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Introduction to Gulp

Codelab: Gulp Setup


Modern web development has many repetitive tasks like running a local server, minifying code, optimizing images, preprocessing CSS and more. This text discusses gulp, a build tool for automating these tasks.

What is gulp?

Gulp is a cross-platform, streaming task runner that lets developers automate many development tasks. At a high level, gulp reads files as streams and pipes the streams to different tasks. These tasks are code-based and use plugins. The tasks modify the files, building source files into production files. To get an idea of what gulp can do check the list of gulp recipes on GitHub.

How to set up gulp

Setting up gulp for the first time requires a few steps.


Gulp requires Node, and its package manager, npm, which installs the gulp plugins.

If you don't already have Node and npm installed, you can install them with Node Version Manager (nvm). This tool lets developers install multiple versions of Node, and easily switch between them.

Nvm can then be used to install Node by running the following in the command line:

nvm install node

This also installs Node's package manager, npm. You can check that these are both installed by running the following commands from the command line:

node -v

npm -v

If both commands return a version number, then the installations were successful.

Gulp command line tool

Gulp's command line tool should also be installed globally so that gulp can be executed from the command line. Do this by running the following from the command line:

npm install --global gulp-cli

Creating a new project

Before installing gulp plugins, your application needs to be initialized. Do this by running the following command line command from within your project's working directory:

npm init

This command begins the generation of a package.json file, prompting you with questions about your application. For simplicity these can all be left blank (either by skipping the prompts with the return key or by using npm init -y instead of the above command), but in production you could store application metadata here. The file looks like this (your values may be different):


  "name": "test",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "",
  "main": "index.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  "author": "",
  "license": "ISC"

Don't worry if you don't understand what all of these values represent, they are not critical to learning gulp.

This file is used to track your project's packages. Tracking packages like this allows for quick reinstallation of all the packages and their dependencies in future builds (the npm install command will read package.json and automatically install everything listed).

Installing packages

Gulp and Node rely on plugins (packages) for the majority of their functionality. Node plugins can be installed with the following command line command:

npm install pluginName --save-dev

This command uses the npm tool to install the pluginName plugin. Plugins and their dependencies are installed in a node_modules directory inside the project's working directory.

The --save-dev flag updates package.json with the new package.

The first plugin that you want to install is gulp itself. Do this by running the following command from the command line from within your project's working directory:

npm install gulp --save-dev

Gulp and its dependencies are then present in the the node_modules directory (inside the project directory). The package.json file is also updated to the following (your values may vary):


  "name": "test",
  "version": "1.0.0",
  "description": "",
  "main": "index.js",
  "scripts": {
    "test": "echo \"Error: no test specified\" && exit 1"
  "author": "",
  "license": "ISC",
  "devDependencies": {
    "gulp": "^3.9.1"

Note that there is now a devDependencies field with gulp and its current version listed.


Once packages are installed (in node_modules), you are ready to use them. All gulp code is written in a gulpfile.js file. To use a package, start by including it in gulpfile.js. The following code in your gulpfile includes the gulp package that was installed in the previous section:


var gulp = require('gulp');

Creating tasks

Gulp tasks are defined in the gulpfile.js file using gulp.task. A simple task looks like this:


gulp.task('hello', function() {
  console.log('Hello, World!');

This code defines a hello task that can be executed by running the following from the command line:

gulp hello

A common pattern for gulp tasks is the following:

  1. Read some source files using gulp.src
  2. Process these files with one or more functions using Node's pipe functionality
  3. Write the modified files to a destination directory (creating the directory if doesn't exist) with gulp.dest

    gulp.task('task-name', function() {
      gulp.src('source-files') // 1
      .pipe(gulpPluginFunction()) // 2
      .pipe(gulp.dest('destination')); // 3

A complete gulpfile might look like this:


// Include plugins
var gulp = require('gulp'); // Required
var pluginA = require('pluginA');
var pluginB = require('pluginB');
var pluginC = require('pluginC');

// Define tasks
gulp.task('task-A', function() {

gulp.task('task-BC', function() {

Where each installed plugin is included with require() and tasks are then defined using functions from the installed plugins. Note that functionality from multiple plugins can exist in a single task.


