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Makefile November 3, 2016

Posted by PythonGuy in Uncategorized.

Now that I am older, I see things that the younger programmers don’t see. Among those things I see are people not using software for the wrong reasons. Just because something is old and complicated doesn’t mean it isn’t the right tool for you.

The ancient and venerated Makefile is, in my mind, the most wonderful tool you can use to make your software development smoother and simpler. Ignore it at your peril. Avoid it at your detriment.

You know how you tell your co-workers about how to do stuff? Rather than tell them, just put it into a Makefile. That way, they don’t have to remember anything but “make <the thing you want to do>”. And if they forget what they can do, they can just pop open the Makefile and see what the various targets are and how they work.

The Makefile syntax is cryptic and is very uninviting. Any sufficiently useful Makefile will have commands that are difficult to decipher. However, with a little practice, and a few minutes with the documentation on GNU make, you too can be an expert. The best part is you know that the Makefile syntax isn’t going to change anytime soon. What you learn about it today will probably be useful 30 years from now.

I won’t bother explaining how make works. There are several similar projects out there, but none of them compare to the power of the Makefile. Why do these other programs exist when Makefile is so much older? I believe it is because of a few reasons.

  1. People didn’t take the time to learn make. I can’t blame them, but really, there is a reason why it is so complicated. As you learn to use make, you will grow to appreciate that complexity.
  2. Vendor lock-in. If the vendor can get you to depend on their make clone, then you’ll never go back to using the free and open source make system. Once they’ve got you in their web, you’re not going anywhere except to the land of regret and sorrows.
  3. People don’t believe make should be so complicated. They come up with their own solutions that end up being even more complicated.

The philosophy behind make is rather simple.

  • You have targets, usually files you want to build. However, targets can be “virtual”, meaning that once the target is complete, there is no file leftover.
  • Targets depend on requirements. These requirements are also targets. Ultimately, the requirements boils down to a set of files or imaginary virtual targets.
  • You have recipes that list the commands needed to build the target from the requirements.
  • You have a ton of configuration parameters that will allow you to create a flexible Makefile that is truly cross-compatible against a wide variety of platforms. These can be a rather difficult chore to get right, so typically there is the infamous “configure” script that will figure out where you keep everything on your system and make sure you have the right things installed and they are the right versions.

When you use make, you can depend on things like Ruby’s gems or Python’s pip system. You can literally put make on top of anything, since all it does is call programs with parameters. For instance, I’ve seen Makefiles in Java projects with Ant for a configuration system.

Make is a lingua franca. Or, in more modern terms, it is the English Language of building computer software. It is so universally adopted that it becomes the common way to express how to build things.

Do yourself and your co-workers and co-collaborators a favor. Write a Makefile today. Start using it. Start learning how they work. Study other people’s Makefiles. This is not wasted effort.


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