Starting From Scratch–Building Your Project Right Part 1


Let’s say for the sake of argument that you just uploaded your codebase into TFS2017/VSTS. What do you do? XAML builds are deprecated and the new Build system seems daunting. Again what do you do?  You can watch videos and read tons of different stackoverflow articles and blog posts on how to… yet there are still lingering questions on how to “just” start from scratch.

In my experience with teams from around the world before they used a version control system, would happily code on their local machine, perform a local build (where is just worked), and then using the power of Visual Studio would “Publish” their fixes directly to their remote environments. For one that is poor a ALM practice and two there is just no way to track any of the changes that were either breaking or fixing described typically with screenshots in an email thread. Overall it was the Dark Ages, a chaotic time where teams that were trying to be Agily/Scrummy/etc, yet really having no anchor or starting point to leap off from for how do perform a proper “single source of truth” build; let alone a deployment.

With “DevOps” and “Shift Left” being the buzz words of the day, it can be hard to get your team in the correct cultural mindset of ownership and control. In this article we will dig into the new MS Build system as if you were a newly minted Developer Lead with the appropriate Administrative Rights in your TFS/VSTS project.

Here is a basic scenario and then we will work through how you can build your project right with the new Build system in VSTS/TFS2017.


  • You are just now using source control
  • Your builds consisted of developers performing builds on their local machines
  • You may had a build server in the past, but you have either upgraded or the build templates that you previously used are incompatible
  • You have Post-Build scripting moves files around to make your codebase viable for a manual or even scripted deployment


This is barebones. Your particular scenario may not apply and I will discuss in the future how to do advanced builds and deployments.

Your codebase has been freshly checked into TFS/VSTS source control. If you chose Git or TFVC, it doesn’t matter the below techniques will apply for both version control types.  You need to perform a build that is simple and the output needs to packaged and ready to be consumed by either Release Management or Octopus Deploy. So where do we start?

How it’s done

Now for the pretty pictures.

First log into your TFS or VSTS site or account and click on the Build & Release tab. It should be blank if you are first starting out. The screenshot I am providing is from previous posts that build more and more advanced concepts.


You will see that there four items in the image called Mine, All Definitions, Queued, and XAML. You will not need the XAML tab; it has been deprecated and you can edit your old XAML builds nor are they compatible with the new Build system. So because of those points we will not be discussing that tab.

  • Mine – represents those build definitions that you the logged in user have created


  • All Definitions – represents all the build definitions that have been created for your solutions, branches, etc


  • Queued – represents all those builds that have been currently queued or running or completed


Now lets create a new build definition for our solution. In our case we are going to do something basic and build up from there.


then we get a popup that gives a number of options of generic templates to choose from. For now we will just choose the Visual Studio build. The reason behind this is that most developers are accustomed and acquainted with and it is in keeping with my idea of starting with the basics and building from there.


Click Next and you will see a another page where you choose your repository and other settings for your build.


The great thing about this page in the Build Definition Wizard is that you can make preliminary adjustments to your build before it is created. For instance you can choose the type (remote or local) of repository that you wish to point at, select the branch you wish to build from, and determine whether or not you wish to have Continuious Integration (build after every check in).  Subsequently you can choose the default agent for your build to be something different that has the capability you require to build your solution.


Make your selections and then click Create. Now you will have a “unsaved” generic build definition that you will need to continue editing. But first it will be wise to save you creation so that if you have to leave the page you don’t have to start all over again.



Now that we have saved the build definition, we can go into each of the build steps and one make adjustments and two add more build steps as necessary to perform our build.

On the left part of the page you should have noticed that there are six steps and descriptions for each. Lets talk about them a little in detail.

First you have the NuGet restore.

image What this little step does is go into your solution and check for the packages.config file and restore or install all of the packages each time you build. In this instance you can ensure that you have the everything restored from or other repo of your choice without having to check in your packages folder like you would have to do for your old XAML builds. With this step you can control a lot of what can happen with the installation or restoration of your packages.

Next is the Build Solution. This is a powerful step very similar to the older XAML Process. One item of note is that there are some overlapping of functionality that I have found for build steps, while it may not hinder a build, it just gives you further options for streamlining your process.


This will look a little familiar to those with a XAML build background, but this is a lot cleaner and can be adjusted to suit your needs. MSBuild arguments still work, but in some cases you don’t have add switches like “/m:1” when you can check the Advanced->Build in Parallel check box.

The Text Assemblies Step is standard with the Visual Studio Build Template. It will use Visual Studio Test to perform that function to ensure that you have testings completed and code coverage for the widgets you have on your Dashboard.

imageFrom a testing perspective this a powerful step that allows you to go into and perform advanced testing from the build without a lot of tools that you would assume that you need to perform the reporting, etc.

Also note that you see a image or this imagein each step it will show either a hover tip or open a new tab to more details about the step for your leverage or understand.

Next is the Publish Symbols path. It is a way for you to use your pdb and obj files to help debug your application on a different machine other than where your sources were built.


Next is the Copy Files to: step. This step is takes the output from your sources bin directory and copies those files or folders to your artifacts directory.  The artifacts directory is a cleaned directory that ensures that you have just the right objects in your artifacts folder that need to be either packaged or deployed at a later time. Again clicking on the image icon will provide options and parameters for you to use to make your build more coherent and robust.

So after the previous 5 steps, now what happens? Well the build agent then publish your outputs to a Drop folder. Typically this drop folder is within the $(Build.ArtifactStagingFolder). Where might that be? It is located under your build definition directory. Similar to this file path: “E:\TFSBuildAgent\vsts-agent-onprem\_work\5”. Inside of this folder are 4 folders that represent “a” artifacts, “b” build (output), “s” sources, TestResults (obvious).  Look at Resources->Variables for more information.


Once we have made our initial edits to your build definition, we can now Click Save and then queue a new Build.


and our build succeeded.


From our log output we can know that the artifacts are “published” and a little magic later we can compare and see that the artifacts are in the location where they are intended to be.


and finally…

Don’t be afraid of the build

As the heading suggests, when you are first starting out with using TFS/VSTS Build, don’t be afraid if your build fails or doesn’t perform the functions you are expecting immediately. I cannot stress this enough. I know that when I am testing builds that I spend a lot of time troubleshooting failed builds before I finally have a successful (green) build.

By working through your issues and using a methodical approach you can be successful. You shouldn’t feel pressured to get it right the first time. You don’t have to feel like you are going to get fired for having a broken build. Work through it, understand the build process, then communicate the understanding to your leadership.

If you are developing a Web Application or web api you may have to consult this how to. But if you are doing a single applicaton (exe, service, etc), then this approach can get you started in the right direction.


Here is another good resource about build settings and build tokens further details about the Visual Studio Build. Word of caution here is that if you are using TFSBuild.proj type of file, you will not be able to use Build because it contains tasks and targets that are supported only for XAML builds. this is for getting the different built-in and custom variables to work in your favor.


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