Project references are a new feature in TypeScript 3.0 that allow you to structure your TypeScript programs into smaller pieces.

By doing this, you can greatly improve build times, enforce logical separation between components, and organize your code in new and better ways.

We’re also introducing a new mode for tsc, the --build flag, that works hand in hand with project references to enable faster TypeScript builds.

An Example Project

Let’s look at a fairly normal program and see how project references can help us better organize it. Imagine you have a project with two modules, converter and units, and a corresponding test file for each:

/src/converter.ts
/src/units.ts
/test/converter-tests.ts
/test/units-tests.ts
/tsconfig.json

The test files import the implementation files and do some testing:

// converter-tests.ts
import * as converter from "../converter";

assert.areEqual(converter.celsiusToFahrenheit(0), 32);

Previously, this structure was rather awkward to work with if you used a single tsconfig file:

  • It was possible for the implementation files to import the test files
  • It wasn’t possible to build test and src at the same time without having src appear in the output folder name, which you probably don’t want
  • Changing just the internals in the implementation files required typechecking the tests again, even though this wouldn’t ever cause new errors
  • Changing just the tests required typechecking the implementation again, even if nothing changed

You could use multiple tsconfig files to solve some of those problems, but new ones would appear:

  • There’s no built-in up-to-date checking, so you end up always running tsc twice
  • Invoking tsc twice incurs more startup time overhead
  • tsc -w can’t run on multiple config files at once

Project references can solve all of these problems and more.

What is a Project Reference?

tsconfig.json files have a new top-level property, references. It’s an array of objects that specifies projects to reference:

{
    "compilerOptions": {
        // The usual
    },
    "references": [
        { "path": "../src" }
    ]
}

The path property of each reference can point to a directory containing a tsconfig.json file, or to the config file itself (which may have any name).

When you reference a project, new things happen:

  • Importing modules from a referenced project will instead load its output declaration file (.d.ts)
  • If the referenced project produces an outFile, the output file .d.ts file’s declarations will be visible in this project
  • Build mode (see below) will automatically build the referenced project if needed

By separating into multiple projects, you can greatly improve the speed of typechecking and compiling, reduce memory usage when using an editor, and improve enforcement of the logical groupings of your program.

composite

Referenced projects must have the new composite setting enabled. This setting is needed to ensure TypeScript can quickly determine where to find the outputs of the referenced project. Enabling the composite flag changes a few things:

  • The rootDir setting, if not explicitly set, defaults to the directory containing the tsconfig file
  • All implementation files must be matched by an include pattern or listed in the files array. If this constraint is violated, tsc will inform you which files weren’t specified
  • declaration must be turned on

declarationMaps

We’ve also added support for declaration source maps. If you enable --declarationMap, you’ll be able to use editor features like “Go to Definition” and Rename to transparently navigate and edit code across project boundaries in supported editors.

prepend with outFile

You can also enable prepending the output of a dependency using the prepend option in a reference:

   "references": [
       { "path": "../utils", "prepend": true }
   ]

Prepending a project will include the project’s output above the output of the current project. This works for both .js files and .d.ts files, and source map files will also be emitted correctly.

tsc will only ever use existing files on disk to do this process, so it’s possible to create a project where a correct output file can’t be generated because some project’s output would be present more than once in the resulting file. For example:

   A
  ^ ^
 /   \
B     C
 ^   ^
  \ /
   D

It’s important in this situation to not prepend at each reference, because you’ll end up with two copies of A in the output of D - this can lead to unexpected results.

Caveats for Project References

Project references have a few trade-offs you should be aware of.

Because dependent projects make use of .d.ts files that are built from their dependencies, you’ll either have to check in certain build outputs or build a project after cloning it before you can navigate the project in an editor without seeing spurious errors. We’re working on a behind-the-scenes .d.ts generation process that should be able to mitigate this, but for now we recommend informing developers that they should build after cloning.

