Walkthrough: Creating an MSBuild Project File from Scratch

Programming languages that target the .NET Framework, for example, Visual C# and Visual Basic, use MSBuild project files to describe and control the application build process. When you use Visual Studio to create an MSBuild project file, the appropriate XML is added to the file automatically. However, you may find it helpful to understand how the XML is organized and how you can change it to control a build. This walkthrough shows how to create a basic project file incrementally, by using only a text editor. The walkthrough follows these steps:

  • Create a minimal application source file.

  • Create a minimal MSBuild project file.

  • Extend the PATH environment variable to include MSBuild.

  • Build the application by using the project file.

  • Add properties to control the build.

  • Control the build by changing property values.

  • Add targets to the build.

  • Control the build by specifying targets.

  • Build incrementally.

This walkthrough shows how to build the project at the command prompt and examine the results. For more information about MSBuild and how to run MSBuild at the command prompt, see Walkthrough: Using MSBuild.

To complete the walkthrough, you must have the .NET Framework (version 2.0, 3.5, or 4.0) installed because it includes MSBuild and the Visual C# compiler, which are required for the walkthrough.

This section shows how to create a minimal Visual C# application source file by using a text editor.

To create the minimal application

  1. At the command prompt, browse to the folder where you want to create the application, for example, \My Documents\ or \Desktop\.

  2. Type md HelloWorld to create a subfolder named \HelloWorld\.

  3. Type cd HelloWorld to change to the new folder.

  4. Start Notepad or another text editor, and then type the following code.

    using System;
    
    class HelloWorld
    {
        static void Main()
        {
    #if DebugConfig
            Console.WriteLine("WE ARE IN THE DEBUG CONFIGURATION");
    #endif
    
            Console.WriteLine("Hello, world!");
        }
    }
    
  5. Save this source code file and name it Helloworld.cs.

  6. Build the application by typing csc helloworld.cs at the command prompt.

  7. Test the application by typing helloworld at the command prompt.

    The Hello, world! message should be displayed.

  8. Delete the application by typing del helloworld.exe at the command prompt.

Now that you have a minimal application source file, you can create a minimal project file to build the application. This project file contains the following elements:

  • The required root Project node.

  • An ItemGroup node to contain item elements.

  • An item element that refers to the application source file.

  • A Target node to contain tasks that are required to build the application.

  • A Task element to start the Visual C# compiler to build the application.

To create a minimal MSBuild project file

  1. In the text editor, replace the existing text by using these two lines:

    <Project xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/developer/msbuild/2003">
    </Project>
    
  2. Insert this ItemGroup node as a child element of the Project node:

      <ItemGroup>
        <Compile Include="helloworld.cs" />
      </ItemGroup>
    

    Notice that this ItemGroup already contains an item element.

  3. Add a Target node as a child element of the Project node. Name the node Build.

      <Target Name="Build">
      </Target>
    
  4. Insert this task element as a child element of the Target node:

        <Csc Sources="@(Compile)"/>
    
  5. Save this project file and name it Helloworld.csproj.

Your minimal project file should resemble the following code:

<Project xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/developer/msbuild/2003">
  <ItemGroup>
    <Compile Include="helloworld.cs" />
  </ItemGroup>
  <Target Name="Build">
    <Csc Sources="@(Compile)"/>  
  </Target>
</Project>

Tasks in the Build target are executed sequentially. In this case, the Visual C# compiler Csc task is the only task. It expects a list of source files to compile, and this is given by the value of the Compile item. The Compile item references just one source file, Helloworld.cs.

NoteNote

In the item element, you can use the asterisk wildcard character (*) to reference all files that have the .cs file name extension, as follows:

<Compile Include="*.cs" />

However, we do not recommend the use of wildcard characters because it makes debugging and selective targeting more difficult if source files are added or deleted.

Before you can access MSBuild, you must extend the PATH environment variable to include the .NET Framework folder.

To extend the path to include MSBuild

  • At the command prompt, type set PATH=%PATH%;%WINDIR%\Microsoft.Net\Framework\v4.0. If you have another version of the .NET Framework installed, change the version number accordingly.

    Note Note

    The name of the MSBuild folder on your computer might include a build number such as v2.0.50727. If so, include the build number on the command line, for example, set PATH=%PATH%;%WINDIR%\Microsoft.Net\Framework\v2.0.50727.

    Alternatively, if you have Visual Studio installed, you can use the Visual Studio Command Prompt, which has a path that includes the MSBuild folder.

Now, to build the application, use the project file that you just created.

To build the application

  1. At the command prompt, type msbuild helloworld.csproj /t:Build.

    This builds the Build target of the Helloworld project file by invoking the Visual C# compiler to create the Helloworld application.

  2. Test the application by typing helloworld.

    The Hello, world! message should be displayed.

