What is Apache Maven?

The answer to this question depends on your own perspective. The great majority of Maven users are going to call Maven a “build tool”: a tool used to build deployable artifacts from source code. Build engineers and project managers might refer to Maven as something more comprehensive: a project management tool. What is the difference? A build tool such as Ant is focused solely on preprocessing, compilation, packaging, testing, and distribution. A project management tool such as Maven provides a superset of features found in a build tool. In addition to providing build capabilities, Maven can also run reports, generate a web site, and facilitate communication among members of a working team.

Maven is a project management tool which encompasses a project object model, a set of standards, a project lifecycle, a dependency management system, and logic for executing plugin goals at defined phases in a lifecycle. When you use Maven, you describe your project using a well-defined project object model, Maven can then apply cross-cutting logic from a set of shared (or custom) plugins.

Convention over Configuration

Convention over configuration is a simple concept. Systems, libraries, and frameworks should assume reasonable defaults. Without requiring unnecessary configuration, systems should "just work".

Maven incorporates this concept by providing sensible default behavior for projects. Without customization, source code is assumed to be in ${basedir}/src/main/java and resources are assumed to be in ${basedir}/src/main/resources. Tests are assumed to be in ${basedir}/src/test, and a project is assumed to produce a JAR file. Maven assumes that you want the compile byte code to ${basedir}/target/classes and then create a distributable JAR file in ${basedir}/target. While this might seem trivial, consider the fact that most Ant-based builds have to define the locations of these directories. Ant doesn’t ship with any built-in idea of where source code or resources might be in a project; you have to supply this information. Maven’s adoption of convention over configuration goes farther than just simple directory locations, Maven’s core plugins apply a common set of conventions for compiling source code, packaging distributions, generating web sites, and many other processes. Maven’s strength comes from the fact that it is "opinionated", it has a defined life-cycle and a set of common plugins that know how to build and assemble software. If you follow the conventions, Maven will require almost zero effort - just put your source in the correct directory, and Maven will take care of the rest.

A Common Interface for Builds

Before Maven provided a common interface for building software, every single project had someone dedicated to managing a fully customized build system. Developers had to take time away from developing software to learn about the idiosyncrasies of each new project they wanted to contribute to. In 2001, you’d have a completely different approach to building a project like Turbine than you would to building a project like Tomcat. If a new source code analysis tool came out that would perform static analysis on source code, or if someone developed a new unit testing framework, everybody would have to drop what they were doing and figure out how to fit it into each project’s custom build environment. How do you run unit tests? There were a thousand different answers. This environment was characterized by a thousand endless arguments about tools and build procedures.

Today, most open source developers have used or are currently using Maven to manage new software projects. This transition is less about developers moving from one build tool to another and more about developers starting to adopt a common interface for project builds. As software systems have become more modular, build systems have become more complex, and the number of projects has sky-rocketed. Before Maven, when you wanted to check out a project like Apache ActiveMQ or Apache ServiceMix from Subversion and build it from source, you really had to set aside about an hour to figure out the build system for each particular project. What does the project need to build? What libraries do I need to download? Where do I put them? What goals can I execute in the build? In the best case, it took a few minutes to figure out a new project’s build, and in the worst cases (like the old Servlet API implementation in the Jakarta Project), a project’s build was so difficult it would take multiple hours just to get to the point where a new contributor could edit source and compile the project. These days, you check it out from source, and you run mvn install.

The Core of Maven: The POM

Maven maintains a model of a project. You are not just compiling source code into bytecode, you are developing a description of a software project and assigning a unique set of coordinates to a project. You are describing the attributes of the project. What is the project’s license? Who develops and contributes to the project? What other projects does this project depend upon? Maven is more than just a "build tool", it is more than just an improvement on tools like make and Ant, it is a platform that encompasses a new semantics related to software projects and software development. This definition of a model for every project enables such features as:

Dependency Management

Because a project is defined by a unique set of coordinates consisting of a group identifier, an artifact identifier, and a version, projects can now use these coordinates to declare dependencies.

Remote Repositories

Related to dependency management, we can use the coordinates defined in the Maven Project Object Model (POM) to create repositories of Maven artifacts.

Universal Reuse of Build Logic

Plugins contain logic that works with the descriptive data and configuration parameters defined in Project Object Model (POM); they are not designed to operate upon specific files in known locations.

Tool Portability / Integration

Tools like Eclipse, NetBeans, and IntelliJ now have a common place to find information about a project. Before the advent of Maven, every IDE had a different way to store what was essentially a custom Project Object Model (POM). Maven has standardized this description, and while each IDE continues to maintain custom project files, they can be easily generated from the model.

Easy Searching and Filtering of Project Artifacts

Tools like Nexus allow you to index and search the contents of a repository using the information stored in the POM.