Porting APT to CMake

Ever since it’s creation back in the dark ages, APT shipped with it’s own build system consisting of autoconf and a bunch of makefiles. In 2009, I felt like replacing that with something more standard, and because nobody really liked autotools, decided to go with CMake. Well, the bazaar branch was never really merged back in 2009.

Fast forward 7 years to 2016. A few months ago, we noticed that our build system had trouble with correct dependencies in parallel building. So, in search for a way out, I picked up my CMake branch from 2009 last Thursday and spent the whole weekend working on it, and today I am happy to announce that I merged it into master:

123 files changed, 1674 insertions(+), 3205 deletions(-)

More than 1500 lines less build system code. Quite impressive, eh? This also includes about 200 lines of less code in debian/, as that switched from prehistoric debhelper stuff to modern dh (compat level 9, almost ready for 10).

The annoying Tale of Targets vs Files

Talking about CMake: I don’t really love it. As you might know, CMake differentiates between targets and files. Targets can in some cases depend on files (generated by a command in the same directory), but overall files are not really targets. You also cannot have a target with the same name as a file you are generating in a custom command, you have to rename your target (make is OK with the generated stuff, but ninja complains about cycles because your custom target and your custom command have the same name).

Byproducts for the (time) win

One interesting thing about CMake and Ninja are byproducts. In our tree, we are building C++ files. We also have .pot templates depending on them, and .mo files depending on the templates (we have multiple domains, and merge the per-domain .pot with the all-domain .po file during the build to get a per-domain .mo). Now, if we just let them depend naively, changing a C++ file causes the .pot file to be regenerated which in turns causes us to build .mo files for every freaking language in the package. Even if nothing changed.

Byproducts solve this problem. Instead of just building the .pot file, we also create a stamp file (AKA the witness) and write the .pot file (without a header) into a temporary name and only copy it to its final name if the content changed. The .pot file is declared as a byproduct of the command.

The command doing the .pot->.mo step still depends on the .pot file (the byproduct), but as that only changes now if strings change, the .mo files only get rebuild if I change a translatable string. We still need to ensure that that the .pot file is actually built before we try to use it – the solution here is to specify a custom target depending on the witness and then have the target containing the .mo build commands depend on that target.

Now if you use  make, you might now this trick already. In make, the byproducts remain undeclared, though, while in CMake we can now actually express them, and they are used by the Ninja generator and the Ninja build tool if you chose that over make (try it out, it’s fast).

Further Work

Some command names are hardcoded, I should find_program() them. Also cross-building the package does not yet work successfully, but it only requires a tiny amount of patches in debhelper and/or cmake.

I also tried building the package on a Fedora docker image (with dpkg installed, it’s available in the Fedora sources). While I could eventually get the programs build and most of the integration test suite to pass, there are some minor issues to fix, mostly in the documentation building and GTest department: Fedora ships its docbook stylesheets in a different location, and ships GTest as a pre-compiled library, and not a source tree.

I have not yet tested building on exotic platforms like macOS, or even a BSD. Please do and report back. In Debian, CMake is not up-to.date enough on the non-Linux platforms to build APT due to test suite failures, I hope those can be fixed/disabled soon (it appears to be a timing issue AFAICT).

I hope that we eventually get some non-Debian backends for APT. I’d love that.


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