Why Software Projects Should Not Depend on an IDE

disclaimer: I’m about to show my age.

My first “IDE” was an IBM 029 keypunch machine. I keyed programs in FORTRAN, COBOL, Assembler and PL/1. When I messed up, I threw away the defective cards and punched new ones. After waiting in line for a free keypunch machine.

Over the years, things got better. I graduated to online terminals, then added debuggers, code assists and refactoring.

But I also learned something. IDEs are more fluid than programming languages. As projects got more complex, they took on more and more of the responsibilities of maintaining not only program code, but the entire build process. Including tracking the locations of the build components and running the associated build utilities such as resource compilers.

Eventually it reached a point where the IDE was less an aid than an addiction. A certain IDE which Shall Remain Nameless denegrated the ability to build from the command line using constructs like batch scripts and makefiles into virtual uselessness. It was too much trouble to learn how to create a build from the command prompt.

Then, the New, Improved version of the IDE came along. But guess what? The old projects had to be modified to build under the new IDE. Then came the late-night call for an emergency code fix. The project in question hadn’t been touched in 2 years. It wouldn’t compile without the old IDE, even though the actual fix was a 1-line code change. Installing the old IDE required installing old support programs. Taken to extremes, it would have ended up with taking an old junk computer out of the closet (at 2 a.m.), installing an old OS, installing the old IDE and supporting cast, all to resolve a minor problem.

But wait – there’s more!

Years passed, I moved onto other platforms. But now I worked in a shop where there were 2 different groups of developers. The other group had developed an entire ecology of their own – all tied to their IDEs and desktop configurations. We were supposed to be sharing standards. But their ecology had been designed specifically to to their needs, not ours. They could hand us code, but it wouldn’t build because we hadn’t invested our desktops in a lot of configuration that was scattered around inside of people’s IDEs.

Contrast this with a batch-based process such as Maven or Ant.

Maven, of course, tends to force a consistent organization, for better or worse. So while the choice of goals may be unclear, at least the build is consistent.

Ant is less standardized, but it’s no big deal to make an Ant script self-descriptive.

And in both cases, you can place project/platform-specific configuration in files that can be passed to build processes and stored in the project source code archives. Instead of being embedded on people’s desktops.

When an IDE Just Won’t Serve

There are cases where an IDE simply cannot do the trick. It’s not uncommon these days – especially in Agile development shops – to publich a Nightly Build. The Nightly Build is typically a collation of the daily commits done after hours in batch. “In Batch” and “IDE” don’t go together. An IDE is an interactive environment. Furthermore, the batch build machine may be a server, not a desktop machine. Not all servers have GUIs installed – or even Windowing systems. Ant and Maven won’t have a problem with that, but IDEs will.