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Customizing the Build System

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last updated: 2017-03

MSbuild is a build engine developed by Microsoft, that allows for the building of primarily .NET applications. The Mono framework also has it's own implementation of Microsoft's Build Engine (MSBuild), called xbuild.

xbuild is primarily used for build Xamarin projects in Xamarin Studio on Mac, while Xamarin for Visual Studio uses MSBuild. However, Microsoft has recently open-sourced MSBuild and so in the future Xamarin will be phasing out xbuild, in favor of moving towards using MSBuild on all operating systems.

In this document, when a reference is made to MSBuild, it is safe to assume that this also applies to xbuild.

MSBuild works by taking a set of inputs, such as source files, and transforms them to outputs, such as executables and achieves this output by invoking tools such as the compiler.

MSBuild file

MSBuild uses an XML file, called a project file, that defines the Items that are part of your project (such as image resources), and the Properties required to build your project. This project file will always have a file extension ending in proj, such as .csproj for C# projects.

Viewing the MSBuild File

You can locate this file, by right-clicking on your project name, and selecting Reveal in Finder. This will display all the files and folders related to your project, including the .csproj file, as illustrated below:

You can also display the .csproj in a new tab in Xamarin Studio, by right-clicking on your project name and browsing to Tools > Edit File:

Composition of MSBuild file

All MSBuilds files contain a mandatory root Project element, as displayed below:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<Project ToolsVersion="14.0" xmlns="">

Typically, the project will also import a .targets file, which contains many of the rules that describe how to process and build the various files. This will usually appear towards the bottom of your proj file, and for C# projects will look something similar to the following:

<Import Project="$(MSBuildBinPath)\Microsoft.CSharp.targets" />

The targets file is another MSBuild file. This file contains MSBuild code that is reusable by multiple projects. For example, the Microsoft.CSharp.targets file, which is found in a directory represented by the MSBuildBinPath property (or variable), contains the logic for building C# assemblies from C# source files.

Items and Properties

There are two fundamental data types in MSBuild: items and properties, which are explained in more detail below.


Properties are key/value pairs, which are used to store settings that affect compilation, such as compiler options.

They are set using a PropertyGroup, and can contain any number of PropertiesGroups, which can contain any number of properties.

For example, the PropertyGroup for a simple console application might look like the following:

        <Configuration Condition=" '$(Configuration)' == '' ">Debug</Configuration>
        <Platform Condition=" '$(Platform)' == '' ">x86</Platform>

Properties can be referred to from expressions using the $() syntax. For example, $(Foo) will be evaluated as the value of the Foo property. If the property has not been set, it will evaluate as an empty string, without any error.


Items are a way of dealing with inputs into the build system as lists or sets, and typically represent files. Each item has an item type, an item spec, and optional arbitrary metadata. Note that MSBuild doesn’t operate on individual items, it takes on all the items of a given type–called an item set

Items are created by declaring an ItemGroup. There can be any number of ItemGroups, which can contain any number of items.

For example the code snippet below creates the iOS Launch Screens. These are of type BundleResource with the spec as the path to the image:

    <BundleResource Include="Resources\Default-568h%402x.png" />
    <BundleResource Include="Resources\Default%402x.png" />
    <BundleResource Include="Resources\Default.png" />
    <BundleResource Include="Resources\Default-Portrait.png" />
    <BundleResource Include="Resources\Default-Portrait%402x.png" />
    <BundleResource Include="Resources\Default-Landscape%402x.png" />

Item sets can be referred to from expressions using the @() syntax. For example, @(BundleResource) will be evaluated as the BundleResource item set, i.e. all of the BundleResource items. If there are no items of this type, it will be empty, without any error.

Building from the command-line

Properties can also be passed on the command-line, using the /p:NAME=VALUE syntax. This is essentially equivalent to setting them right at the beginning of the file - it won’t override values set later in the file. However, it can still be very useful.

Common command line actions

use xbuild to generate IPA

If you have set the BuildIpa property in the csproj file:

xbuild /p:Configuration=AppStore /p:Platform=iPhone /target:Build MyProject.sln

If you haven't set the BuildIpa property in the csproj file:

xbuild /p:Configuration=AppStore /p:Platform=iPhone /p:BuildIpa=true /target:Build MyProject.sln

use xbuild to generate archive (used to be ‘mdtool archive’)

xbuild /p:Configuration=Release /p:Platform=iPhone /p:ArchiveOnBuild=true /t:"Build" MyProject.csproj
  • The "Archive" target does indeed depend on some of the outputs from the "Build" target, so it is mandatory to run the "Build" target.
  • The "Archive" target will only run if ArchiveOnBuild is set to true.
  • The "Archive" target requires Xamarin.iOS 9.0 or higher. In Xamarin.iOS 8.x the .xcarchive logic was only available for mdtool.

Build and package an Android APK (Release configuration) (notice the CSPROJ is used, not the SLN):

xbuild /t:SignAndroidPackage /p:Configuration=Release MyAndroidProject.csproj

Build an Android project and install it to the default connected device (execute from within the project directory)

xbuild /t:Install /p:AdbTarget=-d

Run the default Activity for an app.

xbuild /t:_Run

Override the Xcode location configured in Xamarin Studio

Set the MD_APPLE_SDK_ROOT environment variable to the Xcode you want to use (if you want to use something other than what's configured in Xamarin Studio)

For example:

export MD_APPLE_SDK_ROOT=/Applications/

Resources for learning MSBuild

The following resources can be used to learn about MSBuild in more detail:

Xamarin Workbook

If it's not already installed, install the Xamarin Workbooks app first. The workbook file should download automatically, but if it doesn't, just click to start the workbook download manually.