Linux: How to Compile Stuff

A couple of days ago I was surprised when someone who’s worked as a Linux sysadmin for several years asked me how to compile a program that was only available in source format (it was a cryptocurrency miner, for the curious), since he’d never compiled anything in his life. How was that possible? But then I realized: compiling stuff on Linux hasn’t really been a necessity 1 for the last, oh, 15-20 years or so. Back in 1993 or so (yikes!), when I started using Linux, things were of course quite different.

So, without further ado: how to compile stuff on Linux. Assuming you’ve already downloaded and uncompressed a program’s source, here’s what works 99% of the time (from the program’s directory, of course):

./configure --help  # to see available options

./configure # followed by the desired options, if any

make && make install

By default, compiled programs are then installed to /usr/local (e.g. binaries go to /usr/local/bin, libraries to /usr/local/lib , etc.). If you want to change that, just add –prefix=path (e.g. –prefix=/usr/local/test) to the ./configure options. (In that example, it’ll install binaries to /usr/local/test/bin, and so on. There are ways (i.e. different ./configure options) to install to different sub-paths, but those are beyond this basic tutorial. The default /usr/local/bin, lib, etc. paths also have the advantage of being in the default executable and library paths in typical distributions, so that you don’t have to add to those.)

If the above commands worked for you, congratulations, you’ve compiled your first program, which should now be ready to run! 🙂 However, if you’ve never compiled anything before on that system, it’s more likely that the ./configure command complained about missing libraries, missing utilities, or even a missing compiler; after all, as the first paragraph showed, it’s possible to use Linux for years, even work with it for a living, without needing to compile anything, which in turn has caused most modern distributions to not install compilers and development stuff by default.

How to do so? On Debian/Ubuntu, start with:

apt-get install build-essential

And on Red Hat/CentOS/Fedora, use:

yum groupinstall “Development Tools”

The above should install the C/C++ compiler and common development tools. However, a particular program may ask for other libraries’ development files, which may not be installed even though the library itself is. It’s impossible to give you an exhaustive list, but typically you can use yum search or apt-cache search to find what you need. Debian-based development packages typically end in -dev, while Red Hat-based ones end in -devel . For instance, suppose you’re on Ubuntu and ./configure complains about not having the zlib development files. A quick search would point you (at least on Ubuntu 17.04) to zlib1g-dev, which you’d install with apt-get install zlib1g-dev .

And what if there is no configure script (unlikely these days, but possible if it’s a very old source)? If there is a file named Makefile, then try typing make, and see if it compiles. Otherwise, your best bet is to read any provided documentation (e.g. a README or INSTALL file).

Any questions, feel free to ask.

  1. no matter what jokes and memes by inferiority complex-afflicted Microsoft admins claim… “oh, Linux, where you can’t use anything without compiling it first” :)

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