When make -j$(nproc) fails

October 28, 2021

The other day I noticed that nixpkgs repository has slightly outdated bison-3.7.6 package while 3.8.2 was available upstream. I tried to update it. Usually it takes a 2 line change: update version and update upstream tarball hash. Something like: https://github.com/NixOS/nixpkgs/commit/88bdfc3b6cdd489abf480880aa01d71b6965a53c

--- a/pkgs/development/tools/parsing/bison/default.nix
+++ b/pkgs/development/tools/parsing/bison/default.nix
@@ -7,11 +7,11 @@

 stdenv.mkDerivation rec {
   pname = "bison";
-  version = "3.7.6";
+  version = "3.8.2";

   src = fetchurl {
     url = "mirror://gnu/${pname}/${pname}-${version}.tar.gz";
-    sha256 = "sha256-adwLtG6o/DB9TKHgthyMNV6yB9Cwxp9PhGIyjnTXueo=";
+    sha256 = "sha256-BsnhO99+sk1M62tZIFpPZ8LH5yExGWREMP6C+9FKCrs=";

I updated it locally and noticed that bison was somewhat slow to build. The build process looked sequential:

$ time nix build --impure --expr 'with import ./.{}; bison' --rebuild
real    0m28,695s

I tried to enable parallelism and got 1.5x speedup:

$ time nix build --impure --expr 'with import ./.{}; bison.overrideAttrs (oa: { enableParallelBuilding = true; })'
real    0m19,090s

And then applied the same to bison/default.nix build definition: https://github.com/NixOS/nixpkgs/commit/faf06a88de74364d4544e1ae8adbc5a31b51e4fe

--- a/pkgs/development/tools/parsing/bison/default.nix
+++ b/pkgs/development/tools/parsing/bison/default.nix
@@ -17,8 +17,10 @@ stdenv.mkDerivation rec {
   nativeBuildInputs = [ m4 perl ] ++ lib.optional stdenv.isSunOS help2man;
   propagatedBuildInputs = [ m4 ];

-  doCheck = false; # fails
-  doInstallCheck = false; # fails
+  enableParallelBuilding = true;
+  doCheck = true;
+  doInstallCheck = true;

   meta = {
     homepage = "https://www.gnu.org/software/bison/";

While at it I also enabled bison tests and slowed build down to 1m22s. bison has ~700 tests. 3x slowdown compared to initial state. But at least tests now use all the CPUs I have :) Leaving it for another day.

bison happens to be a bootstrap package that causes rebuild of almost all packages. None of ~2400 failed for my system. Yay! While at it I noticed that a few other packages were running sequentially, like coreutils:

$ time nix build --impure --expr 'with import ./. {}; coreutils' --rebuild
real    3m4,589s

$ time nix build --impure --expr 'with import ./. {}; coreutils.overrideAttrs (oa: { enableParallelBuilding = true; })'
real    0m52,312s

3.5x speedup just like that. At this point I wondered why parallelism is not a default. I suspected I have a lot more packages that build sequentially for no real reason.

Mechanically it’s a tiny change in stdenv.mkDerivation function:

--- a/pkgs/stdenv/generic/make-derivation.nix
+++ b/pkgs/stdenv/generic/make-derivation.nix
@@ -60,6 +60,8 @@ in
     (stdenv.hostPlatform != stdenv.buildPlatform)
     [ "build" "host" ]

+, enableParallelBuilding ? true
 # TODO(@Ericson2314): Make unconditional / resolve #33599
 # Check phase
 , doCheck ? config.doCheckByDefault or false
@@ -310,7 +312,8 @@ else let
           llvm-config = 'llvm-config-native'
       in [ "--cross-file=${crossFile}" ] ++ mesonFlags;
-    } // lib.optionalAttrs (attrs.enableParallelBuilding or false) {
+    } // lib.optionalAttrs enableParallelBuilding {
+      inherit enableParallelBuilding;
       enableParallelChecking = attrs.enableParallelChecking or true;
     } // lib.optionalAttrs (hardeningDisable != [] || hardeningEnable != [] || stdenv.hostPlatform.isMusl) {
       NIX_HARDENING_ENABLE = enabledHardeningOptions;

It is safe? Some packages will likely fail horribly when they get built in parallel. Scary and so tempting!

