Nest Labs Build - GNU Autotools


The Nest Labs Build - GNU Autotools (nlbuild-autotools) provides a customized, turnkey build system framework, based on GNU autotools, for standalone Nest Labs (or other) software packages that need to support not only building on and targeting against standalone build host systems but also embedded target systems using GCC-based or -compatible toolchains.

In addition, nlbuild-autotools endeavors to make it easy to support:

  • Unit and Functional Tests (via ‘make check’)
  • Code Coverage (via ‘make coverage’)
  • Code Formatting (via ‘make pretty’ or ‘make pretty-check’)
  • Documentation
  • Distribution Generation (via ‘make dist’ or ‘make docdist’)

Users and System Integrators

Getting Started

This project is typically subtreed (or git submoduled) into a target project repository and serves as the seed for that project's build system.

Assuming that you already have a project repository established in git, perform the following in your project repository:

1. % git remote add nlbuild-autotools ssh://<PATH_TO_REPOSITORY>/nlbuild-autotools.git
2. % git fetch nlbuild-autotools

You can place the nlbuild-autotools package anywhere in your project; however, by convention, “third_party/nlbuild-autotools/repo” is recommended:

3. % mkdir third_party
4. % git subtree add --prefix=third_party/nlbuild-autotools/repo --squash --message="Add subtree mirror of repository 'ssh://<PATH_TO_REPOSITORY>/nlbuild-autotools.git' branch 'master' at commit 'HEAD'." nlbuild-autotools HEAD

At this point, you now have the nlbuild-autotools package integrated into your project. The next step is using the nlbuild-autotools-provided examples as templates. To do this, a convenience script has been provided that will get you started. You can tune and customize the results, as needed, for your project. From the top level of your project tree:

5. % third_party/nlbuild-autotools/repo/scripts/mkskeleton -I third_party/nlbuild-autotools/repo --package-description "My Fantastic Package" --package-name "mfp"

Supported Build Host Systems

For Linux users, you likely already have GNU autotools installed through your system‘s distribution (e.g. Ubuntu). However, if your GNU autotools packages are incomplete or downrevision relative to what’s required from nlbuild-autotools, nlbuild-autotools can be built and installed or can be downloaded and expanded in your local nlbuild-autotools tree.

The nlbuild-autotools system supports and has been tested against the following POSIX-based build host systems:

  • i686-pc-cygwin
  • i686-pc-linux-gnu
  • x86_64-apple-darwin
  • x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu

Build and Install {#Build_and_Install}

Simply invoke make tools at the top-level of your nlbuild-autotools tree or, for example, from your package or project in which you have integrated nlbuild-autotools:

make -C third_party/nlbuild-autotools/repo tools

Download and Expand

Alongside nlbuild-autotools distributions are pre-built architecture-independent and -dependent distributions of the form:

  • nlbuild-autotools-common-version.tar.{gz,xz}
  • nlbuild-autotools-host-version.tar.{gz,xz}

Find and download the appropriate pair of nlbuild-autotools-common and nlbuild-autotools-host for your system and then expand them from the top-level of your nlbuild-autotools tree with a command similar to the following example:

% tar --directory tools/host -zxvf nlbuild-autotools-common-1.1.tar.gz
% tar --directory tools/host -zxvf nlbuild-autotools-x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu-1.1.tar.gz

Please see the FAQ section for more background on why this package provides options for these pre-built tools.

Package Organization

The nlbuild-autotools package is laid out as follows:

autoconf/GNU autoconf infrastructure provided by nlbuild-autotools.
autoconf/m4/GNU m4 macros for provided by nlbuild-autotools.
automake/GNU automake header and footer infrastructure provided by nlbuild-autotools.
automake/post/GNU automake footers.
automake/post.amGNU automake footer included by every makefile.
automake/pre/GNU automake headers.
automake/pre.amGNU automake header included by every makefile.
examples/Example template files for starting your own nlbuild-autotools-based project.
scripts/Automation scripts for regenerating the build system and for managing package versions.
tools/Qualified packages of and pre-built instances of GNU autotools.
tools/host/Pre-built instances of GNU autotools (if installed).
tools/host/i686-pc-cygwin/Pre-built instances of GNU autotools for 32-bit Cygwin (if installed).
tools/host/i686-pc-linux-gnu/Pre-built instances of GNU autotools for 32-bit Linux (if installed).
tools/host/x86_64-apple-darwin/Pre-built instances of GNU autotools for 64-bit Mac OS X (if installed).
tools/host/x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu/Pre-built instances of GNU autotools for 64-bit Linux (if installed).
tools/packages/Qualified packages for GNU autotools.

Internal Package Dependencies and Repositories

Your package may have dependencies on other packages that can either be inlined into your package or can be specified externally. If your package has such dependencies, nlbuild-autotools contains support to facilitate easy standalone tests and a successful ‘make distcheck’ target (which effectively reqires ‘configure’ with no arguments to produce a successful build) without incurring the costs of inlining these dependencies into your own package.

nlbuild-autotools supports this by providing a means to pull down external git package repositories that your package depends on using git submodules when you use and support --with-=internal as a location for your dependent packages.

The example ‘Makefile-bootstrap’ has been provided as infrastructure to make this easy for you as a package maintainer and for your package users. The bootstrap makefile supports both the generic ‘repos’ target to pull down all repositories on which your project depends as well as relative path targets to where those repositories might live in your project when they are internal (e.g, third_party/package/repo). Consequently, you can, for example, invoke:

% make -f Makefile-bootstrap repos


% make -f Makefile-bootstrap third_party/package/repo

to pull down all repositories or just the repository, for example, placed at ‘third_party/package/repos’.

