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Gulp or Webpack: which should you use?

Posted by: Robert Marshall on 30 July 2019

I began my task management love affair around a five years ago when I discovered Gulp, before eventually adding Webpack to my toolbox. This addition coincided with learning Gatsby JS and working on larger JavaScript projects. Before that (I am embarrassed to admit) I was writing JavaScript files longer than my arm, and the concept of ‘dist’ or ‘build’ folders were foreign to me.

When I began using Webpack I was unsure what projects I should apply it to – should I stop using Gulp and jump in the deep end? I was also unsure exactly of its purpose, as its documentation is not for the fainthearted, and the learning curve felt too steep for the sake of concatenating files. Turns out I was both wrong and right.

The short answer of which to use is “it depends on the project”. The longer answer is a little more complex (unfortunately), but hopefully I can help shed some light. There are some fundamental differences between the two systems, which makes this a tough comparison to make, and it first helps to understand these differences.

What is Gulp?

Gulp is an open-source task runner built on Node.js that enables the automation of time consuming or repetitive tasks. It reads files as streams and passes these streams to tasks. These tasks modify the streams and create new files to use in production. It is run from the command line, and requires a package.json and a gulpfile.js file to run.

There are a number of plugins that can be used alongside Gulp to alter what happens to these streams. These include renaming files, uglifying file contents, and turning sass to css. They tend to be relatively plug-and-play with low barriers to entry.

What is Webpack

Webpack is an open-source module bundler. Its primary purpose is to bundle JavaScript files, but it can be extended to take any number of files and packages using loaders. These can then be packaged up to reduce the number of assets. By bundling files, you decrease the number of requests to a server, increasing performance, and by combining this with code-splitting, you can allow code to be fetched on-demand, boosting performance further.

When Webpack bundles a project, it traverses all imports within a file, starting with the entry points defined in the config file, then builds a dependency graph. This dependency graph shows how nodes are related to each other, allowing webpack to include only what is necessary. The output is the bare minimum of what is needed. Generally, a single bundle.js file that is added to the application’s HTML file.

Loaders are used to pre-process files. Webpack provides a number of these, but it is possible to create custom loaders using Node.js. Each loader oversees a specific file type as by default, Webpack only understands JS and JSON.

So, Gulp or Webpack, which should you use?

The choice can differ from developer, as people have unique ways of doing the same task. That said, it comes down to project size.

For smaller projects with only a few JS/SASS files that need processing, I would recommend using Gulp. This could be concatenation and minification or moving from one directory to another. If you’re faced is a repetitive task that needs running such as batch minifying images, Gulp can also be used. This is because the roll out process for Gulp is far quicker and smoother than Webpack (in my opinion).

On larger front-end projects that have lots of many assets, Webpack is definitely worth a look. It is brilliant for using with large JS frameworks such as React, due to the community support behind it. Many problems you come across will have already been solved by someone who has posted their solution online too – I find the ease in which a solution to an error can be found and implemented is often a large determinant of my sanity, as well as the profitability of a job!

My general rule is if the application you are building is large, with many assets that are not code (images/fonts) then Webpack is a great tool to use. If the project is smaller and there is only one JS file to serve up, Gulp should probably be your go-to. Webpack has a fairly high overhead when being added to a project, and if there are only a few tasks that need to be handled, Gulp can be more cost-effective. I would suggest weighing up the scope of the project, and whether it is likely to grow into something that needs that extra firepower.

 

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