What is a build system and what is CI?


2 min read

For a long time, I thought I knew the answer to that question. A build system understands your software, how to build and test it. And a CI is a loop that runs the build system on a server.

When I was the tech lead for Angular CLI, I asked a lot of our big corporate users "what build system do you currently use" and the most common response was "Jenkins". Of course with my preconception of what these terms mean, I thought they were just wrong.

It turns out they were right, because they turned Jenkins into the build system. They probably started in the small scale with a build system for the frontend code (let's say npm scripts) and a build system for the backend (let's say Maven), and at that time Jenkins would have run these independently. As things got complex and interconnected, they'd need integration tests, so no surprise, the one common place these could be added is using some Groovy code or a plugin to Jenkins (There should be a software aphorism "any tool with sufficient adoption grows a plugin ecosystem, thereby rendering it redundant with tools it should have complimented".)

Now they created a build system you can't run locally on your machine, only in the CI environment, and kinda ruined CI for everyone. Now engineers have to wait forever to go through a CI loop to get something green, because it's too hard to reproduce the failure locally to fix it. It's sad, but understandable the way this evolved.

There are build systems which are meant to generalize across the stack and are locally-reproducable (Bazel of course) - but what I've learned is that to sell that solution, you have to frame it as replacing CI, not replacing the build system. After switching to Bazel, you actually have a "CI" you can run locally on your machine, with a server that runs that thing in a loop. And you try not to get too hung up on how the term "CI" lost all its meaning in the process.