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What is .PHONY in makefile?

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What is .PHONY in makefile?

A phony target is one that is not really the name of a file; rather it is just a name for a recipe to be executed when you make an explicit request.

Why .PHONY?

There are two benefits of using a phony target:

  1. Avoid a conflict with a file of the same name.
clean:
    rm *.o temp
clean:
    rm *.o temp

In this example, the clean target will not work properly if a file named clean is ever created in this directory. Since it has no prerequisites, clean would always be considered up to date and its recipe would not be executed. To avoid this problem you can explicitly declare the target to be phony by making it a prerequisite of the special target .PHONY as follows:

.PHONY: clean
clean:
    rm *.o temp
.PHONY: clean
clean:
    rm *.o temp

Once this is done, make clean will run the recipe regardless of whether there is a file named clean.

  1. Improve performance.

2.1 Recursive use of make

Suppose you have a sub-directory subdir which has its own makefile, and you would like the containing directory’s makefile to run make on the sub-directory.

The solution are:

subsystem:
    cd subdir && $(MAKE)
subsystem:
    cd subdir && $(MAKE)

or

subsystem:
    $(MAKE) -C subdir
subsystem:
    $(MAKE) -C subdir

What is the right solution if we have many subsystems that need to be built?

You might think of the below solution:

SUBDIRS = foo bar baz

subdirs:
    for dir in $(SUBDIRS); do \
        $(MAKE) -C $dir; \
    done
SUBDIRS = foo bar baz

subdirs:
    for dir in $(SUBDIRS); do \
        $(MAKE) -C $dir; \
    done

There are problems with this method, however. First, any error detected in a sub-make is ignored by this rule, so it will continue to build the rest of the directories even when one fails. This can be overcome by adding shell commands to note the error and exit, but then it will do so even if make is invoked with the -k option, which is unfortunate. Second, and perhaps more importantly, you cannot take advantage of make’s ability to build targets in parallel, since there is only one rule.

By declaring the sub-directories as .PHONY targets (you must do this as the sub-directory obviously always exists; otherwise it won’t be built) you can remove these problems:

SUBDIRS = foo bar baz

.PHONY: subdirs $(SUBDIRS)

subdirs: $(SUBDIRS)

$(SUBDIRS):
    $(MAKE) -C [email protected]

foo: baz
SUBDIRS = foo bar baz

.PHONY: subdirs $(SUBDIRS)

subdirs: $(SUBDIRS)

$(SUBDIRS):
    $(MAKE) -C [email protected]

foo: baz

Here we have also declared that the foo sub-directory cannot be built until after the baz sub-directory is complete; this kind of relationship declaration is particularly important when attempting parallel builds.

The implicit rule search is skipped for .PHONY targets. This is why declaring a target as .PHONY is good for performance, even if you are not worried about the actual file existing.

2.2 Phony target prerequisites

A phony target should not be a prerequisite of a real target file; if it is, its recipe will be run every time make goes to update that file. As long as a phony target is never a prerequisite of a real target, the phony target recipe will be executed only when the phony target is a specified goal.

Phony targets can have prerequisites. When one directory contains multiple programs, it is most convenient to describe all of the programs in one makefile ./Makefile. Since the target remade by default will be the first one in the makefile, it is common to make this a phony target named all and give it, as prerequisites, all the individual programs. For example:

all: app1 app2 app3
.PHONY: all

app1: app1.go
    go build -o dist/app1 app1.go

app2: app2.go
    go build -o dist/app2 app2.go

app3: app3.go
    go build -o dist/app3 app3.go
all: app1 app2 app3
.PHONY: all

app1: app1.go
    go build -o dist/app1 app1.go

app2: app2.go
    go build -o dist/app2 app2.go

app3: app3.go
    go build -o dist/app3 app3.go

Now you can say just make to remake all three programs, or specify as arguments the ones to remake (as in make app1 app3). Phoniness is not inherited: the prerequisites of a phony target are not themselves phony, unless explicitly declared to be so.


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