Tracker πŸ’™ Meson

A long time ago I started looking at rewriting Tracker’s build system using Meson. Today those build instructions landed in the master branch in Git!

Meson is becoming pretty popular now so I probably don’t need to explain why it’s such a big improvement over Autotools. Here are some key benefits:

  • It takes 2m37s for me to build from a clean Git tree with Autotools,Β  but only 1m08s with Meson.
  • There are 2573 lines of meson.build files, vs. 5013 lines of Makefile.am, a 2898 line configure.ac file, and various other bits of debris needed for Autotools
  • Only compile warnings are written to stdout by default, so they’re easy to spot
  • Out of tree builds actually work

Tracker is quite a challenging project to build, and I hit a number of issues in Meson along the way plus a few traps for the unwary.

We have a huge number of external dependencies — Meson handles this pretty neatly, although autodetection of backends requires a bit of boilerplate.

There’s a complex mix of Vala and C code in Tracker, including some libraries that are written in both. The Meson developers have put a lot of work into supporting Vala, which is much appreciated considering it’s a fairly niche language and in fact the only major problem we have left is something that’s just as broken with Autotools: failing to generate a single introspection repo for a combined C + Vala library

Tracker also has a bunch of interdependent libraries. This caused continual problems because Meson does very little deduplication in the commandlines it generates, and so I’d get combinational explosions hitting fairly ridiculous errors like commandline too long (the limit is 262KB) or too many open files inside the ld Β  process. This is a known issue. For now I work around it by manually specifying some dependencies for individual targets instead of relying on them getting pulled in as transitive dependencies of a declare_dependency target.

A related issue was that if the same .vapi file ends up on the valac commandline more than once it would trigger an error. This required some trickery to avoid. New versions of Meson work around this issue anyway.

One pretty annoying issue is that generated files in the source tree cause Meson builds to fail. Out of tree builds seem to not work with our Autotools build system — something to do with the Vala integration — with the result that you need to make clean before running a Meson build even if the Meson build is in a separate build dir. If you see errors about conflicting types or duplicate definitions, that’s probably the issue. While developing the Meson build instructions I had a related problem of forgetting about certain files that needed to be generated because the Autotools build system had already generated them. Be careful!

Meson users need to be aware that the rpath is not set automatically for you. If you previously used Libtool you probably didn’t need to care what an rpath was, but with Meson you have to manually set install_rpath for every program that depends on a library that you have installed into a non-standard location (such as a subdirectory of /usr/lib). I think rpaths are a bit of a hack anyway — if you want relocatable binary packages you need to avoid them — so I like that Meson is bringing this implementation detail to the surface.

There are a few other small issues: for example we have a Gtk-Doc build that depends on the output of a program, which Meson’s gtk-doc module currently doesn’t handle so we have to rebuild that documentation on every build as a workaround. There are also some workarounds in the current Tracker Meson build instructions that are no longer needed — for example installing generated Vala headers used to require a custom install script, but now it’s supported more cleanly.

Tracker’s Meson build rules aren’t quite ready for prime time: some tests fail when run under Meson that pass when run under Autotools, and we have to work out how best to create release tarballs. But it’s pretty close!

All in all this took a lot longer to achieve than I originally hoped (about 9 months of part-time effort), but in the process I’ve found some bugs in both Tracker and Meson, fixed a few of them, and hopefully made a small improvement to the long process of turning GNU/Linux users into GNU/Linux developers.

Meson has come a long way in that time and I’m optimistic for its future. It’s a difficult job to design and implement a new general purpose build system (plus project configuration tool, test runner, test infrastructure, documentation, etc. etc), and the Meson project have done so in 5 years without any large corporate backing that I know of. Maintaining open source projects is often hard and thankless. Ten thumbs up to the Meson team!

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About Sam Thursfield

Who's that kid in the back of the room? He's setting all his papers on fire! Where did he get that crazy smile? We all think he's really weird.
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One Response to Tracker πŸ’™ Meson

  1. Pingback: Next Tracker is 2.0.0 – Carlos Garnacho

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