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24.2 Third-Party ‘Makefile’s

In most projects all ‘Makefile’s are generated by Automake. In some cases, however, projects need to embed subdirectories with handwritten ‘Makefile’s. For instance, one subdirectory could be a third-party project with its own build system, not using Automake.

It is possible to list arbitrary directories in SUBDIRS or DIST_SUBDIRS provided each of these directories has a ‘Makefile’ that recognizes all the following recursive targets.

When a user runs one of these targets, that target is run recursively in all subdirectories. This is why it is important that even third-party ‘Makefile’s support them.


Compile the entire package. This is the default target in Automake-generated ‘Makefile’s, but it does not need to be the default in third-party ‘Makefile’s.


Copy files to distribute into ‘$(distdir)’, before a tarball is constructed. Of course this target is not required if the ‘no-dist’ option (see section Changing Automake’s Behavior) is used.

The variables ‘$(top_distdir)’ and ‘$(distdir)’ (see section The dist Hook) will be passed from the outer package to the subpackage when the distdir target is invoked. These two variables have been adjusted for the directory that is being recursed into, so they are ready to use.


Install or uninstall files (see section What Gets Installed).


Install only some specific documentation format (see section Texinfo).


Create install directories, but do not install any files.


Check the package (see section Support for test suites).


Cleaning rules (see section What Gets Cleaned).


Build the documentation in various formats (see section Texinfo).


Build ‘TAGS’ and ‘CTAGS’ (see section Interfacing to etags).

If you have ever used Gettext in a project, this is a good example of how third-party ‘Makefile’s can be used with Automake. The ‘Makefile’s gettextize puts in the ‘po/’ and ‘intl/’ directories are handwritten ‘Makefile’s that implement all these targets. That way they can be added to SUBDIRS in Automake packages.

Directories that are only listed in DIST_SUBDIRS but not in SUBDIRS need only the distclean, maintainer-clean, and distdir rules (see section Conditional Subdirectories).

Usually, many of these rules are irrelevant to the third-party subproject, but they are required for the whole package to work. It’s OK to have a rule that does nothing, so if you are integrating a third-party project with no documentation or tag support, you could simply augment its ‘Makefile’ as follows:

EMPTY_AUTOMAKE_TARGETS = dvi pdf ps info html tags ctags

Another aspect of integrating third-party build systems is whether they support VPATH builds (see section Parallel Build Trees (a.k.a. VPATH Builds)). Obviously if the subpackage does not support VPATH builds the whole package will not support VPATH builds. This in turns means that ‘make distcheck’ will not work, because it relies on VPATH builds. Some people can live without this (actually, many Automake users have never heard of ‘make distcheck’). Other people may prefer to revamp the existing ‘Makefile’s to support VPATH. Doing so does not necessarily require Automake, only Autoconf is needed (see Build Directories in The Autoconf Manual). The necessary substitutions: ‘@srcdir@’, ‘@top_srcdir@’, and ‘@top_builddir@’ are defined by ‘configure’ when it processes a ‘Makefile’ (see Preset Output Variables in The Autoconf Manual), they are not computed by the Makefile like the aforementioned ‘$(distdir)’ and ‘$(top_distdir)’ variables.

It is sometimes inconvenient to modify a third-party ‘Makefile’ to introduce the above required targets. For instance, one may want to keep the third-party sources untouched to ease upgrades to new versions.

Here are two other ideas. If GNU make is assumed, one possibility is to add to that subdirectory a ‘GNUmakefile’ that defines the required targets and includes the third-party ‘Makefile’. For this to work in VPATH builds, ‘GNUmakefile’ must lie in the build directory; the easiest way to do this is to write a ‘’ instead, and have it processed with AC_CONFIG_FILES from the outer package. For example if we assume ‘Makefile’ defines all targets except the documentation targets, and that the check target is actually called test, we could write ‘GNUmakefile’ (or ‘’) like this:

# First, include the real Makefile
include Makefile
# Then, define the other targets needed by Automake Makefiles.
.PHONY: dvi pdf ps info html check
dvi pdf ps info html:
check: test

A similar idea that does not use include is to write a proxy ‘Makefile’ that dispatches rules to the real ‘Makefile’, either with ‘$(MAKE) -f Makefile.real $(AM_MAKEFLAGS) target’ (if it’s OK to rename the original ‘Makefile’) or with ‘cd subdir && $(MAKE) $(AM_MAKEFLAGS) target’ (if it’s OK to store the subdirectory project one directory deeper). The good news is that this proxy ‘Makefile’ can be generated with Automake. All we need are ‘-local’ targets (see section Extending Automake Rules) that perform the dispatch. Of course the other Automake features are available, so you could decide to let Automake perform distribution or installation. Here is a possible ‘’:

        cd subdir && $(MAKE) $(AM_MAKEFLAGS) all
        cd subdir && $(MAKE) $(AM_MAKEFLAGS) test
        cd subdir && $(MAKE) $(AM_MAKEFLAGS) clean

# Assuming the package knows how to install itself
        cd subdir && $(MAKE) $(AM_MAKEFLAGS) install-data
        cd subdir && $(MAKE) $(AM_MAKEFLAGS) install-exec
        cd subdir && $(MAKE) $(AM_MAKEFLAGS) uninstall

# Distribute files from here.
EXTRA_DIST = subdir/Makefile subdir/program.c ...

Pushing this idea to the extreme, it is also possible to ignore the subproject build system and build everything from this proxy ‘’. This might sound very sensible if you need VPATH builds but the subproject does not support them.

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