The Music in Noise

Editors, Compilers, and Build Systems - 2021-04-04

Firstly, a very blessed Easter Sunday to all! I would've liked to write an Easter Sunday post, but I do not have a topic planned. Alas, it'll have to wait for another year.

Now let's get into the topic of this post: Editors, compilers, and build systems. It somewhat bothers me that many university students are unaware of this distinction. They have a vague idea, but are unable to pin it down. This is primarily because professors make a point of using IDEs from the start. As such, some have come to believe that you require a special program (e.g. Eclipse for Java) in order to write code for a given language. This limits them severely in their software development, since they restrict themselves to the tools which the IDE provides them with. Instead, especially in a university where it's supposed that one learns the foundational knowledge and concepts of a given field, it would make more sense to teach students these concepts as separate tools first, before allowing them to use these all-in-one IDE solutions.

I suppose that most of my readers will either know the difference already, or are not very tech-savvy and probably have no idea what I'm talking about. But I am going to go over the difference between these anyways.

An editor is a tool that is used to edit a plain text file. That is, any editor can read & write any file written by any other editor because it's nothing but ASCII text. These editors can be simple, (e.g. nano) or they can be more complex (e.g. VIM, VSCode), containing all kinds of features which make editing code easier (e.g. syntax highlighting, linters, autocompletion).

A compiler is a tool used to turn code written with the editor into a binary that can be read by the machine (or by a virtual machine, as in the case of Java). One need not use any particular compiler for any particular editor. The compiler one wishes to use depends on the programming language, and the target platform.

A build system is a tool which can be understood like a kind of script which helps to figure out what compiler commands to run, and makes compiling an entire project much easier. That is, instead of writing every single compiler command for every source file manually, one can simple run the build system and it will run these automatically. There exist some build systems which are language-dependent (e.g. Maven), but there are many others which are mostly language-agnostic (e.g. Makefile, CMake, Ninja).

Despite this, I do not wish to make out IDEs to be an inherently bad thing. For although I personally have been using (Neo)Vim for about 5 years now, and am very content with it, I recognize that for many an integrated development environment (IDE) may be the more productive tool for their particular use. But I believe that being able to discriminate between these different components, which in an IDE are integrated into one single tool, is vital for proper project management and collaboration with others who may not want to use the same tools.

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