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Building from source

Building the tools that make the environment from source is one way to allow user to reproduce it. Using the source code directly makes it easier to rely on new features, and easily works on a variety of platforms. It might not scale well for a long list of dependencies, and asking users to rebuild GCC for every piece of software they use might make them slightly unhappy.

What follows are suggestions on how to handle building the compilation tools from source.

Building using external resources

The source for the different components can be retrieved from online repositories. Using release tarballs might be preferable as they are easier to cache, mirror, checksum and verify. When retrieving the source from a version control system repository, it’s best to have a precise reference to the code version. With Git, using a tag with a verified signature or a commit hash will work best.

The compilation itself can be driven by shell scripts or an extra target in the project Makefile.

coreboot is a good example. The build documentation mandates to first run make crossgcc before building coreboot itself.

Check-in everything

Another approach is to check the source of the entire toolchain in the project’s version control system.

This is how several integrated operating systems like *BSD are developed. “Building the world” will start by building the toolchain in the version control system before building the rest of the system.

Also Google’s internal projects operate in this way. They have released Bazel which is based on their internal compilation tool. Bazel is designed to drive large scale builds with speed and reproducibility in mind.

Outside of fully integrated operating systems or corporate environments, it might be hard to push the idea of adding ten or more times the actual code base in the toolchain…

Ship the toolchain as a build product

As it might be hard to ask every user to spend time rebuilding a whole toolchain, OpenWrt gives a good example of a middle ground. An “SDK” that can be downloaded alongside the system images which contains everything that is needed to build—or rebuild—extra packages.

In that case the SDK becomes another build product, and it has to be possible to build it reproducibly.

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