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npm please stop hurting Visual Studio

I don't know about you but I personally feel that the following sentence may well be the saddest in the English language:

2>ASPNETCOMPILER : error ASPRUNTIME: The specified path, file name, or both are too long. The fully qualified file name must be less than 260 characters, and the directory name must be less than 248 characters.

The message above would suggest there is some kind of ASP.Net issue going on. There isn't - the problem actually lies with Windows. It's not the first time it's come up but for those of you not aware there is something you need to know about Windows: It handles long paths badly.

There's a number of caveats which people may attach the above sentence. But essentially what I have said is true. And it becomes brutally apparent to you the moment you start using a few node / npm powered tools in your workflow. You will likely see that horrible message and you won't be able to get much further forward. Sigh. I thought this was the future...

This post is about how to deal with the long path issue when using npm with Visual Studio. This should very much be a short term workaround as npm 3.0 is planned to make long paths with npm a thing of the past. But until that golden dawn....

The Latest Infraction#

I'm a big fan of Gulp and Bower. They rock. Steve Cadwallader wrote an excellent blog post about integrating Gulp into your Visual Studio build. Essentially the Gist of his post is this: forget using Task Runner Explorer to trigger your Gulp / Grunt jobs. No, actually plug it into the build process by tweaking your .csproj file. The first time I used this approach it was a dream come true. It just worked and I was a very happy man.

Since this approach was so marvellous I took a look at the demo / docs part of jQuery Validation Unobtrusive Native with a view to applying it there. I originally wrote this back in 2013 and at the time used NuGet for both server and client side package management. I decided to migrate it to use Bower for the client side packages (which I planned to combine with a Gulp script which was going to pull out the required JS / CSS etc as needed). However it wasn't the plain sailing I'd imagined. The actual switchover from NuGet to Bower was simple. Just a case of removing NuGet packages and adding their associated Bower counterpart. The problem came when the migration was done and I hit "compile". That's when I got to see 2>ASPNETCOMPILER : error ASPRUNTIME: The specified path, file name, or both are too long... etc

For reasons that I don't fully understand, Visual Studio is really upset by the presence in the project structure of one almighty long path. Oddly enough, not a path that's actually part of the Visual Studio project in question at all. Rather one that has come along as a result of our Gulp / Bower / npm shenanigans. Quick as a flash, I whipped out Daniel Schroeder's Path Length Checker to see where the problem lay:

And lo, the fault lay with Bower. Poor show, Bower, poor show.

rimraf to the Rescue#

rimraf is "the UNIX commandrm -rf for node". (By the way, what is it with node and the pathological hatred of capital letters?)

What this means is: rimraf can delete. Properly. So let's get it: npm install -g rimraf. Then at any time at the command line we can dispose of a long path in 2 shakes of lamb's tail.

In my current situation the contents of the node_modules folder is causing me heartache. But with rimraf in play I can get rid of it with the magic words: rimraf ./node_modules. Alakazam! So let's poke this command into the extra commands that I've already shoplifted from Steve's blog post. I'll end up with the following section of XML at the end of my .csproj:

<PropertyGroup>
<CompileDependsOn>
$(CompileDependsOn);
GulpBuild;
</CompileDependsOn>
<CleanDependsOn>
$(CleanDependsOn);
GulpClean
</CleanDependsOn>
<CopyAllFilesToSingleFolderForPackageDependsOn>
CollectGulpOutput;
$(CopyAllFilesToSingleFolderForPackageDependsOn);
</CopyAllFilesToSingleFolderForPackageDependsOn>
<CopyAllFilesToSingleFolderForMsdeployDependsOn>
CollectGulpOutput;
$(CopyAllFilesToSingleFolderForPackageDependsOn);
</CopyAllFilesToSingleFolderForMsdeployDependsOn>
</PropertyGroup>
<Target Name="GulpBuild">
<Exec Command="npm install" />
<Exec Command="bower install" />
<Exec Command="gulp" />
<Exec Command="rimraf ./node_modules" />
</Target>
<Target Name="GulpClean">
<Exec Command="npm install" />
<Exec Command="gulp clean" />
<Exec Command="rimraf ./node_modules" />
</Target>
<Target Name="CollectGulpOutput">
<ItemGroup>
<_CustomFiles Include="build\**\*" />
<FilesForPackagingFromProject Include="%(_CustomFiles.Identity)">
<DestinationRelativePath>build\%(RecursiveDir)%(Filename)%(Extension)</DestinationRelativePath>
</FilesForPackagingFromProject>
</ItemGroup>
<Message Text="CollectGulpOutput list: %(_CustomFiles.Identity)" />
</Target>

