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7.2 Conditional Subdirectories

It is possible to define the SUBDIRS variable conditionally if, like in the case of GNU Inetutils, you want to only build a subset of the entire package.

To illustrate how this works, let’s assume we have two directories src/ and opt/. src/ should always be built, but we want to decide in configure whether opt/ will be built or not. (For this example we will assume that opt/ should be built when the variable ‘$want_opt’ was set to ‘yes’.)

Running make should thus recurse into src/ always, and then maybe in opt/.

However ‘make dist’ should always recurse into both src/ and opt/. Because opt/ should be distributed even if it is not needed in the current configuration. This means opt/Makefile should be created unconditionally.

There are two ways to setup a project like this. You can use Automake conditionals (see Conditionals) or use Autoconf AC_SUBST variables (see Setting Output Variables in The Autoconf Manual). Using Automake conditionals is the preferred solution. Before we illustrate these two possibilities, let’s introduce DIST_SUBDIRS.


Automake considers two sets of directories, defined by the variables SUBDIRS and DIST_SUBDIRS.

SUBDIRS contains the subdirectories of the current directory that must be built (see Recursing subdirectories). It must be defined manually; Automake will never guess a directory is to be built. As we will see in the next two sections, it is possible to define it conditionally so that some directory will be omitted from the build.

DIST_SUBDIRS is used in rules that need to recurse in all directories, even those that have been conditionally left out of the build. Recall our example where we may not want to build subdirectory opt/, but yet we want to distribute it? This is where DIST_SUBDIRS comes into play: ‘opt’ may not appear in SUBDIRS, but it must appear in DIST_SUBDIRS.

Precisely, DIST_SUBDIRS is used by ‘make maintainer-clean’, ‘make distclean’ and ‘make dist’. All other recursive rules use SUBDIRS.

If SUBDIRS is defined conditionally using Automake conditionals, Automake will define DIST_SUBDIRS automatically from the possible values of SUBDIRS in all conditions.

If SUBDIRS contains AC_SUBST variables, DIST_SUBDIRS will not be defined correctly because Automake does not know the possible values of these variables. In this case DIST_SUBDIRS needs to be defined manually.

7.2.2 Conditional subdirectories with AM_CONDITIONAL

configure should output the Makefile for each directory and define a condition into which opt/ should be built.

AM_CONDITIONAL([COND_OPT], [test "$want_opt" = yes])
AC_CONFIG_FILES([Makefile src/Makefile opt/Makefile])

Then SUBDIRS can be defined in the top-level as follows.

  MAYBE_OPT = opt

As you can see, running make will rightly recurse into src/ and maybe opt/.

As you can’t see, running ‘make dist’ will recurse into both src/ and opt/ directories because ‘make dist’, unlike ‘make all’, doesn’t use the SUBDIRS variable. It uses the DIST_SUBDIRS variable.

In this case Automake will define ‘DIST_SUBDIRS = src opt’ automatically because it knows that MAYBE_OPT can contain ‘opt’ in some condition.

7.2.3 Conditional Subdirectories with AC_SUBST

Another possibility is to define MAYBE_OPT from ./configure using AC_SUBST:

if test "$want_opt" = yes; then
AC_CONFIG_FILES([Makefile src/Makefile opt/Makefile])

In this case the top-level should look as follows.

DIST_SUBDIRS = src opt

The drawback is that since Automake cannot guess what the possible values of MAYBE_OPT are, it is necessary to define DIST_SUBDIRS.

7.2.4 Non-configured Subdirectories

The semantics of DIST_SUBDIRS are often misunderstood by some users that try to configure and build subdirectories conditionally. Here by configuring we mean creating the Makefile (it might also involve running a nested configure script: this is a costly operation that explains why people want to do it conditionally, but only the Makefile is relevant to the discussion).

The above examples all assume that every Makefile is created, even in directories that are not going to be built. The simple reason is that we want ‘make dist’ to distribute even the directories that are not being built (e.g., platform-dependent code), hence make dist must recurse into the subdirectory, hence this directory must be configured and appear in DIST_SUBDIRS.

Building packages that do not configure every subdirectory is a tricky business, and we do not recommend it to the novice as it is easy to produce an incomplete tarball by mistake. We will not discuss this topic in depth here, yet for the adventurous here are a few rules to remember.

  • SUBDIRS should always be a subset of DIST_SUBDIRS.

    It makes little sense to have a directory in SUBDIRS that is not in DIST_SUBDIRS. Think of the former as a way to tell which directories listed in the latter should be built.

  • Any directory listed in DIST_SUBDIRS and SUBDIRS must be configured.

    I.e., the Makefile must exists or the recursive make rules will not be able to process the directory.

  • Any configured directory must be listed in DIST_SUBDIRS.

    So that the cleaning rules remove the generated Makefiles. It would be correct to see DIST_SUBDIRS as a variable that lists all the directories that have been configured.

In order to prevent recursion in some non-configured directory you must therefore ensure that this directory does not appear in DIST_SUBDIRS (and SUBDIRS). For instance, if you define SUBDIRS conditionally using AC_SUBST and do not define DIST_SUBDIRS explicitly, it will be default to ‘$(SUBDIRS)’; another possibility is to force DIST_SUBDIRS = $(SUBDIRS).

Of course, directories that are omitted from DIST_SUBDIRS will not be distributed unless you make other arrangements for this to happen (for instance, always running ‘make dist’ in a configuration where all directories are known to appear in DIST_SUBDIRS; or writing a dist-hook target to distribute these directories).

In few packages, non-configured directories are not even expected to be distributed. Although these packages do not require the aforementioned extra arrangements, there is another pitfall. If the name of a directory appears in SUBDIRS or DIST_SUBDIRS, automake will make sure the directory exists. Consequently automake cannot be run on such a distribution when one directory has been omitted. One way to avoid this check is to use the AC_SUBST method to declare conditional directories; since automake does not know the values of AC_SUBST variables it cannot ensure the corresponding directory exists.

Next: An Alternative Approach to Subdirectories, Previous: Recursing subdirectories, Up: Directories   [Contents][Index]