Gulp, Webpack and When You Should Use Both

A Detailed Study into Gulp and Webpack: When and Why?

I can remember the first time, back when I was a junior web developer, somebody said to me “run a build system on your JavaScript” and it totally freaked me out. However, as a full-on programmer, you’ll be using various dev tools and utilities such as Gulp and Webpack to make your development process much more manageable.

As technologies are advancing by the day, it is us, the programmers, who have to deal with new tech stacks and programming methodologies in order to stay relevant in the industry. Long gone are the days when you’d only put up some HTML tags, create a server, and upload the source code to the web for a regular website.

Websites are becoming somewhat obsolete for the last five or ten years, and web applications are on the rise since. Web apps are just applications that utilize the web and targets web related problems to gain traction. Even such apps have seen different variations like SPA(Single Page Application), PWA(Progressive Web Application), Distributed Systems, Microsystems, and others.

As web apps are much more complicated than traditional websites and need many types of assets, both dynamic and static, developing a web app is nothing like the earlier website development process. Today, we can be overwhelmed pretty fast by the different types of tasks we need to do for developing a web application.

Automating many of such processes can help developers reduce excess time behind tedious build processes and let them focus more on the application code itself. This, added with opensource build utilities and tools, can increase the productivity of your developers and can promote a much progressive development environment.

Gulp and Webpack are nothing more than build systems or utilities designed for taking care of automated processes or managing much-needed tasks so you can focus much more on the coding aspect of your app. Although somewhat different in their scopes, both Gulp and Webpack are usually used for the same set of tasks and can be interchanged.

In today’s guide, we’ll discuss these two tools in detail and outline their recommended use cases and both their advantages and disadvantages compared to the other. Read through this guide to learn how can you leverage these toolkits to speed up your development.

Gulp: Introduction and Overview

Gulp is basically a task runner. Traditionally, programmers used different types of task runners to achieve smooth build processes for their applications. Make is the first and most viable solution for this purpose and still a valid choice.

Since the inception of NodeJS, as JavaScript became the new de-facto language of the web, Gulp, a specialized task runner, was created keeping these new JS developers in mind. Different opensource plugins made available through NPM made Gulp much powerful than traditional task runners. You can even extend the capabilities of Gulp via third-party libraries and plugins.

Gulp takes a different approach to its job than other traditional task runners. In Gulp, instead of relying on different plugin configurations, developers deal with actual code. If you’ve any prior knowledge to Unix and its piping component, you’ll like Gulp right from the beginning.

Gulp provides developers components such as sources to match files, filters to operate on these sources, and sinks to pipe the build results as the output. Gulp gives you the ability to easily hack a feasible solution, wrap existing Node packages as Gulp plugins, and so on.

Prior to Gulp, Grunt was the go-to choice of JS developers to manage their build tasks. However, Gulp removed many of Grunts problems and aimed at being the top choice in its domain. Its immense popularity among JavaScript developers is the sign that Gulp is victorious in its endeavor.

Webpack: Introduction and Overview

Task runners are helpful when manipulating your workflow on a higher level. They give you the ability to perform your operations in a cross-platform manner. However, when you need to splice different assets together and produce bundles, they’re not of too much help.

Bundlers are to the rescue. These are dev tools that take all of your files (SASS files, LESS files, JavaScript files with modules and dependencies, images, etc) and bundles them together as a JS, CSS, PNG or JPG file for standalone usage. They operate on a low level of abstraction can be used to trans-pile your codes.

Webpack has become the de-facto bundler among JS developers, thanks to its numerous handy features and widespread community. Although marketed as a build system, you may theoretically view Webpack as a build process that can do all of the things Gulp specializes and many more.

You can think of Wbpack as a mechanism that takes all of your files as an input, runs them through some kind of conversion or transpiler system and spits out something the browser can understand.

Although Webpack can do all the things you’d normally do with Gulp, it’s somewhat of a complex system than Gulp. This is due to the fact that it’s not just a task runner, but a full-fledged system that can do many more complicated jobs like creating processes, managing those, transpiling source codes, and many more.

Gulp: Working Principle and Approach

The API of Gulp consists of 4 essential functions. These are gulp.src, gulp.dest, gulp.task, and gulp.watch. First, as a developer, you assign a new task to Gulp. The task takes an asynchronous JS function as a parameter and performs pattern searches in a list of specified files. It then pipes the files via different mechanisms as per your requirement and minifies the file finally.

The Unix-based piping process of Gulp is very user-friendly and intuitive. What it does is take a set of input files, pipe them through a series of transformations, then return the output files. It even gives you the ability to perform these pining and minification processes via NPM libraries. So, you will often get by just utilizing third party piping and transformation plugins.

