pkg-config, sonames and Requires.private
4 minutes read

This post is both an attempt at replying to a bug against telepathy-glib, but also an attempt at explaining what Requires.private do (and don’t).

I am using Evolution as my example here, not to pick on Evolution or its authors in any way, but because it’s a convenient example. Currently, on Ubuntu Hardy, evolution links against 75 different libraries. Amongst those, we find, and many more. I’ll go out on a limb here and claim that Evolution does not call any of the functions in libXinerama directly. Let that be the assumption from here on.

An obvious question then is, why does evolution link against if it doesn’t use it? To answer that question, we need to go back in time to before we had dynamic linking. If you wanted to build a binary like evolution you had to have 75 -l statements when you linked and you ended up with the whole code for Xinerama embedded in your email and calendar client. For various reasons, we stopped doing that and switched to dynamic linking where the evolution binary just contains a reference to libXinerama. At some point we also grew the ability for libraries to contain those references to other libraries, so you don’t have to hunt down all the dependencies of libfoo when you are linking with it. We also got tools such as libtool which try to abstract away a lot of the problems of building on older platforms which don’t support inter-library dependencies.

Now, since evolution still doesn’t use anything directly in but just uses a library which in turn links against, it shouldn’t be linking against it. Then why is it linked with it? Again, we need to look back at history, and for this part I am at least partially responsible.

pkg-config was originally written as a replacement for gnome-config and various other -config utilities. Lots of libraries and applications now ship .pc files and we have a standardised interface for querying those files. One of the problems the original authors of pkg-config faced was the problem of dependencies. They added dependencies so the authors of gst-python-0.10 could say “We need pygtk-2.0 too” and so the compilation flags needed for gst-python-0.10 would also include those for pygtk-2.0. Note that I’m using “compilation flags” loosely here, I am not just talking about CFLAGS.

This did not fix the problem of inflated dependencies. Not at all. I talked with some of the Debian Release Managers back in 20042005 and we worked out a solution which should help us have correct, uninflated dependencies since the then-current way of handling dependencies caused big problems for migrations of packages between unstable and testing.

The plan was to introduce a new field, Requires.private which would not show up unless you passed --static to the pkg-config invocation (since you need all libraries if you are linking statically). This definition of Requires.private was mostly useless since GNOME and GTK+ have a habit of including each other’s headers. To make a long story short, I changed the semantics so the Cflags field from private dependencies were included even when not linking statically.

A problem which pkg-config does nothing to guard against in this case is if you have linking against and exports some of libbar’s types in its ABI (and not just as pointers, but actual structs and such). If libbar’s soname is then bumped to and libfoo is rebuilt, libfoo’s ABI has changed without a soname bump. This is bad and will cause problems. If your application is linked against both and, you’ll still get problems since then suddenly pulls in symbols from If you used symbol versioning, you would at least not get symbol conflicts and your application would continue to work, but you would have a spurious dependency and the package containing would be kept around until your application was recompiled.

With this background, you might ask the question why we still have Requires since it is seemingly useless. For C, it is useless in all but the most special cases, just use Requires.private instead (and its sibling Libs.private). Other languages have different semantics. Some people use .pc files for other purposes such as gnome-screensaver having variables defining where themes and screensavers go.

Hopefully this blog post has explained a bit about why we have Requires.private and what the difference between this and their regular counterpart is. If there’s anything unclear, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Back to posts