The original version of this article was first published on IBM
developerWorks, and is property of Westtech Information Services. This
document is an updated version of the original article, and contains
various improvements made by the Gentoo Linux Documentation team.
This document is not actively maintained.
Best practices with autotools
Best practices with autotools
The core of GNU's compile chain -- the set of tools used to build GNU software
packages -- is the so-called "autotools," a term that refers to the autoconf
and automake programs, as well as libtool, autoheader, pkg-config, and
sometimes gettext. These tools let you compile GNU software on a wide variety
of platforms and Unix and Unix-like operating systems, providing developers a
framework to check for the presence of the libraries, functions, and tools that
they want to use. While autotools are great in the hands of an experienced
developer, they can be quite a handful for the first-time user, and it's not so
rare that packages are shipped with working-but-broken autotools support. This
article will cover some of the most common errors people make when using
autotools and ways to achieve better results.
Regardless of anyone's opinion about them, we currently have no valid
alternative for autotools. Projects such as Scons are not as portable as
autotools, and they don't embody enough knowledge to be useful yet. We have
tons of automatic checks with autotools, and a lot of libraries come with an m4
library with macros to check for their presence.
The basic structure of an autotooled project is simple. Autoconf takes help of
an aclocal.m4 file (created by aclocal using the m4 libraries on
its search path and acinclude.m4 file) to parse the
configure.ac file (formerly configure.in) and
transform it into a "configure" script. For every directory there should exist
an Makefile.am, which automake uses to create Makefile.in
templates. The Makefile.in templates are then processed and transformed by the
configure script into real Makefiles. You can avoid avoid using
automake and just write your own Makefile.in files, but this is quite complex,
and you lose a few features of autotools.
In a configure.ac file you can use macros you define yourself, the
default ones provided by autoconf and aclocal, or external macros provided, for
instance, by other packages. In such a case aclocal will create the
aclocal.m4 file adding the library files it finds on the system's
library with the defined macros; this is a critical step to have a working
autotooled project, as we'll see in a moment.
A Makefile.am is mainly a declaration of intents: you can fill
some targets variables with the name of the targets you want to build. These
variables are structured in a format like placetoinstall_TYPEOFTARGET. The
place is the location in a hierarchical Unix filesystem (bin, lib, include,
...), a non-used keyword that can be defined with an arbitrary path (using the
keyworddir variable), or the special keyword noinst that marks the targets that
need not to be installed (for example private headers, or static libraries used
during build). After naming the target, you can use the name (replacing dots
with underscores) as the prefix for the variables that affects its build. In
this way you can provide special CFLAGS, LDFLAGS, and LDADD variables used
during the build of a single target, instead of changing them for all the
targets. You can also use variables collected during configure phase, if you
passed them to the AC_SUBST macro in configure.ac, so that they
are replaced inside makefiles. Also, though defining CFLAGS and LDFLAGS on a
per-target basis seems useful, adding static flags in Makefile.am is a bad
thing for portability, as you can't tell if the compiler you're using supports
them, or if you really need them (-ldl put in LDFLAGS is a good example of a
flag needed on Linux but not on FreeBSD); in such cases you should use
configure.ac to add these flags.
The most commonly used macros in configure.ac are AC_CHECK_HEADERS,
AC_CHECK_FUNCS, and AC_CHECK_LIB, which test for the presence of, respectively,
some header files, some library functions, and a given library (with a specific
function in it). They are important for portability as they provides a way to
check which headers are present and which are not (for example system headers
that have different locations in different operating systems), and to check
whether a function is present in the system library (asprintf() is missing in
OpenBSD for example, while it's present on GNU C library and FreeBSD), and
finally to check for the presence of some third-party library or to see if a
specific link to a library is needed to get some functions (for example
dlopen() function is in libdl library on GNU systems, while it's provided by
the system's C library on FreeBSD).
