Friday, September 9, 2016

How to convert an Autotools project to Meson

Converting a project using Autotools into Meson is usually not particularly difficult, just grunt work. The Meson wiki has a guide and lots of other documentation on the subject. Here is an informal rough outline of the steps commonly needed.


Autoconf scripts can often seem impenetrable. Creating a converter script for them is as difficult a task as reimplementing all of Autoconf (and shell and a bunch of other stuff), which is not really feasible. Fortunately there is a sneaky shortcut to eliminate most of the work. The config.h file autoconf produces is easy to parse and autoconvert.

Meson has a helper script for exactly this use and applying it to a project is straightforward. Just copy to config.h.meson. Then replace all lines that look like this:


into this:

#mesondefine HAVE_ASPRINTF

This can't be done automatically because some config headers have other #undef declarations so they can't be changed blindly. Then run the converter script on the resulting file. It will generate a skeleton project file that does the same checks in Meson. The checks it could not understand are left in the source as comments. This script usually needs some manual tweaking but should deal with most of the configure checks for you (unless you are doing something really low level like glib).


Converting automake is mostly just manual work of converting list of files for each target from Automake syntax to Meson syntax.


In some projects Automake setup houses the most baffling and incomprehensible parts of the entire build setup. In one project (which shall remain nameless) we had several project developers looking at the Make/shell pipeline/magic substitution/stuff declaration in the makefile just to understand what it was supposed to do (never mind how it was doing it).

Encountering one of these sucks. Fixing it will take a lot of effort, but the end result a notable reduction in technical debt and would make sense even if the project were to keep using Autotools. The most important thing when converting these to Meson is not to write it inside the Meson declaration. Always put these kind of large pipelines in standalone scripts (converted to Python if aiming to support Windows) and just invoke them from Meson. This makes the magic isolated and testable.


That should be the most of it. The rest is polishing things such as checking for dependencies (with pkg-config) and fixing things that break due to the different environment. As an example many autotools projects are only compiled and run in-source. Meson does not permit in-source builds so if any part of the project assumes an in-source build those need to be fixed. The usual culprit is unit tests.

That should be it. If you encounter any problems feel free to report bugs or chat with us at #mesonbuild on Freenode.

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