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7. Directories

For simple projects that distribute all files in the same directory it is enough to have a single `Makefile.am' that builds everything in place.

In larger projects it is common to organize files in different directories, in a tree. For instance one directory per program, per library or per module. The traditional approach is to build these subdirectories recursively: each directory contains its `Makefile' (generated from `Makefile.am'), and when make is run from the top level directory it enters each subdirectory in turn to build its contents.

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7.1 Recursing subdirectories

In packages with subdirectories, the top level `Makefile.am' must tell Automake which subdirectories are to be built. This is done via the SUBDIRS variable.

The SUBDIRS variable holds a list of subdirectories in which building of various sorts can occur. The rules for many targets (e.g., all) in the generated `Makefile' will run commands both locally and in all specified subdirectories. Note that the directories listed in SUBDIRS are not required to contain `Makefile.am's; only `Makefile's (after configuration). This allows inclusion of libraries from packages that do not use Automake (such as gettext; see also Third-Party `Makefile's).

In packages that use subdirectories, the top-level `Makefile.am' is often very short. For instance, here is the `Makefile.am' from the GNU Hello distribution:

SUBDIRS = doc intl po src tests

When Automake invokes make in a subdirectory, it uses the value of the MAKE variable. It passes the value of the variable AM_MAKEFLAGS to the make invocation; this can be set in `Makefile.am' if there are flags you must always pass to make.

The directories mentioned in SUBDIRS are usually direct children of the current directory, each subdirectory containing its own `Makefile.am' with a SUBDIRS pointing to deeper subdirectories. Automake can be used to construct packages of arbitrary depth this way.

By default, Automake generates `Makefiles' that work depth-first in postfix order: the subdirectories are built before the current directory. However, it is possible to change this ordering. You can do this by putting `.' into SUBDIRS. For instance, putting `.' first will cause a prefix ordering of directories.


SUBDIRS = lib src . test

will cause `lib/' to be built before `src/', then the current directory will be built, finally the `test/' directory will be built. It is customary to arrange test directories to be built after everything else since they are meant to test what has been constructed.

All clean rules are run in reverse order of build rules.

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7.2 Conditional Subdirectories

It is possible to define the SUBDIRS variable conditionally if, like in the case of GNU Inetutils, you want to only build a subset of the entire package.

To illustrate how this works, let's assume we have two directories `src/' and `opt/'. `src/' should always be built, but we want to decide in configure whether `opt/' will be built or not. (For this example we will assume that `opt/' should be built when the variable `$want_opt' was set to `yes'.)

Running make should thus recurse into `src/' always, and then maybe in `opt/'.

However `make dist' should always recurse into both `src/' and `opt/'. Because `opt/' should be distributed even if it is not needed in the current configuration. This means `opt/Makefile' should be created unconditionally.

There are two ways to setup a project like this. You can use Automake conditionals (see section Conditionals) or use Autoconf AC_SUBST variables (see (autoconf)Setting Output Variables section `Setting Output Variables' in The Autoconf Manual). Using Automake conditionals is the preferred solution. Before we illustrate these two possibilities, let's introduce DIST_SUBDIRS.

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Automake considers two sets of directories, defined by the variables SUBDIRS and DIST_SUBDIRS.

SUBDIRS contains the subdirectories of the current directory that must be built (see section Recursing subdirectories). It must be defined manually; Automake will never guess a directory is to be built. As we will see in the next two sections, it is possible to define it conditionally so that some directory will be omitted from the build.

DIST_SUBDIRS is used in rules that need to recurse in all directories, even those that have been conditionally left out of the build. Recall our example where we may not want to build subdirectory `opt/', but yet we want to distribute it? This is where DIST_SUBDIRS comes into play: `opt' may not appear in SUBDIRS, but it must appear in DIST_SUBDIRS.

Precisely, DIST_SUBDIRS is used by `make maintainer-clean', `make distclean' and `make dist'. All other recursive rules use SUBDIRS.

If SUBDIRS is defined conditionally using Automake conditionals, Automake will define DIST_SUBDIRS automatically from the possible values of SUBDIRS in all conditions.

