Build system idea

Simon Marlow marlowsd at
Tue Aug 12 06:11:38 EDT 2008

Simon PJ and I had a talk about the build system earlier today, I thought 
I'd float the idea we discussed (I should admit that the idea was mine, 
lest Simon PJ think I'm attributing bad ideas to him :-).  This is not 
completely thought through, but I'm pretty sure a solution exists along 
these lines that would improve things for us.

Ok, the starting point is this:

  - Cabal has code to generate Makefiles.  Almost nobody uses it except
    for the GHC build system.  It essentially duplicates the build system
    for compiling Haskell source (but not for installation, haddocking,
    registration, configuration, etc.)

  - Cabal is a library

I propose we do this:

  - Extract the code from Cabal that generates Makefiles, and treat it as
    part of the GHC build system.  Rather than generating a Makefile
    complete with build rules, we generate a Makefile that just
    has the package-specific metadata (list of modules, etc.), and put
    the code to actually build the package in the GHC build system.

This means we still get to use 'make', we still get to use the .cabal files 
as metadata, but the build system is more private to GHC, more extensible, 
and hopefully more understandable and modifiable.  We can express 
dependencies that Cabal currently doesn't know about.  It would let us 
avoid the current uncomfortable situation where we have to feed all kinds 
of configuration information from the GHC build system into Cabal - Cabal 
would be essentially just a mechanism for translating the .cabal file into 
Makefile bindings and package metadata for ghc-pkg.

There will undoubtedly be some sticking points where we have to tradeoff 
duplicating things from Cabal against re-using parts of Cabal which might 
require modifying Cabal itself.  For instance, we could use Cabal for 
installation, but that means that our build system has to leave everything 
in the places that Cabal's installation code expects, so it might be more 
feasible to do installation ourselves, but that means duplicating parts of 

It will probably mean that we have a tighter dependency on Cabal, because 
we use it as a library rather than a black box; but hopefully we can keep 
our branch of Cabal more stable and not have to update it so often.

Anyway, this is an idea that I think is interesting.  Obviously it needs a 
lot more fleshing out to be a real proposal, but I'm interested in whether 
anyone thinks this idea is worth persuing, or whether there are better 


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