[cairo] Alternatives to autotools-based build systems

Alan W. Irwin irwin at beluga.phys.uvic.ca
Tue Apr 29 12:01:35 PDT 2008

The recent troubles with libtool mentioned on list remind me of when we used
autotools to build PLplot; it wasn't too bad, but on the other hand, every
month or so there was yet another build-system irritation we had to solve.
Thus, our developers were happy to replace autotools with CMake for our
build system.  CMake syntax is easy to learn yet extremely powerful so our
developers were able to participate in the change rather than leaving it to
just a couple of individuals.  As a bonus it works well on essentially all
Unix and Windows variants.  For example, PLplot has had good build reports
for Linux, Mac OS X, Cygwin, MinGW/MSYS, and windows with proprietary

The cmake command is equivalent to autotools "configure", and after you run
cmake, then you follow with the usual "make" and "make install".  The use of
the massive and slow libtool script during the build is replaced by
configured Makefiles with the compile and link options built in.  For this
reason and others, CMake build-system latency is substantially reduced
compared to autotools which is a nice bonus for developers. A CMake-based
build system can coexist peacefully with an autotools-based build system so
while we developed the new CMake-based build system we kept our old
autotools build system alive to serve as a basis of comparison.  However, we
eventually dropped our autotools-based build system completely because
nobody was willing to continue to deal with its irritations.

Since creating our CMake-based build system, PLplot development
has flourished (including a new cairo-based device driver), and in
retrospect I believe it was the intimidation of the required autotools
build-system changes that was holding our developers back before.

I haven't explored autotools build system alternatives other than CMake, but
my understanding is there are a lot of them that are maturing right now so
the basic point I want to make is autotools was good enough in its day, but
it is now time for most software projects to give a serious look at the
much-better alternatives. There is nothing urgent about this step, but to my
mind it should be on your agenda in a way very similar to how most software
projects were considering replacements for CVS several years ago.

Alan W. Irwin

Astronomical research affiliation with Department of Physics and Astronomy,
University of Victoria (astrowww.phys.uvic.ca).

Programming affiliations with the FreeEOS equation-of-state implementation
for stellar interiors (freeeos.sf.net); PLplot scientific plotting software
package (plplot.org); the libLASi project (unifont.org/lasi); the Loads of
Linux Links project (loll.sf.net); and the Linux Brochure Project

Linux-powered Science

More information about the cairo mailing list