GNU make's 'Secondary Expansion' feature

September 16, 2022

People occasionally ask me when make --shuffle feature will be released. The short answer is: I don’t know. I would like to have it released sooner but I also understand that stabilization requires real work to get the release out.

But fear not, not all is lost! Paul sent out an announcement a few days ago that the new release is in the works!

To get some confidence that make --shuffle is not completely broken I gave current master a go.

The setup was straightforward as usual: I added current make snapshot locally into nixpkgs and tried to build my desktop system with it using nix build -f. nixos system.

Quiz question: did make --shuffle still work? :)

Let’s find out.


A few seconds into the build the first failed package was autoconf-2.71 (and autoconf-2.69 slightly later). The symptom was the following suspicious build failure:

$ make
bash: line 1: env: command not found
make  all-am
bash: line 1: make: command not found
make: *** [Makefile:928: all] Error 127

make: command not found suggested something broke the PATH environment variable. Grepping automakes source for PATH I was lucky to find this code snippet:

# In
export PATH = $(shell echo "`pwd`/tests:$$PATH")

Until then I had no idea about export keyword in GNU make! This keyword exports make-level variables to child sub-processes. Mostly intended for sub-make. But $(shell ...) calls work as well.

If you are not very familiar with GNU make the code above might not look tricky. Let’s talk a bit about various variable assignments. GNU make has that many:


Yeah, it’s 7 types of them. We use deferred one in the example above. From what I understand POSIX defines only the first IMMEDIATE = DEFERRED.

I’ll quote info make here for details:

3.7 How 'make' Reads a Makefile

GNU 'make' does its work in two distinct phases.  During the first phase
it reads all the makefiles, included makefiles, etc.  and internalizes
all the variables and their values and implicit and explicit rules, and
builds a dependency graph of all the targets and their prerequisites.
During the second phase, 'make' uses this internalized data to determine
which targets need to be updated and run the recipes necessary to update

   It's important to understand this two-phase approach because it has a
direct impact on how variable and function expansion happens; this is
often a source of some confusion when writing makefiles.  Below is a
summary of the different constructs that can be found in a makefile, and
the phase in which expansion happens for each part of the construct.

   We say that expansion is "immediate" if it happens during the first
phase: 'make' will expand that part of the construct as the makefile is
parsed.  We say that expansion is "deferred" if it is not immediate.
Expansion of a deferred construct part is delayed until the expansion is
used: either when it is referenced in an immediate context, or when it
is needed during the second phase.

The main ones I’ll focus on here are := (immediate) vs = (deferred).

Here is one possible example that illustrates the difference:

AI := $(BI)
AD  = $(BD)

	@echo "AI=$(AI) BI=$(BI)"
	@echo "AD=$(AD) BD=$(BD)"

BI := BI-val
BD  = BD-val


$ make
AI= BI=BI-val
AD=BD-val BD=BD-val

Here AI refers to BI value before BI is defined. While AD refers to BD value after BD is defined. := is very useful for cases when right hand side is computationally non-trivial and thus should not be duplicated.

Typical deferred assignment error is an accidental recursion:

C = $(C) also-bar

	@echo "C=$(C)"


$ LANG=C make
Makefile:1: *** Recursive variable 'C' references itself (eventually).  Stop.

Going back to our initial example of export PATH = $(shell echo $$(pwd)/tests:$$PATH") here export attempts to export a PATH make variable as environment for ran subprocesses like $(shell ...) call in this example. It also tries to base the new PATH value on existing shell-defined PATH value. So what happens first? Variable export before shell call? Or variable definition after shell call? If := were to be used instead then it would be more straightforward: export would probably happen after.

The answer is … make did change the actual behaviour recently. To quote the NEWS file:

* WARNING: Backward-incompatibility!
  Previously makefile variables marked as export were not exported to commands
  started by the $(shell ...) function.  Now, all exported variables are
  exported to $(shell ...).
  To detect this change search for 'shell-export' in the .FEATURES variable.

To avoid this ambiguity autoconf was trivially fixed with the following patch upstream:

--- a/
+++ b/
@@ -20,2 +20,3 @@
 # Build with our own versions of these tools, when possible.
-export PATH = $(shell echo "`pwd`/tests:$$PATH")
+export PATH := $(or $(PWD),$(shell pwd))/tests:$(PATH)

Meanwhile GNU make also added graceful fallback to this case as exporting empty variable is probably not very useful. Thus existing autoconf releases should still compile successfully with GNU make from master.

Phew. This failure was not related to --shuffle.


