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2.5 Modules

Gnulib is divided into modules. Every module implements a single facility. Modules can depend on other modules.

A module consists of a number of files and a module description. The files are copied by gnulib-tool into the package that will use it, usually verbatim, without changes. Source code files (.h, .c files) reside in the lib/ subdirectory. Autoconf macro files reside in the m4/ subdirectory. Build scripts reside in the build-aux/ subdirectory.

The module description contains the list of files; gnulib-tool copies these files. It contains the module's dependencies; gnulib-tool installs them as well. It also contains the autoconf macro invocation (usually a single line or nothing at all); gnulib-tool ensures this is invoked from the package's configure.ac file. And also a Makefile.am snippet; gnulib-tool collects these into a Makefile.am for the tailored Gnulib part. The module description and include file specification are for documentation purposes; they are combined into MODULES.html.

The module system serves two purposes:

  1. It ensures consistency of the used autoconf macros and Makefile.am rules with the source code. For example, source code which uses the getopt_long function—this is a common way to implement parsing of command line options in a way that complies with the GNU standards—needs the source code (lib/getopt.c and others), the autoconf macro which detects whether the system's libc already has this function (in m4/getopt.m4), and a few Makefile.am lines that create the substitute getopt.h if not. These three pieces belong together. They cannot be used without each other. The module description and gnulib-tool ensure that they are copied altogether into the destination package.
  2. It allows for scalability. It is well-known since the inception of the MODULA-2 language around 1978 that dissection into modules with dependencies allows for building large sets of code in a maintainable way. The maintainability comes from the facts that:

    In other words, the module is the elementary unit of code in Gnulib, comparable to a class in object-oriented languages like Java or C#.

The module system is the basis of gnulib-tool. When gnulib-tool copies a part of Gnulib into a package, it first compiles a module list, starting with the requested modules and adding all the dependencies, and then collects the files, configure.ac snippets and Makefile.am snippets.