A Developer's Introduction to Buildpacks | SUSE Communities

A Developer’s Introduction to Buildpacks


Compiling software is not glamorous but critical to every developer’s workflow. The process of compiling software has evolved over the decades, moving from developers building artifacts locally, to centralized build servers, to multistage Docker images — and now, to a relatively new process called buildpacks.

In this post, we’ll look at the history of compiling software and see how buildpacks have evolved to provide developers with an opinionated and convenient process for building their source code.

The History of Compiling Software

Not so long ago, it was common for a developer on a team to perform a release by compiling code on their local workstation, generating deployable artifacts, and performing a deployment using tools like FTP or RDP onto a server. This process had some obvious limitations: it was not reproducible, it was entirely manual, and it depended on an individual’s workstation to be properly configured with all the required platforms and scripts required to complete a build.

Continuous Integration Servers

The next logical step was to build servers, often called Continuous Integration (CI) servers. A CI server provides a source of truth where the process of testing and building code is centrally defined and managed. Traditionally, the build process is defined as a series of steps configured through a web console. However, those steps are more recently defined as code and checked in alongside the application source code. A CI server allows code changes to be continuously built by automating testing and building code as a shared Source Control Management (SCM) system receives new code commits.

However, CI servers still require a great deal of specialized configuration. You need to install Software Development Kits (SDKs) for the various languages used to write applications and project and package management tools. Nowadays, languages release new versions multiple times a year, which can burden CI servers to maintain multiple SDKs side by side to accommodate software projects that upgrade to new language versions at differing rates. In addition, the CI build steps require a particular CI server to execute them. So even if the step configuration has been expressed as code and checked in alongside the application code, only a particular CI server can execute those steps, and they are not generally reproducible on a developer’s local machine.

The Docker Solution

These limitations are neatly solved by using Docker. Each Docker image provides an isolated file system, allowing entire build chains to exist within their own independent Docker image. This means even software with no native support for installing and running multiple versions can exist side by side in their own Docker images. And by using multistage Docker builds, it is possible to define the steps and environment required to build application code with instructions that any server or workstation can execute with Docker installed.

However, the isolated nature of Docker images can present a challenge when building software. Today, most applications rely on dozens, if not hundreds, of external dependencies that must be downloaded from the internet. A native implementation of a Docker build script will result in these dependencies being downloaded with every build. It is not uncommon for an application to download hundreds of megabytes worth of dependencies, so compiling applications using Docker can be extremely inefficient without care.

Still, Docker is a compelling platform for several reasons: its ability to precisely define the environment where an application is built, allow multiple such definitions to painlessly coexist on a single machine and allow builds to be performed anywhere Docker is installed. The only thing missing is the ability to abstract away the highly specialized processes required to efficiently build software using Docker.

Introducing Buildpacks

This is where buildpacks come in. A buildpack implements an opinionated build process within a Docker container that takes care of all the fiddly aspects of managing SDKs, caching dependencies and reducing build times to create an executable Docker image from the supplied source code. This means developers can write their code as they always have (with no Docker build scripts), compile that code with a buildpack and have their compiled application embedded into an executable Docker image.

Buildpacks are:

  • Convenient: Their opinionated workflows require no special knowledge to use and are trivial to execute.
  • Efficient: They are specially designed to leverage Docker’s functionality, ensuring builds are as fast as possible.
  • Repeatable: Requiring only one application to be installed alongside Docker to build any number of languages.
  • Flexible: With an open specification allowing anyone to define their own build process.

Despite these benefits, buildpacks are not a complete replacement for your CI system. For a start, buildpacks only generate Docker images. If you deploy applications to a web or server, buildpacks won’t generate the traditional artifacts you need. You will likely execute buildpacks on a CI server to retain the benefits of a centralized source of truth.

To demonstrate just how powerful buildpacks are, let’s take a typical Java application with no Docker build configurations and create an executable Docker image.

