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SCons is an alternate build system often used by science projects. This small guide gives a developer PoV on SCons.

Using SCons in ebuilds

CODE An example ebuild using SCons
inherit multilib scons-utils toolchain-funcs
# ...
src_compile() {
	escons CC="$(tc-getCC)" FOO=1
src_install() {
	escons FOO=1 LIBDIR=/usr/$(get_libdir) INSTALL_ROOT="${D}" install

The most important part here is inheriting the scons-utils eclass and using escons function. The eclass inherit is going to add SCons into DEPEND, and escons invokes SCons with ${MAKEOPTS} stripped down to ones suitable for SCons.

You should note the following, however:

  1. SConstruct files are always highly custom and the calling scheme above is just an example. Although using CC as variable is pretty common, the installation root may appear as DESTDIR or do not appear at all -- some packages will require hacking PREFIX or even patching;
  2. Although aliasing install to the install destination is very common, it's no rule either. Sometimes you may need to use escons "${D}" or escons /. Or install the package yourself if the author didn't provide any kind of installation rules;
  3. SCons has a tendency to reconfigure itself on each call. That's why we usually don't use src_configure() and have to copy most of the args from src_compile() to src_install() -- otherwise SCons will re-configure and rebuild the package;
  4. Sometimes install destinations have to passed to the src_compile() invocation as well so that package could hardcode appropriate paths. Otherwise package will partially rebuild itself during src_install();
  5. The default libdir is passed to autotools by econf function. As SCons doesn't use that, libdir has to passed manually using get_libdir() function from multilib eclass. And yes, LIBDIR is a custom variable name as well.

Common pitfalls

Partial rebuilds in src_install()

As mentioned above, SCons often requires passing the same arguments both to src_compile() and src_install() invocation. If a partial package rebuild occurs in src_install(), it is likely that either:

  • an argument passed to src_compile() was not repeated in src_install() and SCons switched it back to the default,
  • a path passed to src_install() is being hardcoded in program sources and needs to be passed in src_compile() as well.

Of course, this could also be a case of a broken build system in which some target dependencies are always rebuilt.


It is very common for SConstruct files to ignore variables like CC, CFLAGS and especially LDFLAGS. The first one needs to be always passed explicitly to the build system (that's what econf does); sometimes exporting it using tc-export will work as well. The latter ones are often missed by project developers and need patching to be set.

Why you should NOT use SCons in your project

SCons lacks many basic features required from a complete build system and thus it is mostly about reimplementing the wheel a dozen times. And doing that means a lot of pain to users and developers which have to adjust to custom solutions and be hit by repeating bugs in custom implementations.

Ignorance of compilation environment settings

Although SCons is aware itself of a few compilers and various kinds of compilation flags, it doesn't actually query the environment for those.

Autotools and multiple custom build systems query the environment variables CC, CXX, CFLAGS, CXXFLAGS, LDFLAGS (some CPPFLAGS and LIBS as well) to get the compiler and flags being used. Some others (like plain Makefiles) allow user to pass those as command line arguments.

With SCons, you have to declare all those variables explicitly. And this means that you are free to name them as you like, and user is obligated to look up help for every single project to see their names. As long as they are declared at all, which makes users obligated to report bugs and wait for fixes.

No default installation paths/command

SCons is very poorly suited for installing. Although it is common to create install alias for installing programs, that's no rule. Thus, users can't trust that and once again have to look up which command to use to install a project. As long as project is installable at all...

SCons doesn't define any default installation paths at all. This means that author has to specify them all, and make them adjustable via custom variables. Users once again have to look help up and hope the path they need to adjust is actually there.

It is also quite common that SCons project lack correct DESTDIR setting for fake installation root where files should be installed by the install alias while keeping non-DESTDIR paths within the package itself.

No support for library SONAMEs

SCons is not suited for building *nix libraries either. It can only build plain static and shared libraries (so-called modules) which are not suitable for versioning. Thus, projects have to manually add custom, linker-specific options to set the SONAME and then additional commands to set up the SONAME symlinks.

And once again, building these two types of libraries has to be added manually while libtool uses common rules to build both static and/or shared variant as requested by user.

No automation possible

As shown above, there's no single common thing about SCons build systems. Users have to look up help on each project and create per-project build commands. While with autotools, a simple set of build commands can be created which will suit almost all projects.

Simplest autotools ebuild will look like:

CODE Simplest ebuild using autotools

And that's all! All configure scripts take the same common arguments, and all (automake) projects support make install DESTDIR=... With SCons, all that has to be specified explicitly.

Constant reconfiguration

Calling SCons for almost anything means performing the configure tests. This includes calling scons --help to get the options to adjust performed tests. And yes, if tests fail hard, you won't see the help.

With autotools, you can easily pre-configure a package and build it later. With SCons, you have to pass all the options every call or they will be reset to defaults. That involves passing CC to separate install call, or you're likely to rebuild the package using the default compiler.

No support for out-of-source builds

An out-of-source build is a build where intermediate and final output files are created in a directory other than the one where sources are contained. Out-of-source builds can be used to keep source directories tidy, build multiple variants of a package from the same source tree (e.g. 32- and 64-bit variants of a library on multilib amd64) or just build a package from a read-only source directory.

SCons provides no way to perform the build in other directory without copying the whole source tree.

See also