With the change above I built all the packages my system had with nix build -f nixos system --keep-going and immediately uncovered a bunch of failures:

12 packages out of ~2400 is not too much. Worst case I could mark them with enableParallelChecking = false; and move on.

I decided to spend some time on each of failures to possibly fix them upstream or at least get some insight into why build systems sometimes fail at this.

I love build system failures. Most of the time they are trivial to debug and fix. And when they are not it’s always a mystery to find out what a fancy failure mode awaits us there.


cramfsswap was easy to reproduce on rerun:

$ nix build --impure --expr 'with import ./.{}; cramfsswap.overrideAttrs (oa: { enableParallelBuilding = true; })' -L
cramfsswap> build flags: -j16 -l16 SHELL=/nix/store/wadmyilr414n7bimxysbny876i2vlm5r-bash-5.1-p8/bin/bash
cramfsswap> gcc -Wall -g -O    -o cramfsswap cramfsswap.c -lz
cramfsswap> strip cramfsswap
cramfsswap> strip: 'cramfsswap': No such file
cramfsswap> make: *** [Makefile:10: strip] Error 1
cramfsswap> make: *** Waiting for unfinished jobs....

Looks like strip is called a bit early. Let’s check the Makefile contents (nix develop -f. cramfsswap --phase unpack):

all: cramfsswap strip

cramfsswap: cramfsswap.c
        $(CC) -Wall -g -O $(CPPFLAGS) $(CFLAGS) $(LDFLAGS) -o cramfsswap cramfsswap.c -lz

        strip cramfsswap

Can you spot the failure?

strip target should depend on cramfsswap target. Nice thing about such bugs is that these are easy to verify by running an individual target with incomplete depends:

$ LANG=C make strip
strip cramfsswap
strip: 'cramfsswap': No such file
make: *** [Makefile:10: strip] Error 1

The fix is trivial:

--- a/Makefile
+++ b/Makefile
@@ -6,7 +6,7 @@ debian: cramfsswap
 cramfsswap: cramfsswap.c
        $(CC) -Wall -g -O $(CPPFLAGS) $(CFLAGS) $(LDFLAGS) -o cramfsswap cramfsswap.c -lz

+strip: cramfsswap
        strip cramfsswap

 install: cramfsswap

Even better would be to get rid of strip entirely. But let’s keep the build system’s behaviour unchanged for now.

Reported upstream as https://bugs.debian.org/cgi-bin/bugreport.cgi?bug=996964.

This is an example of class of bugs where direct dependency is missing in Makefile.

Very similar failures were found in:


adns was more elusive and required a bit of persistence to reproduce again:

$ nix build --impure --expr 'with import ./.{}; adns.overrideAttrs (oa: { enableParallelBuilding = true; })' -L
m4 -P -I. hredirect.h.m4 >hredirect.h-a.new
sed -e 's/hm_comma/,/g; s/hm_squote/'\''/g; /^[  ]*$/d' <hredirect.h-a.new >hredirect.h-b.new
m4 -P -I. hfuzzraw.c.m4 >hfuzzraw.c-a.new
sed -e 's/hm_comma/,/g; s/hm_squote/'\''/g; /^[  ]*$/d' <hfuzzraw.c-a.new >hfuzzraw.c-b.new
gcc -g -O2 -Wall -Wmissing-prototypes -Wwrite-strings -Wstrict-prototypes -Wcast-qual -Wpointer-arith -Wno-pointer-sign -Wno-unused-value  -I../src -I. -I./../src  -DADNS_REGRESS_TEST -I. -I ./../src -c -g -o adnsresfilter_c.o ../client/adnsresfilter.c
In file included from ../client/adnsresfilter.c:46:
./hredirect.h:3:10: fatal error: hsyscalls.h: No such file or directory
    3 | #include "hsyscalls.h"
      |          ^~~~~~~~~~~~~
compilation terminated.
make[1]: *** [Makefile:130: adnsresfilter_c.o] Error 1

