Atomic Rules in GNU Make

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Summary:

This article looks at what to do if command updates more than one file, and how to express that so that GNU Make knows that more than one file was updated and behaves correctly.

This article looks at what to do if command updates more than one file, and how to express that so that GNU Make knows that more than one file was updated and behaves correctly.

What not to do

Imagine a command that makes two files (a and b) from the same prerequisites in a single step.   In this article I'll simulate such a command with touch a b, but in reality it could be much more complex than that.

Here's what not to do:

.PHONY: all

all: a b

a b: c d

    touch a b

At a first glance that looks correct, it seems to be seeing that a and b are built from c and d by a single command.  If you actually run this in Make you'll get the output like:

touch a b

touch a b

The command was run twice.  In this case that's harmless, but for a real command that does real work running twice is almost certainly the wrong thing to do.   Also, if you use the -j option to run in parallel then you can end up with the command running more than once and simultaneously with itself.

This is because GNU Make actually inteprets the Makefile as:

.PHONY: all

all: a b

a: c d

    touch a b

b: c d

    touch a b

So, you end up with two separate rules (one that declares that it builds a and the other than says it builds b) that both build a and b.

Using pattern rules

GNU Make does have a way to build more than one target in a single rule using a pattern rule.  Pattern rules can have an arbitrary number of target patterns and will still be treated as a single rule.

For example,

%.foo %.bar %.baz:

    command

means that files with the extensions .foo, .bar and .baz (and of course the same prefix that will match against the %) will be built with a single invocation of command.

For example, suppose that the Makefile were:

.PHONY: all

all: a.foo a.bar a.baz

%.foo %.bar %.baz:

    command

then command would be invoked just once.  In fact it's enough to specify that just
one of the targets buildable by the pattern rule is required for the command to run:

.PHONY: all

all: a.foo

%.foo %.bar %.baz:

    command

This can be a very useful technique, for example, here's an actual rule from one of my Makefiles that builds a .lib and its associated .dll in one go:

$(OUT)/%.lib $(OUT)/%.dll: $(VERSION_RESOURCE)

   link /nologo /dll /fixed:no /incremental:no      \

        /map:'$(call to_dos,$(basename [email protected]).map)'     \

        /out:'$(call to_dos,$(basename [email protected]).dll)'     \

        /implib:'$(call to_dos,$(basename [email protected]).lib)'  \

                 $(LOADLIBES) $(LDLIBS)              \

        /pdb:'$(basename [email protected]).pdb'                    \

        /machine:x86                                 \

        $^

Of course, if the files don't have a common part then using a pattern rule won't work.  It doesn't work for the simple example I gave at the beginning.  But there is an alternative.

Using a sentinel file

A work around is to introduce a file that's used to indicate whether any of the targets have been built.  That turns multiple files into a single file.  Here's the original example rewritten:

.PHONY: all

all: a b

a b: .sentinel

    @:

.sentinel: c d

    touch a b

    touch .sentinel

The rule to build a and b can only be run once because there's only one target specified (.sentinel).  If c or d are newer then .sentinel gets rebuilt and hence a and b.  If the Makefile asks for either a or b then they are rebuilt via the .sentinel file.

The funny @: command in the a b rule just means that there are commands to build a and b but they do nothing.

Of course, it would be nice to make this transparent, and that's where the atomic function comes in.  The atomic function sets up the sentinel file automatically based on the names of the targets to be built and creates the necessary rules:

sp :=

sp +=

sentinel = .sentinel.$(subst $(sp),_,$(subst /,_,$1))

atomic = $(eval $1: $(call sentinel,$1) ; @:)$(call sentinel,$1): $2 ; touch [email protected]

.PHONY: all

all: a b

$(call atomic,a b,c d)

    touch a b

All that's been done here is that the previous rule has been replaced by a call to atomic. 
The first argument is the list of targets that need to be built atomically and the second argument is the list of prerequisites.

atomic uses the sentinel function to create a unique sentinel file name (in the case of a b the sentinel file name is .sentinel.a_b) and then sets up the necessary rules.

Expanding atomic in this Makefile would be the same as doing:

sp :=

sp +=

sentinel = .sentinel.$(subst $(sp),_,$(subst /,_,$1))

atomic = $(eval $1: $(call sentinel,$1) ; @:)$(call sentinel,$1): $2 ; touch [email protected]

.PHONY: all

all: a b

a b: .sentinel.a_b ; @:

.sentinel.a_b: c d ; touch [email protected]

    touch a b

There's only one flaw with this technique.  If you delete a or b you must also delete the related sentinel file otherwise the files won't get rebuilt.

That can be worked around by having the Makefile delete the sentinel file if necessary by checking to see if any of the targets being built is missing.  Here's the updated code:

sp :=

sp +=

sentinel = .sentinel.$(subst $(sp),_,$(subst /,_,$1))

atomic
= $(eval $1: $(call sentinel,$1) ; @:)$(call sentinel,$1): $2 ; touch
[email protected] $(foreach t,$1,$(if $(wildcard $t),,$(shell rm -f $(call
sentinel,$1))))

.PHONY: all

all: a b

$(call atomic,a b,c d)

   touch a b

Now atomic runs through the targets and if any are missing (detected by the $(wildcard)) the sentinel file is deleted.

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