An introduction to SBT

21 minute read

This article is brought to you by Yadu Krishnan. He’s a senior developer and constantly shares his passion for new languages, libraries and technologies. After his long-form Slick tutorial, he’s coming back with a new comprehensive introduction to SBT. Please enjoy!

This tutorial complements Rock the JVM’s premium Scala masterclass, as you learn to set up and configure your Scala projects.

1. Introduction

SBT is the most popular build tool in the Scala ecosystem. SBT provides a very rich DSL to configure a Scala project. It is also extensible and supports customised plugins to enhance the project.

(Daniel’s note: SBT was originally an acronym for “simple build tool”, but in time “simple” was replaced by “Scala”. Should’ve been the other way around.)

In this article we’ll start an SBT project from scratch, and walk through essential SBT features you need.

2. Installation

There are multiple ways to install SBT:

  • Manual Installation using the executable depending on the OS
  • Using Coursier (
  • Using IDEs like IntelliJ IDEA with SBT plugin

3. Basics of SBT

The core of SBT is a file named build.sbt. We can provide the needed configuration options within build.sbt.

3.1. Simplest SBT project

Let’s look at a simple SBT project. First, let’s create an empty directory. We can then create an empty file within the directory as build.sbt. In build.sbt, let’s configure the Scala version of the project we are going to use:

scalaVersion := "2.13.8"

Note that SBT uses a special operator := to assign the value.

Now, within the same directory, we can just start the SBT session by using the command sbt. If everything is fine, this will load an SBT console successfully. We can execute the command project within the SBT console to verify and view the SBT project name.

Now, let’s look at the other configuration options in the build.sbt file. We can provide a version for the project using the option version :

version := "1.0"

Note that if any change is made to the build.sbt, we need to exit the existing SBT console and restart it for the changes to take effect. Alternatively, we use the SBT command reload to forcefully apply the changes.

We can set the name of the project using name and set an organisation for the project:

name := "rockthejvm"
organization := "com.rockthejvm"

Once we add a name to the project, SBT console will use the project name when we start the sbt. If it is not provided, the directory name is used instead.

3.2. Project Structure

A simple standard SBT project follows this structure (assume that the directory is simpleProject):

  |-- src
        |--- main/scala
        |--- test/scala
  |-- project
  |-- build.sbt

The Scala code and configurations are placed under main or test subdirectories. The project is an optional directory that contains additional setting files needed for configuring the SBT project.

3.3. SBT versions

By default, SBT uses the installed SBT version for the projects. We can explicitly provide a specific version of the SBT. This is generally followed since there might be some breaking changes in the SBT releases and that might unknowingly affect the entire project. We can specify the SBT version for the project by using a file called as under project directory. We can mention the SBT version in the file as:


This will ensure that the project will use the SBT version as 1.6.1 even though you might have installed another version of SBT in your machine.

3.4. Small Scala File and SBT Commands

Now, let’s try to add a simple Scala file a main method. We will keep this file under the directory src/main/scala with package as com.rockthejvm:

package com.rockthejvm
object Main {
  def main(args: Array[String]): Unit = {
    println("Hello, World!")

Let’s start the SBT console by executing the command sbt at the root of the project. To compile the project, we can use compile in the command. This will compile all the Scala files in the project and creates .class files. These files are kept under the directory target. SBT uses incremental compilation to speed up the compilation. In this way, SBT will compile only the modified files, and re-use the previously compiled class files for the rest of the files. We can use the clean command to remove all the generated class files.

We can run the application by using the command run. If we have multiple main classes in the project, SBT will show a prompt to select the main class to run. In such case, we can use runMain command by passing the class to run as:

runMain com.rockthejvm.Main

SBT also allows automatic compilation on any source file change. For that, we can start the compile command prefixed by ~ symbol within the SBT shell:


Now, SBT will track the source files and if any change is detected in the files, it will automatically recompile them.

