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Davide 'CoderDave' Benvegnù
Davide 'CoderDave' Benvegnù

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Azure Artifacts vs Build Artifacts vs Pipeline Artifacts: Difference EXPLAINED!

What are the differences between Build Artifacts and Pipelines Artifacts in Azure Pipelines, and how do they compare to Azure Artifact?

With Azure DevOps using similar names for different things, there is quite some confusion between them. And in fact I’ve received many comments and questions about them on my videos about Azure Pipelines... but today we are going to answer these questions once and for all. Let’s dive into it.

Video

As usual, if you are a visual learner, or simply prefer to watch and listen instead of reading, here you have the video with the whole explanation and demo, which to be fair is much more complete than this post.

Link to the video: https://youtu.be/WWCmEUCt3Cc

If you rather prefer reading, well... let's just continue :)

A Word About Artifacts

So, what are the differences? We will go through them one by one, see what they are used for, and at the end we’ll have a quick recap and some recommendations on what to use when. But first, we need to understand what an artifact is, at least in the context of Azure DevOps.

Using a simplification, an artifact is any kind of file or files that your build produces, or that you may want to reuse in another build, another job of your build, or a deployment or release pipeline.

For example, the compiled DLLs that you have as result of your CI can be stored in an artifact to be then deployed by another job. Same thing for the dist folder of a Node.js application. Or, let’s suppose you want to save some output of one of your pipeline task to then download it and review it later... well, you can package that in an artifact as well.

Now that we know what artifacts are, let’s see how they differ.

Build Artifacts

Build Artifacts have been in Azure DevOps for a long time and are the built-in artifact storage mechanism for Azure Pipelines.

They can be used in both the Classic Build Pipelines, the one created using the UI, as well as the newer YAML Pipelines.

Build Artifacts

Build Artifacts are published via the Publish Build Artifacts task and can be downloaded with the Download Build Artifact task. And when you publish them, you can instruct the task to either push the content up to the Azure DevOps cloud or serve, or to copy the files to a local file share instead.

Build Artifacts can be consumed from other jobs in the same Pipeline, and from other Pipelines.

Release Pipeline

Additionally, Build Pipelines can be used if you want to consume your artifact from a Release Pipeline triggered by the build completion.

And you can always download your artifacts from the Build run status page.

Explore Artifacts

And as you can see in the image above, you can explore the content of your artifact directly in the UI.

Pipeline Artifacts

Alright, let’s talk about Pipelines Artifacts now.

These are the newer version, if you will, of Build Artifacts, and as such they can be used only from within the YAML Pipelines.

One of the main benefits of Pipeline Artifacts is that they can dramatically reduce the time it takes to upload and download the artifacts because of the way the files are both uploaded and stored. And this is especially true for large artifacts.

Until fairly recently, Pipelines Artifacts couldn’t be used in Classic Release Pipelines, or from other Pipelines, but now that limitation is gone so their usage is very similar to Build Artifacts.

Pipeline Artifacts

To publish the Pipelines Artifacts you can use the Publish Pipeline Artifact task and you can download them using the Download Pipeline Artifact task.

Upload Download shortcuts

Alternatively, since this feature is only available in the YAML Pipelines, you can use the publish keyword and the download keyword, which are just the abbreviation for the whole tasks.

And if you publish a Pipeline Artifacts, and you want to use it in a deployment job in the same pipeline, you don’t even have to add the download task because Azure Pipelines will download them automatically.

Build vs Pipeline Artifacts

There are few more differences in publishing and downloading the artifacts between Build and Pipeline Artifacts.

Publish Build vs Pipeline Artifacts

The publish tasks are virtually identical, with the only differences being that in the Publish Build Artifact task here on the left you can optionally choose to further include your artifact in a Tar file, while this is not present on the right on the Publish Pipeline Artifact Task. This one, instead, allows you to add some custom properties to the artifact. They must be in JSON format, all keys having the prefix user-

It gets more interesting if we look at the Download tasks

Downlaod Build vs Pipeline Artifacts

As you can see in this side by side view, when you download a a Build Artifact (on the left) you can choose if you want to download the whole thing, or just some specific file from the artifact. You can also set some parallelization settings and other parameters. When downloading a Pipeline Artifact, instead, you don’t have that option, as you can see here on the right hand side of the image.

