Speed up your buildbox, Part IV: Beyond the box

This is the fourth and last part of a series on how to boost your build box without much effort. This episode talks about possible measures to increase the build performance when a single box isn’t enough.

© Friedberg - Fotolia.comIn the first three parts of our effort to speed up our buildbox, we replaced the harddisk with a RAM disk, upgraded the CPU to the top-notch model and installed plenty of fast RAM. This brought the build time down from 03:30 minutes to around 02:00 minutes. The CPU frequency was the biggest time saving factor in our case study. Two minutes is as fast as the build can get for our project without fiddling with the actual build process. It’s sufficient for our case, but it may not for yours.

Even top speed is too slow

Lets assume we maxed out the hardware and still have a build duration far beyond the magical ten minutes mark. What can we do now? There are two viable options at hand if you can exclude the possibility that your build process is really inefficient and needs optimization. In the latter case, it would be better to revise the process instead of the build infrastructure.

Two ways to speed up your build infrastructure

You can go down one or both of two general paths to speed up your build process. To understand the examples, lets assume the build takes 20 minutes to run on your top-notch build box.

  • Add more build boxes. This is the classical “parallelize it!” approach. It won’t speed up the individual build process, but enable more processes to run at the same time. This approach wont change anything if your team does seldom check-ins, which in itself is an anti-pattern to continuous integration. But if your team commits changes every ten minutes, having at least two build boxes will prevent the second committer from waiting 30 minutes on the CI results. Instead, the results will always be there after 20 minutes. You haven’t exactly sped up your build process, but the maximal waiting time of your committers. For details on the implementation, see below at “Growing a build park“.
  • Chop up your build process. This is known as “staging” or “pipelining” your build. This won’t speed up the individual build process, either, but deliver certain partial results of your build earlier. Lets assume you can split your build process into four distinct stages: compile, unit test, integration test, package. Whenever a stage yields a result, the comitter gets feedback immediately. In our example, this might be every 5 minutes. This has several disadvantages, as for example discussed in the article “The pipeline of doom” by Julian Simpson, but can lower the waiting time for specific aspects of your build drastically. You haven’t exactly sped up your build process, but the response time for partial results and therefore the average waiting time of your committer. For details on the implementation, see below at “Installing a build pipeline“.

Growing a build park

If you want to reduce the initial waiting delay of a build before it gets processed or increase the throughput of builds, the build farm pattern is your way to go. By adding slave build machines to your build master, you can distribute the workload on more shoulders. The best way to set up your infrastructure is to introduce a dedicated master box that only delegates actual builds to its slaves. The master box handles the archivation of build artifacts and deals with the web server requests, while the slaves only perform build tasks. The master box can be of average power, with increased storage size, while the slaves should be ultra-fast, without the need of big disks. Solid state disks or even RAM disks of the slaves can be tuned to actual workspace sizes, as it is all that needs to be stored there.

Distributed builds with Hudson

The Hudson continuous integration server has a strength in setting up these master/slave scenarios. It’s ridiculously easy to set up a build slave. You basically only need to click on a link to start the slave process. If you happen to have a standard build, everything needed gets downloaded automatically. If you want your slaves to operate automatically, you can install a windows daemon, provide a SSH account or write your own script. Usually, slaves are set up in a matter of minutes without hassle. A great idea is to turn powerful collegue boxes into build slaves (aka CI zombies) by booting an USB stick. The best way to start with master/slave builds is to turn your current PC into a hudson slave right now by using the Java Web Start method.

Installing a build pipeline

If you are interested in early but incomplete feedback from your build box, staging your build will help you out. If partitioned right, you’ll receive a series of answers on specific questions from your build process. The questions may be like:

  1. Will it compile?
  2. Will it pass the unit tests?
  3. Will it function (pass the integration tests)?
  4. Will it blend?

Ok, the last question is rather unlikely to be answered by your build box. The overall build process will not be any faster, but basic safety test results are reported earlier. If you combine this approach with distributed builds, there is the possibility to designate specifically tuned machines to different stages. The Hudson continuous integration server has the ability to tag a slave with different labels. You can then configure your build to only run on slaves with the desired label assigned.

Staged builds with Hudson

Staging with the Hudson continuous integration server isn’t as easy as the master/slave feature, but there are some plugins that allow for more complex setups. You might experience some functionality that’s still under development, but basic staging is possible even today. In combination with specialized slave build boxes, this approach can lower your build duration. It is a a complex endeavour, though.


Once your single build box is maxed out but still not fast enough, you enter a different realm of continuous integration infrastructure setups. Speeding up a build process beyond the single box isn’t as easy as installing more RAM. But with a fair amount of planning, you have a fair chance to improve the situation. Note that you won’t primarily lower build duration, but increase throughput and utilize partitioning and specialization. These are different measures and might not affect the wall clock time of your build. The combination of staging and distribution is the most powerful setup, but will result in the most complex infrastructure to maintain. Before entering this realm, be sure to apply any possible optimization to your build process. Because you’ll not leave that realm again soon.

What’s your story on build optimization beyond the box? Drop us a comment.

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