So let's focus on the important bits in the GulpBuild target:

  • &lt;Exec Command="npm install" /&gt; - install the node packages our project uses as specified in package.json. This will include Gulp and Bower. The latter package is going to contain super-long, Windows wrecking paths.
  • &lt;Exec Command="bower install" /&gt; - install the bower packages specified in bower.json using Bower (which was installed by npm just now).
  • &lt;Exec Command="gulp" /&gt; - do a little dance, make a little love, copy a few files, get down tonight.
  • &lt;Exec Command="rimraf ./node_modules" /&gt; - remove the node_modules folder populated by the npm install command.

With that addition of rimraf ./node_modules to the build phase the problem goes away. During each build a big, big Windows path is being constructed but then it's wiped again before it has chance to upset anyone. I've also added the same to the GulpClean target.

You are very welcome.

Gulp, npm, long paths and Visual Studio.... Fight!

How I managed to gulp-angular-templatecache working inside Visual Studio#

Every now and then something bites you unexpectedly. After a certain amount of pain, the answer comes to you and you know you want to save others from falling into the same deathtrap.

There I was minding my own business and having a play with a Gulp plugin called gulp-angular-templatecache. If you're not aware of it, it "Concatenates and registers AngularJS templates in the $templateCache". I was planning to use it so that all the views in an Angular app of mine were loaded up-front rather than on demand. (It's a first step in making an "offline-first" version of that particular app.)

I digress already. No sooner had I tapped in:

npm install gulp-angular-templatecache --saveDev

Then I noticed my Visual Studio project was no longer compiling. It was dying a death on build with this error:

ASPNETCOMPILER : error ASPRUNTIME: The specified path, file name, or both are too long. The fully qualified file name must be less than 260 characters, and the directory name must be less than 248 characters.

I was dimly aware that there were issues with the nested node_modules leading to Windows-killing paths. This sounded just like that.... And it was! gulp-angular-templatecache had a dependency on gulp-footer which had a dependency on lodash.assign which had a dependency on lodash._basecreatecallback which had.... You see where I'm going? It seems that the lovely lodash has created the path from hell.

For reasons that aren't particularly clear this kills Visual Studio's build process. This is slightly surprising given that our rogue path is sat in the node_modules directory which isn't part of the project in Visual Studio. That being the case you'd imagine that you could do what you liked there. But no, it seems VS is a delicate flower and we must be careful not to offend. Strange.

It's Workaround Time!#

After a great deal of digging I found the answer nestled in the middle of an answer on Stack Overflow. To quote:

If you will add "lodash.bind" module to your project's package.json as dependency it will be installed in one level with gulp and not as gulp's dependency

That's right, I just needed to tap enter this at the root of my project:

npm install lodash.bind --saveDev

And all was sweetness and light once more - no more complaints from VS.

The Future#

It looks like lodash are on course to address this issue. So one day this this workaround won't be necessary anymore which is good.

However, the general long path issue concerning node / npm hasn't vanished for Windows users. Given VS 2015 is planning to make Gulp and Grunt 1st class citizens of Visual Studio I'm going to guess that sort of issue is likely to arise again and again for other packages. I'm hoping that means that someone will actually fix the underlying path issues that upset Windows with npm.

It sounds like npm are planning to take some steps which is great. But I can't be alone in having a slightly nagging feeling that Windows isn't quite a first class citizen for node / io / npm yet. I really hope it will become one.