The next crucial working principle of Gulp is that it takes an array of task dependencies. It provides you with the ability to create a series of small tasks with a single responsibility, like converting a LESS file to CSS. You may then create a sort of master task which will just trigger all the other tasks via this array of task dependencies.

Lastly, the gulp.watch file watches a glob file pattern for potential changes. When a change is detected, a new series of tasks are performed. A common use of this function is to trigger live reloads directly in the browser. It is an essential feature needed in the development phase of your application.

Webpack: Working Principle and Approach

Contrary to a task running process, bundling JavaScript files is not as simple as piping and concatenating them. Instead, the application has an entry point (usually named index.js or app.js) and a series of require or import statements.

Webpack first needs to resolve the dependencies before moving onto the remaining code. These dependencies themselves may have additional dependencies, which needs to be resolved furthermore. On the other hand, it’s normal for you to use the same dependency in multiple places in your application and it’s not feasible to resolve them each time individually. Rather, Webpack utilizes mechanisms like tree shaking to ensure you resolve each dependency exactly once.

Webpack has all the necessary options for the minification of your source code and creating source maps. You can even run Webpack as a middleware through a custom server known as webpack-dev-server. This server supports both live reloading and hot reloading features. You can also add ES6 TO ES5 transpiling.

The Webpack core provides a lot of its functionality out of the box and can be extended using customs loaders and plugins. Webpack provides you with the full control of how to resolve your dependencies and make it possible to adapt your build to match pre-determined situations and workaround packages that don’t work as per your desire out of the box.

Both Gulp and Webpack are great at their specific domain. However, before choosing one over the other, you need to determine your use cases first and see which tool best matches your requirement.

When to Use Gulp?

Gulp was designed to save repetition and increasing the developer’s productivity. It aims at automating all those everyday tasks that we need to do again and again.

If you’re building a simple application that does not require too much of a bundle but merely some task runners, stick with Gulp. Although Gulp does not provide many of the advanced capabilities of Webpack, it is fairly easy to learn and can be implemented pretty easily into your workflow.

Gulp is best suited to projects where you need to run different tests and merge files, compile SASS, LESS files into static assets such as CSS, minify the source codes, and create a basic JS bundle.

In projects where you want a much greater clarity and control of current processes, and more control over the workflow, Gulp will be your best bet. A large ecosystem of opensource NPM plugins will help you accomplish many particular tasks with Gulp without even writing your own instructions. Gulp has a much faster performance compared to Webpack due to its less complex nature and elegant incorporation of the stream and in-memory operations.

Gulp is far more easy to understand than Webpack if you’re new to these technologies. So, if you’re a beginner into JS app development and processing, then stick with Gulp for now.

When to Side with Webpack?

As we’ve discussed already, although Gulp and Webpack are usually used for the same type of jobs, the difference between them is subtle, yet easily noticeable. Webpack is a much more advanced utility than Gulp and provides you with the full control of how to split your modules and adjust them according to your requirements.

If you envision your project to be bundled into a single browser-understandable format, go with Webpack for your build. Webpack provides developers with more flexibility, and advanced functionality for modern projects and its features are still to be matched by Gulp or any other build mechanisms.

Web packs core can be extended easily through loaders and plugins, which will come handy in projects where developers intend to add new features incrementally. If your project needs to deal with a massive amount of chained dependencies, it’s best practice to stay with Webpack. One of another shining point of Webpack is its ability to transpile non-code assets like images, fonts, CSS, etc. for complex JavaScript applications.

If you want far more control over resolving your application dependencies, control over assets processing, and elimination of dead assets then do not look anywhere further than Webpack. It’s a great solution if your app is designed to use both live and hot reloading.

When to Use Gulp and Webpack Together?

Recently, a new trend has been gaining traction among serious JS programmers to use both Gulp and Webpack simultaneously in their applications. Just think about it, what if you use Gulp as the task runner for your project and configure it in a way to run Webpack to deliver the bundle?

This type of innovative workflow is on the rise and seems to be a viable solution for large and complex JavaScript projects. Remember, both Webpack and Gulp aim to deliver better and faster applications. If utilizing both Gulp and Webpack ensure this for your project, you should definitely go towards this route.

Using both of these task runner and bundler will provide you with a much greater control over the handling of your static files, creating a productive server environment, resulting in a fast compilation time, and many more.

Both Gulp and Webpack can hold onto their ground when it comes to their specific domain of action. Although much advanced than Gulp, Webpack is pretty complex and interacting with it as a beginner might be unproductive. Whereas, Gulp is very easy to both learn and implement but lacks many of Webpack’s advanced capabilities. However, both of these dev tools are great on their own and can be used together to achieve a much advance workflow.

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