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J2EE Journal: Article

Advanced Ant for Adobe Flex Projects

How to use Ant to automate HTML wrappers creation and more

Why Ant?

Typically, Flex developers use Flex Builder IDE, but Adobe also offers free Flex SDK, and  you should know how to build your applications without Flex Builder, and here’s why:
•    There is no simple way to share all your project settings (including absolute source paths) with another user.
•    If your project consists of many subprojects (some library projects, server side J2EE code) you may need to build each project in different IDEs, in a specific order.
•    At the time of this writing, there is no Flex Builder for Linux and only beta version for Macs exists. What about cross-platform?
•    And finally, Flex Builder costs money.

If you came from the Java world you knew the answer: projects could be built with Apache Ant tool. But if you used to be a Flash developer, you entirely depended on Flash IDE, binary .fla files and nightmare  builds. If you never had a chance using Ant, read the article from Farata Systems blog Intro to Building and Deploying Flex Applications with Ant.

Now with Adobe Flex SDK and Apache Ant you can easily formalize the way your projects are  built and deployed, and this can be done by any member of your team. Just type ant in the command window  and your build process is taken care off! Well, not that easy, you have to make sure that your build script is correct, the source code files are in place and compile without errors, et all.

On the other hand, Ant build gives your colleagues a possibility of customizing application view (via CSS), some data (with external mx:Model or mx:XML) and i18n (through resource bundles). Having your  build file, a person responsible for building your project can make all these changes by himself. No more developer's headaches with changing border color or font size.

Also, Ant builds are very useful for implementing Continuous Integration, Unit Testing and other development methodologies.

A Sample project

Download the source code of the sample project . This application  just contains a login form and log authentication data to XPanel, an open source trace component from Farata Systems. The project directory structure is very simple:
----- src // our source files
----- lib // our libs
----- src // libs with sources
----- swc // binary libs – not used  in my sample project

Our build  will also include debug and release directories  – for debug and release versions.

Ant Build Basics

Now we want create a cross-platform build file for our test project, which will only include the  path to Flex SDK. Our build will be based on these artifacts:

•    mxmlc.jar – a cross-platform compiler for Flex and ActionScript projects.
•    flex-config.xml – a special compilation configuration file as an easy way to externalize compilation settings.
•    html-wrappers – a set of templates for representing your application in World Wide Web.

You can find  more information about Ant at Apache Ant website. And don't forget to go through the article  on Ant best practices.

Flex mxmlc compiler can accept arguments both from command line and a special flex-config.xml file (feel free to rename it as you like). And you can combine both methods. And don't forget about compiler options precedence! So you can find base flex-config.xml at {flex.sdk.home}/frameworks/ flex-config.xml. We will modify it for our build (including the source and library paths). Why not modify original flex-config.xml in its location? Because you use SDK's flex-config.xml in many projects. And remember, other people may need to run your build script on their computers, which have unmodified flex-config.xml in Flex SDK directory.

Flex config is more readable than command-line parameters, it allows comments and is more structured.


Let's create simple compile macro which we will use in build:

    <!-- = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
          macrodef: mxmlc.compile          
         = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = -->
    <macrodef name="mxmlc.compile">
        <attribute name="in" />
        <attribute name="out" />
            default="${flex.config.xml}" />
            default="" />
                <arg value="+flexlib=${flex.sdk.dir}/frameworks"/>
                <arg value="[email protected]{config}"/>
                <arg value="[email protected]{out}"/>
                <arg line="@{additional}"/>
                <arg value="@{in}" />

Note the  flexlib variable. We will use ${flexlib} in flex-config.xml as a pointer to Flex SDK install to resolve mxmlc executable directory which will point to our project root. If we skip it,  you may run into issues with locating embed fonts, and we have to explicitly point at *.ser file and lose the cross-platform nature of the build process. With ${flexlib}, *.ser will include automatically for each platform.

Creating an HTML wrapper

Now we need to take care of  html wrappers (Flex Builder create them for you, but we are preparing the build that can create them for us automatically). Flex 2 SDK contains a number of  wrapper templates in {flex.sdk.home}/resources/html-templates: one with client side Flash Player detection, another with no player detection,  and the third type is with Flash Player Express Install feature. Each  of these templates has two modifications: with History Manager support and without it. You can choose one of these six templates or create your own. In our build we’lll choose express-installation-with-history (see the wrapper.dir property in our build.xml).

