Gulp vs Grunt – Comparing Both Automation Tools

gulp vs grunt

Automation tools are great for saving time and avoiding human error. They allow us to offload mundane tasks and can usually end up doing these tasks faster and with better precision. Two tools that are known to be quite effective in performing automated tasks are Gulp and Grunt. In this post, we’re going to go over exactly what Gulp and Grunt are used for as well as compare both tools to see which differences and similarities they share.

What Can Grunt and Gulp Do?

Before tackling the issue of Grunt vs Gulp, you may be wondering exactly what these tools do and why you might want to use either. As mentioned above, both Grunt and Gulp exist to help automate functions and are popular tools amongst web developers and designers.

Using a website designer as an example, common tasks for this position include debugging code, concatenating and minifying CSS and JavaScript files, compressing images and applying changes to a server or files on the server. Many of these tasks are simple, but they can be very time-consuming. This is especially true with a large website or one that requires frequent changes and updates. Someone could be assigned to handle these tasks, but since they’re fairly basic, the individual doing them could probably be doing more productive tasks. This is where Grunt or Gulp come in.

Using a bit of fairly simple code, plugins and either Gulp or Grunt, you can set up a process that automates tasks. Both of these tools allow you to check for new files or changes to files in certain directories and to run tasks applicable to them. In other words, once you’ve set up the processes you want and applied them to your existing files, any new or modified files can automatically have processes applied to them as well.

For instance, let’s say you set up a process that compresses jpg files in the images directory. Once you run the process, all images have EXIF data removed from them and are compressed. Once you have Gulp or Grunt properly installed and configured, the image compression task code for each tool would look similar to the following:

Gulp

gulp.task('jpgs', function() {
    return gulp.src('src/images/*.jpg')
    .pipe(imagemin({ progressive: true }))
    .pipe(gulp.dest('optimized_images'));
});

Grunt

imagemin: {
    jpgs: {
        options: {
        progressive: true
        },
        files: [{
            expand: true,
            cwd: 'src/img',
            src: ['*.jpg'],
            dest: 'images/'
        }]
    }
}

If you’ve also set up Gulp or Grunt to check for new or updated files, any edited files or new files saved to the directory will also be compressed and have EXIF data removed automatically.

While this task could have been done by hand, Gulp or Grunt can do it automatically, and in cases of large batches of files, they can do it in a fraction of the time that they could be done manually.

Gulp vs Grunt: How Are They Similar?

Now that you have an idea of what Gulp and Grunt can do, we’ll discuss how they do what they do. Both tools are task runners that use Node.js, which is an open-source Javascript runtime environment used to develop tools and applications. Grunt and Gulp both also use plugins to accomplish whatever tasks you need them to automate for you.

Both tools use .js files to build tasks; for Grunt, you use a Gruntfile.js, and for Gulp, you use a Gulpfile.js. You can also define flows with grunt.task and gulp.task instead of using a function.

Some of the most common tasks that either tool can accomplish and/or automate include:

  • Compressing image files
  • Eliminating debugger and console statements from scripts
  • Minifying, concatenating, and cleaning up CSS and JavaScript
  • Linting code for errors
  • Compiling LESS files
  • Running unit tests
  • Sending updates to a production server
  • Updating databases

However, thanks to the ability for anyone to write plugins, which there are thousands of for both Gulp and Grunt, there are a variety of other processes that these tools can automate. Things like maintaining WordPress themes, batch renaming files, adding attributes to XML-based documents and comparing source and destination files are all tasks that can be handled by either of these tools.

Gulp vs Grunt: What Are The Major Differences?

While both tools can perform many of the same tasks, the major differences when comparing Grunt vs Gulp are how they accomplish them. The first significant difference is that Gulp has been designed to use a series of plugins that each do a task. Each plugin for Gulp is written with the goal of doing one thing very well. At the time of writing this article, the Gulp plugin registry contained 2,774 different plugins for various purposes.

Grunt, on the other hand, uses plugins that often accomplish multiple tasks at the same time. This means that the plugin creation process is very different depending on which tool you’re using. Additionally, at the time of writing this article, the Grunt plugin registry contained 6,013 plugins, a considerable amount more than Gulp.

Another difference is that Grunt uses data configuration files that are similar to JSON, whereas Gulp employs JavaScript, which tends to be easier to write. Gulp code is often much shorter than Grunt code, and part of this is because you have to declare source and destination files for every task in Grunt. That said, once you’ve set up your automated processes, this may not be a big issue for you either way.

However, if you’re working on a large project, Grunt code length may start to become a headache. Once a build flow has been used for a while, it may get longer and more complicated. This can make it difficult to add new tasks without either duplicating something that’s already being done or putting a task in the correct order. Making the order of operations confusion worse, is the fact that tasks are configured declaratively in Grunt. This can be attenuated by ensuring that individuals working on automation tasks keep things clear and split up tasks before they become overly complex.

Both systems allow you to automatically run tasks when files are added to a directory or when charges are made to the files in a directory, but you’re required to install and run the watch plugin for this feature to operate in Grunt. Gulp has built-in processes for watching data files. While many don’t consider this to be an issue since the results are the same, some users find the lack of an innate file watcher in Grunt to be a drawback.

Gulp vs Grunt: Speed

Gulp has a major advantage when it comes to speed, but the advantage may not be that significant, and updates to Grunt have done a lot to reduce the speed difference. The reason for Gulp’s current speed advantage is down to the fact that Gulp uses streams and handles tasks in memory, which means that only one file is written. Furthermore, Gulp can process several tasks at the same time, but Grunt will normally only handle one task at a time.