Building a Sample Application

Petclinic is a sample Java Spring web application that has been lovingly maintained over the years to demonstrate the Spring platform. It represents the kind of code base you would find in many engineering departments. Although the git repository contains a docker-compose.yml file, this is only to run a MySQL database instance. Neither the application source code nor the build scripts provide any facility to create Docker images.

Clone the git repository with the command:

git clone https://github.com/spring-projects/spring-petclinic.git

To use buildpacks, ensure you have Docker installed.

To build the sample application with a buildpack, we’ll need to install what is known as a platform, which in our case is a CLI tool called pack. You can find installation instructions for pack here, with packages available for most major operating systems.

When you first run the pack, you will be prompted to configure a default builder. We’ll cover terminology like builder in subsequent posts. For now, we need to understand that a builder contains the buildpacks that compile our code and that companies like Heroku and Google, and groups like Paketo, provide several builders we can use.

Here is the output of the pack asking us to define a default builder:

Please select a default builder with:

pack config default-builder <builder-image>

Suggested builders:
Google: gcr.io/buildpacks/builder:v1 Ubuntu 18 base image with buildpacks for .NET, Go, Java, Node.js, and Python
Heroku: heroku/buildpacks:18 Base builder for Heroku-18 stack, based on ubuntu:18.04 base image
Heroku: heroku/buildpacks:20 Base builder for Heroku-20 stack, based on ubuntu:20.04 base image
Paketo Buildpacks: paketobuildpacks/builder:base Ubuntu bionic base image with buildpacks for Java, .NET Core, NodeJS, Go, Ruby, NGINX and Procfile
Paketo Buildpacks: paketobuildpacks/builder:full Ubuntu bionic base image with buildpacks for Java, .NET Core, NodeJS, Go, PHP, Ruby, Apache HTTPD, NGINX and Procfile
Paketo Buildpacks: paketobuildpacks/builder:tiny Tiny base image (bionic build image, distroless-like run image) with buildpacks for Java Native Image and Go

Tip: Learn more about a specific builder with:
pack builder inspect <builder-image>

We’ll make use of the Heroku Ubuntu 20.04 builder, which we configure with the command:

pack config default-builder heroku/buildpacks:20

Then, in the spring-petclinic directory, run the command:

pack build myimage

It is important to note that we do not need to have the Java Development Kit (JDK) or Maven installed for pack to build our source code. We also don’t need to tell pack that we are trying to build Java code. The Heroku builder (or any other builder you may be using) conveniently takes care of all of this for us.

The first time build runs, all of the application dependencies are downloaded. And there are a lot! It took around 30 minutes to complete the downloads on my home internet connection. Once these downloads are complete, the application is compiled and a Docker image called myimage is created. We can verify this by running the command:

docker image ls --filter reference=myimage

To run the Docker image, run the command:

docker run -p 8080:8080 myimage

The resulting web application has been exposed on port 8080, so we can access it via the URL http://localhost:8080. The result is a web page that looks like this:

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate what we just achieved here. With a single command, we compiled source code that had no Docker configuration into an executable Docker image. We never needed to install any Java tooling or configure any Java settings.

To verify that the application dependencies were cached, run:

pack build myimage2

Notice this time that the build process completes much faster as all the downloads from the previous build are reused. This demonstrates how buildpacks provide an efficient build process.

The process we just ran through here is also easily repeated on any machine with Docker and the pack CLI installed. It would take very little to recreate this process in a CI server, meaning builds on a centralized build server and local developer’s machines work the same way.


The evolution of building software has seen engineering teams go from building on their local machines to building via a CI server to multistage Docker builds. Buildpacks take the best ideas from all of these practices to provide a build process that is identical whether run on a developer’s local machine or a CI server. They take advantage of the isolation and reproducibility of Docker without the overhead of forcing every developer to craft a best-practice Docker build script.

This post demonstrated how you can use publicly available buildpacks to quickly compile a traditional Java application into an executable Docker image.

Want to customize your build experience? Stay tuned for the next blog post, where we create a simple buildpack of our own to compile a Java application with Maven.

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