How Not to Use VPATH


One of the most common things people try to do with GNU make is use the VPATH feature for multi-architecture builds.

This is certainly possible, but it isn't nearly as straightforward as you might first imagine. This isn't necessarily due to deficiencies in VPATH, per se, as much as a lack of understanding of what VPATH is for and how it works.

In particular, you must take note of Paul's Third Rule of Makefiles! This is the key. VPATH was designed to find sources, not targets.


To try to prove this to you, we'll walk along beside someone attempting to create a makefile using VPATH to place targets into another directory from the source files.

To set this up yourself, construct an environment like this:

  $ mkdir /tmp/mktest

  $ cd /tmp/mktest

  $ mkdir obj src

  $ cd src

  $ cat > foo.c
  int main() { extern int bar(); return bar(); }
  ^D

  $ cat > bar.c
  int bar() { return 0; }
  ^D


Step One

The first attempt at using VPATH usually goes something like this:

  OBJDIR = ../obj

  VPATH = $(OBJDIR)

  %.o : %.c
          $(COMPILE.c) $< -o $(OBJDIR)/$@

  all: foo

  foo: foo.o bar.o
          $(LINK.o) $^ $(LDLIBS) -o $(OBJDIR)/$@

There are many things wrong with this makefile. First, note that both the pattern rule to build .o's and the explicit rule to build target foo violate Paul's Second Rule of Makefiles.

Although they say ``the commands I list here will create a X from a file Y'', that is not what the commands actually do. Instead, they create ../obj/X from Y. This is not the same thing at all, and GNU make will become very upset with the deception.

So, what will happen? Well, GNU make will build the .o's correctly, but when it tries to build link the executable it will think that they are foo.o and bar.o, not ../obj/foo.o and ../obj/bar.o, and so it will invoke the linker like this:

  $ gmake
  cc -c foo.c -o ../obj/foo.o
  cc -c bar.c -o ../obj/bar.o
  cc foo.o bar.o -o ../obj/foo
  ld: foo.o: No such file or directory

The link will, of course, fail, since the .o files don't exist in the current directory, but rather in $(OBJDIR)/.


Step Two

Seeing the above error, people try to build again. The second time, it will work:

  $ gmake
  cc ../obj/foo.o ../obj/bar.o -o ../obj/foo

Why did it work this time? Well, this time, for the first time, VPATH actually came into play. When make wanted to build foo, it looked for its dependencies first. Using VPATH, it was able to locate both ../obj/foo.o and ../obj/bar.o, and it linked them together.

Well, it's certainly annoying that the link fails the first time. But, this isn't the worst of the problems with this setup. Suppose you modify foo.c and want to now rebuild. What will happen next depends on which version of GNU make you're using; with make 3.75 and below you'll get a different result, also incorrect (it will say ``Nothing to be done for `all'''). Here we'll describe the newer GNU make:

  $ touch foo.c

  $ gmake -f step1.mk
  cc -c foo.c -o ../obj/foo.o
  cc foo.o obj/bar.o -o obj/foo
  ld: foo.o: No such file or directory

Argh! It broke again. Same reason as before. Once again, re-running the make gets the link to work.


Step Three

Well, that's obviously not acceptable. Once this problem is understood, people usually try to fix their makefiles by adding $(OBJDIR)/ at strategic points, perhaps like this:

  OBJDIR = ../obj

  VPATH = $(OBJDIR)

  $(OBJDIR)/%.o : %.c
          $(COMPILE.c) $< -o $@

  all: foo

  foo: foo.o bar.o
          $(LINK.o) $^ $(LDLIBS) -o $(OBJDIR)/$@

The creation of foo is still incorrect according to the Second Rule of Makefiles, but since nothing depends on foo in our example, this incorrectness will probably go unnoticed--at least until you attempt to create an install rule, perhaps.

Here the makefile wants to rely on VPATH to locate the .o files, rather than prefixing them all with $(OBJDIR)/. A reasonable thought, perhaps, but this is not how VPATH works.

This is what happens if we start with a clean slate:

  $ gmake
  cc -c foo.c -o foo.o
  cc -c bar.c -o bar.o
  cc foo.o bar.o -o ../obj/foo

What happened?! Well, in some sense it worked since it compiled and linked everything OK, but it put the .o's in the current directory instead of in the $(OBJDIR)/ directory!

To understand this, first remember that make always builds from the bottom up, not from the top down. By that I mean it finds the target it wants to build, then looks at its dependencies, and it's dependencies, etc. So far it hasn't tried to build anything. Finally, when it gets to the bottom (no dependencies, or dependencies that can't be rebuilt), it walks back up, attempting to build every target.

How does that explain things? Well, to build foo, make examines the first dependency, foo.o. Then it tries to figure out how to build a foo.o. You want it to use your new rule, but it won't, because it's trying to build foo.o, not $(OBJDIR)/foo.o. So your rule doesn't match. Instead it matches the builtin rule for building .o's from .c's, and builds them in the local directory.

Step Four

Now people usually throw up their hands and just add $(OBJDIR)/ all over the place. If they're tidy, they might try to use some of GNU make's functions to make things a little simpler to read/modify:

  PROGS   = foo
  OBJECTS = foo.o bar.o

  # Shouldn't need to change anything below here...

  OBJDIR = ../obj

  VPATH = $(OBJDIR)

  $(OBJDIR)/%.o : %.c
          $(COMPILE.c) $< -o $@

  OBJPROG = $(addprefix $(OBJDIR)/, $(PROGS))

  all: $(OBJPROG)

  $(OBJPROG): $(addprefix $(OBJDIR)/, $(OBJECTS))
          $(LINK.o) $^ $(LDLIBS) -o $@

Well! That should fix it! And indeed it does. This makefile will work correctly in all situations. However, there's something a little strange about it.

As written, it doesn't need VPATH at all! It explicitly adds the path to all the dependencies, so VPATH is never consulted.


Conclusion

So we've shown that the only reliable way to construct a makefile that will place targets into a remote directory, rather than the current directory, is by prefixing all the targets with that directory path. In other words, VPATH is useless to us for this purpose.

How depressing. Well, then, what the heck is VPATH good for, anyway? As described in Paul's Third Rule of Makefiles, VPATH is good for finding sources, not for finding targets.

That seems impractical. After all, developers work on source files, not target files, so requiring them to change to the target directory before running make is a pain.

However, what if they didn't have to? Click here to read about the method I use for handling this common scenario.


Paul D. Smith <psmith@gnu.org>
Last modified: Fri Jun 23 18:14:41 EDT 2000

Copyright © 1997 Paul D. Smith --- Verbatim copying and distribution is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.