Once autoconf was fixed I resumed world rebuild. The next failure was in glibc:

    $ make --shuffle
    make  -C localedata install-locales
    make: invalid shuffle mode: '1662724426r'

GNU make complains at unexpected r trailing letter in --shuffle=1662724426r parameter. That suffix comes from … glibc’s own Makefile:

# In glibc/Makerules:
# Don't define any builtin rules.

Normally MAKEFLAGS contains options passed to make:

$ printf 'all:; @echo MAKEFLAGS=$(MAKEFLAGS)' | make -f -
$ printf 'all:; @echo MAKEFLAGS=$(MAKEFLAGS)' | make -f - -s
$ printf 'all:; @echo MAKEFLAGS=$(MAKEFLAGS)' | make -f - -s -r
$ printf 'all:; @echo MAKEFLAGS=$(MAKEFLAGS)' | make -f - -s -r --shuffle
MAKEFLAGS=rs --shuffle=1663776045

Note that MAKEFLAGS value does not contain dashes in option names.

GNU make also allows extending MAKEFLAGS from within Makefile:

MAKEFLAGS := $(MAKEFLAGS) --no-builtin-rules


$ make
$ make --no-builtin-variables
$ make --no-builtin-variables --no-print-directory
MAKEFLAGS=rR --no-print-directory

--no-builtin-variables and -R are equivalent. GNU make picks short form of an option if available.

Note how short single-letter options get globbed together in the first word while long options (without short option equivalent) are passed separately. NEWS file tells us it’s another recent behaviour change:

* WARNING: Backward-incompatibility!
  Previously only simple (one-letter) options were added to the MAKEFLAGS
  variable that was visible while parsing makefiles.  Now, all options
  are available in MAKEFLAGS.

The fix exceeded 1 liner bucket as glibc also introspected MAKEFLAGS in other places for -s (--silent) option presence. Relevant part of the fix:

--- a/Makerules
+++ b/Makerules
@@ -796,2 +796,2 @@ endif
 # Don't define any builtin rules.

No complications here.

Again, not exactly --shuffle-specific bug. Using of any long option would break glibc build.


At this point autoconf and glibc fixes above unblocked many other package builds. Most other projects’ Makefiles are not that complicated and don’t rely on GNU make extensions. They usually limit themselves to POSIX make features. glibc is a notable exception. That makes it a good project to test new GNU make versions.

Believe it or not there is even heavier user of GNU make! It is ghc (the Glasgow Haskell Compiler)! The small caveat is that it migrates off GNU make to own haskell-based hadrian build system. Many distributions still package previous versions of ghc and use GNU make to build it.

In case of ghc, GNU make itself managed to SIGSEGV itself:

$ make --shuffle
Configuring ghc-bin-9.0.2...
Warning: 'data-dir: ..' is a relative path outside of the source tree. This
will not work when generating a tarball with 'sdist'.
"rm" -f utils/deriveConstants/dist/build/.depend.haskell.tmp
"rm" -f utils/deriveConstants/dist/build/.depend.c_asm.tmp
"rm" -f utils/genprimopcode/dist/build/.depend.c_asm.tmp
make: *** [Makefile:124: all] Segmentation fault (core dumped) shuffle=1663318833
make: INTERNAL: Exiting with 14 jobserver tokens available; should be 16!

It might not be obvious, but Segmentation fault happens within GNU make itself, not just some tool it runs. Jobserver token loss is another sign of things went wrong with make process itself.

This time crash happened only if I used make --shuffle option.

I was not able to craft a simple crashing example. I spent some time in gdb to understand the failures mode. I found that it has something to do with another fun GNU make extension: Secondary Expansion. I’ll quote another bit of GNU make manual entry:

3.9 Secondary Expansion

Previously we learned that GNU 'make' works in two distinct phases: a
read-in phase and a target-update phase (*note How 'make' Reads a
Makefile: Reading Makefiles.).  GNU make also has the ability to enable
a _second expansion_ of the prerequisites (only) for some or all targets
defined in the makefile.  In order for this second expansion to occur,
the special target '.SECONDEXPANSION' must be defined before the first
prerequisite list that makes use of this feature.

I’ll start from non-working example to describe an intent for typical use of Secondary Expansion. Suppose you want to use the list of prerequisites dynamically read from external command (ghc for example parses .cabal build files to extract prerequisites). I will emulate external command with a simple $(shell echo i1 i2 i3) call.

