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Building C libraries

Part of an ongoing series of essays tentatively entitled Don’t embarrass me, Don’t embarrass yourself: Notes on thinking in C and Unix.

Why are we considering libraries in the middle of an extended discussion of Make? Because real C programmers build libraries, and before we get to the end of Make, you should know how to use libraries in your C projects.

As you may recall, in our simple C project, we had developed a simple set of utility functions [1], an application that used that set of utilitity functions [2], and a reasonably robost test suite. What form did our set of utility functions take? At least at first, it was just a .o file, which we linked in the standard way.

$ cc -g -Wall   -c -o gcd.o gcd.c
$ cc -g -Wall   -c -o mathlib-gcd.o mathlib-gcd.c
$ cc -o gcd gcd.o mathlib-gcd.o

But once we end up with a lot of files for our utility functions, that’s going to make our instructions much more complicated. For example, once we’ve written our own procedure to parse integers, we’ll want to include that, too. In addition, other folks who want to use the utilities are likely to want to be able to remember just one file name, rather than each of the component pieces.

Fortunately, the C ecosystem [3] permits you to combine lots of object code into a single file, which is typically referred to as a library. Back when I was a young programmer [4], there was only one kind of library. Now there are at least two: static libraries (the kind I learned about) and shared libraries (the kind most people use). You use the two kinds of libraries in similar ways, but you create them in different ways.

Static libraries end with a .a suffix, for archive. Conveniently, you create archive files with the ar command. We will typically use the parameters r (for add, replacing if necessary) and v (forverbose") [5].

$ ar -rv libmathlib.a mathlib-gcd.o mathlib-str2long.o

Now, how do we tell the C compiler to use the library? The -lNAME flag says to include a library and the -LDIR flag tells the compiler where to look for libraries. (Libraries, like header files, can be stored in lots of places.) For the name of the library, you don’t use the initial lib [6]. And the library is in the current directory, so you can write the following.

$ cc gcd.o -o gcd -L. -lmathlib

You’ve encountered something similar when you use the standard C math library: You write -lm when you want the math library. You don’t need the -L. because the math library is in a standard directory somewhere.

What does our Makefile look like after all of this? It’s a bit longer [7], but probably usefully so.

# Makefile
#   A simple Makefile for our basic C project 

# +-----------+------------------------------------------------------
# | Variables |
# +-----------+

CC = gcc
CFLAGS = -Wall -g
LDLIBS = -L. -lmathlib

# More readable versions of the automatic variables
.TARGET = $@
.IMPSRC = $<
.ALLSRC = $^

# +---------+--------------------------------------------------------
# | Targets |
# +---------+

# Our tests
test: ./test-gcd

# The library
libmathlib.a: mathlib-gcd.o mathlib-str2long.o
    ar -rv $(.TARGET) $(.ALLSRC)

# Our application
gcd: gcd.o libmathlib.a
    $(CC) $(.IMPSRC) $(LDLIBS) -o $(.TARGET)

# Our tests
test-gcd: test-gcd.o libmathlib.a
    $(CC) $(.IMPSRC) $(LDLIBS) -o $(.TARGET)

# +-------------------------+----------------------------------------
# | Additional Dependencies |
# +-------------------------+

*.o: mathlib.h

Let’s make sure that it works.

$ make gcd
gcc -Wall -g   -c -o gcd.o gcd.c
gcc -Wall -g   -c -o mathlib-gcd.o mathlib-gcd.c
gcc -Wall -g   -c -o mathlib-str2long.o mathlib-str2long.c
ar -rv libmathlib.a mathlib-gcd.o mathlib-str2long.o
ar: creating libmathlib.a
a - mathlib-gcd.o
a - mathlib-str2long.o
gcc gcd.o -L. -lmathlib -o gcd

Yup. Everything looks good.

Are we done? Twenty years ago, we would have been done [8]. But we should think about how to make shared libraries. Nonetheless, I’m going to leave those as a topic for another day. After all, in many common cases, you’ll still use .a libraries, and .so libraries lead to an added set of complexity in terms of where to look for the libraries at runtime. So yes, we are done.

[1] That library consists of exactly one function, int gcd(int,int).

[2] More precisely, I asked you to develop that application.

[3] Or at least the Unix C ecosystem.

[4] Yes, I learned C from the first edition of K&R.

[5] No, we are not making a recreational vehicle.

[6] There’s probably a good reason, but don’t ask me.

[7] I’ve also added some BSD-style aliases for the automatic variables to make BD happy.

[8] Or maybe thirty; I’ve forgotten how long ago shared object files came into common usage.

Version 1.1.1 of 2017-01-13.