Hacking extconf.rb

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As it turns out you can make the process discussed in this article easier by using a Rakefile instead of an extconf.rb file. See the bottom of this article for more information.

In Ruby land RubyGems is the de facto package manager. RubyGems allows you to easily distribute your Ruby packages (known as "Gems"). These packages come in two flavours:

The latter is commonly used to create Ruby bindings for C libraries such as libxml2. The benefit of using C bindings is that they generally perform better than their pure Ruby equivalents.

To install a C extension RubyGems executes a Ruby file called "extconf.rb" (though you can change the name) to generate a Makefile and then runs make and make install to build and install the extension. To get this done you'll have to tell RubyGems where it can find the required files, this is done in your Gem specification as following:

Gem::Specification.new do |gem|
  # ...

  # These files are used to generate Makefile files which in turn are used
  # to build and install the C extension.
  gem.extensions = ['ext/my_extension/extconf.rb']

  # ...

Here the configuration file is located in ext/my_extension/extconf.rb. These files typically look like something along the lines of the following:

require 'mkmf'


$CFLAGS << ' -Wextra -Wall -pedantic '


Because all of this is executed upon Gem installation (and thus on the end user's computer) this opens up interesting possibilities. For example, you could check if specific files are available in a certain directory or as is more commonly done check for headers and such. It also allows you to execute arbitrary commands (which can potentially be dangerous).

For a project at Olery we had to wrap code written in various languages (Java, Python and Perl to be exact) in Ruby and distribute it. This introduces a problem though: how do you ensure that all the dependencies of both the Ruby and underlying code (e.g. Python) are installed? How do you ensure that the right versions are available? In other words: dependency management.

To give an example, one of the underlying code bases was written in Perl and vendored the dependencies in the Git repository of the project. Normally Perl is easy to use: you just run it. However, this particular project used one Perl package that had a C binding and thus had to be compiled upon installation.

In Perl you normally install packages using CPAN (or CPAN Minus). However, CPAN is rolling release and thus only keeps track of the most recent version of each package. This means that a package could break at any given time without us knowing about it beforehand. Another problem is that CPAN might not always be available, configured or might require root access to install packages (this depends on the configuration though). In other words, relying on CPAN would probably make things too painful to deal with.

We decided to go down a different route: manually compile the package upon installation. Since it was vendored and packaged along with the Ruby code this in theory should not be too hard.

To achieve this we had to find a way to tap into the installation process of a Gem. The only way to do this without requiring the user to run extra commands after installing the Gem is to tap into the C extension build process. Since this process is executed on the user's machine it allows you to inject arbitrary actions. In other words, we had to hijack extconf.rb to compile the Perl code.

To recap, building a C extension happens as following:

  1. Download the Gem
  2. Run the extconf.rb file(s) of the Gem to generate the Makefile(s)
  3. Run make and make install for each Makefile to build and install the corresponding extensions.
  4. Move the generated extension file (e.g. my_extension.so) to the lib directory of the Gem so that it becomes available in the load path.

Our solution was as following: use extconf.rb to compile the Perl code and use a dummy Makefile to trick RubyGems into believing that the C extension was built successfully. Without a valid Makefile RubyGems would otherwise just abort the process.

As an example we'll build a Gem called "wat". The first step is to create a basic Gem specification (only relevant code is shown here):

Gem::Specification.new do |gem|
  gem.name       = 'wat'
  gem.extensions = ['ext/wat/extconf.rb']

In our case the extconf.rb file had to do two things: check for the required dependencies (e.g. the "perl" command) and compile the extensions:

require 'mkmf'

# Stops the installation process if one of these commands is not found in
# $PATH.

# Create a dummy extension file. Without this RubyGems would abort the
# installation process. On Linux this would result in the file "wat.so"
# being created in the current working directory.
# Normally the generated Makefile would take care of this but since we
# don't generate one we'll have to do this manually.
File.touch(File.join(Dir.pwd, 'wat.' + RbConfig::CONFIG['DLEXT']))

directories_with_perl_code.each do |directory|
  Dir.chdir(directory) do
    sh 'perl Makefile.PL PREFIX=path/to/local/installation LIB=path/to/local/lib'
    sh 'make && make install && make clean'

# This is normally set by calling create_makefile() but we don't need that
# method since we'll provide a dummy Makefile. Without setting this value
# RubyGems will abort the installation.
$makefile_created = true

This takes care of ensuring our dependencies are there, the Perl code is compiled and RubyGems doesn't abort the installation process.

Next up we'll need to create a dummy Makefile. This Makefile goes in the same directory as the extconf.rb file and looks pretty simple:



The true commands are used to ensure that the commands run successfully, again RubyGems would abort installation if one of them failed.

This solution, as dirty as it may sound, was actually surprisingly elegant. Of course you should not use this as an excuse to turn RubyGems into a universal package manager. However, if you need to take care of some basic dependency management or need to run arbitrary commands upon installation it's not even that bad. And no, I did not do drugs while writing that.

After discussing this with Peter Zotov it turns out that the above process can be done a bit easier by using a Rakefile instead of an extconf.rb file. An example of a project using this approach is ruby-llvm. I haven't investigated this option myself so I can't tell for certain though.

Using a Rakefile

After writing this article it was discovered that the above process can be made significantly easier by using a Rakefile. To be more exact, any file that does not match the following pattern can be used without having to create the above dummy files:


This information is based on this code. These particular lines of code cause the installation process to fail (since mkmf exits with a non successful exit status) if the filename of an extension matches the above pattern and the variable $extmk is set to false.

In our particular use case this meant that I could get rid of the dummy Makefile and C extension file since it's actually mkmf that insists on these files being created and not RubyGems. This in turn made the code considerably smaller and much less of a hack.