Naive non-working approach to achieve would look like that:

all: $(ALL_INPUTS)
	@echo Inputs: $^

	: # no-op

# Has to go after rule defined above. In ghc it's based on external
# command that dynamically builds a list of prerequisites:
ALL_INPUTS = $(shell echo i1 i2 i3)


$ make

The example above attempted to get i1 i2 i3 as a dynamic input and failed. $(ALL_INPUTS) is expanded to an empty string. GNU make allows this style of dependencies when .SECONDEXPANSION: phony target is present in the Makefile:

Here is a working example closer to what ghc uses:


all: $$(ALL_INPUTS)
	@echo Inputs: $^

	: # $@ no-op

# Has to go after rule defined above. In ghc it's based on external
# command that dynamically builds a list of prerequisites:
ALL_INPUTS := $(shell echo i1 i2 i3)


$ make
: # i1 no-op
: # i2 no-op
: # i3 no-op
Inputs: i1 i2 i3

Now we get our dynamic input as expected.

The magic happens around $$(ALL_INPUTS) expression: first it is expanded to $(ALL_INPUTS) and on second expansion it uses already available result. There are other simpler ways to get the same effect (like moving variable assignment earlier). But that’s what ghc decided to use.

While this simple example did not crash GNU make it did show me a symptom of the problem. make --shuffle had no effect on prerequisite traversal order:

$ make --shuffle
: # i1 no-op
: # i2 no-op
: # i3 no-op
Inputs: i1 i2 i3

$ make --shuffle
: # i1 no-op
: # i2 no-op
: # i3 no-op
Inputs: i1 i2 i3

$ make --shuffle
: # i1 no-op
: # i2 no-op
: # i3 no-op
Inputs: i1 i2 i3

Prerequisites were never reordered. But they were supposed to! Yet again NEWS entry hinted at why it started happening only recently:

* GNU make was performing secondary expansion of all targets, even targets
  which didn't need to be considered during the build.  In this release
  only targets which are considered will be secondarily expanded.

In other words before the change order of events was:

  1. read
  2. expand
  3. second expand (of everything)
  4. shuffle
  5. execute

After the change:

  1. read
  2. expand
  3. shuffle
  4. second expand (of built targets only)
  5. execute

The bug mechanics: shuffle step assumed no changes in prerequisite lists would happen after. Moving second expand step behind it broke that assumptions: it cancelled shuffling effect (minor problem) and introduced dangling references to freed memory (major problem).

Once understood the fix was trivial: refresh shuffle data if prerequisite list was changed. The patch is a few-liner:

--- a/src/file.c
+++ b/src/file.c
@@ -576,6 +577,7 @@ expand_deps (struct file *f)
   struct dep **dp;
   const char *fstem;
   int initialized = 0;
+  int changed_dep = 0;
   if (f->snapped)
@@ -664,6 +666,7 @@ expand_deps (struct file *f)
       if (new == 0)
           *dp = d->next;
+          changed_dep = 1;
           free_dep (d);
           d = *dp;
@@ -672,6 +675,7 @@ expand_deps (struct file *f)
       /* Add newly parsed prerequisites.  */
       fstem = d->stem;
       next = d->next;
+      changed_dep = 1;
       free_dep (d);
       *dp = new;
       for (dp = &new, d = new; d != 0; dp = &d->next, d = d->next)
@@ -688,6 +692,12 @@ expand_deps (struct file *f)
       *dp = next;
       d = *dp;
+    /* Shuffle mode assumes '->next' and '->shuf' links both traverse the same
+       dependencies (in different sequences).  Regenerate '->shuf' so we don't
+       refer to stale data.  */
+    if (changed_dep)
+      shuffle_deps_recursive (f->deps);
 /* Add extra prereqs to the file in question.  */

We track all the places where prerequisite list is modified and then rebuild shuffle list if any changes happened to the list.

The fix restored shuffling property and fixed SIGSEGV when building ghc:

$ make --shuffle
: # i2 no-op
: # i3 no-op
: # i1 no-op
Inputs: i1 i2 i3

$ make --shuffle
: # i1 no-op
: # i3 no-op
: # i2 no-op
Inputs: i1 i2 i3

This one was clearly --shuffle-related bug.

Parting words

Trying out a pre-release was totally worth it. I found out about existence of export and Secondary Expansion extensions.

The test uncovered two bugs in upstream projects. Upstreams were very quick to accept fixes. The bugs happened in somewhat obscure parts of GNU make specific extensions: environment variable exports, MAKEFLAGS variable update (and introspection).

The test also exposed a bug in make --shuffle implementation for an advanced Secondary Expansion feature which was also an easy one to fix.

After the fixes above I did not find any other related breakages.

Have fun!