In this case very occasionally hsyscalls.h file was not present. In this case hsyscalls.h was autogenerated from Makefile itself (as opposed to ./configure-time generation) in regress/Makefile.in: http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/ucgi/~ianmdlvl/git?p=adns.git;a=blob;f=regress/Makefile.in;h=993c1af66e2fbda331aee965ac2bfc8d3665c43e;hb=HEAD

REDIRLIBOBJS=   $(addsuffix _d.o, $(basename $(LIBOBJS)))
ALL_OBJS=       $(HARNLOBJS) dtest.o hrecord.o hplayback.o hnonfuzz.o hfuzz.o

%_c.o:          $(srcdir)/../client/%.c hredirect.h
            $(CC) $(CFLAGS) $(HCPPFLAGS) -I $(srcdir)/../src -c -g -o $@ $<

$(ALL_OBJS):    $(srcdir)/../src/adns.h $(srcdir)/../src/internal.h
$(ALL_OBJS):    harness.h hsyscalls.h

%::     %.m4 hmacros.i4 hsyscalls.i4
    $(M4) -P -I$(srcdir) $< >$@-a.new
    sed -e 's/hm_comma/,/g; s/hm_squote/'\''/g; /^[  ]*$$/d' <$@-a.new >$@-b.new
    @mv -f $@-b.new $(srcdir)/$@; rm -f $@-a.new

Here hsyscalls.h.m4 is used to produce hsyscalls.h, but adnsresfilter_c.o in no way specifies the dependency against it. It should.

Minor note: ../client/adnsresfilter.c includes hsyscalls.h only indirectly via hredirect.h and thus requires some care to specify actual dependency. Should adnsresfilter.c require hsyscalls.h dependency? Or should hredirect.h require hsyscalls.h as a depdendency? Up to build system author.

Upstream report: https://debbugs.gnu.org/cgi/bugreport.cgi?bug=51329

This is a class of bugs where source dependency is autogenerated, but Makefile does not specify object dependency on generated source.

Very similar failures were found in:


ocaml is a a big project that takes a while to compile. Normally such projects have Makefile ready for parallel build as is. And yet:

$ nix build --impure --expr 'with import ./.{}; ocaml.overrideAttrs (oa: { enableParallelBuilding = true; })' -L
ocaml> build flags: -j16 -l16 SHELL=/nix/store/wadmyilr414n7bimxysbny876i2vlm5r-bash-5.1-p8/bin/bash world bootstrap world.opt
ocaml> make -C runtime  all
ocaml> make promote-cross
ocaml> make coldstart
ocaml> make[1]: Entering directory '/build/ocaml-4.12.0/runtime'
ocaml> make[1]: Entering directory '/build/ocaml-4.12.0'
ocaml> make[1]: Entering directory '/build/ocaml-4.12.0'
ocaml> make -C runtime  all
ocaml> cp ocamlc boot/ocamlc
ocaml> make[2]: Entering directory '/build/ocaml-4.12.0/runtime'
ocaml> cp: cannot stat 'ocamlc': No such file or directory
ocaml> make[1]: *** [Makefile:179: promote-common] Error 1
ocaml> make[1]: Leaving directory '/build/ocaml-4.12.0'
ocaml> make: *** [Makefile:233: coreboot] Error 2
ocaml> make: *** Waiting for unfinished jobs....

Such an early failure! Note that bulder calls make with multiple targets: make -j16 world bootstrap world.opt. Looking at Makefile reveals an interesting pattern: https://github.com/ocaml/ocaml/blob/trunk/Makefile#L305

.PHONY: world
world: coldstart
        $(MAKE) all

# Compile also native code compiler and libraries, fast
.PHONY: world.opt
world.opt: checknative
        $(MAKE) coldstart
        $(MAKE) opt.opt

Normally I would expect it to be something like:

world: coldstart all
world.opt: checknative coldstart opt.opt

Otherwise nothing prevents coldstrat to be built from both world and world.opt targets in parallel. That’s what happens in our case.

To workaround this failure my suggestion is to artificially sequence targets together:

        $(MAKE) world
        $(MAKE) bootstrap
        $(MAKE) world.opt

That way we can still preserve the ordering and have each component to build in parallel. Longer term the build system should allow us to specify multiple top-level targets. They should not be special in any way.