If SUBDIRS contains AC_SUBST variables, DIST_SUBDIRS will not be defined correctly because Automake does not know the possible values of these variables. In this case DIST_SUBDIRS needs to be defined manually.

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7.2.2 Subdirectories with AM_CONDITIONAL

`configure' should output the `Makefile' for each directory and define a condition into which `opt/' should be built.

AM_CONDITIONAL([COND_OPT], [test "$want_opt" = yes])
AC_CONFIG_FILES([Makefile src/Makefile opt/Makefile])

Then SUBDIRS can be defined in the top-level `Makefile.am' as follows.

  MAYBE_OPT = opt

As you can see, running make will rightly recurse into `src/' and maybe `opt/'.

As you can't see, running `make dist' will recurse into both `src/' and `opt/' directories because `make dist', unlike `make all', doesn't use the SUBDIRS variable. It uses the DIST_SUBDIRS variable.

In this case Automake will define `DIST_SUBDIRS = src opt' automatically because it knows that MAYBE_OPT can contain `opt' in some condition.

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7.2.3 Subdirectories with AC_SUBST

Another possibility is to define MAYBE_OPT from `./configure' using AC_SUBST:

if test "$want_opt" = yes; then
AC_CONFIG_FILES([Makefile src/Makefile opt/Makefile])

In this case the top-level `Makefile.am' should look as follows.

DIST_SUBDIRS = src opt

The drawback is that since Automake cannot guess what the possible values of MAYBE_OPT are, it is necessary to define DIST_SUBDIRS.

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7.2.4 Unconfigured Subdirectories

The semantics of DIST_SUBDIRS are often misunderstood by some users that try to configure and build subdirectories conditionally. Here by configuring we mean creating the `Makefile' (it might also involve running a nested configure script: this is a costly operation that explains why people want to do it conditionally, but only the `Makefile' is relevant to the discussion).

The above examples all assume that every `Makefile' is created, even in directories that are not going to be built. The simple reason is that we want `make dist' to distribute even the directories that are not being built (e.g., platform-dependent code), hence `make dist' must recurse into the subdirectory, hence this directory must be configured and appear in DIST_SUBDIRS.

Building packages that do not configure every subdirectory is a tricky business, and we do not recommend it to the novice as it is easy to produce an incomplete tarball by mistake. We will not discuss this topic in depth here, yet for the adventurous here are a few rules to remember.

  • SUBDIRS should always be a subset of DIST_SUBDIRS.

    It makes little sense to have a directory in SUBDIRS that is not in DIST_SUBDIRS. Think of the former as a way to tell which directories listed in the latter should be built.

  • Any directory listed in DIST_SUBDIRS and SUBDIRS must be configured.

    I.e., the `Makefile' must exists or the recursive make rules will not be able to process the directory.

  • Any configured directory must be listed in DIST_SUBDIRS.

    So that the cleaning rules remove the generated `Makefile's. It would be correct to see DIST_SUBDIRS as a variable that lists all the directories that have been configured.

In order to prevent recursion in some unconfigured directory you must therefore ensure that this directory does not appear in DIST_SUBDIRS (and SUBDIRS). For instance, if you define SUBDIRS conditionally using AC_SUBST and do not define DIST_SUBDIRS explicitly, it will be default to `$(SUBDIRS)'; another possibility is to force DIST_SUBDIRS = $(SUBDIRS).

Of course, directories that are omitted from DIST_SUBDIRS will not be distributed unless you make other arrangements for this to happen (for instance, always running `make dist' in a configuration where all directories are known to appear in DIST_SUBDIRS; or writing a dist-hook target to distribute these directories).

In few packages, unconfigured directories are not even expected to be distributed. Although these packages do not require the aforementioned extra arrangements, there is another pitfall. If the name of a directory appears in SUBDIRS or DIST_SUBDIRS, automake will make sure the directory exists. Consequently automake cannot be run on such a distribution when one directory has been omitted. One way to avoid this check is to use the AC_SUBST method to declare conditional directories; since automake does not know the values of AC_SUBST variables it cannot ensure the corresponding directory exists.

