Build tools such as Automake, CMake, or SCons, try to shield the unfortunate C or C++ programmer from crafting compiler and linker commandlines for myriads of different compilers and compiler versions. Each of these tools has a slightly different focus - some prefer cross-platform features, and some focus on fully supporting all of the Unices. Each is unbeatable in doing its job. Basically, all you have to tell them is, for example, “Compile these files as C, and make a library out of them!”, and they do what you want.

Automake, CMake, and SCons do not, however, help you in managing your project. All of us know that, once the project has grown beyond a certain size, restructuring it can become a nightmare. Even moving one header file can break the build for a day or two, since everybody has to adjust include paths. Or, even worse, consider you split a library into two or three separate libraries because it has acquired too many responsibilities over time - you’d have to instruct everyone who has used the library about the new structure. (People often argue that a project’s structure does not contribute any quality measure, and that the time spent on the structure be better spent on getting the code right. This is certainly a valid view of the matter, but it’s a different story, and I don’t argue against. Anyway, if you do not care about structure, then you should only be reading on if you want to use the features of Automake but don’t want to learn its damn syntax.)

Project structure maintenance is of course but one of Confix’s features, although the strongest. The following list is a rough compilation of things that Confix can do for the programmer.

Automake Input File Generation

Automake is one of the most widely used build tools in the Unix Open Source community. Everybody who likes hanging around there knows the configure && make && make install dance, the hallmark of Automake. But, as comfortable as it is for the end user who is in charge of compiling and installing a package, as odd it is for the maintainer of the package. Confix tries to take away the complexity from the build instructions, and defines it own minimal set of functions which are mapped onto the Automake language. (Actually, Confix project files are written in Python, so chances are you don’t have to learn yet another language).

Automatic Include Path

Maintenance of the include path that has to be set when compiling source code is one of the great challenges in build administration. You have to take care that you point the compiler in every directory that contains header files needed for the compilation. This is often accomplished in a trial and error kind of way. More than that, one often faces the issue of leftover directories in the include path - ones that did contain needed header files way in the past, but which are either not needed for the compilation anymore, or which have been moved. As a consequence, include paths tend to grow rather than shrink. Note that this include path problem is one of the reasons why project structures tend to become a maze - the cost of moving files around rises with the size of the project. Confix knows which compilation needs which header files (by simply parsing the files that are subject to compilation), and can match this information against the location where these headers are. This way, at the heart of its implementation, it maintains a graph which contains enough information to be able to compose a correct include path for every compilation - without requiring the programmer to do anything.

Automatic Linker Line

Placing the libraries you need on the linker command line is a task which is at least as tedious as composing a correct include path. In addition to determining all the libraries that you need, you have to take care to place them on the linker command line in the correct order (most linkers are very particular about open references pointing in the wrong direction). Needless to say that one would rather refrain from changing the library structure when he expects linker lines breaking and people getting annoyed. Confix solves this problem similar to the include path problem described above. As it knows who needs what, it is not difficult to compose a correct linker line - again without demanding anything from the programmer (except to keep reference cycles out of the project, but this is a matter of hygiene anyway).

Inter Package Dependencies

For various reasons - project size, organizational, or simply taste (to foster good interfaces, for example) - it might make sense to split a big project into several smaller ones that are independently maintained. With Automake, the granularity of a project is the unit with which one does the configure && make && make install dance. A project is finally made public by saying make install, and this is how project teams communicate changes: one team installs a tested version of their project (or releases it for installation), and the other team uses it. With Confix, you split a project by moving files, and nothing else (well almost).

Lots of other things

A lot of Confix’s energy goes into fighting the overhead of project structure maintenance (you guessed it - I’m a fan). Here’s a short summary of the other - minor - things it can do.

  • Location independent subdirectory installs. You can make any header visible as <subdir/file.h>, without putting it into a directory subdir.
  • Transparent inclusion of Autoconf checks. If one project X includes an Autoconf check for some library, for example, another project that uses project X does not have to include this same check to make things work. This is done automatically by Confix. If you don’t know what this means, then it doesn’t matter.
  • (To be continued.)

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Confix is licensed under the GNU Lesser General Public License.