October 2014 saw the release of GNU make 4.1. Although this release doesn’t have any really remarkable new features, the release is notable because it comes just one year after the 4.0 release — that’s the least time between releases in more than a decade. Hopefully, this is the start of a new era of more frequent, smaller releases for this venerable project which is one of the oldest still active projects in the GNU suite. Read on for notes about the new features in GNU make 4.1.
MAKE_TERMOUT and MAKE_TERMERR
Starting with 4.1, GNU make defines two additional variables: MAKE_TERMOUT and MAKE_TERMERR. These are set to non-empty values if make believes stdout/stderr is attached to a terminal (rather than a file). This enables users to solve a problem introduced by the output synchronization feature that was added in GNU make 4.0: when output synchronization is enabled, all child processes in fact write to a temporary file, even though in effect they are writing to the console. In other words, the implementation details of output synchronization may interfere with behaviors in child processes like output colorization which require a terminal for correct operation. If MAKE_TERMOUT or MAKE_TERMERR is set, then the user may explicitly direct such commands to maintain colorized output despite the fact that they appear to be writing to a file.
Enhanced $(file) function
The $(file) function was added in GNU make 4.0 to enable writing to files from a makefile without having to invoke a second process to do so. For example, where previously you had to do something like $(shell echo hello > myfile), now you can instead use $(file > myfile,foo). In theory this is more efficient, since it avoids creating another process, and it enables the user to easily write large blocks of text which would exceed command-line length limitations on some platforms.
In GNU make 4.1, the $(file) function has been enhanced such that the text to be written may be omitted from the function call. This allows $(file) to work as a sort of “poor man’s” replacement for touch, although having reviewed the bug report that resulted in this change, I think this is more an “enhancement of convenience” than a deliberate attempt to evolve the program. Of course I have to give a shout out to my friend Tim Murphy, who filed the bug report that led to this enhancement — nice work, Tim!
Relaxed constraints for mixing explicit and implicit rules
The final feature change in GNU make 4.1 is that make will emit a regular error rather than a fatal error (which terminates the build) when both explicit and pattern targets are specified as outputs of a rule, like this:
This is an interesting change mostly for the high level of drama surrounding it. That bit of syntax is clearly illegal — in fact, if the pattern target is listed first rather than the explicit, GNU make has long identified this as invalid syntax, terminating the parse with *** mixed implicit and normal rules. Stop. Unfortunately, due to a defect in older versions of GNU make this construct is not prohibited when the explicit rule is named first.
In 3.82, the GNU make maintainers fixed the defect: whether or not the explicit target is named first, GNU make would identify the invalid syntax and terminate parsing. Everything was fine for about a year, and then? People flipped out. As it turns out, this construct is used by a prominant open source project: the Linux kernel. The offending syntax had been eliminated from the main development branch shortly after the 3.82 release, but third-party developers suddenly found themselves unable to build legacy versions of the kernel with the latest release of GNU make. A bug report was filed and generated 21 reponses, when the average GNU make bug report has only 3. Ultimately, the maintainers relented by reducing the severity to a non-fatal error for the 4.1 release — but with a stern message that this will likely become a fatal error again in a future release.
Bug fixes and thoughts
In addition to the bigger items identified above, the 4.1 release includes about two dozen other bug fixes. Overall, this release feels like a minor one — as often happens when release frequency increases, the individual releases become less interesting. From an agile/continuous delivery standpoint, that’s exactly what you want. But I’ve found that it is also difficult for a team that’s accustomed to less frequent releases with larger payloads to transition to smaller, more frequent releases while still incorporating large changes that take longer than one release to implement. Of course, one point does not make a line — that is, we can’t tell from this release alone whether the intention is to switch to a more frequent release cadence, or whether this release is an exception. If they are trying to increase the frequency, I think it will be very interesting to see how the GNU make development team adapts to the new cadence. Regardless, I’d like to congratulate the team for this release and I look forward to seeing what comes next.