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27.2 missing and AM_MAINTAINER_MODE


The missing script is a wrapper around several maintainer tools, designed to warn users if a maintainer tool is required but missing. Typical maintainer tools are autoconf, automake, bison, etc. Because file generated by these tools are shipped with the other sources of a package, these tools shouldn’t be required during a user build and they are not checked for in configure.

However, if for some reason a rebuild rule is triggered and involves a missing tool, missing will notice it and warn the user, even suggesting how to obtain such a tool (at least in case it is a well-known one, like makeinfo or bison). This is more helpful and user-friendly than just having the rebuild rules spewing out a terse error message like ‘sh: tool: command not found’. Similarly, missing will warn the user if it detects that a maintainer tool it attempted to use seems too old (be warned that diagnosing this correctly is typically more difficult that detecting missing tools, and requires cooperation from the tool itself, so it won’t always work).

If the required tool is installed, missing will run it and won’t attempt to continue after failures. This is correct during development: developers love fixing failures. However, users with missing or too old maintainer tools may get an error when the rebuild rule is spuriously triggered, halting the build. This failure to let the build continue is one of the arguments of the AM_MAINTAINER_MODE advocates.


AM_MAINTAINER_MODE allows you to choose whether the so called "rebuild rules" should be enabled or disabled. With AM_MAINTAINER_MODE([enable]), they are enabled by default, otherwise they are disabled by default. In the latter case, if you have AM_MAINTAINER_MODE in, and run ‘./configure && make’, then make will *never* attempt to rebuild configure, Makefile.ins, Lex or Yacc outputs, etc. I.e., this disables build rules for files that are usually distributed and that users should normally not have to update.

The user can override the default setting by passing either ‘--enable-maintainer-mode’ or ‘--disable-maintainer-mode’ to configure.

People use AM_MAINTAINER_MODE either because they do not want their users (or themselves) annoyed by timestamps lossage (see CVS), or because they simply can’t stand the rebuild rules and prefer running maintainer tools explicitly.

AM_MAINTAINER_MODE also allows you to disable some custom build rules conditionally. Some developers use this feature to disable rules that need exotic tools that users may not have available.

Several years ago François Pinard pointed out several arguments against this AM_MAINTAINER_MODE macro. Most of them relate to insecurity. By removing dependencies you get non-dependable builds: changes to sources files can have no effect on generated files and this can be very confusing when unnoticed. He adds that security shouldn’t be reserved to maintainers (what --enable-maintainer-mode suggests), on the contrary. If one user has to modify a, then either should be updated or a warning should be output (this is what Automake uses missing for) but the last thing you want is that nothing happens and the user doesn’t notice it (this is what happens when rebuild rules are disabled by AM_MAINTAINER_MODE).

Jim Meyering, the inventor of the AM_MAINTAINER_MODE macro was swayed by François’s arguments, and got rid of AM_MAINTAINER_MODE in all of his packages.

Still many people continue to use AM_MAINTAINER_MODE, because it helps them working on projects where all files are kept under version control, and because missing isn’t enough if you have the wrong version of the tools.

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