Note Note

You can see more details about the build by increasing the verbosity level. To set the verbosity level to "detailed", type either of these commands at the command prompt:

msbuild helloworld.csproj /t:Build /verbosity:detailed

You can add build properties to the project file to further control the build. Now add these properties:

  • An AssemblyName property to specify the name of the application.

  • An OutputPath property to specify a folder to contain the application.

To add build properties

  1. Delete the existing application by typing del helloworld.exe at the command prompt.

  2. In the project file, insert this PropertyGroup element just after the opening Project element:

      <PropertyGroup>
        <AssemblyName>MSBuildSample</AssemblyName>
        <OutputPath>Bin\</OutputPath>
      </PropertyGroup>
    
  3. Add this task to the Build target, just before the Csc task:

        <MakeDir Directories="$(OutputPath)"      Condition="!Exists('$(OutputPath)')" />
    

    The MakeDir task creates a folder that is named by the OutputPath property, provided that no folder by that name currently exists.

  4. Add this OutputAssembly attribute to the Csc task:

    <Csc Sources="@(Compile)" OutputAssembly="$(OutputPath)$(AssemblyName).exe" />
    

    This instructs the Visual C# compiler to produce an assembly that is named by the AssemblyName property and to put it in the folder that is named by the OutputPath property.

  5. Save your changes.

Your project file should now resemble the following code:

<Project xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/developer/msbuild/2003">
  <PropertyGroup>
    <AssemblyName>MSBuildSample</AssemblyName>
    <OutputPath>Bin\</OutputPath>
  </PropertyGroup>
  <ItemGroup>
    <Compile Include="helloworld.cs" />
  </ItemGroup>
  <Target Name="Build">
    <MakeDir Directories="$(OutputPath)" Condition="!Exists('$(OutputPath)')" />
    <Csc Sources="@(Compile)" OutputAssembly="$(OutputPath)$(AssemblyName).exe" />
  </Target>
</Project>
NoteNote

We recommend that you add the backslash (\) path delimiter at the end of the folder name when you specify it in the OutputPath element, instead of adding it in the OutputAssembly attribute of the Csc task. Therefore,

<OutputPath>Bin\</OutputPath>

OutputAssembly=="$(OutputPath)$(AssemblyName).exe" />

is better than

<OutputPath>Bin</OutputPath>

OutputAssembly=="$(OutputPath)\$(AssemblyName).exe" />

Now you can build the application by using the project file in which you used build properties to specify the output folder and application name.

To test the build properties

  1. At the command prompt, type msbuild helloworld.csproj /t:Build.

    This creates the \Bin\ folder and then invokes the Visual C# compiler to create the MSBuildSample application and puts it in the \Bin\ folder.

  2. To verify that the \Bin\ folder has been created, and that it contains the MSBuildSample application, type dir Bin.

  3. Test the application by typing Bin\MSBuildSample.

    The Hello, world! message should be displayed.

Next, add two more targets to the project file, as follows:

  • A Clean target that deletes old files.

  • A Rebuild target that uses the DependsOnTargets attribute to force the Clean task to run before the Build task.

Now that you have multiple targets, you can set the Build target as the default target.

To add build targets

  1. In the project file, add these two targets just after the Build target:

      <Target Name="Clean" >
        <Delete Files="$(OutputPath)$(AssemblyName).exe" />
      </Target>
      <Target Name="Rebuild" DependsOnTargets="Clean;Build" />
    

    The Clean target invokes the Delete task to delete the application. The Rebuild target does not run until both the Clean target and the Build target have run. Although the Rebuild target has no tasks, it causes the Clean target to run before the Build target.

  2. Add this DefaultTargets attribute to the opening Project element:

    <Project DefaultTargets="Build" xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/developer/msbuild/2003">
    

    This sets the Build target as the default target.

Your project file should now resemble the following code:

<Project DefaultTargets="Build" xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/developer/msbuild/2003">
  <PropertyGroup>
    <AssemblyName>MSBuildSample</AssemblyName>
    <OutputPath>Bin\</OutputPath>
  </PropertyGroup>
  <ItemGroup>
    <Compile Include="helloworld.cs" />
  </ItemGroup>
  <Target Name="Build">
    <MakeDir Directories="$(OutputPath)" Condition="!Exists('$(OutputPath)')" />
    <Csc Sources="@(Compile)" OutputAssembly="$(OutputPath)$(AssemblyName).exe" />
  </Target>
  <Target Name="Clean" >
    <Delete Files="$(OutputPath)$(AssemblyName).exe" />
  </Target>
  <Target Name="Rebuild" DependsOnTargets="Clean;Build" />
</Project>

You can exercise the new build targets to test these features of the project file:

  • Building the default build.

  • Setting the application name at the command prompt.

  • Deleting the application before another application is built.

  • Deleting the application without building another application.

