Autotools Mythbuster: so why do we have three projects?

As much as I’ve become an expert on the topic, there is one question I still have no idea how to answer, and that is why on earth we have three separate projects (autoconf, automake, libtool) instead of a single Autotools project. Things get even more interesting when you think that there is the Autoconf Archive – which, by the way, references Autotools Mythbuster as best practices – and then projects such as dolt that are developed by completely separate organisations.

I do think that this is a quite big drawback of autotools compared to things like CMake: you now have to allow for combinations of different tools written in different languages (autoconf is almost entirely shell and M4, automake uses lots of Perl, libtool is shell as well), with their own deprecation timelines, and with different distributions providing different sets of them.

My guess is that many problems lie in the different sets of developers for each project. I know for instance that Stefano at least was planning to have a separate Automake-NG implementation that did not rely on Perl at all, but used GNU make features, including make macros. I generally like this idea, because similarly to dolt it removes overhead for the most common case (any Linux distribution will use GNU make by default), while not removing the option where this is indeed needed (any BSD system.) On the other hand it adds one more dimension to the already multi-dimensional compatibility problem.

Having a single “autotools” package, while making things a bit more complicated on the organizational level, could make a few things fit better. For instance if you accepted Perl as a dependency of the package – since automake needs it; but remember this is not a dependency for the projects using autotools! – you could simplify the libtoolize script which is currently written in shell.

And it would probably be interesting if you could just declare in your configure.ac file whether you want a fully portable build system, or you’re okay with telling people that they need a more modern system, and drop some of the checks/compatibility quirks straight at make dist time. I’m sure that util-linux does not care about building dynamic libraries on Windows, and that PulseAudio does not really care for building on non-GNU make implementations.

Of course these musings are only personal and there is nothing that substantiate them regarding how things would turn out; I have not done any experiment with actually merging the packages into a single releasable unit, but I do have some experience with split-but-not-really software, and in this case I can’t see many advantages in the split of autotools, at least from the point of view of the average project that is using the full set of them. There are certainly reasons for which people would prefer them to be split, because especially if they have been using only autoconf and snobbing automake all this time, but… I’m not sure I agree with those reasons to begin with.

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