Each template is a set of necessary files with index.template.html as target html. index.template.html contains a number of variables (${title} , ${version_major}, ${version_minor}, ${version_revision}, ${width}, ${height}, ${application}, ${bgcolor}, ${swf}), which need to be replaced with desired values. And finally we'll rename the index.template.html.

Let’s review two ways to create a wrapper. The first approach is based on Ant's  expandproperties task:

    <!-- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
          target: copy.wrapper                      
         - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -->
    <target name="copy.wrapper">
        <copy todir="${build.dir}">
            <fileset dir="${wrapper.dir}">
                <exclude name="**/index.template.html" />
        <copy file="${wrapper.dir}/index.template.html" tofile="${output.html}"
                <expandproperties />

The target from the build script above is the simplest way of creating a wrapper (don't forget to define properties with the same names as in index.template.html). But it is reasonable for simple projects with one html file.

Using Ant task ReplaceRegExp

Now we want to create the debug and release versions with different html titles. A real-world project can contain many different htmls and you need more flexible solution - let's create one!

We'll find all occurrences of ${something} tokens in index.template.html and replace them with the real values. In my opinion, the  replaceregexp task is the best solution for it. This task goes  through the template file and replaces the occurrence of a given regular expression with supplied substitution pattern. We won't use all the power of regular expressions but only some basics (you can learn more about regular expressions in from Flex documentation).

Our target variables (${something}) contains tree regexp metacharacters: $, { and }. We need escape them with \. Don't forget about global replacement and corresponding ReplaceRegExp flags:


Including copying templates from {flex.sdk.home}/resources/html-templates our make.wrapper macro will look in the following way:

    <!-- = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
          macrodef: make.wrapper          
         = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = -->
    <macrodef name="make.wrapper">
        <attribute name="width" default="100%" />
        <attribute name="height" default="100%" />
        <attribute name="title" default="" />
        <attribute name="version.major" default="9" />
        <attribute name="version.minor" default="0" />
        <attribute name="version.revision" default="0" />
        <attribute name="application" default="" />
        <attribute name="swf" default="" />
        <attribute name="bgcolor" default="#869ca7" />
        <attribute name="wrapper.dir" />
        <attribute name="output.dir" />
        <attribute name="output.html" />
            <copy todir="@{output.dir}">
                <fileset dir="@{wrapper.dir}">
                    <exclude name="**/index.template.html" />
                tofile="@{output.html}" />

Please note how we replaced the  html title. Don't forget about encoding for non-Latin symbols, if needed. We explicitly set it to utf-8.

The Finishing Touches

You can examine full build.xml by downloading sample project (link), which consists of the following  targets:

•    build -  The main public target. Preforms entire build.
•    Clear - Clears build directory before the build.
•    init -  Set build directories before the build.
•    compile.release, compile.debug -  Compiles application.
•    make.release.wrapper, make.debug.wrapper -  Creates html wrappers.

You can run targets separately from command line or from Eclipse Ant view.

Also look at the file in the project root of the sample applications. It contains commented out flex.sdk.dir property:
#flex.sdk.dir = C:\\Program Files\\Adobe\\flex_sdk_2\\

Uncomment it and replace with directory that points at your Flex framework install. You should not  store in your version control system, because it contains only the values applicable to your PC.

A complete version of the Ant build file is included in the sample application. Re-read this  article while peeking at this build.xml file - isn't  studying of someone else's  source code the best way to learn?


In this short article I’ve highlighted some important elements of Ant build process, and automating creation of HTML wrappers. Hopefully you found some not-so-obvious advises on using Ant in your Flex application. Good luck with your Ant builds!

More Stories By Konstantin Kovalev

Konstantin Kovalev "aka Constantiner" is an independent contractor presently working for Farata Systems. He is professional Flex developer and former Flash developer. Konstantin is active participant of Russian Flex community and creator of Russian blog resource dedicated to RIAs and Flash platform. Konstantin lives in St.Petersburg, Russia.

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