Building JavaScript with Make

in JavaScript , Make

Make (or GNU Make)’s basic value proposition is that it will generate files based on other files. How those files are generated is up to you, but that’s part of what’s great about Make: anything that you can do on the shell can be scripted in Make, so you are free to use whatever tools or languages you want.

While there are a near innumerable number of modern tools for building JavaScript, I find myself reaching for Make any time I’m working on a project that’s not 100% JavaScript or one where I need to do some relatively simple compilation from a source file to a target file.

Getting Started

Let’s look at an example of what we can do with Make. We’ll start with a folder structure like this:

- src
  - index.js
- dest

dest is empty and we have one source file that we’d like to compile from the src directory to the dest directory. A simple Makefile that will “compile” src/index.js to dest/index.js might look like this:

2  cp src/index.js dest/index.js

Running make dest/index.js will execute the recipe and copy your source file into the destination directory as-is. It’s not the most exciting thing ever, but it’s a starting point.

Crucially, Make doesn’t know how often it should update the dest/index.js target. If you make changes to your source file and re-run make dest/index.js you’ll see that your changes aren’t reflected in the destination file. We haven’t told Make about the dependencies that the target has — its prerequisites.


Let’s teach Make what’s needed to keep dest/index.js up to date. Since dest/index.js is compiled from the source of src/index.js, src/index.js is considered a prerequisite, or dependency, of dest/index.js. Here’s an updated version of our Makefile from above that lists src/index.js as a prerequisite:

1dest/index.js: src/index.js
2  cp src/index.js dest/index.js

Make understands that if a prerequisite has been updated then any targets that depend on that prerequisite need to be updated. Make looks at the modification time of the files listed as prerequisites to determine if the target should be rebuilt, so it only rebuilds what’s out of date. It also won’t rebuild targets that exist but don’t have any prerequisites because it doesn’t know how to tell if the target is out of date. In our example above, we’ve told Make that dest/index.js should be rebuilt any time src/index.js is updated.

The Recipe

The commands that are run to update a target in Make are called the recipe and in our case, the recipe is pretty boring. Make knows what file to generate (the target, dest/index.js) and when to generate it (when the prerequisites, src/index.js, have been changed), but it’s not really doing anything interesting with the source file.

Let’s use terser to minify our source file on its way to dest. Assuming we’ve got a version of NodeJS installed that includes the npx tool, the command to compress our source file and save it to our destination folder looks like this:

1npx terser src/index.js --compress --output dest/index.js

You can change the options around however you’d like, but the idea remains the same: there’s an input file, some options, and an output file. Now let’s take that and use it in our Makefile’s recipe:

1dest/index.js: src/index.js
2  npx terser src/index.js --compress --output dest/index.js

Now, every time src/index.js changes, our new recipe using terser will be run and the source file will be compressed and output to Make’s target file. We’ve taught Make how to ahem make our target!

More Than One Target

At this point, we’ve got Make compressing our source file and outputting it to our destination. Let’s add a new src/lib.js file to our project and teach Make how to handle it.

The most naive approach to handling our new file would be to duplicate our existing target/recipe setup, changing only the file names:

1dest/index.js: src/index.js
2  npx terser src/index.js --compress --output dest/index.js
4dest/lib.js: src/lib.js
5  npx terser src/lib.js --compress --output dest/lib.js

This kinda sucks though. There’s a ton of duplication and when we inevitably need to add a third, fourth, or hundredth file then this will start to come apart. Instead, let’s use Make’s pattern rules combined with automatic variables to teach Make not just how to handle each specific file, but how to handle this kind of file. In this case, we’re going to teach Make how to handle any JavaScript file that’s in our source directory. We’ll first look at what our new target/recipe looks like and then dissect it to understand what’s going on.

1dest/%.js: src/%.js
2  npx terser '$<' --compress --output '$@'

The target, prerequisites, and recipe look very similar to before, but with some new stuff replacing the old file names. To explain a few things that are happening:

  • The “%” in the target tells Make to match any non-empty string.
  • The “%” in the prerequisite is filled in by Make with the same “stem” or portion of the target name that was matched in the target. For example, if dest/turkeys.js was handed to this target, the “%” in the prerequisite would expand to turkeys.
  • The “$<“ in the recipe is an automatic variable populated by Make with the name of the first prerequisite. When we run make dest/index.js, the “%” matches the stem “index” and expands our first prerequisite to “src/index.js” which is then handed to the recipe, so “$<“ gets expanded to the same: “src/index.js”.
  • The “$@“ in the recipe is another automatic variable populated by Make, but this time with the name of the target file.

Now if you run make dest/index.js or make dest/lib.js they’ll both be handled by the same target and run the same recipe, generating the appropriate file based on the corresponding prerequisite.