Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How slow build time hurts code quality

[This was originally posted at http://timstall.dotnetdevelopersjournal.com/how_slow_build_time_hurts_code_quality.htm]

Every developer on a large-scale project has probably had to deal with slow compile times. For example, you change one line in a backend assembly, and you wait three whole minutes for the assembly to recompile. While I understand that there are some cases out there where this is just life (I've had smart people on enormous projects drool over the thought of "just" three minutes to compile), in general, this is very bad for application developers.

It's not just the three minutes lost waiting for the compiler. There are at least a few other big problems:

  1. It constantly ruins your train of thought. Imagine a train that needs to stop at every station - it's not just the time stopped (i.e. compiling), it's also the time accelerating and decelerating (i.e. getting back in the groove). If Visual Studio is effectively frozen for over a minute because it's compiling, most devs will distract themselves with something else - and remain distracted even once Visual Studio finishes.
  2. It discourages developers from writing unit tests. For example, in an ASP web project, you can compile just the single page you're one. So, rather than a developer putting code in a backend assembly (where you can test it), they'll put it in the codebehind (where you cannot test it) so that it compiles fast enough and they can move to the next thing (this example assumes no MVC).
  3. It discourages developers from re-factoring. If even removing a dead comment will cost you several minutes, developers simply won't clean up "working" code.

 In other words, given human nature - slow compile times don't just slow you down, they degrade your code quality.

While sometimes the machine is just slow, there are a lot of tips and pointers out there to tweak Visual Studio to run faster:

Another big thing is to split up your assemblies. If you have a 5MB assembly, changing one line will requiring building all 5MB. However if you split that up into five one-MB assemblies, changing a line requires building just that single assembly, sparing you from rebuilding the other 4MB. There's a balance between number vs. size of assemblies, but it's a good thing to keep in mind when dealing with slow build times.

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