And if we switch the task to download from a different pipeline or run, instead of from the current one, we have one more difference.

Downlaod Build vs Pipeline Artifacts 2

Aside from a different positioning of the fields, you can see that when you download a Pipeline Artifact you can choose to do so even if the pipeline run you are targeting has failed

And that basically covers everything there is to say about Build and Pipeline Artifacts. If you have noticed, I kept comparing the two... but I haven’t mentioned Azure Artifacts yet. Why? Well, because it is a completely different thing.

What About Azure Artifacts?

So Azure Artifacts... as I was saying it is pretty different from Build and Pipeline Artifacts. Despite the similar name, it’s a different service which serves a different purpose.

Both Build and Pipeline Artifacts are very generic, you can save whatever you want in them, and what Azure DevOps does is just packaging the files in a zip archive and saving it somewhere. Azure Artifacts, instead, is a typed package repository.

Azure Artifacts Package Types

It supports multiple package types such as NuGet, npm, Python, Maven, and Universal Packages... you can basically see it as an alternative to Artifactory, Nexus, GitHub Packages, and services like that.

You may have seen that Azure Artifacts also supports Universal Packages, and although that is somewhat similar to the other types of artifact we have seen before, it is conceptually different.

You would use Universal Packages when you want to create an artifact with a lifetime independent of the pipeline that created it. In fact both Build and Pipeline Artifacts are always tied to the Pipelines that created them. As we have seen, you can download Pipeline Artifacts after a pipeline has completed via the artifacts UI - but if you want something that really exists independent of pipeline you would go for Universal Packages.

Another big difference is about the pricing. Whether you use Build Artifacts or Pipeline Artifacts, you will not have to pay a single cent for them, no matter how many files you store or how big they are. Azure Artifacts, on the other hand, is billed by size.

Azure Artifacts Billing Settings

You have a free grant of 2 Gb for each organization, but once you reach the maximum storage limit, you can no longer upload new artifacts and will need to either delete some of your existing artifacts, or set up billing  to increase your storage limit.

So, let’s recap and see my recommendations.

Build Artifacts vs Pipelines Artifacts vs Azure Artifacts Recap

Build Artifacts are the older type of artifacts and can be used in both Classic and YAML Pipelines. They are fairly slow to upload and download, they are tied to a specific Pipeline run and they can be used to trigger a deployment, via Release Pipelines.

Finally, Build Artifacts cannot be shared, you can use them for storing anything you want, and you don’t pay for the space you use.

Pipeline Artifacts, on the other hand, are newer and faster, but they can be used only in YAML Pipelines. They are also tied to a specific Pipeline run, they trigger CD in both Multistage Pipelines and Release Pipelines, and cannot be shared. Likewise, they can be used to store anything and they are free.

Finally, Azure Artifact is a completely different service. Packages stored in Azure Artifacts can be used in both Classic and YAML Pipeline, and their upload and download are as fast as with Pipelines Artifacts because they share the same underlying technology.

Being a different service, Azure Artifacts are independent from the Pipelines which have publish them, but like the other types can be used to trigger CD.

Finally, they are the only type of artifact that can be shared with developers even cross-organization, but they can be only typed packages and, last but not least, you get 2gb of space for free but after that it’s a paid service.

Recommendations

How would I recommend you use the different types of artifacts?

Use Build Artifacts only if you are using Classic Build Pipelines. There is really no other reason to use them, since they are the older and slower flavor of artifacts.

Use Pipelines Artifacts if you are on YAML Pipelines, and you don’t need to share the result of your CI with other teams.

Finally, Azure Artifacts enables developers to share their code efficiently and manage all their packages from one place. Use Azure Artifacts if you need to share packages within the same team, across organizations, or even publicly.

Conclusions

Let me know in the comments below if you still have any more questions about Build Artifacts, Pipeline Artifacts, and Azure Artifacts and I will try my best to answer them.

Also, check out this video with all you need to know about the differences between Classic Pipelines and YAML Pipelines.

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