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7.3 An Alternative Approach to Subdirectories

If you've ever read Peter Miller's excellent paper, Recursive Make Considered Harmful, the preceding sections on the use of subdirectories will probably come as unwelcome advice. For those who haven't read the paper, Miller's main thesis is that recursive make invocations are both slow and error-prone.

Automake provides sufficient cross-directory support (3) to enable you to write a single `Makefile.am' for a complex multi-directory package.

By default an installable file specified in a subdirectory will have its directory name stripped before installation. For instance, in this example, the header file will be installed as `$(includedir)/stdio.h':

include_HEADERS = inc/stdio.h

However, the `nobase_' prefix can be used to circumvent this path stripping. In this example, the header file will be installed as `$(includedir)/sys/types.h':

nobase_include_HEADERS = sys/types.h

`nobase_' should be specified first when used in conjunction with either `dist_' or `nodist_' (see section Fine-grained Distribution Control). For instance:

nobase_dist_pkgdata_DATA = images/vortex.pgm sounds/whirl.ogg

Finally, note that a variable using the `nobase_' prefix can often be replaced by several variables, one for each destination directory (see section The Uniform Naming Scheme). For instance, the last example could be rewritten as follows:

imagesdir = $(pkgdatadir)/images
soundsdir = $(pkgdatadir)/sounds
dist_images_DATA = images/vortex.pgm
dist_sounds_DATA = sounds/whirl.ogg

This latter syntax makes it possible to change one destination directory without changing the layout of the source tree.

Currently, `nobase_*_LTLIBRARIES' are the only exception to this rule, in that there is no particular installation order guarantee for an otherwise equivalent set of variables without `nobase_' prefix.

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7.4 Nesting Packages

In the GNU Build System, packages can be nested to arbitrary depth. This means that a package can embed other packages with their own `configure', `Makefile's, etc.

These other packages should just appear as subdirectories of their parent package. They must be listed in SUBDIRS like other ordinary directories. However the subpackage's `Makefile's should be output by its own `configure' script, not by the parent's `configure'. This is achieved using the AC_CONFIG_SUBDIRS Autoconf macro (see AC_CONFIG_SUBDIRS: (autoconf)Subdirectories section `Configuring Other Packages in Subdirectories' in The Autoconf Manual).

Here is an example package for an arm program that links with a hand library that is a nested package in subdirectory `hand/'.

arm's `configure.ac':

AC_INIT([arm], [1.0])
# Call hand's ./configure script recursively.

arm's `Makefile.am':

# Build the library in the hand subdirectory first.
SUBDIRS = hand

# Include hand's header when compiling this directory.
AM_CPPFLAGS = -I$(srcdir)/hand

bin_PROGRAMS = arm
arm_SOURCES = arm.c
# link with the hand library.
arm_LDADD = hand/libhand.a

Now here is hand's `hand/configure.ac':

AC_INIT([hand], [1.2])

and its `hand/Makefile.am':

lib_LIBRARIES = libhand.a
libhand_a_SOURCES = hand.c

When `make dist' is run from the top-level directory it will create an archive `arm-1.0.tar.gz' that contains the arm code as well as the `hand' subdirectory. This package can be built and installed like any ordinary package, with the usual `./configure && make && make install' sequence (the hand subpackage will be built and installed by the process).

When `make dist' is run from the hand directory, it will create a self-contained `hand-1.2.tar.gz' archive. So although it appears to be embedded in another package, it can still be used separately.

The purpose of the `AC_CONFIG_AUX_DIR([.])' instruction is to force Automake and Autoconf to search for auxiliary scripts in the current directory. For instance, this means that there will be two copies of `install-sh': one in the top-level of the arm package, and another one in the `hand/' subdirectory for the hand package.

The historical default is to search for these auxiliary scripts in the parent directory and the grandparent directory. So if the `AC_CONFIG_AUX_DIR([.])' line was removed from `hand/configure.ac', that subpackage would share the auxiliary script of the arm package. This may looks like a gain in size (a few kilobytes), but it is actually a loss of modularity as the hand subpackage is no longer self-contained (`make dist' in the subdirectory will not work anymore).

Packages that do not use Automake need more work to be integrated this way. See section Third-Party `Makefile's.

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