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Building and Installing Software Packages for Linux: Using Make Next Previous Contents

3. Using Make

The Makefile is the key to the build process. In its simplest form, a Makefile is a script for compiling or building the "binaries", the executable portions of a package. The Makefile can also provide a means of updating a software package without having to recompile every single source file in it, but that is a different story (or a different article).

At some point, the Makefile launches cc or gcc. This is actually a preprocessor, a C (or C++) compiler, and a linker, invoked in that order. This process converts the source into the binaries, the actual executables.

Invoking make usually involves just typing make. This generally builds all the necessary executable files for the package in question. However, make can also do other tasks, such as installing the files in their proper directories (make install) and removing stale object files (make clean). Running make -n permits previewing the build process, as it prints out all the commands that would be triggered by a make, without actually executing them.

Only the simplest software uses a generic Makefile. More complex installations require tailoring the Makefile according to the location of libraries, include files, and resources on your particular machine. This is especially the case when the build needs the X11 libraries to install. Imake and xmkmf accomplish this task.

An Imakefile is, to quote the man page, a "template" Makefile. The imake utility constructs a Makefile appropriate for your system from the Imakefile. In almost all cases, however, you would run xmkmf, a shell script that invokes imake, a front end for it. Check the README or INSTALL file included in the software archive for specific instructions. (If, after dearchiving the source files, there is an Imake file present in the base directory, this is a dead giveaway that xmkmf should be run.) Read the Imake and xmkmf man pages for a more detailed analysis of the procedure.

Be aware that xmkmf and make may need to be invoked as root, especially when doing a make install to move the binaries over to the /usr/bin or /usr/local/bin directories. Using make as an ordinary user without root privileges will likely result in write access denied error messages because you lack write permission to system directories. Check also that the binaries created have the proper execute permissions for you and any other appropriate users.

Invoking xmkmf uses the Imake file to build a new Makefile appropriate for your system. You would normally invoke xmkmf with the -a argument, to automatically do a make Makefiles, make includes, and make depend. This sets the variables and defines the library locations for the compiler and linker. Sometimes, there will be no Imake file, instead there will be an INSTALL or configure script that will accomplish this purpose. Note that if you run configure, it should be invoked as ./configure to ensure that the correct configure script in the current directory is called. In most cases, the README file included with the distribution will explain the install procedure.

It is usually a good idea to visually inspect the Makefile that xmkmf or one of the install scripts builds. The Makefile will normally be correct for your system, but you may occasionally be required to "tweak" it or correct errors manually.

Installing the freshly built binaries into the appropriate system directories is usually a matter of running make install as root. The usual directories for system-wide binaries on modern Linux distributions are /usr/bin, /usr/X11R6/bin, and /usr/local/bin. The preferred directory for new packages is /usr/local/bin, as this will keep separate binaries not part of the original Linux installation.

Packages originally targeted for commercial versions of UNIX may attempt to install in the /opt or other unfamiliar directory. This will, of course, result in an installation error if the intended installation directory does not exist. The simplest way to deal with this is to create, as root, an /opt directory, let the package install there, then add that directory to the PATH environmental variable. Alternatively, you may create symbolic links to the /usr/local/bin directory.

Your general installation procedure will therefore be:

  • Read the README file and other applicable docs.
  • Run xmkmf -a, or the INSTALL or configure script.
  • Check the Makefile.
  • If necessary, run make clean, make Makefiles, make includes, and make depend.
  • Run make.
  • Check file permissions.
  • If necessary, run make install.


  • You would not normally build a package as root. Doing an su to root is only necessary for installing the compiled binaries into system directories.
  • After becoming familiar with make and its uses, you may wish to add additional optimization options passed to gcc in the standard Makefile included or created in the package you are installing. Some of these common options are -O2, -fomit-frame-pointer, -funroll-loops, and -mpentium (if you are running a Pentium cpu). Use caution and good sense when modifying a Makefile!
  • After the make creates the binaries, you may wish to strip them. The strip command removes the symbolic debugging information from the binaries, and reduces their size, often drastically. This also disables debugging, of course.
  • The Pack Distribution Project offers a different approach to creating archived software packages, based on a set of Python scripting tools for managing symbolic links to files installed in separate collection directories. These archives are ordinary tarballs, but they install in /coll and /pack directories. You may find it necessary to download the Pack-Collection from the above site should you ever run across one of these distributions.

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