To test the build targets

  1. At the command prompt, type msbuild helloworld.csproj /p:AssemblyName=Greetings.

    Because you did not use the /t switch to explicitly set the target, MSBuild runs the default Build target. The /p switch overrides the AssemblyName property and gives it the new value, Greetings. This causes a new application, Greetings.exe, to be created in the \Bin\ folder.

  2. To verify that the \Bin\ folder contains both the MSBuildSample application and the new Greetings application, type dir Bin.

  3. Test the Greetings application by typing Bin\Greetings.

    The Hello, world! message should be displayed.

  4. Delete the MSBuildSample application by typing msbuild helloworld.csproj /t:clean.

    This runs the Clean task to remove the application that has the default AssemblyName property value, MSBuildSample.

  5. Delete the Greetings application by typing msbuild helloworld.csproj /t:clean /p:AssemblyName=Greetings.

    This runs the Clean task to remove the application that has the given AssemblyName property value, Greetings.

  6. To verify that the \Bin\ folder is now empty, type dir Bin.

  7. Type msbuild.

    Although a project file is not specified, MSBuild builds the helloworld.csproj file because there is only one project file in the current folder. This causes the MSBuildSample application to be created in the \Bin\ folder.

    To verify that the \Bin\ folder contains the MSBuildSample application, type dir Bin.

You can tell MSBuild to build a target only if the source files or target files that the target depends on have changed. MSBuild uses the time stamp of a file to determine whether it has changed.

To build incrementally

  1. In the project file, add these attributes to the opening Build target:

    Inputs="@(Compile)" Outputs="$(OutputPath)$(AssemblyName).exe"
    

    This specifies that the Build target depends on the input files that are specified in the Compile item group, and that the output target is the application file.

    The resulting Build target should resemble the following code:

    <Target Name="Build" Inputs="@(Compile)" Outputs="$(OutputPath)$(AssemblyName).exe">
      <MakeDir Directories="$(OutputPath)" Condition="!Exists('$(OutputPath)')" />
      <Csc Sources="@(Compile)" OutputAssembly="$(OutputPath)$(AssemblyName).exe" />
    </Target>
    
  2. Test the Build target by typing msbuild /v:d at the command prompt.

    Remember that helloworld.csproj is the default project file, and that Build is the default target.

    The /v:d switch specifies a verbose description for the build process.

    These lines should be displayed:

    Skipping target "Build" because all output files are up-to-date with respect to the input files.

    Input files: HelloWorld.cs

    Output files: Bin\MSBuildSample.exe

    MSBuild skips the Build target because none of the source files have changed since the application was last built.

The following example shows a project file that compiles a Visual C# application and logs a message that contains the output file name.

<Project DefaultTargets = "Compile"
    xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/developer/msbuild/2003" >

    <!-- Set the application name as a property -->
    <PropertyGroup>
        <appname>HelloWorldCS</appname>
    </PropertyGroup>

    <!-- Specify the inputs by type and file name -->
    <ItemGroup>
        <CSFile Include = "consolehwcs1.cs"/>
    </ItemGroup>

    <Target Name = "Compile">
        <!-- Run the Visual C# compilation using input files of type CSFile -->
        <CSC
            Sources = "@(CSFile)"
            OutputAssembly = "$(appname).exe">
            <!-- Set the OutputAssembly attribute of the CSC task
            to the name of the executable file that is created -->
            <Output
                TaskParameter = "OutputAssembly"
                ItemName = "EXEFile" />
        </CSC>
        <!-- Log the file name of the output file -->
        <Message Text="The output file is @(EXEFile)"/>
    </Target>
</Project>

The following example shows a project file that compiles a Visual Basic application and logs a message that contains the output file name.

<Project DefaultTargets = "Compile"
    xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/developer/msbuild/2003" >

    <!-- Set the application name as a property -->
    <PropertyGroup>
        <appname>HelloWorldVB</appname>
    </PropertyGroup>

    <!-- Specify the inputs by type and file name -->
    <ItemGroup>
        <VBFile Include = "consolehwvb1.vb"/>
    </ItemGroup>

    <Target Name = "Compile">    
        <!-- Run the Visual Basic compilation using input files of type VBFile -->
        <VBC
            Sources = "@(VBFile)"
            OutputAssembly= "$(appname).exe">
            <!-- Set the OutputAssembly attribute of the VBC task
            to the name of the executable file that is created -->
            <Output
                TaskParameter = "OutputAssembly"
                ItemName = "EXEFile" />
        </VBC>
        <!-- Log the file name of the output file -->
        <Message Text="The output file is @(EXEFile)"/>
    </Target>
</Project>

Visual Studio can automatically do much of the work that is shown in this walkthrough. To learn how to use Visual Studio to create, edit, build, and test MSBuild project files, see Walkthrough: Using MSBuild.

Was this page helpful?
(1500 characters remaining)
Thank you for your feedback
Show:
© 2014 Microsoft