I've been looking for useful, efficient, user-friendly alternatives to build tools like GNU autotools and cmake. I've even created lists of build tool alternatives at various wikis and sites related to programming and compilers. If there's interest, I can post some of that information here along with pros and cons of various tools. I think, during my searches, I've found some good alternatives for my own projects and to use with my own build script generator.

If you're looking for build tools for your own projects, you may want to try the following tools. I'm also doing some active development and patching to some of the tools and would be interested in comparing notes with others on ways to use and improve them (see below for details).

GNU autotools is probably the most popular build system for most C/C++ programs. So, what's wrong with it? Just to build a C program, you need two interpreters (m4 and Perl). You also need autoconf, automake and make. The input to these programs is not necessarily intuitive to a C programmer. Many C programs, especially those using Qt make use of cmake which has less dependencies, but I've also found it less than intuitive. What if you want to build a system from scratch. You can get make to build without any other build tools. I've done it. From there, you can work to build the rest of the gnu autotools toolchain. To build cmake, you need to bootstrap the build using another instance of cmake. So where do you get the original build of cmake for the system? There is a way to build cmake with gnu autotools, but I've found it rather buggy.

After looking through several make alternatives, I really have not found a good replacement for it. The syntax takes some getting used to, but I've been able to find ways to get it do whatever I need it to do. There are situations where make is very inefficient, but there are work-arounds. Efficiency really depends on how well you craft your makefiles. I attempted to find some alternatives to the GNU version of make. BSD make has very different syntax, so only the simplest make scripts work with both tools. I find GNU make used more often than BSD make for building Open Source projects and it has features that were never added to BSD make. There's a Perl implementation of make, but that requires a Perl interpreter. My main issue with GNU make is that it is only supported on certain platforms. I sent in a bug report about GNU make not working properly on native Windows and I even sent in a patch. The developers were not interested in supporting native Windows. They thought it was enough that there were versions that worked with Cygwin and msys. Unfortunately, I've yet to find an alternative to make that handles the GNU makefile sysntax and doesn't require installation of an interpreter.

I've decided that until I can find anything better, I will continue to use GNU make. Since it is Free Software, I can modify the code to work on other systems that GNU make developers don't care to support. I can distribute the modified version if I distribute the source code. So, I use a modified version of GNU make that fixes platform specific bugs that I've encountered.

After searching through many alternatives, I've found a wonderful replacement to configure/autoconf. It's also more compact and I find it more intuitive than cmake. It's called CDetect. It's written in C and is comprised of only 3 files. The project is no longer actively developed. However, I've been making several modifications of my own to get it to suit my projects' needs. I've implemented some of the items on the original developers To Do lists. I'm still making modifications as I find features that are lacking, but it makes a useful replacement to configure. I've converted some of the Open Source projects I build from source regularly to use CDetect and custom makefiles instead of their build systems. If you're building from source, such as with a Linux from Scratch system, using CDetect means you don't need Perl, and several other programs installed just to build a C/C++ program.

Freedesktop.org advocates the use of pkg-config. It's used by many GNU projects as well. While I originally thought it was yet another complication when building from source, I've found pkg-config rather useful in simplifying build scripts. You don't have to worry about finding the right library, pkg-config can tell you where to find it. If you're cross-compiling, you can get have two sets of directories with pkg-config information, one for cross-compiled libraries and one for regular libraries. Change the path in an environment variable and your build script knows where to find the appropriate libraries. What I really didn't like about pkg-config was the complexity of the program and that it required a circular dependency with glib. I don't even want glib on my system at this point. Luckily, there is an alternative with friendly licensing called pkgconf. It's a drop in replacement for pkg-config. It's very helpful in finding where the right libraries are on a system. I've gone from never using pkg-config to use pkgconf in almost all my build scripts.

So, between CDetect, pkgconf and make, I now have all the tools I need to use with my build system in order to build the Open Source programs and libraries I use most in an automated fashion. The tools are all written in C, so they require no special interpreters or other languages just to build them.

If you'd like to try out CDetect with my patches or see some of the build scripts I'm using with these tools, check out the archive link on my LM BLD system page:
http://www.distasis.com/cpp/lmbld.htm

I've added several features to my patched version of CDetect. Check the notes.txt file for details. I'm currently making some new modifications and would love input from other developers/users. If you'd like to make suggestions or compare notes, please contact me through the CppDesign mailing list or my web site:
http://www.distasis.com/connect.htm

July 2017

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