Designing and managing a build configuration

This page will deal with the overall design patterns that involve a build configuration, and will answer some common "How do I ?" questions.

Even though it would be ideal, it is rare that all systems can share exactly the same build configuration. The prime example of this is embedded/developer's systems (the former does requires neither the simulation environment nor the GUIs). Moreover, one also sometimes needs to setup configuration in shared package sets to account for variations in projects that share said package set.

There is a fine line to thread when it comes to making things optional. Build configurations with too many options are really hard to maintain, and in my experience do not actually provide major benefits (apart from the NMH-like feeling that you can "tune your install exactly to your needs"). Be careful to not over-design your build configurations, and try to stick to the few cases where it really makes sense.

On GUI code in embedded systems

Do not build GUI and simulation elements in the normal codeflow "just for debugging purposes". This is a Really Bad Idea (tm) when it comes to autonomous robots. Autonomous robots, by definition, will run headless, and these pieces of code are basically time-bombs. Moreover, if anything wrong happens during a mission, you will by definition not have access to this data.

Instead, build diagnostic and debugging data structures, and make sure they can be exported out of your API. From there, one can put in on component ports and log it when necessary.

Package set structure

There is a cost in having too many package sets. Usually one should strive in not separating too much, because their interactions can become hard to understand (especially when it comes to osdeps or version control overrides).

Splitting package sets is most often not needed. Package sets only define packages and shouldn't do anything else, and as such one does not need to build everything that is declared in the package set. If it becomes practical to define some subsets of the packages, one can easily group them using metapackages (see below)

Generally speaking, start with one package set for your organization, and start creating package sets for projects only when it starts to make sense.


Autoproj allows you to group packages into subsets called metapackages. Metapackages, when used, resolve to their list of packages. The main use-case for this is to create sets of packages for different machine roles - such as a developer's machine or the embedded systems.

They are declared in the autobuild files with:

metapackage 'name_of_metapackage',
  'pkg1', 'pkg2', 'pkg3', …

All packages defined in a package set are automatically added into two metapackages: the package_set_name metapackage and the package_set_name.all metapackage. We are using this when we recommend to add the package set to the manifest's layout. The .all metapackage is meant to always include all packages from the package set. However, the other default metapackage is meant to be tuned to list the "sensible default" list of packages. If a package should not end up in it, it can removed after it has been defined with:

remove_from_default 'pkg1', 'pkg2'

Tip: packages from other package sets can also be added to the default package set with add_to_default 'pkg1', 'pkg2', ….

Choosing what to build where

Now that we've built sets of packages from our roles, there is still the issue of avoiding building some packages in some roles, regardless of package dependencies. One can force autoproj to not build a package by listing its name in the exclude_packages section of the manifest. So, you can usually avoid building any GUI and simulation stuff by adding:

- simulation/.*
- gui/.*

Exclusions are recursive, that is a package that would depend on a simulation or GUI package will also be excluded. Also, the system is a "exclude-then-include", so if you want to exclude all simulation packages but e.g. simulation/rock_gazebo, you would do:

- simulation/rock_gazebo

- simulation/.*

By default, autoproj will fail to build if a package set depends on an excluded package. This is the recommended default for the "terminal" package sets – such as the metapackages you will have defined for your roles. However, shared package sets sometime require to be more lax. The default can be changed after the metapackage is defined with:

metapackage('company.project').weak_dependencies = true

Because exclusions are done within the build configuration manifest, it requires having one manifest per system role. The best way to handle this is to actually have multiple manifest files with a .role suffix (e.g. autoproj/ The "local" manifest file can then be selected with

autoproj manifest autoproj/`

Tip: make the default manifest the 'developer' manifest and use this mechanism for development roles.

Optional Dependencies

As we just saw, excluding a package auto-excludes packages that depends on it. In the common exclusion cases (simulation and GUI), this is not a desired outcome. One would like to put visualization and actual code in the same packages, but avoid building GUI/simulation elements on systems that don't need it.

Inside packages, this has to be done the "traditional" way, that is by checking whether dependencies are present and avoiding building parts of the package if they are not.

At the Autoproj level, it requires listing dependencies as "optional" by using the <depend_optional …> tag instead of <depend …>. Optional dependencies act as "normal" dependencies by default. Only when the depended-upon package is excluded do they differ in behavior.

Configuration Options

Autoproj also has an interface to ask the developer configuration questions, that can then be used either in the version control information, or within the autobuild files to build optional behavior. You've already seen those when bootstrapping Rock.

Configuration options can be declared in an .autobuild file, within the init.rb file of the package set or in autoproj/init.rb with:

Autoproj.config.define 'CONFIGURATION_OPTION_NAME',
  type: 'boolean', # 'boolean' or 'string'
  doc: ['first line',
        'second line',
        'third line'],
  default: true, # true or false for boolean, an arbitrary string otherwise
  possible_values: ['list', 'of', 'acceptable', 'values'],
  lowercase: false, # convert the user input to lowercase
  uppercase: false, # convert the user input to uppercase

Autoproj will ask the user for the option's value the first time the option is used. Once the user answered a valid answer, Autoproj saves the value and will not ask again until the user runs autoproj reconfigure.

Within .autobuild files, the configuration options are accessed with


Within the version control information, it is expanded using the $CONFIGURATION_OPTION_NAME syntax.

Optional Features

Packages sometimes have optional features. Some of them are dependent on dependencies being available (think: parts of opencv being built only if library X, Y and Z are present), some of them are dependent on a runtime being present (e.g. language bindings).

In most cases (ideally, in all cases), the packages should have ways to control whether these features should be enabled or disabled. They often fallback on auto-detection if the flags aren't set, but they have ways to bypass the autodetection. Autodetection can often also be overriden by passing the appropriate information. For instance, CMake C++ packages are controlled through the setting of CMake variables.

Do not rely on these autodetection mechanism. They are fragile, and only make sure that different developers end up with different results, based on whether the dependencies/libraries/environment variables are set differently by pure chance.

Instead, figure out what your build wants and make sure the package settings are updated accordingly. See for instance (../libraries/cpp_libraries.html#optional_features). The source of the information you pass to the package may be a configuration option or the information from another package built by Autoproj.

That's all for the Workspace documentation. Go back to the documentation main index for more topics.