Autosetup Build System

Configuring the build of NeoMutt

This document explains the changes introduced to NeoMutt’s build system by switching to an Autosetup-based configuration and the rationale behind some of the choices that have been made.


Autosetup is a tool, similar to the Autotools family, to configure a build system for the appropriate environment, according to the system capabilities and the user-selected options.”

The website explains in great details the major goals of the project and the similarities and differences with Autotools. For the sake of this short introduction, I’ll summarize the major points, as relevant to Neomutt.


In general, Autotools-based systems read a script named, which is written in a mix of m4 and shell called M4sh. This script is translated into a portable shell script named configure by means of autoconf and other support tools. Autosetup, on the other hand, reads and directly runs a configuration script, usually named auto.def. The script and the support modules in the autosetup/ directory are written in Tcl. The major result of this choice is that there is no need for an initial translation to a portable environment. Autosetup ships with a minimal implementation of Tcl called Jim, which is compiled and used on-demand, if no full Tcl shell is found in the path. Projects ship a configure script that can be directly run.

So, this

autoreconf --install && ./configure && make


./configure && make

Bottom line: no build-time dependencies, faster configure stage, higher level of debuggability of the build scripts, no more “autoconf before ship”.

Simple and consistent options system

Autosetup allows users to personalize the build at configure time. Unlike Autotools, the object model for the options system is simple and consistent. There are two types of options: booleans and strings. Both can be specified to have default values. The options are defined in a self-explanatory options section (it’s actually a proc under the hood):

options {
   smime=1                    => "Disable S/Mime"
   gpgme=0                    => "Enable GPGME"
   with-gpgme:path            => "Location of GPGME"
   with-mailpath:=/var/mail   => "Location of the spool mailboxes"

A user can configure the build to suit his needs by modifying the default values, e.g., ./configure --disable-smime --gpgme --with-gpgme=/usr/local.

Within auto.def, option can be easily queried with [opt-bool smime] and [opt-val with-gpgme $prefix], with the latter using $prefix if not value was given. In the above example, [opt-val with-mailpath] will return the default value /var/mail if not overridden by the user.

Bottom line: no more confusion due to the differences and similarities between --with-opt, --enable-opt, with_val, without_val. Simple and self-documenting API for managing configure options.

Focus on features

Autotools comes with high level primitives, which allow to focus on the features to be tested. In the ~850 lines of our auto.def file - compare to the current 970 lines in - there is almost no boilerplate code. The code is self-explanatory and easily readable - yes, it is Tcl and it might take a little getting used to, but it’s nothing compared to M4sh.

Bottom line: readable and debuggable configure script, no M4sh quoting intricacies, easily extensible.

Autosetup for Neomutt

In this section, I’ll explain a few design decisions I took when porting NeoMutt’s build system to Autosetup.

Non-recursive Makefiles

The build system is driven by the top-level Makefile, which includes additional Makefiles from the subdirectories docs, contrib, and po. I’ll stress that these Makefiles are included by the main Makefile and not invoked recursively (google for “recursive make considered harmful”). The build system relies on the fact that each of the sub-makefiles defines its own targets, conventionally named all-subdir, clean-subdir, install-subdir, and uninstall-subdir. For example, po/Makefile defines the targets all-po, clean-po, install-po, and uninstall-po. To add a new subdir named mydir to the build system, follow these steps:

  1. create mydir/Makefile.autosetup
  2. define the target all-mydir, clean-mydir, install-mydir, and uninstall-mydir
  3. update the subdirs variable definition in auto.def

The top-level Makefile will invoke your targets as dependencies for the main all, clean, install, and uninstall targets.

Configuration options

For a list of the currently supported options and a brief help text, please run ./configure.autosetup --help.

Installation / uninstallation

Two parameters play an important role when deciding where to install NeoMutt. The first is the --prefix parameter to configure. The second is the DESTDIR variable used by Makefiles.

The parameter --prefix is used to specify both the default search path for headers and libraries and the final directory structure of the installed files. These are often the same: if you have your dependencies installed in /usr/include and /usr/lib, you also probably want the NeoMutt executable to end up in /usr/bin and its documentation in /usr/share/doc. This behavior can be tweaked by specifying where 3rd party dependencies are to be found. This is done on a per-dependency basis using the --with-<dep>=path family of options. As an example, a GPGMe installation in /opt can be looked up using the arguments --gpgme --with-gpgme=/opt.

The second parameter, the DESTDIR make variable, is used for staged builds and is prepended to the final path. This allows to stage the whole installation into ./tmp by simply using a make invocation like make DESTDIR=./tmp install. Staged builds are used by downstream packagers and allow to track the list of files installed by a package: it is easier to find ./tmp -type f than to snapshot the whole / filesystem and figure out the modifications introduced by installing a package. This information is usually used to list the contents of an installed package or to uninstall it.

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