A speed test conducted by tmwtech showed a comparison between Gulp and Grunt in terms of the amount of time it took to perform a Sass compilation. The results show that Gulp was significantly faster by only taking 1.27 seconds vs Grunt’s 2.348 seconds.

grunt vs gulp speed

With Grunt, every time a file is run through a plugin, a temp file is saved. Once a file has gone through all plugins, a final destination file is written. Writing files to disk can dramatically increase the time it takes to complete tasks, but dramatically is a relative term.

Unless you’re involved in a large project, the output time for either Gulp or Grunt is going to be measured in seconds or even milliseconds. Even assuming that Grunt takes 500 ms to complete a task that can be completed in 50 ms by Gulp, a tenfold difference, you’re still talking about half a second for the much longer Grunt time frame. The size of the project you’re working on is going to determine whether speed is an issue when looking at Gulp vs Grunt.

Even if speed is a breaking point for you, Grunt added support for piping earlier in the year (as of version 0.5), so the differences in speed are likely to be smaller than when most comparisons were made.

Gulp vs Grunt: Coding vs Configuration

There’s a lot of talk about the major differences between Gulp and Grunt coming down to configuration versus coding. Gulp is designed to allow you to use single purpose plugins and code to achieve your goals. This makes the creation of plugins for Gulp much easier, in most cases, than developing them for Grunt. Additionally, since Gulp is more about coding and single task plugins, configuring plugins in Gulp is a much more standardized process compared to doing so for Grunt plug-ins.

However, the issue may be less about coding versus configuration and how comfortable you and, if you have one, your team are with node streams. Gulp relies heavily on node streams, and unless you and everyone working expected to work with Gulp are familiar with them, as well as pipes, buffers and asynchronous JavaScript, you’re going to find dealing with Gulp an uphill and against the wind task.

While configuring Grunt may be a longer process than configuring Gulp, Grunt is much friendlier to a larger number of users since it does rely more on configuration than code. Furthermore, while Gulp is easier to read, many feel that Grunt code is easier to write. If you’re working with a team with a large number of people with a variety of skill sets, Grunt may be a better bet. All you need to do in order to use it is to read the documentation, obtain and configure the plugins you need, and generate some JavaScript code.

Gulp vs Grunt: Support, Community, and Plugins

Both tools boast a large and helpful community with a vast array of plugins to choose from. As mentioned in a previous section, currently, there are about 6,000 Grunt plugins listed on the official site, and there are around 2,700 Gulp plugins listed on Gulp’s official site. Gulp is the new kid on the block, so it’s unsurprising that there are about double the number of plugins available for Grunt. However, in any case, there is no scarcity of plugins available for either tool, and there’s a plugin for Gulp that, at least in theory, allows any Grunt plugin to work in Gulp.

In terms of market share, Grunt held about 70 percent of the market compared to Gulp’s 30 percent share as of the beginning of 2016. That said, during the same time frame, the number of downloads for each tool were fairly close. Grunt was downloaded about 1.85 million times in a month, and Gulp was downloaded nearly 1.6 million times in the same time frame.

As for other popularity metrics, we can compare the current amount of stars that each tool has on Github:

Additionally, in terms of Google trends, Gulp seems to also be taking somewhat of a lead.

gulp vs grunt trends

What About Webpack?

Though this post is mainly focussed towards comparing both task runners – Gulp and Grunt, a module bundler, called Webpack, has been growing in popularity and in some cases is being used to completely replace the need for Gulp/Grunt. Essentially, Webpack bundles many modules into a few static assets representing those modules.

webpack workflow

It allows web developers to create small files that describe what they need by using require(). Since browsers don’t support require(), Webpack handles the bundling of all files so that browsers can properly execute them.

Webpack does offer a significant amount of features and options right “out of the box” therefore possibly eliminating the need for Gulp and Grunt entirely. Although it’s important to first determine what your project requires and what Webpack can and can’t do before completely abandoning your task runner. Check out this Webpack guide for more details about when to use it and why.

Which Should You Choose?

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing Grunt vs Gulp. Both automation tools have a lot going for them, and neither has any egregious problem. What your choice will come down to is going to depend on whether you are more interested in configuring (Grunt) or coding (Gulp) when setting up automation and if you’re familiar with node streams.

There’s also a lot of personal preference involved as well. Speed, the way that plugins work, and how many and what types of plug-ins are available may play a part in your decision-making process. While some people find that they can happily use either system, others may not feel the same.

If you’re still on the fence when it comes to Gulp vs Grunt, you should try testing out both. Both tools are free and have robust communities that can help you find the appropriate plugins and help you get started with writing automation scripts. In fact, depending on how many projects you’re working on, you may find that you use both tools on different projects.

Gulp vs Grunt – Comparing Both Automation Tools was last modified: March 10th, 2017 by Cody Arsenault
  • petersoots

    Was this written in 2015? Everyone’s using webpack now. (Just teasing, but it would be prudent to include webpack in your analysis.)

    • Thanks for the feedback. This post is primarily focused towards comparing both task runners however we have just added a small section about Webpack as well.

    • Why use Webpack when you have Npm? Why use Npm when you have Make?

  • Mike Saprykin

    WebPack one love <3

  • CoffeeScript and Jade (now Pug), but Less instead of Stylus?

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