Let's look at some examples.

Uglify JavaScript

Uglifying (or minifying) JavaScript is a common developer chore. The following steps set up a gulp task to do this for you (assuming Node, npm, and the gulp command line tool are installed):

  1. Create a new project & package.json by running the following in the command line (from the project's working directory):

    npm init
  2. Install the gulp package by running the following in the command line:

    npm install gulp --save-dev
  3. Install the gulp-uglify package by running the following in the command line:

    npm install gulp-uglify --save-dev
  4. Create a gulpfile.js and add the following code to include gulp and gulp-uglify:

    var gulp = require('gulp');
    var uglify = require('gulp-uglify');
  5. Define the uglify task by adding the following code to gulpfile.js:

    gulp.task('uglify', function() {
  6. Run the task from the command line with the following:

    gulp uglify

The task reads all JavaScript files in the js directory (relative to the gulpfile.js file), executes the uglify function on them (uglifying/minifying the code), and then puts them in a build directory (creating it if it doesn't exist).

Prefix CSS & build sourcemaps

Multiple plugins can be used in a single task. The following steps set up a gulp task to prefix CSS files and create sourcemaps for them (assuming Node, npm, and the gulp command line tool are installed):

  1. As in the previous example, create a new project and install gulp, gulp-autoprefixer, and gulp-sourcemaps by running the following in the command line (from the project's working directory):

    npm init
    npm install gulp --save-dev
    npm install gulp-autoprefixer --save-dev
    npm install gulp-sourcemaps --save-dev
  2. Include the installed plugins by adding the following code to a gulpfile.js file:

    var gulp = require('gulp');
    var autoprefixer = require('gulp-autoprefixer');
    var sourcemaps = require('gulp-sourcemaps');
  3. Create a task that prefixes CSS files, creates sourcemaps on the files, and writes the new files to the build directory by adding the following code to gulpfile.js:

    gulp.task('processCSS', function() {

This task uses two plugins in the same task.

More automation

Default tasks

Usually, developers want to run multiple tasks each time an application is updated rather than running each task individually. Default tasks are helpful for this, executing anytime the grunt command is run from the command line.

Let's add the following code to gulpfile.js to set task1 and task2 as default tasks:


gulp.task('default', ['task1', 'task2']);

Running gulp in the command line executes both task1 and task2.


Even with default tasks, running tasks each time a file is updated during development can become tedious. gulp.watch watches files and automatically runs tasks when the corresponding files change. For example, the following code in gulpfile.js watches CSS files and executes the processCSS task any time the files are updated:


gulp.task('watch', function() {
  gulp.watch('styles/**/*.css', ['processCSS']);

Running the following in the command line starts the watch:

gulp watch


Using a build tool for the first time can be daunting with multiple tools to install and new files to create. Let's review what we've covered and how it all fits together.

Because gulp and its plugins are node packages, gulp requires Node and its package manager, npm. They are global tools so you only need to install them once on your machine, not each time you create a project. In this text, we used Node Version Manager (nvm) to install Node and npm, but they could also have been installed directly.

Gulp runs from the command line, so it requires a command line tool to be installed. Like Node, it's a global tool, and only needs to be installed on your machine (not per project).

When you want to use gulp in a project, you start by initializing the project with npm init. This creates a file called package.json. The package.json file tracks the Node packages that are installed for that project. Each time a new package is installed, such as the gulp-uglify plugin, package.json is updated with the --save-dev flag. If the project is stored in version control or transferred without including all of the packages (a best practice), the packages can be quickly re-installed with npm install. This reads package.json and installs all required packages.

Once plugins are installed, they need to be included in the gulpfile.js file. This file is where all gulp code belongs. This file is also where gulp tasks are defined. Gulp tasks use JavaScript code and the imported functions from plugins to perform various tasks on files.

With everything installed and tasks defined, gulp tasks can be run by executing command line commands (such as gulp uglify).

Further reading