Additionally, to preserve compatability with existing build workflows, tsc will not automatically build dependencies unless invoked with the --build switch. Let’s learn more about --build.

Build Mode for TypeScript

A long-awaited feature is smart incremental builds for TypeScript projects. In 3.0 you can use the --build flag with tsc. This is effectively a new entry point for tsc that behaves more like a build orchestrator than a simple compiler.

Running tsc --build (tsc -b for short) will do the following:

  • Find all referenced projects
  • Detect if they are up-to-date
  • Build out-of-date projects in the correct order

You can provide tsc -b with multiple config file paths (e.g. tsc -b src test). Just like tsc -p, specifying the config file name itself is unnecessary if it’s named tsconfig.json.

tsc -b Commandline

You can specify any number of config files:

 > tsc -b                                # Build the tsconfig.json in the current directory
 > tsc -b src                            # Build src/tsconfig.json
 > tsc -b foo/release.tsconfig.json bar  # Build foo/release.tsconfig.json and bar/tsconfig.json

Don’t worry about ordering the files you pass on the commandline - tsc will re-order them if needed so that dependencies are always built first.

There are also some flags specific to tsc -b:

  • --verbose: Prints out verbose logging to explain what’s going on (may be combined with any other flag)
  • --dry: Shows what would be done but doesn’t actually build anything
  • --clean: Deletes the outputs of the specified projects (may be combined with --dry)
  • --force: Act as if all projects are out of date
  • --watch: Watch mode (may not be combined with any flag except --verbose)

Caveats

Normally, tsc will produce outputs (.js and .d.ts) in the presence of syntax or type errors, unless noEmitOnError is on. Doing this in an incremental build system would be very bad - if one of your out-of-date dependencies had a new error, you’d only see it once because a subsequent build would skip building the now up-to-date project. For this reason, tsc -b effectively acts as if noEmitOnError is enabled for all all projects.

If you check in any build outputs (.js, .d.ts, .d.ts.map, etc.), you may need to run a --force build after certain source control operations depending on whether your source control tool preserves timestmaps between the local copy and the remote copy.

MSBuild

If you have an msbuild project, you can turn enable build mode by adding

    <TypeScriptBuildMode>true</TypeScriptBuildMode>

to your proj file. This will enable automatic incremental build as well as cleaning.

Note that as with tsconfig.json / -p, existing TypeScript project properties will not be respected - all settings should be managed using your tsconfig file.

Some teams have set up msbuild-based workflows wherein tsconfig files have the same implicit graph ordering as the managed projects they are paired with. If your solution is like this, you can continue to use msbuild with tsc -p along with project references; these are fully interoperable.

Guidance

Overall Structure

With more tsconfig.json files, you’ll usually want to use Configuration file inheritance to centralize your common compiler options. This way you can change a setting in one file rather than having to edit multiple files.

Another good practice is to have a “solution” tsconfig.json file that simply has references to all of your leaf-node projects. This presents a simple entry point; e.g. in the TypeScript repo we simply run tsc -b src to build all endpoints because we list all the subprojects in src/tsconfig.json Note that starting with 3.0, it is no longer an error to have an empty files array if you have at least one reference in a tsconfig.json file.

You can see these pattern in the TypeScript repo - see src/tsconfig_base.json, src/tsconfig.json, and src/tsc/tsconfig.json as key examples.

Structuring for relative modules

In general, not much is needed to transition a repo using relative modules. Simply place a tsconfig.json file in each subdirectory of a given parent folder, and add references to these config files to match the intended layering of the program. You will need to either set the outDir to an explicit subfolder of the output folder, or set the rootDir to the common root of all project folders.

Structuring for outFiles

Layout for compilations using outFile is more flexible because relative paths don’t matter as much. One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll generally want to not use prepend until the “last” project - this will improve build times and reduce the amount of I/O needed in any given build. The TypeScript repo itself is a good reference here - we have some “library” projects and some “endpoint” projects; “endpoint” projects are kept as small as possible and pull in only the libraries they need.