4. Adding external Dependencies

So far, we have created Scala files without using any external dependencies. Now, let’s look at how we can add additional libraries to our project. We can add the dependencies to our project by adding it to the settings libraryDependencies. SBT follows Ivy style format to define the dependencies as :

libraryDependencies += "com.lihaoyi" %% "fansi" % "0.4.0"

The method += appends the provided library to the project dependencies. An SBT dependency contains mainly 3 parts separated by % symbol. The first part is the groupId of the library. The second part is the library name(artifactId) and the third part is the version of the library to be used. If you notice, you can see that a double percentage symbol (%%) is used between groupId and artifactId. Scala is not binary compatible with different versions (such as 2.11, 2.12, 2.13 etc) except for Scala 3 series. Hence there are separate releases for each Scala libraries for each required versions. %% symbol ensures that SBT uses the same Scala version of library as the project. That means SBT will automatically append the Scala version of the project before trying to find the library. The above dependency code is equivalent to the following format(note that single % is used, but artifact id contains the Scala major version):

libraryDependencies += "com.lihaoyi" % "fansi_2.13" % "0.4.0"

SBT also has triple % symbol (%%%), which is used to resolve ScalaJS libraries.

We can add multiple dependencies together by using ++= and Seq :

libraryDependencies ++= Seq(
  "com.lihaoyi" % "fansi_2.13" % "0.4.0"
  //Can add more dependencies here.

5. Scala files under project directory

SBT allows us to keep supporting files(i.e. non-source files, not part of the project “code” itself) for the build as Scala files. This helps to configure most of the required configurations in the known format of Scala classes. We can place the Scala files under the directory project. Generally, depending on the project complexity, we keep various info (e.g. library dependencies) as object in these Scala files; they are accessible directly inside build.sbt. This is done so that we can keep and track all the dependencies in a single place, and access them in multiple parts (modules) of the project (more on modules shortly).

6. SBT Console

SBT also can start a REPL session within the project using the command sbt console or executing the command console within an SBT session. This will start up a REPL session just like the Scala REPL. However, the SBT console REPL will also load all the dependencies jars to the classpath so that we can directly import the classes and use them. For example, let’s try to use the fansi library in the SBT console. We can then start up the SBT session by using sbt command. Then we can use the command console within the SBT session to start a REPL. Now, within this REPL, we have access to the methods from fansi. We can execute this code:

val redString: fansi.Str = fansi.Color.Red("Hello FAnsi String!")

Console is a class from the fansi library to give color to the string.

In the same way, we can access any of the libraries within the project inside the REPL. This is really helpful in trying out small pieces of code within a project easily.

7. Running Tests

We normally write unit test cases and places them under the relevant package in the directory src/test/scala. Let’s add scalatest dependency and write a very simple test

libraryDependencies += "org.scalatest" %% "scalatest" % "3.2.13" % Test

Note the special identifier Test after the last % symbol. Adding Test informs SBT that this library is needed only for the test cases and accessible under src/test/scala directory. Whenever we make the packaged application from our project, these libraries are not added to the package as they are not needed at the application run time. Instead of the identifier Test, we can also use the string "test" (wrapped in double quotes). However, this practice is discouraged as it doesn’t provide type safety.

Now that we added the dependency, we can add a test file as:

package com.rockthejvm
import org.scalatest.funsuite.AnyFunSuite
class SimpleTest extends AnyFunSuite {
  test("comapare 2 strings ignoring case") {
    val calculatedString = "ROCKtheJVM"
    val expectedString = "rockthejvm"
    assert(calculatedString.toLowerCase == expectedString)

Now, we can run the tests in the project using the command test. This will run all the tests that are available in the project under the src/test/scala path.

It is also possible to run a subset of tests instead of all. For example, let’s try to run only one test file. For this we will first start the SBT session. Then within the session we can run:

test:testOnly com.rockthejvm.SimpleTest

This will test only the SimpleTest file. Note that we need to provide the full package path to resolve the class correctly. We can also use a wildcard to make it easy to run the test:

test:testOnly *SimpleTest

This will run all the classes that ends with SimpleTest within the entire project irrespective of the package.

So far, we started the session and then ran the test. We can do that directly from the terminal by using the command:

sbt test

This will start the SBT session and then run the test. However, we need to wrap the arguments after sbt if there are some special characters are involved. For example, to run the test using wildcard, we need to use the command:

sbt 'test:testOnly *SimpleTest'

We can also use double quotes(“) instead of single quotes(‘). This will ensure that all the arguments are passed to the SBT session at once.

We can compile only the test classes by using the command test:compile within sbt session.

8. Advanced configuration in build.sbt

In the previous section, we saw configurations like name, organization, etc. The values we set there are applicable for the entire project. SBT also lets us do some configurations per scope. For example, by default SBT runs all the tests in parallel. If we somehow want to avoid that and run the tests in sequential way, we can set the config option for that. SBT uses the configuration key parallelExecution for that and it is under the scope of Test.

