Parameters to ./configure can deceive

As much as I’d like for this not to be the case, one of the most obnoxious problems with autotools is that not only there is little consistency between packages on the use of ./configure parameters, but also when there is, the parameters themselves can deceive, either because of their sheer name or because of one package differing in its use.

This is the reason why I dislike the idea of autotools-utils.eclass of wiring the debug USE flag to --enable-debug: that option is often implemented badly, if at all, and is not consistently used across projects: it might enable debug specific code, it might be used to turn off assertions (even though AC_HEADER_ASSERT already provides a --disable-assert option), it might add debug symbol information (-g and -ggdb) or, very bad!, it might fiddle with optimizations.

One of the most-commonly deceiving options is --enable-static, which is provided by libtool, and thus used in almost any autotools-based build system. What this does is tell libtool to build static archives (static libraries) for the declared libtool targets, but enough people, me included when I started, assumed it was going to tell the build system to build static binaries, and wired it to the static USE flag, which was simply wrong. Indeed, most of the static USE flags are wired to append -static to LDFLAGS instead, while --enable-static is tied to static-libs, when it does make sense — in a lot of cases, building the static libraries doesn’t make sense; for details see my other post where I make some notes about internal convenience libraries.

Unfortunately, while libtool-based packages are forced into consistency on this parameter, this doesn’t stop it from being inconsistent among other, non-libtool-based projects (who intend it to behave as “make the final executable static”) and, ironically, by libtool itself. Indeed if you use the --disable-static option to ./configure for libtool itself, what you’re actually asking is for the libtool script to be unable to build static libraries altogether. This is not happening out of the blue though; in itself it is actually fairly consistent within libtool itself. But to understand this you need to take a step back.

Autoconf, automake, and libtool are all designed not to add extra dependencies to build a package, unless you change the autotools sources themselves. The fact that for a distribution such as Gentoo this is so common that building a system without autotools is near impossible is a different story altogether. Following this design, when a package uses autotools and libtool, it cannot rely on the presence of /usr/bin/libtool; what it does instead is creating its own libtool script, using the same macros used by the libtool package. Incidentally, this is the reason why we can’t just patch the libtool package to implement features and work around bugs, but we usually have to add a call to elibtoolize in the ebuild.

So, from a behaviour point of view, the --disable-static option does nothing more than generating a script that is unable to build static libraries, and from there you get packages without static libraries, when they don’t use the system libtool script.

On the other hand, the system libtool script is still used by some packages, one of which turns out to be lua. The build system used by lua is one that is quite messed up, and it relies on the creation of a static liblua archive, from which just a subset of sources are used to generate the lua compiler. To do so, it uses the system libtool script. If your sys-devel/libtool package is built with --disable-static, though, you get failures which took me a while to debug, when it hit me on the chroot I use to build package for my vservers (it is related to ModSecurity 2.6 having an automagic dependency on lua I haven’t had time to work on yet).

What’s the end of the story for this post? Do not assume that two packages share the same meaning for a given option unless those packages come from the same developer, I guess. And even then make sure to check it out. And don’t provide random parameters to packages in eclasses or generic setting files just because it seems like a good idea, you might end up debugging some random failure.

P.S.: I’ll try to find time to write something about libtool’s system script issue on Autotools Mythbuster over the weekend; last week I added some notes about pkg-config and cross-compiling due to work I’ve been doing for one of my contract jobs.

3 thoughts on “Parameters to ./configure can deceive

  1. I’ve been affected by this for 2.5 years :) (gentoo bug #236859)Thank you very much for debugging the problem and finding the solution.


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