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Button is a very general, elegantly simple, and powerful build system. This document gives a high-level overview of what Button is, what it can do, and how it works.


If you don’t already know what a build system is, it is a tool to automate the steps necessary to translate source code to deliverables. Well known tools in this domain include:

Note that Button is not a project generator, package manager, or continuous integration server. However, it is certainly an excellent base to build these things off of.


Button has some pretty neat features:

  • Fast and correct incremental builds.
  • Implicit dependency detection.
  • The ability to generate the build description as part of the build.
  • Can run builds automatically when something changes.

Because it is general enough to be able to build a project written in any language, Button is particularly useful for building multi-language projects. Many other build systems are tailored for a particular language. While this can be a good thing for single-language projects, it can also become very restrictive as the project gets more complicated.

How It Works

In order to understand how Button works, it is imperative to understand at a high level its underlying data structure and how that data structure is operated on.

The Build Graph

At the heart of this build system is a bipartite directed acyclic graph:

Build Graph

Lets just call this the build graph because the proper mathematical term is a mouthful. The build graph is bipartite because it can be partitioned into two types of nodes: resources and tasks. In the figure above, the resources and tasks are shown as ellipses and rectangles, respectively. A resource is some file and a task is some program to execute. Resources are the inputs and outputs of tasks.

In order to build, we simply traverse the graph starting at the top and work our way down while executing tasks. Of course, tasks that don’t depend on each other are executed in parallel. Furthermore, if a resource hasn’t been modified, the task it leads to will not be executed.

There are two important restrictions on the structure of the build graph:

  1. It must be acyclic. That is, there must be no path in the graph where you can traverse the same edge twice.
  2. Output resources can have one parent task. This helps prevent race conditions.

Both of these cases are detected automatically and result in an error.

The Build Description

The build graph is stored internally and created from the build description. The build description is simply a JSON file containing a list of rules:

        "inputs": ["foo.c", "baz.h"],
        "task": [["gcc", "-c", "foo.c", "-o", "foo.o"]],
        "outputs": ["foo.o"]
        "inputs": ["bar.c", "baz.h"],
        "task": [["gcc", "-c", "bar.c", "-o", "bar.o"]],
        "outputs": ["bar.o"]
        "inputs": ["foo.o", "bar.o"],
        "task": [["gcc", "foo.o", "bar.o", "-o", "foobar"]],
        "outputs": ["foobar"]

A rule consists of a list of inputs, a task, and a list of outputs. Connecting these rules together forms the build graph as shown in the previous section.

When the build description is modified and we run the build again with button build, the internal build graph is incrementally updated with the changes. If a rule is added to the build description, then it is added to the build graph and the task is marked as “out of date” so that it gets unconditionally executed. If, on the other hand, a rule is removed from the build description, then it is removed from the build graph and all of its outputs are deleted from the file system. This ensures there are no extraneous files laying around to interfere with the build.

Of course, you probably don’t want to modify the JSON build description file by hand. For anything but trivial examples, it would be far too cumbersome and error-prone to do so. The next three sections describe the solution to this problem – generating the build description.

Implicit Dependencies

An implicit dependency (as opposed to an explicit dependency) is one that is not specified in the build description, but discovered by running a task. The canonical example of implicit dependencies are C/C++ header files. It is tedious to explicitly specify these in the build description, but even worse, it is error-prone. In general, the set of explicit dependencies will be a subset of the implicit dependencies. If this is not the case, then either (1) you’ve over specified dependencies or (2) implicit dependencies have not been correctly detected.

Any task in the build graph, when executed, can tell Button about its input and output resources. This is a generalized way of allowing implicit dependency detection. Button has fast ad hoc detection for various compilers but falls back to tracing system calls for programs it doesn’t know about. This all happens behind the scenes without you having to do anything special.


There is one immutable rule about implicit dependencies that cannot be violated: if added to the build graph, an implicit dependency must not change the build order. If this rule is violated, the task will fail, Cthulhu will be summoned, and Button will tell you to explicitly add the would-be dependency to the build description. (If you don’t do it, Cthulhu will find you).

Allowing an implicit dependency to change the build order while the build is running could lead to incorrect builds. More often, however, it is a mistake in the build description and, thus, this scenario is strictly forbidden.

Recursive Builds

Any task in the build graph can also be a build system. That is, Button can recursively run itself as part of the build. Doing this with make is generally considered harmful because it throws correct incremental builds out the window. However, this is only because make doesn’t know about the dependencies of a sub-make. This is not a problem for Button because it knows how to send information about implicit dependencies to a parent Button process. By publishing implicit dependencies to the parent, the child build system can be executed again if any of its inputs change.

Building the Build Description

Since we can correctly do recursive builds, we can also generate the build description with, say, a scripting language as part of the build. The program button-lua is provided for this purpose. As the name might imply, it uses the lightweight Lua scripting language to specify build descriptions at a high level. For example, this considerably more terse script (BUILD.lua) can generate the JSON build description from the earlier section:

local cc = require ""

cc.binary {
    name = "foobar",
    srcs = glob "*.c",

Unfortunately, we must still have an upper JSON build description as this is what the parent Button needs to read in:

        "inputs": ["BUILD.lua"],
        "task": ["button-lua", "BUILD.lua", "-o", "build.button.json"],
        "outputs": ["build.button.json"]
        "inputs": ["build.button.json"],
        "task": ["button", "update", "--color=always", "-f", "build.button.json"],
        "outputs": [".build.button.json.state"]

Fortunately, this rarely requires modification as most of the changes will be in the Lua script as your project grows.

See the tutorial to learn more.