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Project:Quality Assurance/Autotools failures

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This guide aim to describe the common situations which makes autotools fail to run in an ebuild, giving advices on how to fix those.


With the term autotools we usually refer to the tools developed by the GNU project to create platform and operating-system independent build systems, autoconf , automake and libtool . Although not every package uses all of them at the same time, most of the modern ones do so; older packages often does not use automake and libtool instead; KDE packages uses a more complex build system that relies at the end on the three software above.

It's simple to recognize a package which build system is based on autotools: if there's a configure script, and a or file, the build system is based on autoconf ; if there are one or more files in the various sub-directories, it's also automake based; if there's a script, it's also using libtool .

To build a package that uses an autotools-based build system, the tools themselves aren't strictly needed: the configure script is a simple Bourne Shell script (usually, but this will be discussed lately) and it transforms the files into simpler Makefile for make (or, more often, gmake ). In spite of them being optional for building the software, often the patches needed to solve problems like --as-needed build failure or automagic dependencies requires us to re-run the tools to recreate scripts and makefiles' templates.

This guide won't give directions on how to fix packages' errors with use of autotools, as that's a wide topic that requires lot of stuff to be explained. For a simple introductions of the most common errors while using autotools, it's rather suggested to read the best practices with autotools article. Instead, it will describe the common cases where re-running autotools lead to failures, either on the rebuilding of the script or at build time.

Re-running autotools

The first important thing to know is how to properly rebuild autotools support, as that is a common problem that makes some ebuild fail. The order in which autotools are run is important, as one rely on the other and the final output depends vastly on the order to be respected.

Many packages provide a single script, often called or that is uses to execute the tools in the order that upstream thinks it's the right one, often setting variables so that the right version of the tools is run (different versions of autotools often does not get along well). These scripts are, in general, preferred over other methods but often they contains mistakes, or assumptions of a given environment that might be unique of another distribution, for this reason, they should be checked carefully, and when they does not provide any advantage to the other methods (as they might be calling the tools one after the other not even passing them special parameters or checking their return value), they should be discarded.

autoconf package provides an automated script, calledautoreconf that should automatically detect which autotools are used and call them, but this too often fail to recognize the right versions or breaks because of corner cases. Also, it does runautopoint , the script that addsgettext support to a package, that is almost never required to be run after patching a package. For this reason,autoreconf is deprecated and avoided as possible (the same goes for custom upstream-provided scripts that uses it).

To overcome these problems, the autotools eclass was added; this eclass provides wrapper functions around the GNU autotools: eautoconf , eautomake , _elibtoolize (_ is prefixed to avoid collision with elibtoolize functions from libtool eclass instead) and the most important eautoreconf function. This function does not wrap around the broken autoreconf script, but rather analyse the autotools support files present and run the tools in their right order. It also run the elibtoolize function to patch libtool support files if needed, avoiding problems when it's being called before the actual recreation of autotools files.

The functions in autotools eclass have also the advantage of not presenting to the user a lot of raw output (in case of warnings) or nothing (in case there are no problems); instead they provide ebegin/ eend status messages so users will know what's happening, and also they track the error situations by providing an epatch -like message in case of failure. For this reason, those functions are preferred over manual call or broken or almost pointless custom scripts. Another point is that autotools eclass also add the build-time dependency over the needed packages ( sys-devel/autoconf , sys-devel/automake , sys-devel/libtool ).

Special case: KDE packages using kde.eclass

While KDE 3.x uses autotools like many other software packages, it is using a custom setup for them, with lots of custom macros, and further steps to complete the regeneration of all the needed files. For this reason, autotools should not be used to rebuild the autotools for KDE packages that use the kde eclass for building.

As a special exception to the common rule of rebuilding autotools during src_unpack phase, KDE packages rebuild their autotools during the src_compile phase whenever the toplevel configure file is missing. For this reason, if you want to rebuild autotools files for a KDE package, you just have to remove the configure file from the base source directory.

Most of the issues that are caused by KDE's own build system and appear with newer autotools versions can usually be solved by replacing the admin/ directory in the source tarball with a fresh copy, either out of the latest KDE release or from SVN. To do so, you just have to add a tarball containing the new admin/ directory as sole content to the SRC_URI variable, kde_src_unpack takes care of replacing it.

