In the last episode, I presented a concise definition of build systems. I designed it so that it includes as many approaches as possible to the problem. I fantasized this episode as a trip along the border drawn by this definition. The idea was to explore curious build systems, from those that barely fit the definition to the mainstream ones, passing by little known outsiders and niche designs.

As it turns out, the article was already long enough after exploring quite a few implementations. It turns out that in my quest to start with simple tools, they all happened to share a common feature: the build specification amounts to a single script. None of the build systems presented here require an explicit list of tasks inputs, nor any other kind of upfront information about the commands that have to be executed. For now, let’s refer to these as script-based build systems.

The name “script-based” build systems does not exist yet. It is introduced here for convenience. They are sometimes called “forward” build systems, but I prefer the more technical and evocative term of “imperative” build systems, for reasons I elaborate at the end of this article.

So here is a tour of all the {script-based, forward, imperative} build systems that I am aware of.

Scripting build systems

Down to the basics

The minimal build system often comes as a surprise: it is a single script. Either bash, bat, or any scripting language. Wikipedia’s definition for scripting languages fits perfectly in our definition of build systems. We reproduce it here for it is terser than the ECMAScript spec referenced as a source:

A scripting or script language is a programming language for a special run-time environment that automates the execution of tasks;1 the tasks could alternatively be executed one-by-one by a human operator.

Scripting Language, in Wikipedia

Everything is in there. A scripting language automates the execution of tasks. They can definitely be used as build systems, provided that the tasks are used to process and produce some information.

Here is a trivial build system for a no less trivial application written in C.

#! /usr/bin/env bash
gcc lib.c -o lib.o
gcc app.c -o app.o
gcc app.o lib.o -lm -o app

This build system works correctly, but leaves a lot of room for optimisation. It is nonetheless a perfectly valid build system. For this small project it is easy to setup, easy to maintain, and easy to install as the script language used is assumed to be installed by default in the developer environment.

Dedicated tasks runners

This basic ability of running a sequence of tasks is already interesting enough in itself that it received it’s own dedicated name: a task runner. The best examples are Grunt and Gulp that both target JavaScript code bases. Here is a sample Gruntfile, the name of Grunt configuration files, from the project official website.

module.exports = function(grunt) {

    jshint: {
      files: ['Gruntfile.js', 'src/**/*.js', 'test/**/*.js'],


  grunt.registerTask('default', ['jshint']);


Task runners elaborate on scripts by providing specific support for build systems. Grunt and Gulp come with progress report during execution, and convenient tools for declaring the tasks. As the example above suggests, generic tasks can be shared and reused in several projects. They can be further specialized with configuration options. Of course custom, hand-written tasks can still be described. For open-source build systems, the set of available tasks, modules or plugins typically grows with the size of the community using it.

These tools also have an implicit understanding of what task outputs and inputs are. Files in this case. But hey will nevertheless support tasks with no input, nor output. For example a task that starts, restarts or stop a web server works fine2. Tests also fit this model as tasks without output. A failure of these halts the build, just as any other would.

The order of the tasks must still be specified manually, as they are executed in the order in which they are specified. Grunt users must ensure that all the intermediate files are referenced correctly.

Finally, tasks are named, which makes it easy to construct a tree of tasks, or run only a named subset of them. The example only has a 'default' task to run, but bigger projects can have many more and compose them.

While these tools use none of the advanced algorithms we will describe later, they fit their environment. In the context of JavaScript web development there is no long compilation phase. But files are often required to go through several transformation steps (concatenation, minification, uglyfication, compression) and then several operations need to be automated (testing, deployment, restarting of server, refreshing ow browser pages, etc.). These tasks are hard if not impossible to capture in the strict models used by other tools.

Because tasks are quick, it is okay to run them unconditionally. And because it is hard to automatically determine which one can correctly be skipped, this is often the only safe option.

When you are already up-to-date

Memoize and Fabricate are our two next curiosities in the galaxy of build systems. Conceptually, they are the same thing because Fabricate presents itself as a rewrite of Memoize that also supports Windows3. They speed up build scripts by skipping tasks whose inputs are unchanged since their previous execution. The specificity of these tools is that they trace the execution of the tasks at a low-level to extract all file accesses. The method is thus applicable to a wide range of tasks for a wide range of projects independently of the language or tools used.

Technically, two discoveries happen on a task execution. The set of dependencies are learned, and their content is fingerprinted. Note that the order of the tasks is still fixed by the script. Tasks can only be skipped, but not reordered by the build system. This caching technique enable incremental building, where only a subset of the tasks are executed to “refresh” a build. The build systems presented before did not have this property.

Scripts and command wrappers

Fabricate and memoize have two related modes of execution. They can be invoked as single command wrappers, and as script libraries. In wrapper mode, every command invocation must be prefixed by the wrapper to take effect.

