A few years ago, I took a hard look at the current state of the art of build systems. The ones I looked at were the ones that I had heard of, specifically Make, SCons, CMake, Jam. I slowly came to the realization every build system designer since the creators of Make (which arguably does it right) have been thinking about building software all wrong.

Understand that the entire purpose of a build system is to compile your complex piece of software correctly every time. Peter Miller discusses the importance of a correct build system in his paper Recursive Make Considered Harmful. In order to build correctly always, the system must fully understand the dependency tree of the software. This dependency tree is, composed in part by any #include directives in your C files. For example, lets say we’re making a simple game, with a dependency tree like the following:


This means that before game.c can be built, common.h and player.h must exist, and before game.exe can be built, game.c must exist. Additionally, game.exe can be said to transitively depend upon common.h and player.h.

Now, this works fine always because you wrote common.h, player.h and game.c, but lets say you were writing a game, and wanted to create a domain-specific language to express the levels. This DSL’s compiler would output C code, which would then be used from within your code. This can be expressed like so:


The dependencies common.h → levels.c and player.h → levels.c is not detected in this case unless you explicitly write that dependency into your build system. That is undesirable however as doing so is fragile. What you really want, is to dynamically introduce dependencies into the build system. In other words, in order for a build system to be correct, it sometimes must be able to detect dependencies while it’s traversing the dependency tree it is detecting dependencies for!

GCC provides a facility for outputting a Make compatible list of a file’s dependencies with the -M option. From GCC’s docs:

	Instead of outputting the result of preprocessing, output a rule
	suitable for make describing the dependencies of the main source file.

GNU Make has introduced the include extension that allows you to generate and include these files, albeit in a more limited fashion. From the include directive’s documentation:

After reading in all makefiles, make will consider each as a goal target and
attempt to update it. If a makefile has a rule which says how to update it
(found either in that very makefile or in another one) or if an implicit
rule applies to it (see Using Implicit Rules), it will be updated if
necessary. After all makefiles have been checked, if any have actually been
changed, make starts with a clean slate and reads all the makefiles over

This mechanism can be leveraged to create a limited solution to the traversal-time dependency detection problem, which our game suffered from. Unfortunately, this works only for a single “level” of traversal-time dependency detection. E.g. the following does not work:


I’ve built a functional build system for Nethack which leverages these concepts. You can see an abbreviated dependency graph for Nethack here, and I also gave a presentation on the Nethack build system which can be seen here. The build system itself is hosted here.

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