Gulp 4: Incremental builds with gulp.lastRun

Stefan Baumgartner

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Incremental builds are a good way of speeding up your build iterations. Instead of building everything again with each and every iteration, you just process the files that have changed.

The Gulp 3 way #

Gulp has plenty of plugins for crafting incremental build pipelines. Some of the most common used are gulp-cached:

/** Gulp 3 Code **/

var cached = require('gulp-cached');
var jshint = require('gulp-jshint');

gulp.task('jshint', function() {
return gulp.src('scripts/**/*.js')
.pipe(cached('scripts')) /** 1 **/

gulp.watch('scripts/**/*.js', ['jshint'])
  1. This line installs a build cache for incremental builds. With each iteration, Gulp checks if the files have been updated. If not, they will be filtered, resulting in a slimmer stream. gulp-cached will check both timestamp and contents.

While this appraoch delivers great results, they all have some caveat: With gulp.src all files are read. Which means that you have to transfer all the contents into memory. This can be optimized with Gulp 4.

The Gulp 4 way #

The virtual file sytem in Gulp 4 adds a new flag when globbing files through gulp.src. The since option. This option takes a timestamp, and gulp.src will filter files that are older than the given time. This alone is powerful enough, but it really shines when being combined with the lastRun function from the task manager.

With version 4, Gulp saves the time when a task has been executed last. Not only for the whole system, but also for each task separately. We can combine those two features by telling Gulp to “select files since” “the last time task X ran”:

/** Gulp 4 Code **/

var jshint = require('gulp-jshint');

gulp.task('jshint', function() {
return gulp.src('scripts/**/*.js', { since: gulp.lastRun('jshint') })

gulp.watch('scripts/**/*.js', gulp.parallel('jshint'))

The biggest advantage here: The files don’t even get selected, which reduces reading operations with every iteration.

Where you still need some plugins #

You will still need plugins when you terminate Gulp between your iterations, since Gulp loses all information on runs once it exits. gulp-newer comes in handy:

/** Gulp 3 Code **/
var newer = require('gulp-newer');
var imagemin = require('gulp-imagemin');

gulp.task('images', function() {
return gulp.src('images/**/*')
.pipe(newer('dist')) /** 1 **/
  1. Here we use gulp-newer to check if any of the images in our source stream have a newer timestamp than their results in the dist folder. gulp-newer just checks for newer timestamps and ignores contents. Compared to gulp-cached it can be used in multiple Gulp runs, not needing a watcher.

You also need the cached plugin if you want to refill your stream with original contents through gulp-remember afterwards. However, this can be combined with lastRun:

gulp.task('scripts', function() {
return gulp.src('src/**/*.js', since: {gulp.lastRun('scripts')}) /** 1 **/
.pipe(cached('scripts')) /** 2 **/
.pipe(remember('scripts')) /** 3 **/
  1. We select all files that have changed since the last run of this task. Which means that for the first run, this contains all files.
  2. We store those files in our cache. We will need them later. In the second run, this actually does filter nothing
  3. After our heavy tasks, we restore files from our cache so we can concatenate them.

This is actually the same as we would’ve done with Gulp 4, but we save lots of file reading operations with each iteration.

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