#!/bin/sh gcc -c file1.c gcc -c file2.c gcc -o program file1.o file2.o

The script mode comes as a convenient way to use the wrapper when programming in a language for which bindings exists, or directly in the language in which the wrapper tool has been written. In the case of these two tools, python is the only choice.

from fabricate import *

sources = ['program', 'util']

def build():

def compile():
    for source in sources:
        run('gcc', '-c', source+'.c')

def link():
    objects = [s+'.o' for s in sources]
    run('gcc', '-o', 'program', objects)

def clean():


The core feature is the run() command that executes the given system command with the wrapper in place. But the script mode can also alleviate boilerplate as is the case in the above example with a main() function that automatically derives available targets from functions names, and support for cleaning generated files with autoclean()

Truth be told, there is no essential difference between the script and wrapper mode because both need to identify commands to be executed with the wrapper, and the script mode does no much more than deferring to the same logic as the wrapper mode.

Command wrappers for everything

More generally, any command wrapper can be seen as minimalist build system handling one command, and can be further threaded into build scripts to profit from their features. As is the case with ccache and sccache.

The name CCache stands for Compiler Cache. A wrapper able to perform caching of compiler invocations. It best supports gcc, clang and cuda and thus targets mostly C/C++ compilation tasks. SCCache is a separate tool to support sharing of those caches across the network. The name stands for Shared CCache.

These tools elaborate on the idea of Fabricate by caching build results instead of tracking if existent files are up-to-date. This allows to substitute the output of tasks that were part of older executions of the build system. With enough care, these outputs can be shared across build directories, across users on the same machine, or even across the network.

There exists other commands wrappers like distcc, that distributes the wrapped commands within a cluster of machines to speed up the compilation. Icecream does the same with a central scheduling server.

As a final command wrapper, we should mention recc which brings together remote (aka distributed) execution and remote caching.

Command wrappers allow to gain extra features with minimal changes to existing build specifications. They can be used as is, or as an intermediate step to estimate the potential gains of their respective features before migrating to an advanced build system, potentially not script-based.

Can we get faster

All the build systems seen up to now execute tasks in the script order. This does not prevent some parallelism to take place when the script is thus written, but it forces upon the build system users the necessary verification that the script is written in the correct order.

Rattle tries to bypass this limitation by introducing speculative execution. Rattle is an experimental build system based on tracing commands execution to skip identical invocations (like fabricate) and provide caching (like a generalized ccache for any system command). Rattles tries to compete with advanced build systems while retaining the simplicity of script-based build descriptions.

To further speed up linear build scripts, Rattle takes the risk of wasting ressources and speculates on future commands to execute them anticipatively. Advantages and pitfalls with speculation are well known in computer science. The impact in the case of Rattle has been studied in the introducing paper [@spall-2020].

The correctness of anticipated executions is guaranteed by the system-level tracing on the commands, which ensures accurate information on inputs and outputs of the commands and allow to detect changes to inputs of eagerly executed commands.

By tracing execution, the build system may however discover issues that where not apparent during the execution of the build script. The implementors of Rattle discovered build specification containing two commands writing to the same same file. This shows how collected information about the build specification can discover and help enforce correct results.

Script based build systems, and beyond

From the bare execution of a series of commands in an executable script to the speculative execution of cached tasks execution, we see that a build script can get various improvements. First performance wise, with incremental builds, caching, distributed caching and remote execution. Also with respect to usability with time estimates (the so called progress bars) and simplified tasks description. And finally regarding correctness issues when race conditions and outputs variations are made visible by the tooling.

If we step back a bit, to look at the full list of build systems presented here, we observe they are not the usual tools one would associate with build systems. Some did not gain traction, some are still experimental, some are better described by their specific function than as build systems on their own. Their lower common denominator, the build script, is usually conceived as a draft waiting to be replaced by a proper build system. They are however perfectly valid build systems.

What they have in common is the way they encode the tasks that must be executed: as a sequence of instructions. They describe the commands to be executed in an imperative way, as opposed to the declarative paradigm where commands are described as data. In the imperative script style, the commands cannot be listed without executing the script. And the build system requires no a priori information on the tasks to perform correctly.
It is precisely this lack of information on the tasks that limits the optimisations that can be successfully applied during the execution of the task set. This is why one needs to ressort to speculative execution to take advantage of parallelism beyond what the script prescribes.

In the literature, the term “forward build system” is also used to describe these imperative build systems. The term seems to have appeared within Shake source code, but we could find no definition of it. A possible interpretation is that declarative build systems configuration allow the build system to work backward from the final goals and build the dependencies transitively, while imperative build systems configurations only work in one direction, forward, the normal direction of execution for scripts.

The interest of imperative build systems reside in their simplicity. There is no need to learn a specification (aka configuration) language. There is no need to explicit or even know the dependencies of the tasks. All that is needed is to reproduce the set of commands that where typically entered manually.

Again, the trade-off resides at the information you are willing to encode. Imperative scripts encode less exploitable information about the tasks, which makes them shorter and easier to write. But as the software project becomes bigger and bigger, providing more information enables build systems to use more efficient optimisations, and to provide more correctness guarantees on the final result. At the expense of more maintenance on the build specification.

We can only surmise that it is because imperative build systems tend to be used in small projects that they did not receive a lot of attention. Despite their relative discretion, they are numerous and diverse, and enabled this introduction to techniques and algorithms specific to build systems in general.



  3. “It was inspired by Bill McCloskey’s make replacement, memoize, but fabricate works on Windows as well as Linux.” in Fabricate’s↩︎