So, in build.sbt, we can use the setting as:

Test / parallelExecution := false

This will set the value to false within scopes of test.

There are many such configurations which are configured using the scope. You can think of this something in the lines of Test.parallelExecution.

The list of different SBT scopes are Test, IntegrationTest, RunTime, Compile, Provided, Optional, CompileInternal and ScalaTool . So, we can set the configuration only for a particular scope. For example, we can set some configurations only for the scope IntegrationTest as:

IntegrationTest / testOptions += Tests.Argument("-verbosity", "1")

9. Multi Module Project

So far we have used a single module project. SBT allows to create multi-module project. This way, we can clearly separate different modules, but we can aggregate and combine different modules together to make a big project. Let’s create a simple multi-module project first. For that, we can create a build.sbt file as below within a new empty directory.

ThisBuild / scalaVersion := "2.13.8"
ThisBuild / version := "1.0"
ThisBuild / name := "multi-module"
ThisBuild / organization := "com.rockthejvm"

lazy val module_1 = (project in file("module-1"))
lazy val module_2 = (project in file("module-2"))

Now, when we can save this file and hit sbt command in the project directory. This will import the project based on the build.sbt we created and will also create 2 subdirectories as module-1 and module-2 within the directory. The value provided in file() is used to create the submodule name.

However, as of now there is no relationship between any of the modules. We can explicitly combine both the sub modules together and link to the parent project by adding a new line as below to the build.sbt:

lazy val root = (project in file("."))
  .aggregate(module_1, module_2)

In the same way, we can define dependencies between multiple submodules. We can make module-2 to depend on module-1 using dependsOn method:

lazy val module_2 = (project in file("module-2")).dependsOn(module_1)

We can also provide settings for each sub module differently using the settings method:

lazy val module_2 = (project in file("module-2")).settings(
  libraryDependencies += "org.typelevel" %% "cats-effect" % "3.3.0"

10. Multi-Module Build Best Practice

We need to first identify and get clarity on different modules. Let’s assume that we are building an application that contains database access, HTTP services, utilities etc. Each of these can be separated as a module. Then we can combine the different parts if one is dependent on another.

Some good practice principles:

  • a single build.sbt file with all submodule information inside.
  • common settings at the top (e.g. Scala version, org name)
  • ThisBuild to ensure the settings are applied to the entire project including submodules
  • variables for common library used across multiple sub-modules, applied as module libraryDependencies
  • same for common settings, applied as settings

Below is a sample multi-module build.sbt:

ThisBuild / scalaVersion := "2.13.8"
ThisBuild / version := "1.0"
ThisBuild / organization := "com.rockthejvm"

val catsVersion = "2.8.0"
val akkaVersion = "2.6.20"

lazy val core = project
    libraryDependencies ++= Seq(
      "com.typesafe"   % "config" % "1.4.2",
      "org.scalameta" %% "munit"  % "0.7.29" % Test

val commonDeps = Seq(
  "ch.qos.logback" % "logback-classic" % "1.4.1"

lazy val compilerOptions = Seq(

lazy val module_1 = project
    libraryDependencies ++= commonDeps ++ Seq(
      //add more dependencies which are needed only for this module
      "com.typesafe.akka" %% "akka-stream" % akkaVersion

lazy val module_2 = project
    name := "module_2", //can be different from the file() name
    libraryDependencies ++= Seq(
      "org.typelevel" %% "cats-core" % catsVersion
      //add more dependencies which are needed only for this module

lazy val root = project
    name := "multi_module",
    publish / skip := true
    scalacOptions ++= compilerOptions ++ Seq(
  .enablePlugins(BuildInfoPlugin) //Need to add the plugin details in plugins.sbt first. In this case `sbt-buildinfo`

11. Executing commands on each Module

Now that we are ready with a multi-module project, let’s see how we can execute SBT commands module-wise. At the root of the project, if we execute sbt it will start the SBT session. When we run the compile command, it will compile all the modules.

Once we are inside the SBT session, we can switch to a particular sub-module using:

project module_2

Now, when we compile, only this module will get compiled. But, if this module depends on another module, SBT will compile that module as well.

