author Sasha Reeves

25 years old. Computer scientist and content creator by day, struggling musician by night. Survives on cat videos and bad pop music.

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