What is a Makefile and how does it work?

A Makefile is a simple text file used to manage and automate the build process of a software project. It contains a set of rules that specify how the various source code files in a project should be compiled and linked to create the final executable or libraries. Makefiles are widely used in software development to ensure that the correct dependencies are built in the right order and to minimize unnecessary recompilation.

Makefile in C

When the Makefile is executed, the make utility reads the file and determines which targets need to be created. It then creates the targets in the order specified in the Makefile, using the dependencies to ensure that all of the necessary files exist.

Makefiles can also include more complex rules, such as rules for compiling code, linking objects, and running tests. This allows the Makefile to automate the entire build process, from start to finish.

Basic Structure of a Makefile

A Makefile consists of rules and dependencies. Each rule describes how to create a target file (usually an executable or an object file) from a set of source files and dependencies. The rules have the following structure:

target: dependencies command
  1. target is the file that should be generated.
  2. dependencies are the files that the target depends on.
  3. command is the shell command used to generate the target from the dependencies.
Example of a Simple Makefile

Let's consider a basic example with two source files, main.c and util.c, and a header file util.h. The Makefile might look like this:

CC = gcc CFLAGS = -Wall main: main.c util.c util.h $(CC) $(CFLAGS) -o main main.c util.c

In this Makefile:

  1. CC is the compiler to be used (gcc).
  2. CFLAGS are the compiler flags (Wall for enabling warnings).
  3. The main target depends on main.c, util.c, and util.h.
  4. The command specifies how to compile and link the main target from the source files using gcc with the -Wall option.

How a Makefile Works

When you run the make command in the directory containing the Makefile, it searches for a file named "Makefile" or "makefile" and reads its contents.

  1. It looks for the target you specified (e.g., make main) and checks its dependencies.
  2. If the dependencies are more recent than the target or if the target does not exist, make executes the specified command to build the target.
  3. If the dependencies have not changed since the last build, make will not execute the command, as the target is considered up-to-date.
  4. Makefiles are used to avoid unnecessary recompilation by determining which files need to be rebuilt and which can be left as they are.
  5. Complex Makefiles can have multiple rules and handle various targets, dependencies, and build configurations.


Makefiles are essential in large software projects to manage the build process efficiently. They help automate the build, ensuring that only the necessary source files are recompiled and linked. By specifying dependencies and commands in a Makefile, you can streamline the development process and avoid errors caused by manual compilation and linking.