12. Plugins

One of the most important features of SBT is its support for plugins. Plugins help extend SBT with custom features which can be published and shared between multiple teams. For handling plugins, a special file called as plugins.sbt is used. This file is kept under the project/ directory. Some common usages of plugins are:

  • packaging plugins to create jar, exe and other executables/deliverables
  • static code analysis plugins
  • code generation plugins

Let’s look at an example of sbt-assembly plugin. This plugin helps to create an executable jar file from the SBT project.

As a first step, we need to create plugins.sbt and add the plugin definition to it:

 addSbtPlugin("com.eed3si9n" % "sbt-assembly" % "1.2.0")

As next step, we need to enable the required configurations needed for this plugin to work. To run a jar, we need to provide the main class to use. We can do that by providing the mainClass in the settings in build.sbt for required module(sometimes, we need to create jar for a sub module, sometimes for the combined project)

assembly / mainClass := Some("com.rockthejvm.Module2Main"),

Now we can use the SBT command assembly. This will create the jar file under the relevant project’s target folder. Similar to assembly/mainClass there are many other configurations to customise the jar creation.

This is just one of the plugins. There are many plugins available which can help improve the development experience.

13. Global plugins

In the previous section, we added a plugin to the project. Sometimes, we might need to add some plugins that have nothing to do with the project itself. For example, there may be some plugin to publish the apps to an internal repository. This need not be kept in the git repo, instead can be shared across all the repositories. SBT allows to do this using global plugins.

Instead of keeping the plugins.sbt within the project, we can create the file in the .sbt path.


When SBT starts, it will load all the plugins from the global path. For example, in our previous example, We can remove the plugins.sbt from the project directory and keep it in the above path. On reloading the project, it will still load the plugin, but from the global path instead. You can notice in the SBT startup logs with some similar logs like:

 [info] loading global plugins from /Users/username/.sbt/1.0/plugins

14. Resolvers

So far, all the library dependencies and plugins are downloaded from the Maven Central repository. Sometimes, we need to use other third-party repository for downloading libraries/plugins. To do that, we can provide resolvers in the .sbt files.

resolvers += Resolver.url("my-test-repo", url(""))

Now, apart from Maven Central, SBT will also look at the provided location for libraries. We can also add resolvers as the local maven directory. For that, we can use the resolver setting as:

resolvers += Resolver.mavenLocal

This will look for the dependencies in the .m2 directory.

Apart from Maven Central, we can also configure other services to resolve the libraries. For example, to use a Sonatype repo, we can use:

resolvers += Resolver.sonatypeRepo("releases")

We can also provide custom locations for the resolvers. For example, we can configure a customised central location for the repositories as:

resolvers += Resolver.url("my-company-repo", url(""))

Similarly, we can add any number of resolvers. But note that as the number of resolvers increases, SBT might take more time to start as it might need to look at all the configured repositories before failing.

15. Custom Tasks

Another powerful feature of SBT is the ability to create custom tasks. Apart from the built-in task keys, we can easily create new ones. For example, we can create a custom task to do some particular operation.

For example, let’s create a task which will just print some text to console. We can extend this to any complex functionality in the same way.

For that, we can create a Scala file which does the printing logic and keep this file under project directory:

object CustomTaskPrinter {
  def print() = {
    println("Rock the SBT custom task is here....")

Next, we can define a custom task in the build.sbt file as:

lazy val printerTask = taskKey[Unit]("Simple custom task")

The code taskKey[Unit] mentions that the task does an action and just returns with a Unit type.

The custom command will be printerTask. Now, we can define the logic of the custom task in the build.sbt again:

printerTask := {

After this, we can reload SBT and execute the command printerTask. This will print the simple message we created before into the console.

Now, let’s create another task to generate a string uuid value:

lazy val uuidStringTask = taskKey[String]("Generate string uuid task")
uuidStringTask := {

We will implement the StringTask as below:

object StringTask {
  def strTask(): String = {

Now we can use this task within previously created printerTask and access the UUID generated in the other task. Let’s modify the printerTask as

printerTask := {
    val uuid = uuidStringTask.value
    println("Generated uuid is : "+uuid)

Note that, we used uuidStringTas.value. This value method takes the value from the setting and assign to the val uuid.

Now, when we run the command printerTask, it will first generate the UUID and then execute printerTask.

