Published on March 8, 2014 by Alexandru Goia
Tagged: Unix, C, portable code, autoconf, automake, libtool

The purpose of this article is to generally present the utilities Autoconf, Automake and Libtool, which ease very much the process of installation from sources of software packages or libraries, from the point of view of users. It is assumed that the user uses any Unix/Unix-like system, and the purpose of the developer, who chooses to use these GNU tools, is to make the installation, on the user’s system, as easy as possible.

If you are a serious Unix/Linux user, for sure you have been in the situation of compiling a program or a library from sources. Then, you called ./configure; make; make install and you got an executable or a library. In this article, we change the point of view, assuming that we are the software’s developers and not the users, and our purpose is to understand in principle how can we generate the configure script and the other additional files,

This article aims to explain le raison d’etre of these very useful tools (Autoconf, Automake, Libtool) and to present generic configuration files, in the case of a simple program and the case of a simple library – thus, the base syntax for these GNU tools with the aim of creating an easy install experience for the users.

The Theory

Autoconf is a software tool useful in the process of compilation from sources of a software package. At running time, it generates shell scripts which will run on the user’s system, independently of Autoconf version installed there (thus there is no need that the user should install this on his system too). These shell scripts will be run without manual interventions on any Unix/Posix system. Thus, Autoconf makes easier the porting of source programs on various Unix/Posix systems by determining the characteristics of the user’s system on which the compilation will take place just before this.

For each software package on which we run it, Autoconf generates a configuration script from a template file, named or, which lists the options of the user’s system, options that the software package needs or uses.

It is being said, like Unix, that those who do not understand Autoconf are destined to reinvent it; Autoconf doesn’t make easier the life of the developer – which is supposed to be a mature one –, but it makes easy the installation experience of the software, on the Unix/Unix-like systems of the users, which are – at least a priori – various.

So, Autoconf solves the problem of determining the pieces of information about the system needed for compilation, right before it. It is only the first part of a larger problem which is the ‘perfect’ compilation on the user’s system, in other words, the development of portable software. Here enters the GNU Build System, which continues and completes what Autoconf started, by another two GNU tools: Automake and Libtool.

The make tool (GNU make, gmake, etc.) is present on every Unix/Unix-like system. Automake allows developers to describe in a file named the build specifications, with a syntax simpler and richer than that of a regular Makefile. From the file, after running Automake (automake), a file named will be generated, which in turn will be used by the configure script to generate on the user’s system the classic file Makefile. Automake is very useful in the situation of software packages with multiple subdirectories or with multiple sources, but even for simple programs the reached portability is a gain.

Sometimes, we don’t want to generate only executables, we want to also generate libraries, in order to let them be further used by other developers. We want to generate shared (dynamic) libraries, and do this in a portable way. This is the task of the Libtool tool. One of the most used features of Libtool is the coexistence of multiple versions of a library, so the user may install or upgrade the library, without destroying the binary compatibility. Libtool is used by default by Automake, when we want to generate dynamic libraries, and there is no need to know its syntax.

These GNU tools are based on the macro-preprocessor GNU M4, but in this article we will not talk about it.

The Practice

A file has the following structure:

autoconf requirements
AC_INIT(package, version, [bug-report-email], [tarname], [url])
information on the package
checks for programs
checks for libraries
checks for header files
checks for types
checks for structures
checks for compiler characteristics
checks for library functions
checks for system services

For example, for a simple project, can look like this (comments inline for each directive):

dnl Comments start with dnl
dnl This file will be processed with autoconf command, in order to
dnl generate the configure script

AC_INIT([hello], [1.0])
dnl Do not put spaces between AC_* / AM_* and the open paranthesis!
dnl AC_* : declarations for Autoconf
dnl AM_* : declarations for Automake

AM_INIT_AUTOMAKE([-Wall -Werrror foreign])
dnl for Automake, in order to create
dnl -Wall -Werror request Automake to activate warnings
dnl and to report them as errors (Automake warnings, not compiler
dnl warnings).

dnl If in a file there is an AM_* directive then
dnl Autoconf will automatically call Automake.

dnl foreign specifies the program does not adhere to
dnl the GNU standard: there are not ChangeLog, AUTHORS, NEWS and
dnl README files.

dnl We determine the standardized name of the machine
dnl for Linux on Intel 32-bit this is i686-pc-linux-gnu

dnl or AC_LANG([C])
dnl specifies the C language as the programming language
dnl or AC_LANG([C++]) or AC_LANG_CPLUSPLUS for C++ language

dnl verifies the existence of the C compiler
dnl verifies the existence of the C++ compiler
dnl insert it if the sources are written in the C++ language

dnl verifies the existence of make program

dnl verifies the existence of standard C files

dnl verifies the existence of header file stdio.h

dnl the configure script will generate at runtime the config.h file
dnl which will contain useful #define directives for the program.

dnl config.h can be big enough, because every feature tested on
dnl the user's system is added as a #define in config.h

dnl AC_CONFIG_FILES declares the list of files that will be
dnl generated from their templates with .in extension

dnl the ending line, which produces a sequence of commands
dnl in the configure script, a sequence that will generate
dnl the registered files from AC_CONFIG_HEADERS and 

Of course, the file can be much more complex, with many AC_* and AM_* lines. For this, we recommend the Autoconf manual.

We should also have files in every subdirectory in the source tree. For example, for a tree with few source files (hello program with sources: main.c and functions.c):

# src/
bin_PROGRAMS = hello
hello_SOURCES = main.c functions.c

If the sources of the program contain an ./include/ directory which has header files then file from that directory must also contain this line:

# include/
include_HEADERS=header1.h header2.h header3.h ... headerN.h

In the from the root directory we must have the following line:

SUBDIRS = doc src



SUBDIRS is a special variable which lists all directories in which make will enter, before processing the current directory.

In the case of a simple library, the from the respective directory will look like this:

# lib/
libaa_la_SOURCES = library-aa.c

We will run the command libtoolize, after which two new files will be created: ltconfig and

For and, we will run the commands aclocal, autoconf, and, then, automake.

Also, the source code, which must be portable, must “fold” on these tools.


  1. This examples checks if ncurses is installed and saves the name of the terminal inside the s variable (if ncurses is installed then the name can be obtained by running termname, otherwise a constant value of TERM is used):
#include "config.h"
strcpy(s, termname());
strcpy(s, getenv("TERM"));
#endif // HAVE_NCURSES
  1. This example checks and includes the proper header for string functions, if there is one:
#include "config.h"
#include <string.h>
#include <strings.h>

Bibliography. Conclusions

For more informations, we recommend the free online book GNU Autoconf, Automake and Libtool, and also Using GNU Autotools, from the page of Alexandre Duret-Lutz.

After this article, we wish that the young Unix/Unix-like/Linux programmers are aware of the existence of these tools, and have them in mind when they will have to develop open-source programs which are intended to be portable across all Unix systems.

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