If you’re not using a package manager, or if you are, but there is no package available for a piece of software you’d like to install, you’ll find yourself compiling the software by hand. Generally, you start by locating the official web page of the software, downloading an appropriate version of the source code, and extracting the tar file to a directory somewhere.
At this point in the process, you are not doing anything as the root user. You’ll become root much later in this process.
The next thing you’ll do is look in the top level of the extracted directory for promising looking files, like README, INSTALL, or Makefile. It is likely that you will see an executable script called “configure”. It’s always a good idea to start by looking at the README and INSTALL files, if present. They may be in the toplevel directory, or in a documentation directory, which will often have a name like “doc”, “docs”, or “documentation”, possibly with different capitalizations.
If The Package Came With A Makefile
If there’s a Makefile in the toplevel, that’s usually because the software package is fairly small. You will want to look over the Makefile to ensure that it is correct for your intended installation. The most important things to look for are the installation directory and any optional features that might have to be turned on by editing the Makefile. If you can’t find the installation directory, type the command:
make -n install
This will ask “make” to print out the sequence of commands that it will be using to install the package. Since you haven’t compiled anything yet, it will start with the sequence of commands required to compile your software, so look for the installation commands to occur near the end of the output generated by this command.
If your package came with a Makefile, you will now modify the Makefile if necessary, perhaps changing the installation directory of the product. You should do this before compiling it, because sometimes character strings holding the pathnames of configuration files are inserted into the compiled binary, so changing the installation target after compiling may result in an installation that doesn’t work correctly. Editing the Makefile will usually not force a recompilation of the objects under its control, that is the Makefile is not, by default, considered a dependency for the targets in the file.
After this, you will, still as your non-root user, compile the package. This is usually done by simply entering the command make. If errors are encountered during the compile, you’ll have to figure out what happened and how to fix it. The most common causes of errors are:
- missing include files – you might have to add a “-I” to the CFLAGS, CXXFLAGS, or CPPFLAGS variables in your Makefile.
- missing libraries – you might have to add a “-L” to the LDFLAGS variable in your Makefile.
- bad version – the compilation may depend on a library you have on your machine, but the version you have may not be compatible with the software package. You might have to download a different version of that library and install it before you can continue with the software package.
- apparent code errors – the compiler may generate errors related to missing variables, bad function declarations, or syntax errors. Resist the urge to correct these immediately, and try to understand why you are seeing these errors. Remember, this package probably compiled for somebody before they released it, why doesn’t it work for you? Is it that your compiler is a different version, and flags as errors things that used to be warnings? Is the Makefile configured for the wrong architecture or platform? Something else?
Once you get a clean compile, you’re almost ready for the install. I usually prefer to run the command
make -n install | less
once and read through the output, just to make sure that the install isn’t going to do something weird. Look for things like configuration files going into /usr/etc, which might not be what you expect, or binaries going into /bin (you should try to keep in that directory only those executables that are necessary to get the computer to boot through its startup scripts up to the point where the network starts up).
At this point, move down to the section of the text called “Installing The Software”.
You Have A “configure.am” Script, But No “configure” Script
If you have a “configure.am” script, but no “configure” script, you’ll have to generate the configure script. If there is an executable in this directory with a name like “autogen.sh”, run it. This should be sufficient to set up the configure script. If you don’t have an autogen script, you should run the commands automake then autoconf. This will often generate warnings, but unless the configure script you generate doesn’t run, you can ignore those. So, now you have a configure script, you continue to the next section.
You Have A “configure” Script
If you generated the configure script yourself, you know that it’s an autoconf configure script. Sometimes, though, software is produced that has a completely different script that happens to be called “configure”. This can be confusing if it doesn’t recognize the switch “–help”. Start by typing:
./configure --help | less
and look at the output. If it produces a list of options that are available to you, review them carefully and see if there are any optional behaviours that you would like to turn on, or unwanted options that you want to remove (possibly you don’t have library support for these, and don’t need them). If, instead, the configure script appears to run and do things, you don’t have an autoconf configure script, go back and look at the documentation again to see how to use their particular configuration script.
There are a few things to look at in the options you get from “configure”. One of them is the prefix location, and choosing that properly can require some care, which is discussed here. For now, let’s assume that you’ve chosen a set of options that look suitable. You re-run the configure script with those options, and without the “–help” option. It will do some things, it may take a considerable amount of time to run. Eventually, the script should exit, sometimes generating a list of all options and whether or not they are active. Examine this list if present, there might be an option that you want to enable that has been turned off because the configure script failed to find a particular library, in which case you’ll have figure out why that option was disabled and figure out how to get it working. When you’re satisfied with the compilation options, type “make”. If an error is encountered, see the possibilities mentioned in the earlier section referring to building from a Makefile. If you succeed in compiling the software package, go to next section, “Installing The Software”.
Installing The Software
Now, you can become the root user. Change directory to the location where you compiled the binary, and run
If the thing you’re installing has any shared objects (libraries, usually with names that end in “.so”, possibly followed by more dots and numerals), you should type
to make sure that the dynamic linker knows where to find the libraries you’ve just installed.
Many packages these days produce a pkg-config file. This is usually a filename that ends in “.pc”, and is installed in a directory like “…/lib/pkgconfig/”. The pkg-config application often looks for these files when “configure” is being run, but it has a fairly definite idea of where to look. If your .pc file was installed into a directory where pkg-config doesn’t normally look, you’ll have to find some way to make this file visible to that program. There are three ways you can handle this:
- Add the appropriate directory to the system-wide environment variable PKG_CONFIG_PATH. Usually this means editing /etc/profile. You likely want it set at least to “/usr/lib/pkgconfig:/usr/local/lib/pkgconfig:/usr/X11/lib/pkgconfig”, but you may want to add more search directories to it, if you expect many packages to be installed in the same prefix.
- Copy the .pc file into a directory that pkg-config searches. This is unwise, you may install another version of the software some time later, and unless you remember this step your .pc file will still be the old one, causing much aggravation as “configure” insists you still have a version of the package that you know you just replaced.
- Put a symbolic link to the file from a directory that is searched by pkg-config. Do this if you’ve got only one or two .pc files in this prefix, and don’t expect to put in more.
Test your newly-installed software. It’s best to find problems now, when you’ve just finished installing it and remember what you did, than two weeks from now and have to go through the whole thing again just to figure out how it’s set up.
Two more hints: “configure” writes its command line into a comment near the top of the file “config.log”. If you need to remember how you last ran “configure”, you will find the options you used there.
If you have a particularly detailed set of configure options, you might want to record them in a directory somewhere for future reference, both to see quickly what options you enabled when you compiled the software and to re-use the command the next time you recompile it after downloading a new version.