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Standard targets in Makefiles

You’ve just received a project from someone else, and it has a Makefile. What should you make? I suppose you could look through the Makefile for information, and that was what folks once did. However, these days, most Makefiles have a few standard targets [1].

The first target in your makefile is the default target. It is what gets made if you execute make without any parameters.

Traditionally, the first target is all, and indicates the primary products of your project. For our sample project, we might make the library our default target, or we might make the application our default target, or we might make both the default targets.

all: libmathlib.a gcd

By this stage in your career, you should know that it’s important to test code, even code you’ve received from elsewhere. Why might a C program break as you transport it from system to system? Well, you might have different versions of libraries, or missing libraries, or who knows what else. Hence, projects typically ship with a small test suite for you to run. For the Math library project, our test is test-gcd, but we don’t want to force the installer to read the Makefile to discover that. We rely on the standard check target

check: test-gcd

What else? Well, we want to put the code we generate somewhere for everyone to use. (Okay, that’s not always true. But for many packages, you want to eventually copy it to a standard location.) The target for installing software is, not surprisingly install. We often set the directories for installation in the variables at the top of the file.

INSTALL_BIN = /usr/local/bin
INSTALL_LIB = /usr/local/lib


install: default
        install gcd INSTALL_BIN
        install libmathlib.a INSTALL_LIB

What are those install commands? Well, install is a standard Unix utility that helps you install things in typical fashion, setting ownership and making intermediate directories and such.

So, where were we? We have three standard targets: The default target, all, which runs when we just type make. The check target, which we use to ensure that we have made code that works correctly. And the install target, which we use to install the software we’ve made. Because these three targets are so typical, most C programmers, upon downloading a new project, know to use the following sequence of instructions

make check
/usr/bin/sudo make install

I will note, however, that with the advent of modern package management systems, like apt, it is often more convenient to just use apt. Still, it’s useful to know (and use) these target.

Are there other useful targets? There are three others that I commonly use.

As you’ve probably seen, a typical C project creates a lot of cruft, particularly .o files. Since different projects create different cruft, it’s useful to have a target that lets you clean out the project-specific cruft. That target is clean [3]. Since we are removing files, clean usually has no dependencies.

        rm -f *.o

Are those .o files the only things we’ve created in building the project? No. We’ve also created the executable and the library. If we want to get back to a pristine distribution, we should also remove those files. The target for clean up everything is distclean.

distclean: clean
        rm -f libmathlib.a
        rm -f gcd
        rm -f test-gcd

Finally, we often want to package together everything into a tarball for distributing to others. That target is dist.

dist: mathlib-gcd.c mathlib-str2long.c Makefile mathlib.h test-gcd.c gcd.c
        rm -rf mathlib-0.1
        mkdir mathlib-0.1
        cp $^ mathlib-0.1
        tar cvzf mathlib-0.1.tgz mathlib-0.1
        rm -rf mathlib-0.1

Of course, all of this would be better if we used variables.

PROJECT = mathlib
SOURCES = mathlib-gcd.c mathlib-str2long.c gcd.c
HEADERS = mathlib.h
TESTING = test-gcd.c
MORESRC = Makefile

dist: $(PRJDIST)
        rm -rf $(PROJDIR)
        mkdir $(PROJDIR)
        cp $^ $(PROJDIR)
        tar cvzf $(TARBALL) $(PROJDIR)
        rm -rf $(PROJDIR)

As you might expect, similar steps are common enough in Makefiles that programmers may often use tools to build their makefiles. However, at this stage in your career, you are better off writing your Makefiles from scratch.

Are there other common targets? Certainly. You can read more about many of them in the GNU documentation at

How many of these targets do you need? Do you really need all six [4]? Not always. Not everyone needs a dist target. These days, we use git for many of our distributions anyway. If you’re not building code for others to install, do you need install? Probably not. But even if you don’t use these targets in your own Makefiles, you should know that they exist and how to write them.

For your own projects, you will find certainly it helpful to have the other four targets (all, check, clean, and distclean). Make it your practice to create those targets whenever you create a Makefile. Also make it your practice to use variables, as appropriate.

[1] In fact, a large number of Makefiles are no longer generated by hand; instead they are generated by Automake. Automake is a subject for another day [2].

[2] More precisely, Automake is also a subject for another course.

[3] Yes, it may seem strange that we have a target that we use to remove files, rather than creating them. But you’ll get used to it. It makes sense if you realize that while many targets are files, others are actions.

[4] Plus others listed in that link?

Version 1.0 of 2017-03-01.