Along with testing for the presence or absence of functions or headers (and
sometimes libraries) you usually need to change the code's path (for example to
avoid the use of missing functions, or to define a drop-in replacement for
them). Autoconf is commonly coupled with another tool, autoheader, which
creates a config.h.in template, used by configure script to create
a config.h header in which are defined a few preprocessor macros
in form of HAVE_givenfunction or HAVE_givenheader_H which can be tested with
#ifdef/#ifndef directives inside a C or C++ source file to change the code
according to the features present.
Here are some practices to keep in mind to help you use autotools to create the
most portable code possible.
The config.h header file should be considered to be an internal header
file, so it should be used just by the single package in which it's
created. You should avoid editing the config.h.in template to add
your own code there, as this requires you to manually update it according to
the configure.ac you're writing.
Unfortunately a few projects, such as Net-SNMP, export this header file with
other libraries' headers, which requires any projects that use their libraries
to include them (or provide their own copy of the internal Net-SNMP
structures). This is a bad thing, as the autotools structure of a library
project should be invisible to software using it (which might not use autotools
at all). Also, changes in autotools behavior are anything but rare, so you can
have two identical checks with different results due to changes in the way they
are executed. If you need to define your own wrappers or replacements in case
something is not in the environment you're compiling for, you should do that in
private headers that do not get installed (declared as noinst_HEADERS in
Always provide the m4 files you used. As autotools have been in use for
years, many packages (for example libraries) that can be reused by other
programs provide an m4 library file in /usr/share/aclocal that
makes it possible to check for their presence (for example using the -config
scripts) with a simple macro call. These files are used by aclocal to create
the aclocal.m4 file, and they usually are present on the
developers' systems where aclocal is executed to create the release, but when
they are for optional dependencies, they can be missing on users' systems.
While this is usually not a problem, because users rarely executes aclocal,
it's a problem for source distributions, such as Gentoo, where sometimes you
need to patch a Makefile.am or the configure.ac and then re-run
autoconf without having all the optional dependencies installed (or having
different versions, which can be incompatible or bugged, of the same m4 file).
To avoid this problem, you should create an m4 subdirectory in your package's
directory and then put there the m4 library files you are using. You must then
call aclocal with aclocal -I m4 options to search in that directory before the
system library. You can then choose whether to put that directory under
revision control (CVS, SVN, or whatever else you are using) or just create it
for the releases. The latter case is the bare minimum requirement for a
package. It minimizes the amount of revision-controlled code and ensures that
you're always using the latest m4 version, but has the drawback that anyone who
checks out your repository won't be able to execute autoconf without having to
look on a release tarball to take the m4 from (and that might not work, as you
can have updated the configure.ac to suit a newer macro or added more
dependencies). On the other hand, putting the m4 directory under revision
control sometimes tempts the developers to change the macros to suit their
needs. Although this seems logical, as the m4 files are under your revision
control, it will upset many package maintainers, as sometimes new versions of
m4 files fix bugs or support newer options and installation paths (for example
multilib setups), and having the m4 files modified makes it impossible to just
replace them with updated versions. It also mean that when you're going to
update an m4 file you must redo the modification against the original.
m4 files are always a problem to work with. They must replicate almost the same
code from library to library (depending on the way you need to provide
CFLAGS/LDFLAGS: with tests or with a -config script). To avoid this problem,
the GNOME and FreeDesktop projects developed a tool called pkg-config, which
provides both an executable binary and an m4 file to include in configure.ac
files, and lets developers check for the presence of a given library (and/or
package), provided that the package itself installed a pkg-config .pc data
file. This approach simplifies the work of maintaining configure.ac scripts,
and requires a lot less time to be processed during execution of configure
script, as it uses the information provided by the installed package itself
instead of just trying if it's present. On the other hand, this approach means
that an error the developers make concerning a dependency can break the user
program, as they just hardcode the compiler and linker flags in the data file
and the configure script doesn't actually check whether the library works.
Fortunately, this doesn't happen too often.
