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In the past, if a source code package developer wanted to take advantage of the power of shared libraries, he needed to write custom support code for each platform on which his package ran. He also had to design a configuration interface so that the package installer could choose what sort of libraries were built.

GNU Libtool simplifies the developer's job by encapsulating both the platform-specific dependencies, and the user interface, in a single script. GNU Libtool is designed so that the complete functionality of each host type is available via a generic interface, but nasty quirks are hidden from the programmer.

GNU Libtool's consistent interface is reassuring... users don't need to read obscure documentation in order to have their favorite source package build shared libraries. They just run your package configure script (or equivalent), and libtool does all the dirty work.

There are several examples throughout this document. All assume the same environment: we want to build a library, `libhello', in a generic way.

`libhello' could be a shared library, a static library, or both... whatever is available on the host system, as long as libtool has been ported to it.

This chapter explains the original design philosophy of libtool. Feel free to skip to the next chapter, unless you are interested in history, or want to write code to extend libtool in a consistent way.

Motivation for writing libtool

Since early 1995, several different GNU developers have recognized the importance of having shared library support for their packages. The primary motivation for such a change is to encourage modularity and reuse of code (both conceptually and physically) in GNU programs.

Such a demand means that the way libraries are built in GNU packages needs to be general, to allow for any library type the package installer might want. The problem is compounded by the absence of a standard procedure for creating shared libraries on different platforms.

The following sections outline the major issues facing shared library support in GNU, and how shared library support could be standardized with libtool.

The following specifications were used in developing and evaluating this system:

  1. The system must be as elegant as possible.
  2. The system must be fully integrated with the GNU Autoconf and Automake utilities, so that it will be easy for GNU maintainers to use. However, the system must not require these tools, so that it can be used by non-GNU packages.
  3. Portability to other (non-GNU) architectures and tools is desirable.

Implementation issues

The following issues need to be addressed in any reusable shared library system, specifically libtool:

  1. The package installer should be able to control what sort of libraries are built.
  2. It can be tricky to run dynamically linked programs whose libraries have not yet been installed. LD_LIBRARY_PATH must be set properly (if it is supported), or programs fail to run.
  3. The system must operate consistently even on hosts which don't support shared libraries.
  4. The commands required to build shared libraries may differ wildly from host to host. These need to be determined at configure time in a consistent way.
  5. It is not always obvious with which suffix a shared library should be installed. This makes it difficult for `Makefile' rules, since they generally assume that file names are the same from host to host.
  6. The system needs a simple library version number abstraction, so that shared libraries can be upgraded in place. The programmer should be informed how to design the interfaces to the library to maximize binary compatibility.
  7. The install `Makefile' target should warn the package installer to set the proper environment variables (LD_LIBRARY_PATH or equivalent), or run ldconfig.

Other implementations

Even before libtool was developed, many free software packages built and installed their own shared libraries. At first, these packages were examined to avoid reinventing existing features.

Now it is clear that none of these packages have documented the details of shared library systems that libtool requires. So, other packages have been more or less abandoned as influences.

A postmortem analysis of other implementations

In all fairness, each of the implementations that were examined do the job that they were intended to do, for a number of different host systems. However, none of these solutions seem to function well as a generalized, reusable component.

Most were too complex to use (much less modify) without understanding exactly what the implementation does, and they were generally not documented.

The main difficulty is that different vendors have different views of what libraries are, and none of the packages which were examined seemed to be confident enough to settle on a single paradigm that just works.

Ideally, libtool would be a standard that would be implemented as series of extensions and modifications to existing library systems to make them work consistently. However, it is not an easy task to convince operating system developers to mend their evil ways, and people want to build shared libraries right now, even on buggy, broken, confused operating systems.

For this reason, libtool was designed as an independent shell script. It isolates the problems and inconsistencies in library building that plague `Makefile' writers by wrapping the compiler suite on different platforms with a consistent, powerful interface.

With luck, libtool will be useful to and used by the GNU community, and that the lessons that were learned in writing it will be taken up by designers of future library systems.

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