This change speeds ocaml buuild time from 6m55s to 1m35s on my machines. A 4.3x speedup does not sound bad for 4 lines of Makefile.


cdparanoiaIII took me quite a while to be able to reproduce the failure. The following managed to trigger rebuild eventually:

$ while nix build -f . cdparanoiaIII --rebuild --cores 64; do echo again; done
make libcdda_interface.a CFLAGS="-O2 -fsigned-char -g -O2"
make[2]: Entering directory '/build/cdparanoia-III-10.2/interface'
gcc -O2 -fsigned-char -g -O2 -c scan_devices.c
make[2]: Leaving directory '/build/cdparanoia-III-10.2/interface'
make libcdda_interface.so CFLAGS="-O2 -fsigned-char -g -O2 -fpic"
gcc -O2 -fsigned-char -g -O2 -fpic -c scan_devices.c
gcc -fpic -shared -o libcdda_interface.so.0.10.2 -Wl,-soname -Wl,libcdda_interface.so.0 scan_devices.o  common_interface.o cooked_interface.o interface.o scsi_interface.o smallft.o toc.o test_interface.o -lm -lrt
scan_devices.o: file not recognized: file format not recognized
collect2: error: ld returned 1 exit status
make[2]: *** [Makefile:49: libcdda_interface.so] Error 1

Here scan_devices.o gets rebuilt twice within a single make invocation: once with -fpic option (to build shared library) and once without (to build static library): https://svn.xiph.org/trunk/cdparanoia/interface/Makefile.in

interface/Makefile.in is very illustrative in this case:

all: lib slib

        $(MAKE) libcdda_interface.a CFLAGS="$(OPT)"

        $(MAKE) libcdda_interface.so CFLAGS="$(OPT) -fpic"

libcdda_interface.a:    $(OFILES)
        $(AR) -r libcdda_interface.a $(OFILES)
        $(RANLIB) libcdda_interface.a

libcdda_interface.so:   $(OFILES)
        $(CC) -fpic -shared -o libcdda_interface.so.0.$(VERSION) -Wl,-soname -Wl,libcdda_interface.so.0 $(OFILES) $(LIBS)

        $(CC) $(CFLAGS) -c $<

Note that $(OFILES) are shared across libcdda_interface.a and libcdda_interface.so. Nothing prevented both to run on parallel.

Nowadays those have slightly different names (or paths) to allow for parallel build. Reusing file names in different parts of a single build is very tricky.

Is 12 failures a lot?

Getting 12 failures for my local system was a bit worrying: most of the failures happened in somewhat niche but not that rare packages. What if we try to build really obscure ones?

I attempted to build a few random packages from the whole of nixpkgs as:

$ nix-env -qaP | awk '{print $1}' | sed -e 's/^nixos.//g' | shuf | xargs -n 10 nix build -f. --no-link

Over one night 20 more failures popped up in over ~5000 built packages:

I think we are heading towards ~200 failures over all of nixpkgs.

~200 a lot more than I personally could triage and fix myself but is very reasonable to offload to individual maintainers or enthusiasts who would like to get their feet wet by fixing a simple package build failure problem.

Bonus question

So these are examples of failures when sequential build normally succeeds due to deterministic rule execution order.

Do you think there could be a bug when parallel build almost always succeeds while sequential would always fail?

I encountered it once in my life: https://bugs.gentoo.org/566620. By There missing dependency was alwasy satisfied by a builder from other rules runnig in parallel.

The fix adds missing dependency (as expected): https://github.com/skvadrik/re2c/commit/88a7cec2e644c6d890f68133ed8fd6362e5beeab

Parting words

To state the obvious: building packages in parallell speeds builds up. Sometimes by a lot.

Vast majority of packages do support parallel builds. Probably not a surprise to anyone. I think we can flip a default on in nixpkgs and sort out the fallout.

Recursive calls to $(MAKE) work as is only if you build non-overlapping targets (say, disjoint selfcontained subdirectories). They blow up when you try to do clever things like slignt environment change to rebuild the same target and reuse intermediate file names or have cross-directory dependencies.

There is a list of yet unfixed packages at https://github.com/NixOS/nixpkgs/issues/142338. Feel free to grab one and give it a try.

Have fun!