To create the configure file, you need PKG_CHECK_MODULES, contained in the
pkg.m4 library. You should add that file to your m4 directory. If
pkg-config dependency is mandatory (as the tool is run by the configure script)
you can't be sure that the m4 file you are using is the same as one on users'
systems, nor you can be sure that it does not include extra bugs, as it can be
older than yours.
Always check for the libraries you're going to link to, if you have them
as mandatory dependencies. Usually autoconf macros or pkg-config data files
define prerequisite libraries that you need to successfully link to your
library. Also, some functions that are in extra libraries in some systems
(like dlopen() in libdl on Linux and Mac OS X) can be in the libc of another
system (the same function is in libc on FreeBSD). In these cases you need to
check whether the function can be found without linking to anything, or if you
need to use a specific library (for example to avoid linking to a non-existent
libdl that would fail where it's not needed).
Be careful with GNU extensions. One of the things that makes portability
a big pain is the use of extension functions, which are provided by GNU libc
but aren't present on other C libraries like BSD's or uClibc. When you use such
functions, you should always provide a "drop-in replacement," a function that
can provide the same functionality as the library function, maybe with less
performance or security, which can be used when the extension function is not
present on system's C library. Those functions must be protected by a #ifdef
HAVE_function ... #endif block, so that they don't get duplicated when they are
already present. Make sure that these functions are not exported by the library
to the external users; they should be declared inside an internal header, to
avoid breaking other libraries that may be doing similar tricks.
Avoid compiling OS-specific code when not needed. When a program
optionally supports specific libraries or specific operating systems, it's not
rare to have entire source files that are specific to that code path. To avoid
compiling them when they're not needed, use the AM_CONDITIONAL macro inside a
configure.ac file. This automake macro (usable only if you're using automake to
build the project) allows you to define if .. endif blocks inside a Makefile.am
file, inside which you can set special variables. You can, for example, add a
"platformsrcs" variable that you set to the right source file for the platform
to build for, then use in a _SOURCES variable.
However, there are two common errors developers make when using AM_CONDITIONAL.
The first is the use of AM_CONDITIONAL in an already conditional branch (for
example under an info or in a case switch), which leads to automake complaining
about a conditional defined only conditionally (AM_CONDITIONAL must be called
on global scope, out of every if block, so you must define a variable to
contain the status of the conditions and then test against when calling the
AM_CONDITIONAL). The other one is that you can't change the targets' variables
directly, and you must define "commodity" variables, whose results empty out of
the conditional, to add or remove source files and targets.
Many projects, to avoid compiling code for specific code paths, add the entire
files in #ifdef ... #endif preprocessor conditionals. While this usually works,
it makes the code ugly and error-prone, as a single statement out of the
conditional block can be compiled where the source file is not needed. It also
misleads users sometimes, as the source files seem to be compiled in situations
where they don't make sense.
Be smart in looking for operating system or hardware platform. Sometimes
you need to search for a specific operating system or hardware platform. The
right way to do this depends on where you need to know this. If you must know
it to enable extra tests on configure, or you must add extra targets on
makefiles, you must do the check in configure.ac. On the other hand, if the
difference must be known in a source file, for example to enable an optional
asm-coded function, you should rely directly on the compiler/preprocessor, so
you should use #ifdef directives with the default macros enabled on the target
platform (for example __linux__, __i386__, _ARC_PPC, __sparc__, _FreeBSD_ and
Don't run commands in configure.ac. If you need to check for hardware or
operating system in a configure.ac, you should avoid using the uname command,
despite this being one of the most common way to do such a test. This is
actually an error, as this breaks crosscompilation. Autotools supports
crosscompile projects from one machine to another using hosts definitions:
strings in the form "hardware-vendor-os" (actually, "hardware-vendor-os-libc"
when GNU libc is used), such as i686-pc-linux-gnu and
x86_64-unknown-freebsd5.4. CHOST is the host definition for the system you're
compiling the software for, CBUILD is the host definition for the system you're
compiling on; when CHOST and CBUILD differ, you're crosscompiling.
