Introduction to Bazel: Building an Android App

In this tutorial, you will learn how to build a simple Android app. You’ll do the following:

Set up your environment

To get started, install Bazel and Android Studio, and get the sample project.

Install Bazel

Follow the installation instructions to install Bazel and its dependencies.

Install Android Studio

Download and install Android Studio as described in Install Android Studio.

The installer does not automatically set the ANDROID_HOME variable. Set it to the location of the Android SDK, which defaults to $HOME/Android/Sdk/ .

For example:

export ANDROID_HOME=$HOME/Android/Sdk/

For convenience, add the above statement to your ~/.bashrc file.

Get the sample project

You also need to get the sample project for the tutorial from GitHub. The repo has two branches: source-only and master. The source-only branch contains the source files for the project only. You’ll use the files in this branch in this tutorial. The master branch contains both the source files and completed Bazel WORKSPACE and BUILD files. You can use the files in this branch to check your work when you’ve completed the tutorial steps.

Enter the following at the command line to get the files in the source-only branch:

cd $HOME
git clone -b source-only

The git clone command creates a directory named $HOME/examples/. This directory contains several sample projects for Bazel. The project files for this tutorial are in $HOME/examples/tutorial/android.

Set up a workspace

A workspace is a directory that contains the source files for one or more software projects, as well as a WORKSPACE file and BUILD files that contain the instructions that Bazel uses to build the software. The workspace may also contain symbolic links to output directories.

A workspace directory can be located anywhere on your filesystem and is denoted by the presence of the WORKSPACE file at its root. In this tutorial, your workspace directory is $HOME/examples/tutorial/, which contains the sample project files you cloned from the GitHub repo in the previous step.

Note that Bazel itself doesn’t make any requirements about how you organize source files in your workspace. The sample source files in this tutorial are organized according to conventions for the target platform.

For your convenience, set the $WORKSPACE environment variable now to refer to your workspace directory. At the command line, enter:

export WORKSPACE=$HOME/examples/tutorial

Create a WORKSPACE file

Every workspace must have a text file named WORKSPACE located in the top-level workspace directory. This file may be empty or it may contain references to external dependencies required to build the software.

For now, you’ll create an empty WORKSPACE file, which simply serves to identify the workspace directory. In later steps, you’ll update the file to add external dependency information.

Enter the following at the command line:


This creates the empty WORKSPACE file.

Update the WORKSPACE file

Bazel needs to run the Android SDK build tools and uses the SDK libraries to build the app. This means that you need to add some information to your WORKSPACE file so that Bazel knows where to find them. Note that this step is not required when you build for other platforms. For example, Bazel automatically detects the location of Java, C++ and Objective-C compilers from settings in your environment.

Add the following lines to your WORKSPACE file:

    name = "androidsdk"

This will use the Android SDK referenced by the ANDROID_HOME environment variable, and automatically detect the highest API level and the latest version of build tools installed within that location.

Alternatively, you can explicitly specify the location of the Android SDK, the API level, and the version of build tools to use by including the path,api_level, and build_tools_version attributes. You can specify any subset of these attributes:

    name = "androidsdk",
    path = "/path/to/Android/sdk",
    api_level = 25,
    build_tools_version = "26.0.1"

Optional: This is not required by this tutorial, but if you want to compile native code into your Android app, you also need to download the Android NDK and tell Bazel where to find it by adding the following rule to your WORKSPACE file:

    name = "androidndk"

api_level is the version of the Android API the SDK and the NDK target (for example, 23 for Android 6.0 and 25 for Android 7.1). If not explicitly set, api_level will default to the highest available API level for android_sdk_repository and android_ndk_repository. It’s not necessary to set the API levels to the same value for the SDK and NDK. This web page contains a map from Android releases to NDK-supported API levels.

Similar to android_sdk_repository, the path to the Android NDK is inferred from the ANDROID_NDK_HOME environment variable by default. The path can also be explicitly specified with a path attribute on android_ndk_repository.

Review the source files

Let’s take a look at the source files for the app. These are located in $WORKSPACE/android/.

The key files and directories are:

Name Location
Manifest file src/main/java/com/google/bazel/example/android/AndroidManifest.xml
Activity source file src/main/java/com/google/bazel/example/android/activities/
Resource file directory src/main/java/com/google/bazel/example/android/res/

Note that you’re just looking at these files now to become familiar with the structure of the app. You don’t have to edit any of the source files to complete this tutorial.

Create a BUILD file

A BUILD file is a text file that describes the relationship between a set of build outputs – for example, compiled software libraries or executables – and their dependencies. These dependencies may be source files in your workspace or other build outputs. BUILD files are written in the Bazel build language.

BUILD files are part of a concept in Bazel known as the package hierarchy. The package hierarchy is a logical structure that overlays the directory structure in your workspace. Each package is a directory (and its subdirectories) that contains a related set of source files and a BUILD file. The package also includes any subdirectories, excluding those that contain their own BUILD file. The package name is the name of the directory where the BUILD file is located.

