What are the Clojure Tools?

I like to begin learning new languages by understanding the tooling ecosystem. For me, understanding the tools enables me to confidently focus on learning the language itself. Thus, when I approach a new language, e.g. Clojure, I often start by asking questions like this:

  • How do I install Clojure?
  • How do I run a Clojure program?
  • How do I manage Clojure packages (dependencies)?
  • How do I configure a Clojure project?
  • How do I build Clojure for production?

Now, when I first came to clojure, the answer to the above questions were, "use lein or boot". Then, around the end of 2017, a third option came along: the Clojure CLI Tools.. Admittedly, it took me some time to understand how the Clojure CLI Tools fit into the bigger picture..

This is where I hope this post will help by providing an overview of what the Clojure CLI Tools are, the problem they solve and how they compare to other tools like lein and boot.

Clojure CLI Tools #

To begin, what are the Clojure CLI Tools? They are a CLI tool accessed using the clj or clojure command. Furthermore, they are built/maintained by Cognitect, the official maintainers of the Clojure language.

Here are some simple examples of how and what you can do with the Clojure CLI Tools.

Run a Clojure repl


Run a Clojure program

clj -M -m your-clojure-program

manage Clojure dependencies

clj -Sdeps '{:deps {bidi/bidi {:mvn/version "2.1.6"}}}'

Thus, we can see that clj is a very useful tool. Now, clj itself is just a bash script which itself wraps other tools. At the time of this writing, it wraps 3 main tools:

The reason why I believe it's important to understand this early is because, no matter what part of the learning journey you're on, it will help.

If you're brand new to Clojure, this is going to help you better understand conversations amongst other Clojurians and help guide questions you may have. For example, if you're ever on Clojurians Slack you will notice that there isn't a Clojure CLI Tools channel, but there is a #tools-deps channel. If you ever have questions about the CLI Tools, that's the place to be.

If you're beyond the early learner phase, understanding the nuance is going to help you level up and gather greater context which can act as a stepping stone as you guide your own learning journey.

In summary, the Clojure CLI Tools is more of an umbrella term made up of deps.edn, clj, clojure or tools.deps.alpha.

The next few sections will discuss each of the above tools in more detail and how they all come together.

clojure #

When you read the CLI Tools official getting started you will notice that they use clj and clojure and both accept the same arguments. Are they the same thing or different? When do you use one over the other?

First, how are they the same or different? When you use clj it actually calls clojure under the hood and clojure itself calls something like this:

java [java-opt*] -cp classpath clojure.main [init-opt*] [main-opt] [arg*]

Yet, you will see that clj is more commonly used in development. The reason for this is because clj wraps the clojure command with a another tool called rlwrap. What rlwrap does is add readline support to the clojure command. In other words, clj makes it easier to type in the Clojure REPL in the terminal. It's for this reason that you will be encouraged to use clj during development, where as clojure is more commonly used in a CI or production setting.

Okay, so now that we know that clj is a convenience wrapper around clojure, what does this command do? Well, it's just a bash script and it orchestrates the other tools. Thus, clj is responsible for:

  • running Clojure programs
  • Providing a standard way to interact with Clojure programs
  • Improves the "Getting Started" story

As I said, it's a convenience wrapper. The meat and potatoes of the clj tool is tools.deps.alpha.

tools.deps.alpha #

tools.deps.alpha is responsible for understanding which dependencies your project needs and specifying how to get them. A more detailed way of explaining what it does is:

  • reads in dependencies from a deps.edn file
  • resolves the dependencies and their transitive dependencies
  • builds a classpath

There isn't too much else going on here and the library itself is small enough that you can read it in an afternoon. If you're interested in learning more I highly recommend listening to the Clojure Weekly Podcast featuring Alex Miller, the author of tools.deps.alpha, speak about the Clojure CLI Tools.

Continuing on, in order for tools.deps.alpha to know which dependencies you need you have to write them out. We do this, and more, in a file called deps.edn.

deps.edn #

deps.edn allows you to specify project dependencies and configurations. At it's heart, deps.edn is just an edn file. You can think of it like Clojure's version of json.

deps.edn is just a map which accepts specific keywords. Here is an example of some of the common keywords:

{:deps    {...}
 :paths   [...]
 :aliases {...}}

With this file we describe the dependencies our project needs, where our project should look to find our source/tests and shortcuts for running our project's code.

Now, given this is just an edn file it can be odd to think of it as a separate "tool". The reason I believe this is done is because the shape of the edn map is well defined. Which could be seen as acting like a contract.

What this means is that this file is an extensible tool. In other words, you could write your own tools.deps.alpha which knows how to consume this file and be compliant with projects which use it.

Clojure CLI Tools Installer #

"Clojure CLI Tools Installer" is a fancy way of referring to the brew tap used to install Clojure on mac and linux machines. As of February 2020, Clojure started maintaining their own brew tap. Thus, if you installed the Clojure CLI Tools via

brew install clojure

you will likely want to uninstall clojure and install the following:

brew install clojure/tools/clojure

In all likelihood, you would probably be fine with brew install clojure. The thing is that while brew install clojure will still see some love, it won't be as consistent as clojure/tools/clojure tap.

clj v lein v boot #

Let's end this conversation with a quick contextualization of clj, lein and boot.

The first point is that you will choose between one of the three tools (clj, lein, or boot) for your project. You don't use more than one. Just like you wouldn't use both boot and lein, you won't use both clj and boot or clj and lein. Furthermore, none of these tools should conflict with one another.

If you're curious which to choose, I think it's obvious that I would suggest clj. The reason I like clj is because the tool is simple and easy to use. You can read through clj and tools.deps.alpha in an afternoon and understand what they are doing if you had to. The same (subjectively of course) cannot be said for lein or boot.

Secondly, and most importantly, the Clojure community is really leaning into building tools for clj. For example, where lein used to have significantly more functionality, the community has built a ton of incredible tools that will cover many of your essential requirements. There is also the fact that deps.edn is easier to configure because there are less configuration options and less need to understand what lein is doing as you want to perform more advanced configurations.

Finally, when it comes to managing your project configurations and building out maintainable organizational structures (monorepo) it doesn't get easier than clj.

So yes, clj for the win.