Recursive Make Isn’t All That Bad

In 1998, Peter Miller wrote an essay Recursive Make Considered Harmful (PDF). He outlines several convincing arguments for why the traditional practice of recursing through directories and calling make in each directory may not be a good technique.

Mozilla uses recursive make extensively. In fact, during a typical build we traverse each directory in the build tree at least twice, and in some cases three or even four times. So, way back in 2002, Chris Seawood filed a bug to reduce the number of subdirectories we traverse during a typical build. This had the promise of significantly reducing build time on Windows because forking processes on Windows (and especially under cygwin) is really expensive.

Unfortunately, it turned out that a non-recursive make was taking longer than the standard recursive make. I thought, at the time, that this was due to the use of extra $(shell cygpath) subprocesses needed to handle sources from multiple subdirectories correctly. About a month ago, at schrep‘s prompting, I went back to see whether there was a way to get it working. The results are below:

make -C netwerk libs
(Nothing to rebuild)

Standard (recursive) make

Non-recursive make










It turns out that the problem with non-recursive make, at least as I currently have it coded, is not the cost of forking processes, but the cost of statting files that don’t exist. Every time a makefile adds a directory to VPATH, make ends up searching through additional directories looking for files. As you can see from the chart, the actual processor time spent by the non-recursive process is a lot less; it takes longer in wall-clock time only because it’s waiting on disk I/O.

I’m hoping to try another technique for non-recursive make that doesn’t set the VPATH for each source directory. Unfortunately, this is going to involve some changes to the dependency system (which I don’t understand very well), so I don’t know when I’m going to find the time.

My technique involved the use of the $(eval) makefile function, which is only available in gmake 3.80 or higher. The tests were performed under MSYS, using GNU make 3.81, available from MSYS snapshots. Special thanks to Earnie Boyd for patiently dealing with me and pointing me at the right files.

Atom Feed for Comments 2 Responses to “Recursive Make Isn’t All That Bad”

  1. db48x Says:

    I think the best way to go is to use the full (relative) path in things like filenames instead of relying on VPATH:

    CPPSRCS += \
    cache/src/nsCache.cpp \
    cache/src/nsCacheEntry.cpp \

    XPIDLSRCS += \
    cache/public/nsICache.idl \
    cache/public/nsICacheEntryDescriptor.idl \

    However, there’s a problem with the way XPIDLSRCS is handled. The makefiles create a directory to hold the files created by the XPIDL compiler, but if you include a paths this way then the xpidl gets that full path as well, and because none of those extra directories exist it fails because it can’t open the output file. I’ve been meaning to file a bug.

    I’ve written makefiles in this style and they work just fine, though I haven’t had to use things like PROGRAM. Just making these changes would get us down to one makefile wherever we define a new MODULE.

    On the other hand, computers are quite a bit faster now than they used to be, so it certainly is less of a performance problem.

  2. The Doctor What Says:

    Since the time you wrote this, there has been this good description of how to implement non-recursive make:

    It is essentially creating full relative paths as db48x suggests.


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