Moving Compiler Dependency Checks to Kconfig


The Linux kernel config system, Kconfig, uses a macro language very similar to the make build tool's macro language. There are a few differences, however. And of course, make is designed as a general-purpose build tool while Kconfig is Linux-kernel-specific. But, why would the kernel developers create a whole new macro language so closely resembling that of an existing general-purpose tool?

One reason became clear recently when Linus Torvalds asked developers to add an entirely new system of dependency checks to the Kconfig language, specifically testing the capabilities of the GCC compiler.

It's actually an important issue. The Linux kernel wants to support as many versions of GCC as possible—so long as doing so would not require too much insanity in the kernel code itself—but different versions of GCC support different features. The GCC developers always are tweaking and adjusting, and GCC releases also sometimes have bugs that need to be worked around. Some Linux kernel features can only be built using one version of the compiler or another. And, some features build better or faster if they can take advantage of various GCC features that exist only in certain versions.

Up until this year, the kernel build system has had to check all those compiler features by hand, using many hacky methods. The art of probing a tool to find out if it supports a given feature dates back decades and is filled with insanity. Imagine giving a command that you know will fail, but giving it anyway because the specific manner of failure will tell you what you need to know for a future command to work. Now imagine hundreds of hacks like that in the Linux kernel build system.

Part of the problem with having those hacky checks in the build system is that you find out about them only during the build—not during configuration. But since some kernel features require certain GCC versions, the proper place to learn about the GCC version is at config time. If the user's compiler doesn't support a given feature, there's no reason to show that feature in the config system. It should just silently not exist.

Linus requested that developers migrate those checks into the Kconfig system and regularize them into the macro language itself. This way, kernel features with particular GCC dependencies could identify those dependencies and then show up or not show up at config time, according to whether those dependencies had been met.

That's the reason simply using make wouldn't work. The config language had to represent the results of all those ugly hacks in a friendly way that developers could make use of.

The code to do this has been added to the kernel tree, and Masahiro Yamada recently posted some documentation to explain how to use it. The docs are essentially fine, although the code will gradually grow and grow as new versions of GCC require new hacky probes.

It's actually not so easy to know what should and should not go into the config system. If we're probing for GCC versions, why not probe for hardware peripherals as well? Why leave this for the kernel to do at runtime? It's not necessarily clear. In fact, it's an open debate that ultimately could swing either way. Dumping all this GCC-detection code into Kconfig may make Kconfig better able to handle other such dumps that previously would have seemed like too much. The only way we'll really know is to watch how the kernel developers probe Linus to see what he'll accept and what would be going too far.

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Zack Brown is a tech journalist at Linux Journal and Linux Magazine, and is a former author of the "Kernel Traffic" weekly newsletter and the "Learn Plover" stenographic typing tutorials. He first installed Slackware Linux in 1993 on his 386 with 8 megs of RAM and had his mind permanently blown by the Open Source community. He is the inventor of the Crumble pure strategy board game, which you can make yourself with a few pieces of cardboard. He also enjoys writing fiction, attempting animation, reforming Labanotation, designing and sewing his own clothes, learning French and spending time with friends'n'family.

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