Code used in production is different from development code. In
production, you need to build packages that run fast, manage
dependencies, automate tasks, load external modules, and more.
Tools that make it possible to turn development code into
production code are called build tools. Frontend developers
mostly work with the following types of build tools:
In this article, we have collected the best build tools you
can use in frontend development. Note that all these tools run
in the command line, so they don’t come with a graphical
1. NPM (PACKAGE MANAGER)
The acronym npm stands for Node Package Maid that is the default
package manager of Node.js. When you install Node.js on your system, npm is also automatically installed and
you can access it from your command line interface. With npm,
you can install any Node.js package with a single command.
You can find all existing Node.js packages in the npm registry
that you can access via the search bar on top of npm’s
homepage. You only need to type the name of the package you
are looking for (e.g. ‘postcss’)
into the search bar, and you are directed to the package page
that includes everything you need to know about the package,
its installation process, and all of its dependencies.
Easy installation process.
Cross-platform software (Windows, Linux, macOS, SmarOS, and
Hundreds of thousands of packages.
Efficient dependency management through
the package.json file.
Multiple configuration options (through the command line).
Extensive documentation and helpful community.
2. YARN (PACKAGE MANAGER)
Yarn is a
frontend package manager that can be used as an alternative to
npm. As Yarn itself is a Node.js package, you have to install
Node.js before you can use Yarn on your system. Then, you only
need to follow the installation guide to use it to manage your frontend dependencies.
Although npm is a great tool, you will find that building
packages with it sometimes takes significant time. This is not
necessarily a problem if you don’t have that many
dependencies to install, or don’t use a package manager
on a regular basis. However, if you are a heavy user, it can
be a good idea to look into Yarn that takes pride in ultrafast
Yarn speeds up the build process by caching every package so
that you don’t have to download your dependencies
multiple times. It also runs parallel operations to reduce
build times even more.
Cross-platform tool (Windows, Linux, macOS) with separate
installation guides for each platform.
Compatible with all Node.js packages.
Fast build times.
Extra security by using checksums to verify the integrity of
Flat mode to avoid creating duplicates.
3. GRUNT (TASK RUNNER)
Grunt is a frontend
task runner that allows you to automate repetitive tasks such
as minification, linting, testing, and others. Task runners
are different from package managers, as you can’t use
them to manage dependencies. You only need them if you want to
perform the same task(s) during each build process.
As Grunt is a Node.js package, you can install it with npm,
Yarn, or another Node.js package manager. Grunt keeps the
custom dependencies it needs to perform your pre-defined tasks
in the package.json file. You can define
your tasks in the Gruntfile (see an example) that runs during every build process and automatically
performs each task it includes.
Cross-platform command line tool that runs on any operating
Straightforward configuration process.
Huge ecosystem with hundreds of plugins to add frontend
tools (such as Sass, Jade, JSHint, Handlebars, RequireJS,
and others) that complete the pre-configured tasks.
Asynchronous tasks if needed.
4. GULP (TASK RUNNER)
Gulp is another
automated task runner and also the strongest competitor of
Grunt. Similar to Grunt, you can use Gulp to automate
recurring front-end tasks such as CSS preprocessing,
auto-prefixing, image optimization, and many others.
It’s a Node.js package, too, that you can install with
both the npm and Yarn package managers. You can define your
tasks in the Gulpfile and configure your dependencies related to your tasks
in the package.json file.
The biggest difference to Grunt is that Gulp uses a more
efficient automation technique that allows for faster build
times. While Grunt uses temporary files to process the tasks,
Gulp performs in-memory operations without writing into
temporary files. These in-memory operations are called Node streams that can save you a lot of time, especially if you want
to process multiple tasks at each build.
Cross-platform task runner that can be installed as a
regular Node.js package.
Uses Node streams to speed up operations.
Huge ecosystem with thousands of plugins.
Quality code base using Node.js best practices.
Minimal API surface for simple adoption.
5. BROWSERIFY (MODULE LOADER/BUNDLER)
Browserify is a
Node.js module loader that lets you bundle your front-end
user’s browser. Package managers such as npm and Yarn
load modules on the server-side using Node.js’ require() function designed for loading modules. Browserify
brings the require() method to the
client-side, which can result in a huge performance gain.
With Browserify, your user’s browser has to load only
a <script> tag to your page, and you
are good to go. However, note that as Browserify is a Node.js
module and an implementation of the CommonJS API (similar to
npm), you can only use it to load Node.js modules but not
Bundles all Node.js dependencies into a single file.
Speeds up modular applications that rely on multiple Node.js
Allows external requires (you can require modules from
other <script> tags).
Makes it possible to split up bundles if necessary.
Webpack is an
advanced module bundler that allows you to bundle all your
dependencies and load them as static assets in the
user’s browser. While Browserify only bundles Node.js
modules, Webpack can handle any kind of front-end files such
as .html, .css, .js, .scss files, images, and other assets.
Besides CommonJS modules used in the Node.js ecosystem,
Webpack analyzes your project and builds a dependency graph.
Then, based on the dependency graph, it bundles your files and
modules into one or more static files that you can add to your
As Webpack itself is also a Node.js module, you can install it
with either the npm or the Yarn package manager.
By default, the configuration of Webpack projects takes a lot
of time due to the multiple options that let you fine-tune
your project. However, since Webpack 4, it includes a
zero-configuration option that automates the build process and
only requires you to define the entry file.
Multiple configuration options.
Code splitting into smaller chunks that can load
Dead code elimination.
Hot module replacement.
Support for source maps.
Zero-config option (since Webpack 4).
Huge ecosystem with a rich plugin interface.
Frontend build tools help you turn your development code into
production-ready code that runs on any device or platform
without a problem. In this collection, we have looked into the
most well-adopted build tools that you can use in your web
project, including package managers, task runners, and module
Besides the widely adopted solutions, there are also
(relatively) new tools in the market that are constantly
gaining traction, such as the pnpm package manager (an alternative to npm and Yarn),
the Parcel module bundler (an alternative to Webpack), and
the Rollup ES module bundler (similar to Browserify but bundles
ECMAScript modules instead of CommonJS ones). If you are up to
new solutions, these newer tools are also worth giving a look.
Adding new tools to your workflow can take your development
process to the next level. If you also want to improve your
programming skills, check out our collection of the best places to learn how to code, too.