Table of Contents

  1. Working With the GNU Autotools
    1. Introduction
    2. The Files
    3. The Files
    4. Running the Autotools
    5. Which Files Should be in the Subversion Repository?
    6. Working On Your Project
  2. Autotools Basics
    1. autoconf
    2. automake
    3. libtool
  3. Basic Structure of the File
    1. General Concepts
    2. Beginning of a file
    3. The Body of the File
    4. The End of the File
  4. The Package Base Directory File
  5. The Project Directory File
    1. Initialization of Tools and Compilers
    2. Check for other COIN-OR Components
    3. Checks for some specific System Libraries
    4. Check for User Libraries
    5. Generation of Links for Data Files
    6. Project Specific Tests
  6. Configuration Header Files
    1. Private and public header files
    2. Header files for non-autotools setups
    3. Bringing them all together
    4. Example
  7. Introduction of Automake Concepts
  8. The Package Base Directory File
  9. The Project Main Directory File
  10. The Source Directories Files
    1. Beginning of the File
    2. Building a Library
    3. Building a Program
    4. Additional Flags
    5. Installation of Header Files
  11. The Test Directory File
    1. Beginning of the File
    2. Compilation of the Unit Test Program
    3. The Test Target
    4. House Cleaning
  12. The pkg-config configuration files of a project
    1. Introduction
    2. The .pc file of an installed COIN-OR project library
    3. The .pc file of an uninstalled COIN-OR project library
    4. The NO pkg-config case
  13. Using the Correct Version of the Autotools
  14. Brief Tutorial on Switching from BuildTools 0.5 to 0.7
    1. What Needs to be Edited
    2. Externals to Dependencies
    3. Changes to Installation Directories
    4. Changes to autotools files
    5. Changes to configuration header files
  15. Hints, tricks, bugs, and suggestions
    1. Using autoreconf

Autotools Basics

This page gives a general introduction to the autotools, in the specific context of using them in COIN-OR. If you want to use them, first make sure that you are using the correct version of the autotools.


The goal of autoconf is to provide developers of open source software with an easy way to ensure the portability of their code. Autoconf knows how to perform tests to find out platform and compiler dependent properties, for example, the presence of particular program, library, or header files.

Anyone who has downloaded and installed a GNU package has seen the configure step in the installation process ("... type ./configure ..."). Autoconf is the software that generates the rather complicated shell script, configure, from a simple input file, The configure script is a shell script for sh, the basic shell that is available on every UNIX-like system (including Linux, Cygwin, and MSys). So that it will work on every system known to the autotools developers, it assumes only the least common denominator over all sh implementations. Configure scripts can be very long --- it takes a lot of simple shell commands to accomplish complicated tests.

Autoconf uses the macro processor m4 to generate the configure script from the file. In you specify autoconf macros, some of which take arguments. In a sense these macros can be understood as subroutines, but it's a bit more subtle than that. Keep firmly in mind that macros in are expanded when the autotools are run, in the project manager's development environment, to create the configure shell script. The shell commands in the configure script are run by the user, in their environment, to adapt the source code and build process to the user's environment. An easy and frustrating conceptual mistake, when using the autotools, is to expect shell code to execute during macro expansion.

Template Files

When run by the user, the configure script will generate output files based on templates for these files. A template file typically has the extension .in. Template files contain strings (autoconf output variable names) surrounded by @. For example, Makefile is generated from The autoconf variable for the name of the C compiler is CC, and in you will find a line like

CC = @CC@

The generated Makefile will then contain this line, with @CC@ replaced by the name of the C compiler (cc, cl, gcc, etc.) appropriate for the build environment, as determined by the configure script.

You don't have to create most template files; they are generated by the various autotools. For example, automake automatically generates from and

Another template file found in many COIN-OR projects are the pkg-config configuration files, used to generate prjct.pc. The generated file includes information on dependencies of the project and which compiler and linker flags are required to link against the project. For example, the OSI project uses the template file; it contains the lines


Name: Osi
Description: COIN-OR Open Solver Interface
Libs: -L${libdir} -lOsi @OSILIB_PCLIBS@
Cflags: -I${includedir}

When the user requests that OSI is configured, the resulting osi.pc file contains


Name: Osi
Description: COIN-OR Open Solver Interface
Version: 0.105
Libs: -L${libdir} -lOsi 
Cflags: -I${includedir}
Requires: coinutils 

Configuration Header Files

Some output files generated by the configure script are worth separate mention. The configuration header file (you may have noticed the config.h file in GNU packages) can be used to convey information about the configuration run to the source code of the package. Some examples:

  • System calls, such as those for obtaining the CPU time, are different on different platforms, and the header files in which they are declared are also different. The configure script can test for the presence of header files and functions.
  • The configure script can test for the presence of libraries and functions in libraries. In the CoinUtils package, if configure is run with the --enable-gnu-packages argument, it checks whether the compression library libz is available.
  • The user of a package can specify certain aspects of the configuration when configure is run, for example, the set of available linear programming solvers, and where their libraries and header files reside.
  • The AC_INIT macro in the file leads information about the package name and package version number in the header file, so these parameters to be maintained only in the file.

The configure script will place #define statements in the configuration header files. These can simply define a symbol or set a symbols to a specific value (such as the path to a default directory). However, since the define statements in different projects may define the same symbols (e.g., PACKAGE_NAME or HAVE_ZLIB), it is undesirable to install the config header files and requiring them for building against the package. On the other hand, sometimes it is necessary to convey some information about a package configuration via the header file to users of that package. Information on how this is handled within COIN-OR projects is given on this page.


Automake generates template files for autoconf. The generated makefiles are very powerful; for example, they support automatic header file dependency tracking, if this information can be somehow obtained from the compiler. The makefiles work with any UNIX make, they have targets like install, uninstall, clean, distclean, and dist.

Makefiles generated by automake can work recursively and support parallel compilation (e.g., with the -j flag of GNU make). Also, it is possible to specify conditional content in the Makefile, the activation of which depends on the output of a test performed by the configure script. This facility is limited, but it's portable (again, think 'least common denominator' over all known implementations of make).

As a user of automake, you write an input file, called, for each you want to create. In you tell automake what you want to build (a program, a library, etc.), and what source code files are required to build this target. Automake will take it from there. There are ways to specify more information, e.g., if additional libraries are required for linking.


Libtool helps to build static and shared libraries on different platforms. It works together with autoconf and automake, so that you usually don't need to interact with it directly. Still, a bit of background information will help you understand its role.

Like configure, libtool is a shell script. It's generated when configure is run in the user's environment and contains the correct commands to compile code, create libraries, and link programs. Automake assumes that it will work through libtool. In the output produced during compilation and linking, you first see the libtool command line, then the command executed from the libtool script.

Libtool generates auxiliary files: .lo files correspond to object files, and .la files correspond to libraries. These files are instructions (in plain ascii) that libtool leaves for itself for later use. The compiled object files and fully or partially linked libraries are hidden in a .libs subdirectory. (The command 'make install' will move the hidden programs and libraries to the installation directory.)

Last modified 11 years ago Last modified on May 8, 2011 8:02:38 AM