Teaching: 15 min
Exercises: 15 min
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using tools like Make?

  • Understand advantages of automated build tools such as Make.

Automated build tools such as Make can help us in a number of ways. They help us to automate repetitive commands, hence saving us time and reducing the likelihood of errors compared with running these commands manually.

They can also save time by ensuring that automatically-generated artifacts (such as data files or plots) are only recreated when the files that were used to create these have changed in some way.

Through their notion of targets, dependencies, and actions, they serve as a form of documentation, recording dependencies between code, scripts, tools, configurations, raw data, derived data, plots, and papers.

Creating PNGs

Add new rules, update existing rules, and add new variables to:

  • Create .png files from .dat files using
  • Remove all auto-generated files (.dat, .png, results.txt).

Finally, many Makefiles define a default phony target called all as first target, that will build what the Makefile has been written to build (e.g. in our case, the .png files and the results.txt file). As others may assume your Makefile conforms to convention and supports an all target, add an all target to your Makefile (Hint: this rule has the results.txt file and the .png files as dependencies, but no actions). With that in place, instead of running make results.txt, you should now run make all, or just simply make. By default, make runs the first target it finds in the Makefile, in this case your new all target.


This Makefile and this contain a solution to this challenge.

The following figure shows the dependencies involved in building the all target, once we’ve added support for images:

results.txt dependencies once images have been added

Creating an Archive

Often it is useful to create an archive file of your project that includes all data, code and results. An archive file can package many files into a single file that can easily be downloaded and shared with collaborators. We can add steps to create the archive file inside the Makefile itself so it’s easy to update our archive file as the project changes.

Edit the Makefile to create an archive file of your project. Add new rules, update existing rules and add new variables to:

  • Create a new directory called zipf_analysis in the project directory.
  • Copy all our code, data, plots and the Zipf summary table to this directory. The cp -r command can be used to copy files and directories into the new zipf_analysis directory:
$ cp -r [files and directories to copy] zipf_analysis/ 
  • Hint: create a new variable for the books directory so that it can be copied to the new zipf_analysis directory
  • Create an archive, zipf_analysis.tar.gz, of this directory. The bash command tar can be used, as follows:
$ tar -czf zipf_analysis.tar.gz zipf_analysis
  • Update all to create zipf_analysis.tar.gz.
  • Remove zipf_analysis.tar.gz when make clean is called.
  • Print the values of any additional variables you have defined when make variables is called.


This Makefile and this contain a solution to this challenge.

Archiving the Makefile

Why does the Makefile rule for the archive directory add the Makefile to our archive of code, data, plots and Zipf summary table?


Our code files (,, implement the individual parts of our workflow. They allow us to create .dat files from .txt files, .png files from .dat files and results.txt. Our Makefile, however, documents dependencies between our code, raw data, derived data, and plots, as well as implementing our workflow as a whole. contains configuration information for our Makefile, so it must be archived too.

touch the Archive Directory

Why does the Makefile rule for the archive directory touch the archive directory after moving our code, data, plots and summary table into it?


A directory’s timestamp is not automatically updated when files are copied into it. If the code, data, plots, and summary table are updated and copied into the archive directory, the archive directory’s timestamp must be updated with touch so that the rule that makes zipf_analysis.tar.gz knows to run again; without this touch, zipf_analysis.tar.gz will only be created the first time the rule is run and will not be updated on subsequent runs even if the contents of the archive directory have changed.

Key Points

  • Makefiles save time by automating repetitive work, and save thinking by documenting how to reproduce results.