The most primitive build system a package can use is a plain Makefile. Makefiles are simple to write for small projects, but they usually require you to edit the Makefile to set platform and compiler-specific variables.


The MakefilePackage base class comes with 3 phases:

  1. edit - edit the Makefile
  2. build - build the project
  3. install - install the project

By default, edit does nothing, but you can override it to replace hard-coded Makefile variables. The build and install phases run:

$ make
$ make install

Important files

The main file that matters for a MakefilePackage is the Makefile. This file will be named one of the following ways:

  • GNUmakefile (only works with GNU Make)
  • Makefile (most common)
  • makefile

Some Makefiles also include other configuration files. Check for an include directive in the Makefile.

Build system dependencies

Spack assumes that the operating system will have a valid make utility installed already, so you don’t need to add a dependency on make. However, if the package uses a GNUmakefile or the developers recommend using GNU Make, you should add a dependency on gmake:

depends_on('gmake', type='build')

Types of Makefile packages

Most of the work involved in packaging software that uses Makefiles involves overriding or replacing hard-coded variables. Many packages make the mistake of hard-coding compilers, usually for GCC or Intel. This is fine if you happen to be using that particular compiler, but Spack is designed to work with any compiler, and you need to ensure that this is the case.

Depending on how the Makefile is designed, there are 4 common strategies that can be used to set or override the appropriate variables:

Environment variables

Make has multiple types of assignment operators. Some Makefiles use = to assign variables. The only way to override these variables is to edit the Makefile or override them on the command-line. However, Makefiles that use ?= for assignment honor environment variables. Since Spack already sets CC, CXX, F77, and FC, you won’t need to worry about setting these variables. If there are any other variables you need to set, you can do this in the edit method:

def edit(self, spec, prefix):
    env['PREFIX'] = prefix
    env['BLASLIB'] = spec['blas'].libs.ld_flags

cbench is a good example of a simple package that does this, while esmf is a good example of a more complex package.

Command-line arguments

If the Makefile ignores environment variables, the next thing to try is command-line arguments. You can do this by overriding the build_targets attribute. If you don’t need access to the spec, you can do this like so:

build_targets = ['CC=cc']

If you do need access to the spec, you can create a property like so:

def build_targets(self):
    spec = self.spec

    return [

cloverleaf is a good example of a package that uses this strategy.

Edit Makefile

Some Makefiles are just plain stubborn and will ignore command-line variables. The only way to ensure that these packages build correctly is to directly edit the Makefile. Spack provides a FileFilter class and a filter_file method to help with this. For example:

def edit(self, spec, prefix):
    makefile = FileFilter('Makefile')

    makefile.filter('CC = gcc',  'CC = cc')
    makefile.filter('CXX = g++', 'CC = c++')

stream is a good example of a package that involves editing a Makefile to set the appropriate variables.

Config file

More complex packages often involve Makefiles that include a configuration file. These configuration files are primarily composed of variables relating to the compiler, platform, and the location of dependencies or names of libraries. Since these config files are dependent on the compiler and platform, you will often see entire directories of examples for common compilers and architectures. Use these examples to help determine what possible values to use.

If the config file is long and only contains one or two variables that need to be modified, you can use the technique above to edit the config file. However, if you end up needing to modify most of the variables, it may be easier to write a new file from scratch.

If each variable is independent of each other, a dictionary works well for storing variables:

def edit(self, spec, prefix):
    config = {
        'CC': 'cc',
        'MAKE': 'make',

    if '+blas' in spec:
        config['BLAS_LIBS'] = spec['blas'].libs.joined()

    with open('', 'w') as inc:
        for key in config:
            inc.write('{0} = {1}\n'.format(key, config[key]))

elk is a good example of a package that uses a dictionary to store configuration variables.

If the order of variables is important, it may be easier to store them in a list:

def edit(self, spec, prefix):
    config = [
        'INSTALL_DIR = {0}'.format(prefix),
        'INCLUDE_DIR = $(INSTALL_DIR)/include',
        'LIBRARY_DIR = $(INSTALL_DIR)/lib',

    with open('', 'w') as inc:
        for var in config:

hpl is a good example of a package that uses a list to store configuration variables.

Variables to watch out for

The following is a list of common variables to watch out for. The first two sections are implicit variables defined by Make and will always use the same name, while the rest are user-defined variables and may vary from package to package.

  • Compilers

    This includes variables such as CC, CXX, F77, F90, and FC, as well as variables related to MPI compiler wrappers, like MPICC and friends.

  • Compiler flags

    This includes variables for specific compilers, like CFLAGS, CXXFLAGS, F77FLAGS, F90FLAGS, FCFLAGS, and CPPFLAGS. These variables are often hard-coded to contain flags specific to a certain compiler. If these flags don’t work for every compiler, you may want to consider filtering them.

  • Variables that enable or disable features

    This includes variables like MPI, OPENMP, PIC, and DEBUG. These flags often require you to create a variant so that you can either build with or without MPI support, for example. These flags are often compiler-dependent. You should replace them with the appropriate compiler flags, such as self.compiler.openmp_flag or self.compiler.pic_flag.

  • Platform flags

    These flags control the type of architecture that the executable is compiler for. Watch out for variables like PLAT or ARCH.

  • Dependencies

    Look out for variables that sound like they could be used to locate dependencies, such as JAVA_HOME, JPEG_ROOT, or ZLIBDIR. Also watch out for variables that control linking, such as LIBS, LDFLAGS, and INCLUDES. These variables need to be set to the installation prefix of a dependency, or to the correct linker flags to link to that dependency.

  • Installation prefix

    If your Makefile has an install target, it needs some way of knowing where to install. By default, many packages install to /usr or /usr/local. Since many Spack users won’t have sudo privileges, it is imperative that each package is installed to the proper prefix. Look for variables like PREFIX or INSTALL.

Makefiles in a sub-directory

Not every package places their Makefile in the root of the package tarball. If the Makefile is in a sub-directory like src, you can tell Spack where to locate it like so:

build_directory = 'src'

Manual installation

Not every Makefile includes an install target. If this is the case, you can override the default install method to manually install the package:

def install(self, spec, prefix):
    install('foo', prefix.bin)
    install_tree('lib', prefix.lib)

External documentation

For more information on reading and writing Makefiles, see: