Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Meson build system at GUADEC 2016

centricular-logoFor the third year in a row, Centricular was at GUADEC, and this year we sponsored the evening party on the final day at Hoepfner’s Burghof! Hopefully everyone enjoyed it as much as we hoped. :)

The focus for me this year was to try and tell people about the work we've been doing on porting GStreamer to Meson and to that end, I gave a talk on the second day about how to build your GNOME app ~2x faster than before.

The talk title itself was a bit of a lie, since most of the talk was about how Autotools is a mess and how Meson has excellent features (better syntax!) and in-built support for most of the GNOME infrastructure to make it easy for people to use it. But for some people the attraction is also that Meson provides better support on platforms such as Windows, and improves build times on all platforms massively; ranging from 2x on Linux to 10-15x on Windows.

Thanks to the excellent people at, the talks were all live-streamed, and you can see my talk at their relive website for GUADEC 2016.

It was heartening to see that over the past year people have warmed up to the idea of using Meson as a replacement for Autotools. Several people said kind and encouraging words to me and Jussi over the course of the conference (it helps that GNOME is filled with a friendly community!). We will continue to improve Meson and with luck we can get rid of Autotools over time.

The best approach, as always, is to start with the simple projects, get familiar with the syntax, and report any bugs you find! We look forward to your bugs and pull requests. ;)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Building and Developing GStreamer using Visual Studio

Two months ago, I talked about how we at Centricular have been working on a Meson port of GStreamer and its basic dependencies (glib, libffi, and orc) for various reasons — faster builds, better cross-platform support (particularly Windows), better toolchain support, ease of use, and for a better build system future in general.

Meson also has built-in support for things like gtk-doc, gobject-introspection, translations, etc. It can even generate Visual Studio project files at build time so projects don't have to expend resources maintaining those separately.

Today I'm here to share instructions on how to use Cerbero (our “aggregating” build system) to build all of GStreamer on Windows using MSVC 2015 (wherever possible). Note that this means you won't see any Meson invocations at all because Cerbero does all that work for you.

Note that this is still all unofficial and has not been proposed for inclusion upstream. We still have a few issues that need to be ironed out before we can do that¹.

First, you need to setup the environment on Windows by installing a bunch of external tools: Python 2, Python3, Git, etc. You can find the instructions for that here:

This is very similar to the old Cerbero instructions, but some new tools are needed. Once you've done everything there (Visual Studio especially takes a while to fetch and install itself), the next step is fetching Cerbero:

$ git clone

This will clone and checkout the meson-1.8 branch that will build GStreamer 1.8.x. Next, we bootstrap it:

Now we're (finally) ready to build GStreamer. Just invoke the package command:

python2 cerbero-uninstalled -c config/win32-mixed-msvc.cbc package gstreamer-1.0

This will build all the `recipes` that constitute GStreamer, including the core libraries and all the plugins including their external dependencies. This comes to about 76 recipes. Out of all these recipes, only the following are ported to Meson and are built with MSVC:

libffi.recipe (only 32-bit)

The rest still mostly use Autotools, plain GNU make or cmake. Almost all of these are still built with MinGW. The only exception is libvpx, which uses its custom make-based build system but is built with MSVC.

Eventually we want to build everything including all external dependencies with MSVC by porting everything to Meson, but as you can imagine it's not an easy task. :-)

However, even with just these recipes, there is a large improvement in how quickly you can build all of GStreamer inside Cerbero on Windows. For instance, the time required for building gstreamer-1.0.recipe which builds gstreamer.git went from 10 minutes to 45 seconds. It is now easier to do GStreamer development on Windows since rebuilding doesn't take an inordinate amount of time!

As a further improvement for doing GStreamer development on Windows, for all these recipes (except libffi because of complicated reasons), you can also generate Visual Studio 2015 project files and use them from within Visual Studio for editing, building, and so on.

Go ahead, try it out and tell me if it works for you!

As an aside, I've also been working on some proper in-depth documentation of Cerbero that explains how the tool works, the recipe format, supported configurations, and so on. You can see the work-in-progress if you wish to.

1. Most importantly, the tests cannot be built yet because GStreamer bundles a very old version of libcheck. I'm currently working on fixing that.

Monday, May 23, 2016

GStreamer and Meson: A New Hope

Anyone who has written a non-trivial project using Autotools has realized that (and wondered why) it requires you to be aware of 5 different languages. Once you spend enough time with the innards of the system, you begin to realize that it is nothing short of an astonishing feat of engineering. Engineering that belongs in a museum. Not as part of critical infrastructure.

Autotools was created in the 1980s and caters to the needs of an entirely different world of software from what we have at present. Worse yet, it carries over accumulated cruft from the past 40 years — ostensibly for better “cross-platform support” but that “support” is mostly for extinct platforms that five people in the whole world remember.

We've learned how to make it work for most cases that concern FOSS developers on Linux, and it can be made to limp along on other platforms that the majority of people use, but it does not inspire confidence or really anything except frustration. People will not like your project or contribute to it if the build system takes 10x longer to compile on their platform of choice, does not integrate with the preferred IDE, and requires knowledge arcane enough to be indistinguishable from cargo-cult programming.

As a result there have been several (terrible) efforts at replacing it and each has been either incomplete, short-sighted, slow, or just plain ugly. During my time as a Gentoo developer in another life, I came in close contact with and developed a keen hatred for each of these alternative build systems. And so I mutely went back to Autotools and learned that I hated it the least of them all.

Sometime last year, Tim heard about this new build system called ‘Meson’ whose author had created an experimental port of GStreamer that built it in record time.

Intrigued, he tried it out and found that it finished suspiciously quickly. His first instinct was that it was broken and hadn’t actually built everything! Turns out this build system written in Python 3 with Ninja as the backend actually was that fast. About 2.5x faster on Linux and 10x faster on Windows for building the core GStreamer repository.

Upon further investigation, Tim and I found that Meson also has really clean generic cross-compilation support (including iOS and Android), runs natively (and just as quickly) on OS X and Windows, supports GNU, Clang, and MSVC toolchains, and can even (configure and) generate XCode and Visual Studio project files!

But the critical thing that convinced me was that the creator Jussi Pakkanen was genuinely interested in the use-cases of widely-used software such as Qt, GNOME, and GStreamer and had already added support for several tools and idioms that we use — pkg-config, gtk-doc, gobject-introspection, gdbus-codegen, and so on. The project places strong emphasis on both speed and ease of use and is quite friendly to contributions.

Over the past few months, Tim and I at Centricular have been working on creating Meson ports for most of the GStreamer repositories and the fundamental dependencies (libffi, glib, orc) and improving the MSVC toolchain support in Meson.

We are proud to report that you can now build GStreamer on Linux using the GNU toolchain and on Windows with either MinGW or MSVC 2015 using Meson build files that ship with the source (building upon Jussi's initial ports).

Other toolchain/platform combinations haven't been tested yet, but they should work in theory (minus bugs!), and we intend to test and bugfix all the configurations supported by GStreamer (Linux, OS X, Windows, iOS, Android) before proposing it for inclusion as an alternative build system for the GStreamer project.

You can either grab the source yourself and build everything, or use our (with luck, temporary) fork of GStreamer's cross-platform build aggregator Cerbero.

Update: I wrote a new post with detailed steps on how to build using Cerbero and generate Visual Studio project files.

Personally, I really hope that Meson gains widespread adoption. Calling Autotools the Xorg of build systems is flattery. It really is just a terrible system. We really need to invest in something that works for us rather than against us.

PS: If you just want a quick look at what the build system syntax looks like, take a look at this or the basic tutorial.