Please don't create new admindir tarballs before checking if there is already a tarball ready with the new admin/ directory you need. The name for these tarball is de-facto standardised to be kde-admindir-$version.tar.bz2 , and the current latest version available is 3.5.5.

Common failure cases and causes

Possibly undefined macros

The most common failure with autotools is related to the autoconf message "possibly undefined macro: SOME_MACRO". This message is issued when a macro is called from the or file but it's not defined in the aclocal.m4 file created by aclocal .

This happens often because the mentioned macro is not available when aclocal is run; as it, by default, loads macros found in /usr/share/aclocal , this means that the package providing that macro is not installed (or the macro is called with the wrong name). As the second case is either trivial or complex to resolve, we'll focus on the first name, a missing macro definition.

Macros written by developers for their software to be detected in the system by use of autotools are usually written in m4 files that are installed in the aforementioned /usr/share/aclocal directory. As many packages uses those macros for optional dependencies, there might be need for an m4 file that is not installed in the system where autotools are being run; to solve this problem, it's possible to copy the m4 file in a subdirectory shipped with the package itself.

Unfortunately, to make use of this subdirectory, often called m4 , aclocal has to be told about it. In projects using automake is possible to set that inside the main file by setting the ACLOCAL_AMFLAGS variable:

Codeexample of telling aclocal to search for macro files in 'm4' directory


This often is overlooked by upstream developers that simply pass the -I m4 parameter to aclocal while building their package. As adding a patch to fix this problem is an overkill, it's simpler, if the package has a directory with the needed m4 files, to set it in AT_M4DIR variable. The same goes if the package is not using automake but just autoconf .

Codetelling eautoreconf to search for macro files in 'm4' directory

src_unpack() {
    AT_M4DIR="m4" eautoreconf

In the rare case the software is using a Cygnus-style sub-configure build system, the above example might fail, as it tries to find a m4 subdirectory from where the configure is; to solve this kind of problems, set it to ${S}/m4 instead.

It's usually a good idea to let upstream know if they aren't setting the ACLOCAL_AMFLAGS variable, so that they can fix that for next releases; in a theoretical perfect world, eautoreconf alone should solve all the problems.

Less often, but still happens, there are no directories with m4 files, or the files with the undefined macro isn't there; to solve this issue, you have to search for which package provides the m4, and then add it to that directory, either with a patch or by putting it on mirrors and then adding it to SRC_URI (in which case you have to add ${WORKDIR} to the list of directories to search or move it in the right directory. This kind of issue is one of the most annoying one, so it's usually better to inform as soon as possible upstream so that following releases wouldn't require such hacks.

automake version mismatch when running eautoreconf

Sometimes when running eautoreconf , it fails reporting a version mismatch error. You'd expect not to see this ever, as the eautomake function will take care of re-running all the autotools when the automake version used to build the package differs from the one used by the ebuild; additionally, during eautoreconf , the tools are being ran to force replacing files, so the references to the automake used by the original packager should be gone at that point.

The only (or at least most likely) cause of this is a bad knowledge of autotools by the developer of the ebuild. When faced with the problem described above of Possibly undefined macros , the developer might feel compelled to just copy the previous aclocal.m4 file from the original tarball to a different name, to preserve the macro definitions there. Unfortunately this overrides the automake macros, causing this almost incomprehensible failure.

You should never copy the old aclocal.m4 file, as that's going to break with automake micro releases, and might even create problems when automake is patched in Gentoo to fix a bug in those macros.

automake fails, requires missing files

Another common error, this time with automake is a failure because of missing files, such as NEWS or README . This is because all the autotools assume, if nobody say otherwise to them, that they are working on a GNU package, having a series of files because of the code style guide from GNU itself, and fails when those files are missing. In those cases automake should be called with the --foreign parameter, that tells it to not fail if the GNU-required files are missing.

Again, eautomake function tries to make simpler autotools rebuilding by checking if some of the GNU needed files are present, and then calling automake with the right option if not. The right way to solve this issue (to send upstream) is to add to the AUTOMAKE_OPTIONS variable the option foreign so that it will know to use foreign support out of the box.

