Build System Background

In the world of software development build systems are both ubiquitous and neglected. The requirements are plentiful, there are limited options, and build system-problems are (typically) outside of the focus of most projects specialty and interest.

This document outlines four basic approaches to build system problems, leading to the approaches and paradigms that Buildcloth supports.



For simple build processes, it’s possible to conceive of a single program that defines a sequence of steps that produces a “built” target. These scripts, though not frequently used, is that programs of this nature allow complete customization of the build process and can support build processes that are significantly non-standard.

There are two main problems with with using a custom script to automate a build process: first, build processes are (often) inherently parallelizable and simple programs are not; second, custom scripts are difficult to maintain and may be inflexible and fragile and projects grow and develop.

Beyond the concerns around performance and maintenance, the more compelling argument against fully custom build scripts is that developers on a given project should focus on developing that project and not in maintaining software to support the build of that software.


Make is a general build automation tool that provides a restricted syntax for describing build processes, and can describe and automate virtually any build. Furthermore, Make runs pretty much everywhere, and owing mostly to its age, is well understood by practically all developers and administrators.

Although Make includes support for conditionals, variables, and functions, Makefiles consist of a number of definitions that have three components: the name of the target (typically files, or things to build,) a list dependencies of this target (i.e. files or other targets), and a sequence of commands that produce the target.

When you build a target or targets, Make processes the dependencies of your targets and builds all of the targets needed to satisfy the all of the dependencies (recursively) for the targets you are building. Make has two properties that help matters greatly.

  • If Make detects that a target is “newer” than all of its dependencies (i.e. the last run), Make will not rebuild the target.
  • If running in a parallel mode, (optional,) Make will allow multiple jobs to run at the same time if those jobs do not depend on each other.

Most build automation tools provide a Make-like feature set, but innovate in other areas, and provide different definition formats, short cuts, or other automatic features.

In truth, Make isn’t awful. It’s parallelism metaphor is useful, it’s well tested and understood, and is pretty easy to reason about. There are problems:

  • Make is not incredibly fast: job execution has not-insignificant process spawning costs,
  • It’s difficult to architect a build process such that Make will execute it in parallel in a way that even approaches optimal. The result is build processes that takes longer than it should and becomes more difficult to maintain as complexity grows.
  • For complex builds, particularly builds that must support multiple platforms, Makefiles can become more fragile over time.

Fundamentally, I think, Make and Make-like tools are the right kind of solution to the build automation problem; however, a great deal depends on the actual specific implementation.

Metabuild Tools

Meta-build tools attempt to resolve some of the problems around build system maintenance and cross-platform differences. Metabuild tools don’t automate build processes, but they are able to produce Makefiles (or similar,) for a build process using a specification system that either derives directly from the source tree itself or is easier to maintain than a corresponding Makefile.

Meta build systems are more specialized than Buildtools, and are typically only relevant or useful for a subset of projects. However, the specialty of a meta-build tool is often its asset rather than its weakness in most cases.

Examples of metabuild tools include CMake and Automake/Autoconf, as well as the MakefileCloth and NinjaFileCloth components of buildcloth. The boundary between build system and metabuild tools is sometimes blurry, as with SCons/Waf.

There are two general disadvantages to metabuild tools:

  1. Metabuild tools, can be too specialized, which leads to inflexibility, particularly along the periphery of build processes: different requirements for malt-platform build processes; and builds with a larger number of scripts
  2. Metabuild tools may produce less efficient build specifications than a well constructed custom build tool.


Initially, Buildcloth was a simple metabuild system that provided a very thin layer on top of Makefiles and Ninja files (including a compatibility layer.) These components are extremely useful and (hopefully) bridge the gap between the awkwardness and verbosity of direct build tool specifications and the restrictions of using either specialized scripts or a restrictive metabuild tool.

On the whole, encoding build logic in conventional Python code is at worst the same as maintaining makefile code, and can be much more flexible and maintainable particularly for systems with a large number of targets.

The buildc component of Buildcloth, uses standard Python components to implement an independent build tool, founded on two basic ideas:

  1. The cost of creating processes (i.e. “shelling out”) in make files is intensely expensive particularly when the time requirements to produce a target are small.
  2. Encoding the process to create targets in a build specification file is difficult and in most systems, any sufficiently complex process is eventually wrapped in some kind of script.

Given the confluence of these properties buildc makes it possible to run a large amount of a build process inside of a single multiprocessing-based Python process.

buildc‘s weaknesses center around its dependency graph analysis, interface flexibility for building single targets or groups of targets, and in error propagation and handling.

Next Generation Build Systems

Buildcloth is an entrant in an attempt to implement powerful build tools to address contemporary problems. In contemporary practice the kinds of projects that Make is great and building are less prevalent; current programming languages require less building but still have important build requirements for packaging, deployment, documentation, and automation. The build problems, solutions and requirements for these projects are unique and could bare greater attention.

Other build systems will begin to exist that address other aspects of these problems using new metaphors, and allowing everyone to build great things!


There is no single build system tool that’s ideal for all kinds of projects, and each approach to build automation is appropriate for a certain classes of projects. Continue reading Design Build Systems for more high level information on build systems.

Buildcloth, a Build-system Generator

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