Made of Bugs

Why Scons Is Cool

I've recently started playing with scons a little for some small personal projects. It's not perfect, but I've rapidly come to the conclusion that it's a probably far better choice than make in many cases. The main exceptions would be cases where you need to integrate into legacy build systems, or if asking or expecting developers to have scons installed is unreasonable for some reason.

The main reason that scons is cool to me, and the thing that makes it fundamentally different from make, is the introduction of actual scoping.

make has a single global scope. This is one of the main reasons that people write recursive Makefiles; By giving you one file per directory, you get one scope per directory, which makes it possible to have per-directory pattern rules, variables, and all that other stuff, without driving yourself insane.

make's awful syntax, confusing varieties of variable, whitespace-sensitivity, and all the other things that people love to bitch about are annoying, but to my mind, the single scope that makes recursive Makefiles the dominant (and, really, the only scalable) paradigm is the one thing that really sucks.

scons solves this by baking various kinds of scoping into the tool. scons lets you include sub-build-scripts (typically named SConscript, by convention). Those scripts run in their own namespace and can establish their own variables, rules, etc., but the end result is then merged back into the global rule list (handling sub-directory paths intelligently), so that the scheduler can work globally, instead of having to recurse.

Furthermore, because of this explicit scoping, you can pass variables, including targets, between build files, letting you explicitly set up cross-directory dependencies or share CFLAGS or other variables, making it easy for different directories to share exactly as much or as little configuration as you want.

In addition, scons has the concept of "build environments", which are objects that include build rules, variables, and so on. By reifying what make just represents as the global environment into objects, it makes it much easier to scope and program things. For example, if you have a set of targets that should be built using the global default rules, except with debugging enabled, you can do:

myenv = env.Clone()
myenv.Append(CFLAGS = ['-g'])

By making it (optionally) explicit which sets of rules and variables are being used in each place, it becomes much easier to share multiple kinds of targets and rule sets in a single file, without necessitating lots of sub-files just for scoping, like make tends to lead to.

scons is cool for a bunch of reasons. It eliminates most of the stupid little annoyances you've probably had with make. But, in my mind, this is the thing that makes it cool. They've added sane scoping to the build tool, so that you can construct non-recursive build systems without going insane.

I'll definitely be considering scons for any new projects I write going forward. I hate make, and this definitely feels like a path forward.