When the files are requested by or instead of , and are usually the two files config.guess and config.sub , the problem is that the package is not properly bootstrapped. To fix this, automake should be called with the options --add-missing --copy . This is what the eautomake function already do, so if you find this problem, you should consider using the functions provided by autotools eclass instead of running the tools manually or with the eventual script provided with the package itself.

A common mistake done when automake fail in those cases is to not put the
|| die
condition, avoiding to interrupt the build process. This is an error, because the files will usually be needed later, it's then better to force always their replacement, also because in many cases new versions of the two files are needed to build on some architectures.

Missing dependencies' version

Since about Summer 2006, automake and autoconf wrappers don't depend on all the versions of the respective packages forcefully, which means you cannot rely on the users to have all the versions installed, and the dependencies has to be fixed according to the used packages. To simplify the dependency mangling and the enforcing of the needed versions, the variables WANT_AUTOCONF and WANT_AUTOMAKE are considered inputs to the eclass that will then handle both dependencies and enforcement.

Codedepending on autoconf 2.1 and automake 1.4


inherit autotools

In many cases, instead of depending on a given version of automake or autoconf, we want to depend on the latest version available, more likely to be already in users' systems. For this reason, the autotools eclass will accept a special value for the mentioned variables, latest , that will then be expanded to autoconf 2.5 and automake either 1.9 or 1.10 depending on what is unmasked for that given system. This is suggested when the package does not depend on some features or misbehaviour of an older version of them.

Codedepending on the latest versions of autotools


inherit autotools

Errors in build phase about autoconf version

Sometimes you can get errors during the build of a package, related to the autoconf version, even though you didn't rebuild autotools files, or actaully because you didn't rebuild autotools files.

Codecommon error in build phase

${S}/missing --run
automake-1.10 --gnu  src/Makefile
aclocal.m4:14: error: this file was generated for autoconf 2.61.
You have another version of autoconf.  If you want to use that,
you should regenerate the build system entirely.
aclocal.m4:14: the top level
autom4te-2.62: /usr/bin/m4 failed with exit status: 63
automake-1.10: autoconf failed with exit status: 63
make[2]: *** [] Error 1

This message comes from the code added by the so-called "maintainer mode" provided by automake . This mode is mostly intended to make sure that developers, and users building manually, get the correct version of configure and even if they were modified after running make dist to package the sources.

While maintainer mode is quite important for both developers and users building manually, it comes a bit in the way for ebuilds, as it will automatically run autotools if you patch the or files, even when autotools are not in the build-time dependencies on the ebuild.

Even worse, if the automake version used by the package is not installed (for instance if the package uses the old 1.8 version, while the user only has the last 1.10 version, it will skip the rebuild entirely, making the actual result non-deterministic from the ebuild point of view.

The error above is caused by a package that had one of its files modified, usually by a patch, without rebuilding the autotools. In these cases, automake will be invoked to just rebuild the involved , but it will work only if the autoconf version in the system is the same as the one used to create the original configure script. This is not the case once a new autoconf version is released.

This is solved by rebuilding autotools properly as described above, through the eautoreconf function (or other method depending on eventual higher level eclasses), instead of leaving maintainer mode to take care of it.

Newer autotools practises suggest to leave maintainer mode forced on, which is what happens if the file does not call the AM_MAINTAINER_MODE macro. For the projects that still provide an option, it's possible to disable maintainer mode (and thus returning to a deterministic rebuild from the ebuild point of view) through the --disable-maintainer-mode option at econf .

Failure during configure on some locales (like et_EE)

Some packages, using autoconf 2.13, fail to configure on some systems with locales like et_EE. This is caused by a bug in that version of autoconf (fixed in following versions, which are not backward compatible), where sed is trying to use local-dependent syntax before the LANG variable is reset to use C locale (making it locale-independent).

This can be seen for instance in bug #103483 .

To fix these cases, it's possible to apply configure-LANG.patch , that moves the LANG reset before first use of locale-dependent syntax.

If possible, it's anyway suggested to try using newer versions of autoconf (2.59 or later) where the issue is fixed already. Unfortunately this is not feasible for all packages, so applying the patch is a nice way to fix the issue when autoconf 2.1 is actually needed.


We would like to thank the following authors and editors for their contributions to this guide:

  • Diego Pettenò