Note that this package hierarchy is distinct from, but coexists with, the Java package hierarchy for your Android app.

For the simple Android app in this tutorial, we’ll consider all the source files in $WORKSPACE/android/ to comprise a single Bazel package. A more complex project may have many nested packages.

At a command-line prompt, open your new BUILD file for editing:


Add an android_library rule

A BUILD file contains several different types of instructions for Bazel. The most important type is the build rule, which tells Bazel how to build an intermediate or final software output from a set of source files or other dependencies.

Bazel provides two build rules, android_library and android_binary, that you can use to build an Android app. For this tutorial, you’ll first use the android_library rule to tell Bazel how to build an Android library module from the app source code and resource files. Then you’ll use the android_binary rule to tell it how to build the Android application package.

Add the following to your BUILD file:

  name = "activities",
  srcs = glob(["src/main/java/com/google/bazel/example/android/activities/*.java"]),
  custom_package = "",
  manifest = "src/main/java/com/google/bazel/example/android/activities/AndroidManifest.xml",
  resource_files = glob(["src/main/java/com/google/bazel/example/android/activities/res/**"]),

As you can see, the android_library build rule contains a set of attributes that specify the information that Bazel needs to build a library module from the source files. Note also that the name of the rule is activities. You’ll reference the rule using this name as a dependency in the android_binary rule.

Add an android_binary rule

The android_binary rule builds the Android application package (.apk file) for your app.

Add the following to your build file:

    name = "android",
    custom_package = "",
    manifest = "src/main/java/com/google/bazel/example/android/AndroidManifest.xml",
    resource_files = glob(["src/main/java/com/google/bazel/example/android/res/**"]),
    deps = [":activities"],

Here, the deps attribute references the output of the activities rule you added to the BUILD file above. This means that, when Bazel builds the output of this rule, it checks first to see if the output of the activities library rule has been built and is up-to-date. If not, it builds it and then uses that output to build the application package file.

Now, save and close the file. You can compare your BUILD file to the completed example in the master branch of the GitHub repo.

Build the app

You use the bazel command-line tool to run builds, execute unit tests and perform other operations in Bazel. This tool is located in the output subdirectory of the location where you installed Bazel. During installation, you probably added this location to your path.

Before you build the sample app, make sure that your current working directory is inside your Bazel workspace:


Now, enter the following to build the sample app:

bazel build //android:android

The build subcommand instructs Bazel to build the target that follows. The target is specified as the name of a build rule inside a BUILD file, with along with the package path relative to your workspace directory. Note that you can sometimes omit the package path or target name, depending on your current working directory at the command line and the name of the target. See Labels in the Bazel Concepts and Terminology page for more information about target labels and paths.

Bazel now launches and builds the sample app. During the build process, its output will appear similar to the following:

INFO: Found 1 target...
Target //android:android up-to-date:
INFO: Elapsed time: 7.237s, Critical Path: 5.81s

Find the build outputs

Bazel stores the outputs of both intermediate and final build operations in a set of per-user, per-workspace output directories. These directories are symlinked from the following locations:

  • $WORKSPACE/bazel-bin, which stores binary executables and other runnable build outputs
  • $WORKSPACE/bazel-genfiles, which stores intermediary source files that are generated by Bazel rules
  • $WORKSPACE/bazel-out, which stores other types of build outputs

Bazel stores the Android .apk file generated using the android_binary rule in the bazel-bin/android/ directory, where the subdirectory name android is derived from the name of the Bazel package.

At a command prompt, list the contents of this directory and find the android.apk file:

ls $WORKSPACE/bazel-bin/android

Run the app

NOTE: The app launches standalone but requires a backend server in order to produce output. See the README file in the sample project directory to find out how to build the backend server.

You can now deploy the app to a connected Android device or emulator from the command line using the bazel mobile-install command. This command uses the Android Debug Bridge (adb) to communicate with the device. You must set up your device to use adb following the instructions in Android Debug Bridge before deployment. You can also choose to install the app on the Android emulator included in Android Studio. Make sure the emulator is running before executing the command below.

Enter the following:

bazel mobile-install //android:android

Note that the mobile-install subcommand also supports the --incremental flag that can be used to deploy only those parts of the app that have changed since the last deployment.

Review your work

In this tutorial, you used Bazel to build an Android app. To accomplish that, you:

  • Set up your environment by installing Bazel and Android Studio, and downloading the sample project
  • Set up a Bazel workspace that contained the source code for the app and a WORKSPACE file that identifies the top level of the workspace directory
  • Updated the WORKSPACE file to contain references to the required external dependencies
  • Created a BUILD file
  • Ran Bazel to build the app
  • Deployed and ran the app on an Android emulator and device

The built app is located in the $WORKSPACE/bazel-bin directory.

Note that completed WORKSPACE and BUILD files for this tutorial are located in the master branch of the GitHub repo. You can compare your work to the completed files for additional help or troubleshooting.