(autoconf.info)Why Not Imake
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19.4 Why Not Imake?
Why not use Imake instead of `configure' scripts?
Several people have written addressing this question, so I include
adaptations of their explanations here.
The following answer is based on one written by Richard Pixley:
Autoconf generated scripts frequently work on machines that it has
never been set up to handle before. That is, it does a good job of
inferring a configuration for a new system. Imake cannot do this.
Imake uses a common database of host specific data. For X11, this
makes sense because the distribution is made as a collection of
tools, by one central authority who has control over the database.
GNU tools are not released this way. Each GNU tool has a
maintainer; these maintainers are scattered across the world.
Using a common database would be a maintenance nightmare.
Autoconf may appear to be this kind of database, but in fact it is
not. Instead of listing host dependencies, it lists program
If you view the GNU suite as a collection of native tools, then the
problems are similar. But the GNU development tools can be
configured as cross tools in almost any host+target permutation.
All of these configurations can be installed concurrently. They
can even be configured to share host independent files across
hosts. Imake doesn't address these issues.
Imake templates are a form of standardization. The GNU coding
standards address the same issues without necessarily imposing the
Here is some further explanation, written by Per Bothner:
One of the advantages of Imake is that it easy to generate large
makefiles using the `#include' and macro mechanisms of `cpp'.
However, `cpp' is not programmable: it has limited conditional
facilities, and no looping. And `cpp' cannot inspect its
All of these problems are solved by using `sh' instead of `cpp'.
The shell is fully programmable, has macro substitution, can
execute (or source) other shell scripts, and can inspect its
Paul Eggert elaborates more:
With Autoconf, installers need not assume that Imake itself is
already installed and working well. This may not seem like much
of an advantage to people who are accustomed to Imake. But on
many hosts Imake is not installed or the default installation is
not working well, and requiring Imake to install a package hinders
the acceptance of that package on those hosts. For example, the
Imake template and configuration files might not be installed
properly on a host, or the Imake build procedure might wrongly
assume that all source files are in one big directory tree, or the
Imake configuration might assume one compiler whereas the package
or the installer needs to use another, or there might be a version
mismatch between the Imake expected by the package and the Imake
supported by the host. These problems are much rarer with
Autoconf, where each package comes with its own independent
Also, Imake often suffers from unexpected interactions between
`make' and the installer's C preprocessor. The fundamental problem
here is that the C preprocessor was designed to preprocess C
programs, not makefiles. This is much less of a problem with
Autoconf, which uses the general-purpose preprocessor M4, and
where the package's author (rather than the installer) does the
preprocessing in a standard way.
Finally, Mark Eichin notes:
Imake isn't all that extensible, either. In order to add new
features to Imake, you need to provide your own project template,
and duplicate most of the features of the existing one. This
means that for a sophisticated project, using the vendor-provided
Imake templates fails to provide any leverage--since they don't
cover anything that your own project needs (unless it is an X11
On the other side, though:
The one advantage that Imake has over `configure': `Imakefile'
files tend to be much shorter (likewise, less redundant) than
`Makefile.in' files. There is a fix to this, however--at least
for the Kerberos V5 tree, we've modified things to call in common
`post.in' and `pre.in' makefile fragments for the entire tree.
This means that a lot of common things don't have to be
duplicated, even though they normally are in `configure' setups.
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