The bootstrap makefile generated for your package is yours to edit and extend. In fact, hooks have been added so that you can do package-specific work, including recursively pulling down repositories for other packages.

However, an even better and easier approach for your package users is to integrate the bootstrap makefile repository process into your configure script such that when an “internal” package location is detected, it invokes the bootstrap makefile to perform this work on behalf of the user. For example:

# Depending on whether my-package has been configured for an internal
# location, it's directory stem within this package needs to be set
# accordingly. In addition, if the location is internal, then we need
# to attempt to pull it down using the bootstrap makefile.

if test "${nl_with_my_package}" = "internal"; then

    AC_MSG_NOTICE([attempting to create internal ${my_package_dirstem}]) 
    ${MAKE-make} --no-print-directory -C ${ac_confdir} -f Makefile-bootstrap ${my_package_dirstem}

    if test $? -ne 0; then
        AC_MSG_ERROR([failed to create ${my_package_dirstem}. Please check your network connection or the correctness of 'repos.conf'])

AC_SUBST(MY_PACKAGE_SUBDIRS, [${maybe_my_package_dirstem}])
AM_CONDITIONAL([PACKAGE_WITH_MY_PACKAGE_INTERNAL], [test "${nl_with_my_package}" = "internal"])

Note, the use of AC_SUBST on MY_PACKAGE_SUBDIRS to provide a mechanism to conditionally populate SUBDIRS in the appropriate automake file locations such that GNU autoconf does not generate syntax errors about the potential absence of the subdirectory at bootstrap time.

Of course, in either case, network connectivity is required to reach the external git server hosting the packages on which your project depends.

In addition to the ‘repos’ target, the bootstrap makefile also supports the ‘clean-repos’ target that undoes the work of the ‘repos’ target. It will clean-up all of the synchronized repositories, all the while being careful to ensure it does not disturb existing git or git submodule state your project might be using.

The infrastructure all works, of course, whether you are working in or out of git and whether you have colocated or non-colocated source and build directories.


This dependent repository feature of nlbuild-autotools uses a file, ‘repos.conf’, at the top level of your project source directory to determine what external project repositories your package might want to pull down, the location of their git server, the branch you want to pull, and the location in your project in which you want to place them.

The format of ‘repos.conf’ precisely follows that used by git submodules. More information is available in ‘Makefile-bootstrap’ or with man gitmodules or git help gitmodules.


Q: Why does nlbuild-autotools have an option for its own built versions of GNU autotools rather than leveraging whatever versions exist on the build host system?

A: Some build host systems such as Mac OS X may not have GNU autotools at all. Other build host systems, such as Linux, may have different distributions or different versions of those distributions in which the versions of GNU autotools are apt to be different.

This differences lead to different primary and secondary autotools output and, as a consequence, a divergent user and support experience. To avoid this, this package provides a pre-built, qualified set of GNU autotools along with a comprehensive, standalone set of scripts to drive them without reliance on those versions of the tools on the build host system.

Q: When I rebootstrap my package, I see that a number of files related to nlbuild-autotools have unexpectedly changed. Why is this happening?

A: From time to time, the packages that comprise GNU autotools change upstream. Frequently, common host operating systems (e.g., Ubuntu) take a stable snapshot of the current autotools for a major release (e.g., Ubuntu 14). On the next major release (e.g., Ubuntu 16), another snapshot is taken.

If your package was first bootstrapped with one version of autotools and those bootstrap-generated files checked-in but you later bootstrap with another version of autotools, then you will likely observe this behavior.

There are two solutions to this problem. First, to ensure a consistent set of bootstrap-generated files, you can build the autotools included with nlbuild-autotools. The bootstrap process will always prefer to use those versions rather than those available on the build host when they are available. See the section Build and Install for more information.

The second way to ensure a consistent set of bootstrap-generated files is to not check them in. This does, however, require that package users, rather than package maintainers, perform the bootstrap process and does require that package users, rather than package maintainers, have autotools available on the build host.


If you are maintaining nlbuild-autotools, you have several key things to know:

  1. Generating nlbuild-autotools distributions
  2. Generating optional nlbuild-autotools prebuilt binary distributions.
  3. Upgrading GNU autotools packages.

Generating Distributions

To generate a nlbuild-autotools distribution, simply invoke:

% make dist

The package version will come from tags in the source code control system, if available; otherwise, from ‘.default-version’. The version can be overridden from the PACKAGE_VERSION or VERSION environment variables.

The resulting archive will be at the top of the package build directory.

Generating Optional Prebuilt Binary Distributions

To generate an optional nlbuild-autotools prebuilt binary distribution, simply invoke:

% make toolsdist

The package version will come from the source code control system, if available; otherwise, from .default-version. The version can be overridden from the PACKAGE_VERSION or VERSION environment variables.

The resulting archives will be at the top of the package build directory.

Upgrading GNU Autotools Packages

To change or upgrade GNU autotools packages used by nlbuild-autotools, edit the metadata for each package in tools/packages/package/ package.{url,version}.


nlbuild-autools follows the Semantic Versioning guidelines for release cycle transparency and to maintain backwards compatibility.


nlbuild-autools is released under the Apache License, Version 2.0 license. See the LICENSE file for more information.