When we have larger projects, it is much more efficient to compile only the modified files rather than all files. Makefiles let us define these dependencies and rebuild our project with simple commands.

Dependency graph

Suppose we have a program made up of some files: main.cpp, foo.cpp, foo.h, bar.cpp, and bar.h. The dependencies among these are as follows (suppose):

Makefile dependencies (example)

From this diagram, we can infer the following properties of the build process:

Notice that when main.cpp is modified, for example, neither foo.cpp nor bar.cpp need to be recompiled. This is because they do not #include anything from main.cpp (not even recursively from their #include’s).

Example Makefile

Here is a Makefile that handles building the project shown in the diagram. We would name this file Makefile and put it in the same directory as our source files (though the source files could be anywhere, technically).

foo.o: foo.cpp foo.h
	g++ -Wall -ansi -pedantic -g -O2 -c foo.cpp

bar.o: bar.cpp bar.h
	g++ -Wall -ansi -pedantic -g -O2 -c bar.cpp

main.o: main.cpp foo.h bar.h
	g++ -Wall -ansi -pedantic -g -O2 -c main.cpp

myprogram: main.o foo.o bar.o
	g++ -Wall -ansi -pedantic -g -O2 -o myprogram main.o foo.o bar.o

Note: The space before the g++ commands must be a TAB! All actions must be indented by honest-to-god \t tabs.

We have a lot of repetition in the compiler flags (-Wall -ansi ...). Let’s use a variable to clean that up. We’ll also use a variable for the compiler command, in case we change compilers later (on a different operating system, for example).

CXX = g++
CXXFLAGS = -Wall -ansi -pedantic -g -O2

foo.o: foo.cpp foo.h
	$(CXX) $(CXXFLAGS) -c foo.cpp

bar.o: bar.cpp bar.h
	$(CXX) $(CXXFLAGS) -c bar.cpp

main.o: main.cpp foo.h bar.h
	$(CXX) $(CXXFLAGS) -c main.cpp

myprogram: main.o foo.o bar.o
	$(CXX) $(CXXFLAGS) -o myprogram main.o foo.o bar.o

Using a Makefile

We can run the make command, and give a target (goal), as follows:

make foo.o

Or more likely:

make myprogram

The make program first reads the Makefile (if you named it something use, use make -f mymakefile), and determines the dependencies of the specified target. If the target file is newer than all of the dependencies (by checking modified time on the files), then there is nothing to do. If one or more of the dependencies are newer, then the target is regenerated.

Actually, all dependencies are checked in the same way first, recursively. So if foo.h has been modified more recently than either myprogram (original target) or main.o or foo.o, then all the out-of-date targets are rebuilt.

Useful non-file targets

Most targets are filenames (e.g., myprogram or foo.o). However, we sometimes want some other targets just for convenience. One special target is all:


all: myprogram

The all target typically has no associated actions, but just depends on the target you’re most often going to use. Now, if you just run make with no target, it will assume the all target, which in this case is actually the myprogram target.

We can also make “phony” targets that have no dependencies but just perform useful actions. One common example is the clean target:

.PHONY: clean
	rm -f *.o myprogram

In this example, we can run make clean to delete all the generated files, including the program binary. By doing this, we can run make clean followed by make to ensure we are rebuilding the entire project from scratch.

CSCI 221 material by Joshua Eckroth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Source code for this website available at GitHub.