Java Journal: Ant

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When you develop cross-platform applications in Java, you should have a cross-platform build tool. Ant is exactly what you need: a cross-platform build tool for Java applications. In fact, Ant is itself written in Java. I'm only surprised that it was one of the Apache gurus who wrote it and not Sun Microsystems. But don't let the fact that it doesn't come from Sun persuade you that it shouldn't be a core part of your toolset or that it isn't robust. Ant is powerful, easy to use, and--best of all--free.

Most programmers, and I was one of them, are skeptical when they are first introduced to Ant. They think, "Why do I need a build tool? My IDE handles all my build dependencies for me." In fact, one of the first things that attracted me to Java and IDEs was that I no longer had to deal with creating makefiles and figuring out whether or not I had put those pesky tabs in the right places.

However, relying on your IDE to handle builds isn't always a good idea. For one thing, although IDEs automate simple builds and some even do a pretty good job of bundling up J2EE applications, they are often very limited for anything more complicated. For example, if you wanted to pull all your source code from the version control system, build a jar file, sign it, deploy it to a server, and generate your Java doc, you would probably have to go through several rather tedious steps. Another problem is that developers sometimes forget to check into version control the files that the IDE uses to deploy a system. Also, with some IDEs, the files are in a proprietary or binary format, which prevents them from being manually edited or examined, making it difficult to track down errors, especially if multiple developers can make changes to your build configuration. Furthermore, most IDEs don't allow you to reuse or switch between configurations easily, which can be a problem if you have many similar build configurations, as you would if you needed to be able to deploy against several different databases or application servers. Another problem that I ran into recently was that, when my IDE was upgraded from one version to the next, the deployment method had changed so much that I had to throw out my entire deployment configuration and start over.

So Ant takes a very simple approach that solves most, if not all, of these problems. As I mentioned, Ant is written in Java. Thus, it is inherently cross-platform. In addition, it is an open-source project, so in the unlikely event that you need to fix a bug or extend the functionality, you can. Also, most IDEs now have at least a basic level of integration with Ant. This is especially rewarding if you work on multiple IDEs. The syntax for Ant build scripts is in XML, which solves all the problems related to proprietary or non-human-readable formats and provides a nice file or set of files to check into version control.

Projects, Targets, and Task

Ant build files have three key components:

  • Projects
  • Targets
  • Tasks

A project is the ultimate goal of a single Ant build file; therefore, each Ant build file contains exactly one project. Each Ant project consists of multiple targets. A target is a logical step in the build process, like creating a jar file or generating a Java doc. Targets can have dependencies on other targets. The target to create a jar file would probably depend on a target that compiles source code into class files. All the targets on which a target depends are executed before the current target is executed. Targets consist of zero or more tasks. Tasks are the smallest unit of work in an Ant file. For example, the target to clean the build system might consist of multiple tasks that delete all the generated files and directories.

Installation and Configuration

Ant runs on many platforms, including most flavors of Unix, Linux, and Windows as well as Mac OS X and Novell Netware 6. Besides the installer, all that is required is a Java Virtual Machine (JVM). Apache recommends JVM 1.2 or higher for the full compatibility. You can download the current binary version of Ant from here. Or since Ant is a typical Apache open-source project, you can also get all of the source code from here, in case you want to add your own extensions or bug fixes or just take a look under the hood. If you download the binary distribution, which is what I recommend for getting started, simply unzip it and set up your environment variables as described in the installation instructions for your particular platform. If you download the binary distribution, you will need to build the source code as well as set up your environment variables. The installation instructions are excellent and will guide you through the process.

Running Ant

To show you what Ant can do, I've provided a handful of examples.

Example 1

I'll start you out with the easiest example possible. You will create a one-class, Hello World-style application and make a build script to build it for you. Here is the source for the application:

public class HelloAnt
    public static void main(String[] argv)
        System.out.println("Hello Ant");

To build this mini application, use the following build.xml file:


To keep this example as small as possible, I have stripped out all but the essential commands. In this example, you are declaring that you have a project called the HelloAntProject. The project has only one target, "compile", which consists of one task that invokes the Java compiler to compile all the Java source files in the current directory and then output their .class files to this same directory. You direct Ant to do this simply by invoking it from the command prompt in the directory that contains your build.xml file. Doing so in this example yields the following output:

Buildfile: build.xml


Total time: 0 seconds

Here, Ant is echoing back the name of the build file used. Then, it lists the targets that were executed in the order in which they were executed. In this case, you just invoked the "compile" target, which is then followed by a success message and elapsed time. This seems pretty easy, but you also could have done it simply by typing javac at the command prompt.

Example 2

Now, take a look at a slightly more complicated example. For this example, suppose you have an application consisting of several Java source files all in a directory called src. You want the compiled class files to be stored in a directory called build. So the class structure would look like this:

Root dir – this is where build.xml lives
+-- src - *.java files
+-- build - *.class files

The build.xml for this example looks like this:





This example shows how you can build more complicated projects by using dependencies. Here, you have three targets: "init", "compile", and "clean". From the command line, you can specify which target Ant should build as a command line argument. Note that, in this example, you have specified a default target of "compile" so that if no command line argument is included, Ant will still build the "compile" target. The "compile" target has a dependency on the "init" target, so the "init" target is built first. In this case, the "init" target just creates the directory for "compile" to store its class files. Once the dependency is satisfied, "compile" compiles all the Java source files in the src directory, generates the class files, and stores them in the build directory. It is important to note here that you declared the src and build properties for the whole project so that they are available within all of the project's targets. This example also includes a third target called "clean" that can only be called by adding it as a command line argument to Ant. The "clean" target simply removes the build directory that contains all the class files, thus forcing the "compile" target to recompile all the source files on its next invocation.

