It seems that every programmer eventually writes one of more of the following: a text editor, a ray tracer, a compilers, or a build system. The number of build systems out there is almost a running joke in computing.

With that said, my build system is called 'work', named for similarity with 'make'. I didn't want to create something just like every other build system, so I thought I would try to sidestep all of their many subtle complexity and create a "low-tech" build system. No dependency resolution, no tree or graph or anything, no complicated rules, no implicit flow control. Just a C program that builds a C program.

Building software with a program written in the program's own language was inspired by Jonathan Blow's Jai and Andrew Kelley's Zig builds, although not operating in the same way. I had this thought while I was writing a Makefile, building a bunch of C files, and wondering why I couldn't just loop through a list of files and build them in turn. The implicit Makefile rules can become complex, and I often just want to build a few files and link them- nothing fancy.

I had recently discovering tcc, the tiny C compiler, which is pretty awesome for its size, speed, and the fact that it can be used as a library. I was especially interested in the idea of a C compiler as a simple library with only a handful of function. It seems like there are a lot of neat things one could do with this, and a build system is among them.

How does it Work?

The concept of Work is that you write a C program while simply calls a few library functions to build up commands to run, and then runs them. This does not involve building a dependency graph and passing control off to the resolver- you build the commands you want and run the commands, with help in handling flags, linking, etc.

The build program, called 'work.c', would be compiled from scratch every time using libtcc, which is about 10 times faster then gcc in my experience and can compile small programs fast enough to feel instantaneous. This program would be built and linked with a libwork library, and could call functions to build and run commands. I never completely fleshed this idea out as I ran into troubles, but this is the idea.

What makes this interesting to me is the idea of a nearly instant build, assuming you build your C program with tcc and not gcc or clang. The question I wanted to answer is whether build systems like make are necessary, or just a product of a slow toolchain. In principal you could rebuild your whole program very quickly, or add little bits of logic into your work build to only rebuild certain portions.

Internals

The work interface is pretty small- there is the work state structure WrkState which holds your tcc state, and the WrkTarget which contains all the information about a command you want to run.

The work build system is specialized for building C programs, and other system's language programs, so while you can have a general command (say to generate code, or create a build directory, etc), commands can also be tagged as creating a static or dynamic object, exe, etc.

A WrkTarget encodes which compiler flags (or generally which command line flags) you want, the library paths, the include path, input files, everything that goes into compiling a C program. It also has a pointer to a parent WrkTarget, which I intended to use to help with grouping flags and with outputing flags from one module to another, to communicate compilation information outside of a module.

The WrkTarget can be run, which builds up a command string using all the options and the command line tool defined in the WrkTarget. It then simply calls 'system' to run the command. The concept was that you would use tcc so that the lack of caching would be less of a problem, but nothing enforces that.

The general flow here is as follows:

  • The user runs the 'work' command.
  • Work finds a work.c file in the current directory (or it is provided a file name). This mirrors how a Makefile is run by make.
  • Work compiles this file using libtcc at runtime, and links in libwork to provide the functionalty used in the work.c file.
  • Work then runs the work.c file's wrk_main function, providing the WrkState and a WrkTarget if you want to pass in extra flags that can be used in the build.
  • The wrk_main function builds the project by creating WrkTargets and calling wrk_target_build. There commands can generate object files, shared objects, static objects, executables, and anything else.
  • Ideally the wrk_main function could call into other work.c files for building submodules, but I never made it this far. I considered having wrk_main return an array of the files it built to help other modules use them. For example a module may return the .o files for the parent module to link into its executable.

This concept does work- I was able to get far enough for work to build itself- I ran into trouble with libtcc compiling code that crashes and seems to be undebuggable.

Example

The example work file shows what it takes to compile a single file this way.

You have to create your work target, add your file and flags, and then call wrk_target_build. This call executes your command, building the main.c example file. The nice thing here would have been that you could defined WrkTargets with groups of flags and reuse them, such as by linking then with the parent flag, and it would be very explicit which commands you used, and which files you compiled. If there was a problem, you could debug with a debugger/printf/logging like normal.

There is a more extensive example that compiles work itself with itself. This shows looping through flags and files, and the clear, explicit control flow you get from using C to build your code.

I was planning on having some convienence functions to create targets from the environment, using variables like CC, CFLAGS, LDFLAGS, and LDLIBS, which you could then override if necessary, or provide defaults. Perhaps you could even build a target through the environment, and then link it to a target with defaults, such that anything that was not defined (say, there is no CC defined), gets filled out by the set of provided defaults. I never made it this far however.

Troubles

I likely won't finish this project. I ran into some issue where I believe I have a bug in code that is compiled at runtime, and therefore not visible to gdb. While I like this project, I am not invested enough to restructure it to allow better debugging, or to figure out some subtle issue causing the crash.

This is really a shame, but it was just a proof of concept anyway, so this writeup is the real result of the work I put into it.

Conclusion

If this turned out to work well enough, perhaps it could be a much simpler, lower tech build solution. I know that using tcc isn't an option in many cases, and in general the concept might be completely bad, but I think its interesting enough that you might be able to sidestep all of incredible subtly of build systems, dependency resolution, dynamic dependencies, changes in files, actual vs declared dependencies, all the kinds of problems that seem to plague all build tools, simply by making things really, really fast.