Wednesday, February 6, 2019

On possible futures of Meson

At FOSDEM I talked to a bunch of people about an issue that has been brought up a couple of times recently, specifically that of integrating Rust in existing code bases. Some projects are looking into converting parts (or presumably eventually everything) of their code to Rust. A requirement of this is that for some time there need to be both Rust and C or whatever language within one project at the same time. (The rest of this blog post will use Rust as an example, but the same issues are present in all modern programming languages that have the same build system/dependency setup. In practice this means almost all of them.)

This would not be such a problem except that Rust by itself has pretty much nothing in the standard library and you need to get many crates via Cargo for even fairly simple programs. Several people do not seem particularly thrilled about this for obvious reasons, but have given up on this battle because "in practice it's impossible to develop in Rust without using Cargo" or words to that effect. As the maintainer of Meson, they obviously come to me with the integration problem. Meson does support compiling Rust directly, but it does not go through Cargo.

This is where I'm told to "just call Cargo" instead. There are two major problems with this. The first one is technical and has to do with the fact that having two different build systems and dependency managers in one build directory does not really work. We're not going to talk about this issue in this blog post, interested people can find writings about this issue using their favorite bingoogle. The second issue is non-technical, and the more serious one.

This approach means the death of Meson as a project

If we assume (as seems to be the case currently) that new programming languages such as Rust take over existing languages and that they all have their own build system, then Meson becomes unnecessary. Having a build system whose only task is to call a different build system is useless. It is nothing but bloat that should be deleted. As the person whose (unpaid) job it is to care about the long term viability of Meson, this does not make me feel particularly good.

So what might the future might in hold? Let's look at some alternatives.

New languages take over and keep their own build systems

New things take over, old code gets rewritten or thrown away. Each language keeps living in its own silo. Language X is better than language Y battles become the new Emacs vs vi battles. Meson becomes obsolete and gets shipped to the farm where it joins LISP machines, BeOS and Amigas as technology that was once interesting and nice but then was forgotten.

This is where things are currently heading. It is also the most likely outcome.

New languages adopt Meson as their build system

Rather than building and maintaining their own build systems, new languages switch to using Meson so everyone has a shared system and things work together. This will not happen. The previous statement is so important that I'll write it here for a second time, but this time in bold and on its own line:

This will not happen!

Every new language wants to provide a full toolchain and developer experience on their own. This is actually a good choice because it means that they can provide a full dev experience by themselves without depending on any external tooling (especially one that is written in a different programming language). Being able to e.g. just install one MSI package on Windows and have the full dev experience there is a really nice thing to have. Because of this no new programming language will accept an external build tool. No way. No how.

Meson becomes a glue layer to combine programming languages

A common suggested solution is that language native build systems export their state somehow so that external tools can drive them. Meson would then take these individual projects and make them work together. On the face of it this seems simple and workable and allows mixing languages freely. But if you think about it more, this is not a great place to be in. Basically it means that your project's purpose changes from being a build system to being responsible of all project integration but who does not have any say on how builds happen. There is also no leverage on the actual toolchain developers.

A condensed description of this task would be integration hell as a service. It is unlikely that anyone would want to spend their free time doing that. I sure as hell don't. I deal with enough of that stuff at work already.

So is everything terrible and all hope lost forever?


But then again maybe not.

Meson the language is not Meson the implementation

Meson was designed from the beginning to be programming language independent. This means both the languages it supports and the language it is implemented in. It does not leak the fact that it's implemented in Python to the build definition language. The core Meson functionality is only a few thousand lines of Python, reimplementing it is not a massive task. There is nothing wrong with having multiple implementations. In fact it is encouraged. Feel like rewriting it in Rust? Go for it (pun not intended).

In this approach new programming languages would get to keep their own toolchains, installs and build systems. The only thing that would change is the build description language. The transition would take a fair bit of work to be sure, but the benefit is that all that code becomes easily integratable with other languages. The reference implementation of language X could even choose to only support its own language and hand multi-language projects off to the reference implementation.

There are other advantages as well. For example currently (or the last time I looked, which admittably was some time ago) Cargo farms almost all non-standard work to, leading to wheel reinvention. Meson has native support for most of the things a project might need (source code generation etc). Thus each language would not need to design their own DSL for describing these, but could instead take Meson's and implement it in their own tools. Meson also has a lot of functionality for things like creating Python modules, which you would also get for free.

But the main advantage of all of this would be cooperation. You could mix and match languages with ease (assuming a working API/ABI, but that is outside the build system's purview) and switch between different languages without needing to learn yet another build definition language and toolchain behaviour.

The main downside of this approach is that it can not be injected from "the outside". It would only work if there are people inside the language communities that would consider this a worthwhile thing to do and would drive the change from within. Even for them it would probably be a long battle, because these sorts of changes have traditionally met with a lot of resistance.

How will all this affect Meson development?

In the short term probably not in any noticeable way.

And in the long term?

1 comment:

  1. In the medium term, I think that Meson still has all the chances to stay the best build system for C and C++ code that relies on system-provided or pre-bundled libraries. Please don't let the scope creep kill this use case.