Monday, March 13, 2017

Dependencies and unity builds with Meson

Prebuilt dependencies provided by the distro are awesome. You just install them and start working on your own project. Unfortunately there are many cases where distro packages are either not available or too old. This is especially common when compiling on non-Linux platforms such as Windows but happens on Linux as well when using jhbuild, Flatpak, Snappy or one of the many other aggregators. Dependencies obtained via Meson subprojects also fall into this category.

Unity builds

There is a surprisingly simple way of compiling projects faster: unity builds. The basic principle is that if your target has files foo.cpp, bar.cpp and baz.cpp, you don't compile them. Instead you generate a file called target-unity.cpp, whose contents are this:


Then you compile just this file. This makes the compilation go faster. A lot faster. As an example converting Qt Creator to compile as a Unity build made it compile 90% faster. Counterintuitively it is even faster to compile a unity file with one core than to use four cores to build the files individually. If this is the first time you have encountered unity builds, this probably feels like a sham, something that just can't be possible. Not only is this possible, but unity builds are used in production in many places, especially in game development. As a different kind of example SQLite ships as a single "amalgamation file", which is the same thing as a unity build. Unity builds also act as a sort of poor man's link time optimization, which works even on compilers that do not support LTO natively.

Unity builds have their own limitations and problems. Some of them are discussed at the end of this article.


Meson has had unity build support available for a long time. The unfortunate downside is that incremental builds take a lot more time. This makes the edit-compile-debug cycle slower which is annoying. There are now two merge requests outstanding (number one, number two) that aim to make the user experience better.

With these changes you can tell Meson to unity build only subprojects, not the main project. This means that all your deps build really fast but the master project is built incrementally. In most use cases subprojects are read only. Only the master project is edited. For most people dependencies are slower to build than projects using them, so this gives a nice productivity boost. The other merge request enables finer grained control by allowing the user to override unityness for each target separately.

Please try out the branches and write your feedback and comments to the merge requests.

Problems of unity builds

Not all projects can be built as unity builds out of the box. The most common problem is having static variables and functions with the same name in different source files. In a unity build these will clash and not compile. There are other problems of similar nature, especially for projects that do crazy things with the preprocessor. These problems are fixable but take some effort. Most open source projects probably won't compile as unity builds out of the box.

Any project that wants to provide for a unity build must, in practice, have gating CI that compiles the source as a unity build. Otherwise it will break every now and then.

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