In the examples above, the first host definition shows an x86-like system, with
a pentium2-equivalent (or later) processor, running a Linux kernel with a GNU
libc (usually this refers to a GNU/Linux system). The second refers to an AMD64
system with a FreeBSD 5.4 operating system. (For a GNU/kFreeBSD system, which
uses FreeBSD kernel and GNU libc, the host definition is
hw-unknown-freebsd-gnu, while for a Gentoo/FreeBSD, using FreeBSD's kernel and
libc, but with Gentoo framework, the host definition is hw-gentoo-freebsd5.4.)
By using $host and $build variables inside a configure.ac script you can enable
or disable specific features based on the operating system or on the hardware
platform you're compiling to or on.
Don't abuse "automagic" dependencies. One of the most useful features of
autotools are the automatic checks for the presence of a library, which are
often used to automatically enable support for extra dependencies and such.
However, abusing this feature makes the build of a package a bit of a problem.
While this is quite useful for first-time users, and although most of the
projects having complex dependencies (such as multimedia programs like xine and
VLC) use a plugin-based framework that allows them to avoid most of the
breakages, "automagic" dependencies are a great pain for packagers, especially
ones working on source-based distributions such as Gentoo and ports-like
frameworks. When you build something with automagical dependencies you enable
the functions supported by the libraries found on the system on which the
configure script is run. This means that the output binaries might not work on
a system that shares the same base packages but misses one extra library, for
example. Also, you can't tell the exact dependencies of a package, as some
might be optional and not be built when the libraries are not present.
To avoid this, autoconf allows you to add --enable/--disable and
--with/--without options to configure scripts. With such options you can
forcefully enable or disable a specific option (such as the support for an
extra library or for a specific feature), and leave the default to automatic
Unfortunately, many developers misunderstand the meaning of the two parameters
of the functions used to add those options (AC_ARG_ENABLE and AC_ARG_WITH).
They represent the code to execute when a parameter is passed and when one is
not. Many developers mistakenly think that the two parameters define the code
to execute when the feature is enabled and when is disabled. While this usually
works when you pass a parameter just to change the default behavior, many
source-based distributions pass parameters also to confirm the default
behavior, which leads to errors (features explicitly requested missing). Being
able to disable optional features if they don't add dependencies (think of OSS
audio support on Linux) is always a good thing for users, who can avoid
building extra code if they don't plan to use it, and prevents maintainers from
doing dirty caching tricks to enable or disable features as their users
While autotools were a big problem for both developers and maintainers because
there are different incompatible versions that do not get along well together
(since they install in the same places, with the same names) and which are used
in different combinations, the use of autotools saves maintainers from doing
all sorts of dirty tricks to compile software. If you look at ebuild from
Gentoo's portage, the few that do not use autotools are the more complex ones,
as they need to check variables on very different setups (we can or not have
NPTL support; we can be on Linux, FreeBSD, or Mac OS X; we can be using GLIBC
or another libc; and so on), while autotools usually take care of that on their
own. It's also true that many patches applied by maintainers are to fix broken
autotools script in upstream sources, but this is just a little problem
compared to the chaos of using special build systems that don't work at all
with little environmental changes.
Autotools can be quite tricky for newcomers, but when you start using them on a
daily basis you find it's a lot easier than having to deal with manual
makefiles or other strange build tools such as imake or qmake, or even worse,
special autotools-like build scripts that try to recognize the system they are
building on. Autotools makes it simple to support new OSes and new hardware
platforms, and saves maintainers and porters from having to learn how to
custom-build a system to fix compilation. By carefully writing a script,
developers can support new platforms without any changes at all.
The contents of this document, unless otherwise expressly stated, are licensed under the CC-BY-SA-2.5 license. The Gentoo Name and Logo Usage Guidelines apply.
Page updated December 16, 2005
This article covers some of the most common errors people make when using
autotools and ways to achieve better results.
Donate to support our development efforts.