So far, we have created custom tasks. Now, let’s look at custom settings. Before that, let’s understand the difference between a task and a setting. An SBT task is something which can be invoked and executed each time. You can think of it like def in Scala. Whereas, a setting is evaluated at the start of SBT session and after that it is memoized. It is like val in Scala. In the similar way, we can create a setting. The only difference is that instead of taskKey we will use settingKey to define a setting:

lazy val uuidStringSetting = settingKey[String]("Generate string uuid task")
uuidStringSetting := {
    val uuid = StringTask.strTask()
    println("Evaluating settings... "+uuid)

Now, to see the difference we can modify our previous printertask as:

printerTask := {
    val uuid = uuidStringTask.value
    println("Generated uuid from task:"+uuid)
    val uuidSetting = uuidStringSetting.value
    println("Generated uuid from setting:"+uuidSetting)

Now, when we execute printerTask, notice the generated uuid. From task, each time a new UUID value is generated. But from setting, it will print the same value each time. Also, when you start the SBT session, immediately we can see the print statement Evaluating settings... with the same uuid.

16. Command Alias

Another advaced feature SBT supports is the ability to set aliases. This is similar to the alias we create on unix based OSs.

addCommandAlias("ci", ";clean; compile;test; assembly;")

Now, in SBT console, we can execute just ci. This will automatically execute the configured commands in the order it is defined in the alias ci

17. Giter Templates

SBT supports quick project bootstrap using giter(g8) templates. We can just execute the command sbt new <template> to create a new project based on the template. By default, we can only use the templates available under the official g8 repo. However, we can also point to any custom g8 GitHub path to create the project from that template.

18. Cross Build between different Scala versions

Scala releases are not binary compatible with each other(except the Scala 3 series). That means, we need to rebuild a library in all the supported versions for the users to use it. Doing this manually is not an easy step. SBT tries to make this easier by providing a feature to cross build between different versions. To support multiple versions, we can provide the settings as:

val scala212 = "2.12.16"
val scala213 = "2.13.5"
ThisBuild / scalaVersion := scala212
lazy val crossproject = (project in file("crossproject"))
    crossScalaVersions := List(scala212, scala213),
    // other settings

Note that, we have mentioned the default version for this project as Scala 2.12 using ThisBuild/scalaVersion. So when we compile, it will use Scala 2.12. Since we have given the crossScalaVersions, we can ask SBT to compile in all supported versions. To do that, we need to add the symbol + before SBT command:

+ compile

When we publish our library, we can use + publish command. This will ensure that all the supported versions of the library are published.

19. SBT Advanced Configurations and Options

SBT has many configuration options and argument passing on startup. Let’s look at some of the important ones.

19.1. Check SBT Version

To check which version of SBT we are using, we can run the command:

sbt --version

19.2. View Applied SBT Options

We can view all the applied options to SBT using the debug command.

sbt --debug

This will show a list of arguments and options applied to SBT on startup. This is very useful in identifying if the correct parameters are applied or not.

Or we can use sbt -v which will also provide more information related to passed arguments, but not all debug logs.

19.3. Passing Arguments on SBT Start

We can provide jvm arguments on SBT startup. For example, if we want to increase the heap memory of the SBT process, we can start the SBT with the parameter:

sbt -v -J-Xmx3600m

19.4. SBT Command Alias With JVM Arguments

We have seen before how to create SBT command aliases. We can create alias with passing jvm arguments. However, we need to make sure that fork := true is set in build.sbt. This setting will ensure that SBT will start a forked jvm and apply the settings. Without a fork JVM, the jvm parameters we pass are not considered by the SBT.

Let’s see how to do that. Let’s add the following line to build.sbt after adding fork:

  "; set ThisBuild/javaOptions += \"-Dport=4567\"; run"

Then, we will update the Main class to read this property and print it:

val portValue = Option(System.getProperty("port"))
println("PORT value from argument is: "+portValue)

Next, we need to restart SBT to get these changes to effect. Then run the command runSpecial. This will print the passed javaOptions.

If we want to pass multiple javaOptions, we need to use a Seq as:

  "; set ThisBuild/javaOptions ++= Seq(\"-Dport=4567\", \"-Duser=rockthejvm\"); run"

Now when we run runSpecial, the value for user will be None. But when we run runSpecial2, it will have the value for user as “rockthejvm”.

20. Conclusion

In this blog, we looked at SBT and its different components and functionalities. SBT has still more features which we haven’t covered here. However, it is easy to explore more features once the basics are understood.