Example 3

In this example, you will add functionality to build all of your source files into a jar file for testing or distribution. To do this, you will add a lib directory to store your jar file. Your new directory structure will look like this:

Root dir – this is where build.xml lives
+-- src - *.java files
+-- build - *.class files
+-- lib - *.jar file

Then, make a few minor changes to your build.xml file so that it looks like this:






Here, you have added a couple of new properties for the lib directory and the jarfile name to the project as well as an extra delete to the "clean" target to remove the jar files directory. Then, you have a new jar target that makes sure you do a "clean" and a "compile" before wrapping up all the classes into a jar file and storing the jar file in the newly created lib directory. Don't forget that the default target is still "compile", so to create the jar file, you will need to specify it by adding it as a command line parameter to the Ant command.

Example 4

A common task that comes up when building Java systems is the need for a person other than a developer to be able to build the system and prepare it for QA testing or final deployment. You can use Ant to automate the whole process. In this example, you will add targets to sign the jar that you have created as well as generate the javadoc for the system. In order to do this, your new directory structure will look like this:

Root dir – this is where build.xml lives
+-- src - *.java files
+-- build - *.class files
+-- lib – unsigned *.jar file
+-- doc - *.html generated javadoc files
+-- dist – signed *.jar file

The new build.xml file for signing and generating javadoc looks like this:

    location="${dist}/HelloAntProject.jar" />








Above, you have added properties and directories for both the dist directory, where you will store your signed jar file, and the doc dir, where you will store all of your generated HTML javadoc. To do this, you also created three new targets. The first is "sign", which signs the jarfile and moves it to the dis directory. The second is "doc", which generates all the javadoc. The third is "dist", which depends on both "sign" and "doc" but does no work of its own. As with your other changes, "compile" is still the default target, so to use "dist", you will need to pass it as a command line argument. Also note that, by putting "sign" and "doc" into their own separate targets, you can specify either of them by using a command line argument. This way, if you only want to generate the javadoc, you don't have to do the unrelated task of signing the jar file.

With this example, you are getting pretty close to something that you would use with a real application. However, a full production version of this build script should contain some explanatory comments.

Some Hints

Like most languages, Ant contains literals. Some guides recommend that, if you use a literal in Ant more than once, you should define it in an initialization target. I disagree, but only slightly. I believe you should treat most literals in Ant the same way you would treat a constant in a programming language. In other words, define them in one place. That way, whenever you want to define a new literal, you don't have to search all over the place to see if it has already been defined.

The best place to define literals is, as I have done in my examples, as properties of the project itself. Also, Ant files can be used to call other Ant files, so a good general structure is to break down your total build so that you have one Ant project for each jar file that you generate and one master Ant file that pulls everything together. Ant is a powerful tool, like a chainsaw, so you have to wear safety goggles. You can create an Ant script so that your QA team can do a one-command build that pulls all of the source from version control and then builds, jars, and tests the system automatically. But be sure that you use a separate Ant file from the one that your developers use to build--otherwise, sooner or later, they will wind up pulling all the source code from version control right on top of what they have been working on.

Other Cool Ant Features

Ant can be easily extended. Each Ant target is object-based; in other words, there is an instance of a Java class that handles each target. So you can create your own targets fairly easily. Probably one of the most powerful features of Ant is that it can be used along with JUnit to fully automate your unit testing. Ant also provides a filtering mechanism that you can use to do string replacement in your source files. This can be very useful at build time for configuring which database server an application will connect to or the password for the server itself. Ant also has a built-in timestamp mechanism that can be handy when you need to create uniquely named files.


Ant is a cross-platform build tool that is essential to Java development. It overcomes many of the problems associated with using the automated build systems within IDEs by being simple, XML-based, and open-source. The three key concepts to an Ant build file are projects, targets, and tasks. Complicated application builds can be accomplished through a divide-and-conquer technique whereby each jar file in an application has its own build file, and then a master Ant build file ties them all together. Because Ant is powerful, it can also be dangerous. Take care when implementing targets that are destructive. Ant also has a lot of other cool features such as integration with JUnit for automated unit testing as well as filtering and timestamps.

Want More Information?

For more information about Ant, I recommend Java Tools for Extreme Programming: Mastering Open Source Tools Including Ant, JUnit, and Cactus, by Richard Hightower and Nicholas Lesiecki, or Java Development with Ant, by Eric Hatcher and Steve Loughran

Final Thought

So I've left you with one nagging detail about Ant. Where did the name come from? Well, according to Ant's original author, James Duncan Davidson, Ant is an acronym for Another Neat Tool, and I'm sure you will agree that it is.

Michael J. Floyd is an Extreme Programmer and the Software Engineering Technical Lead for DivXNetworks. He is also a consultant for San Diego State University and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Michael Floyd

Michael J. Floyd is the Vice President of Engineering for DivX, Inc.







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    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption



  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.



  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access




  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.


  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.



  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.



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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.