Tip 61: Get to know Makefile.am

01 February 12. [link] PDF version

level: Autotools user
purpose: learn the conventions and let Automake do the rest

Part of a series of tips on POSIX and C. Start from the tip intro page, or get 21st Century C, the book based on this series.

Last time, you met Autotools, and saw how friendly it can be for a simple project. Except your project is more than one .c file, which is why you need Autotools to begin with. The hard part is writing Makefile.am, which gives a somewhat encrypted summary of your project. Once you learn the language, though, it's not so bad.

First, if you include a target and its associated actions in Makefile.am, then Automake will copy it into the final makefile verbatim.

If you add a variable, that too gets added verbatim. This will especially be useful in conjunction with Autoconf, because if Makefile.am has variable assignments like


and your configure.ac has

#configure is a plain shell script; these are plain shell vars


then the final makefile will have text reading


So you have an easy conduit from the shell script that Autoconf spits out to the final makefile.

The rest of Makefile.am will largely consist of two types of entry, neither of which look anything like the final makefile. They are product list variables and product source/option variables, but in an effort to avoid like-sounding jargon I will refer to them as form variables and content variables, respectively.

Form variables
The example of this from last time was this line:


If the install location is il and the type of compilation TYPE, these all have the form il_TYPE. The most important examples:

bin_PROGRAMS       #programs
include_HEADERS    #headers to install in system-wide includedir.
pkginclude_HEADERS #same, but install in includedir/yourprogram subdir.
lib_LTLIBRARIES    #dynamic libraries, via libtool
EXTRA_DIST         #distribute with pkg, but don't install

There are many others; python_PYTHON, for example. The location/TYPE combo provides a bit of false generality, because it makes no sense to install programs in the include directory, for example, even if the system would let you do it. However, the location half can usefully be noinst, meaning that something gets produced but not installed, and you can put pkg in front of several locations to produce pkgbin, pkglib, et cetera.

nodist_EXTRAS: files that have to be in the package for the thing to compile, but which won't be installed in the system. I could never work out whether this is the right place for `em, but this is where I put Apophenia's test data, needed for the tests but not worth installing.

The TYPE half tells the system what form of make target to generate. It has built-in rules for generating a program from source and built-in rules for generating a library via Libtool, and you are telling it which template to use.

Put as many items on each line as you'd like, e.g.:

pkginclude_HEADERS = firstpart.h secondpart.h 
EXTRA_DIST = sample1.csv sample2.csv \
             sample99.csv sample100.csv

Content variables
Items under EXTRA_DIST just get copied over, and the process for dealing with header files is basically just to copy them to the right place. So those are basically settled.

For the compilation steps like ..._PROGRAMS and ..._LDLIBRARIES, Automake needs to know more details about how the compilation works. At the very least, it needs to know what source files are being compiled. Thus, for every item on the right-hand side of an equals sign of a form variable about compilation, we need a variable specifying the sources:

bin_PROGRAMS= weather wxpredict
weather_SOURCES= temp.c barometer.c
wxpredict_SOURCES=rng.c tarotdeck.c

This may be all you need for a basic package.

Notice that the content variables have the same lower_UPPER look as the form variables above, but they are formed from entirely different parts and serve entirely different purposes.

Back to traditional makefiles for a second: if you don't specify a rule for compiling (but not linking) from source to object, make will apply a POSIX-standard implicit rule that it has memorized:


To link together object files, the implicit rule is:

$(CC) $(LDFLAGS) obj1.o obj2.o $(LOADLIBES) $(LDLIBS)

Let's just look the other way from the variable LOADLIBES [sic], and Automake prefers LDADD for the second half of the link line anyway (i.e., always use LDLIBS with make; always use LDADD with Automake).

That little caveat noted, you can set all of these variables on a per-program or per-library basis, like weather_CFLAGS=-O1. Or, use AM_ to set a variable for all compilations or linkings. I consider this line to be essential, giving debugger symbols and all warnings for every compilation/link:

AM_CFLAGS=-g -Wall -O3

If you've been following me for very long, then you know that I always use -std=gnu99 to get GCC to use a less obsolete standard. However, this is a very compiler-specific flag. If I put


in configure.ac, then Autoconf will set the CC variable to gcc -std=gnu99 for me. Autoscan isn't (yet) smart enough to put this into the configure.scan that it generates for you, so you will probably have to put it into configure.ac yourself.

Specific rules override AM_-based rules, so here's how we'd keep the general rules and add on an override for one flag:

AM_CFLAGS=-g -Wall -O3
hello_CFLAGS = $(AM_CFLAGS) -O0

To give a fuller example, say that several programs all depend on common source files. Then perhaps you could generate a no-install static library (without Libtool) and link everything to that library. Notice how hello.a turns into hello_a for the purposes of the content variable naming scheme, as all of the characters that aren't alphanumeric get converted to underscores.

noinst_LIBRARIES = hello.a
hello_a_SOURCES = guts1.c guts2.c 
AM_CFLAGS=-g -Wall -O3

bin_PROGRAMS = hello hi

hello_SOURCES= hello.c 

hi_SOURCES= hi.c

OK, those are all the parts of Makefile.am: make variables as usual and make target/rules as usual are copied verbatim (after Autoconf does variable substitutions); form variables specify which files are to be handled how and where to put them; and content variables specify the details of how compilation happens for each output file.

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