Development

I don’t do it as much as I used to, but I still do a lot of programming for its own sake—both as a hobby, and as a side gig to my academic work. Here are notes and essays about those projects.

Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing the GNU Autotools

I’ve been a contributor to GNU projects for many years, notably both GCC and GNU libc, and recently I led the effort to make the first release of Autoconf since 2012 (release announcement for Autoconf 2.70). For background and context, see the LWN article my colleague Sumana Harihareswara of Changeset Consulting wrote.

Autoconf not having made a release in eight years is a symptom of a deeper problem. Many GNU projects, including all of the other components of the Autotools (Automake, Libtool, Gnulib, etc.) and the software they depend upon (GNU M4, GNU Make, etc.) have seen a steady decline in both contributor enthusiasm and user base over the past decade. I include myself in the group of declining enthusiasts; I would not have done the work leading up to the Autoconf 2.70 release if I had not been paid to do it. (I would like to say thank you to the project funders: Bloomberg, Keith Bostic, and the GNU Toolchain Fund of the FSF.)

The Autotools are in particularly bad shape due to the decline in contributor enthusiasm. Preparation for the Autoconf 2.70 release took almost twice as long as anticipated; I made five beta releases between July and December 2020, and merged 157 patches, most of them bugfixes. On more than one occasion I was asked why I was going to the trouble—isn’t Autoconf (and the rest of the tools by implication) thoroughly obsolete? Why doesn’t everyone switch to something newer, like CMake or Meson? (See the comments on Sumana’s LWN article for examples.)

I personally don’t think that the Autotools are obsolete, or even all that much more difficult to work with than some of the alternatives, but it is a fair question. Should development of the Autotools continue? If they are to continue, we need to find people who have the time and the inclination (and perhaps also the funding) to maintain them steadily, rather than in six-month release sprints every eight years. We also need a proper roadmap for where further development should take these projects. As a starting point for the conversation about whether the projects should continue, and what the roadmap should be, I was inspired by Sumana’s book in progress on open source project management (sample chapters are available from her website) to write up a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats analysis of Autotools.

This inventory can help us figure out how to build on new opportunities, using the Autotools’ substantial strengths, and where to invest to guard against threats and shore up current weaknesses.

Followup discussion should go to the Autoconf mailing list.

Continued…