When faced with a development environment that has dozens or hundreds of distinct projects, version properties are only a first step. Even if you only have to look at one place in each POM, it's a headache to update versions. As a solution, you can specify all of your common dependencies and configuration in a “parent” POM, which is then referenced by each project.
Before continuing, I want to clear up a misconception: parent POMs are not the same as multi-module projects, even though they're described together in the Maven documentation. True, the two are often seen together: a multi-module project almost always uses a parent POM to bring order to its modules. But the parent need not be tied to the modules; an example is the Sonatype parent POM, which is used by every open-source project that deploys to Maven Central via the Sonatype repository.
A parent POM looks like a normal POM, but specifies a packaging type of “
<groupId>org.sonatype.oss</groupId> <artifactId>oss-parent</artifactId> <version>7</version> <packaging>pom</packaging>
The children of this POM then reference it via a
<parent> <groupId>org.sonatype.oss</groupId> <artifactId>oss-parent</artifactId> <version>7</version> </parent> <groupId>net.sf.kdgcommons</groupId> <artifactId>kdgcommons</artifactId> <version>1.0.7-SNAPSHOT</version>
So what goes into the parent POM? Version properties, of course; one of the main reasons for using a parent POM is to ensure that all projects use the same set of dependencies. Also common plugin configuration, such as the compiler, test runner, and any reporting plugins. Finally, any common environment configuration, such as repositories and deployment configuration.
What shouldn't go in the parent POM is an actual
<dependencies> section, because that will cause all of your projects to have the same set of dependencies, whether they need them or not. Nor should you add plugins that only run for one or a few projects (although by all means specify the plugin versions). And finally, if your projects use an
<scm> section, it needs to go in the individual project POMs — I learned the hard way that Maven won't substitute project-specific values into a section defined by the parent.
The biggest complaint that I've heard about parent POMs is “if we change a dependency, then we have to update all the projects that use that parent!” That's true: the parent is a released artifact, just like the projects themselves; a child specifies a particular version of its parent, and is not automagically updated when the parent changes (unless you use snapshot versions for the parents).
My answer to this complaint is “either it matters or it doesn't, and either way the parent helps you.” There are times when changes don't matter: for example, if you move to a new library version that's backwards compatible. In that case, projects that use the new parent get the new version, as do any projects that link with them, via transitive dependencies. Projects that don't need the new functionality don't need to be updated. Over time, you can migrate these projects to the new POM as you make changes to them.
On the other hand, sometimes the change matters: for example you've modified your database schema, and need to update all projects that use the affected business objects. In this case, the parent again makes your life easier: once you update the dependency property in the parent, it's a simple matter of grepping for that property to find children that need to be updated and re-released.