Compiling OCaml Projects

This tutorial explains how to compile your OCaml programs into executable form. It addresses, in turn:

  1. The compilation commands ocamlc and ocamlopt provided with OCaml. It is useful to learn these commands to understand OCaml's compilation model.

  2. The ocamlfind front-end to the compiler, which saves you from worrying about where libraries have been installed on your particular system.

  3. Automatic build systems for OCaml, such as dune, which release us from details of compiler command invocation, so we never touch ocamlc, ocamlopt, or even ocamlfind.

In our up and running tutorial we jumped straight to using the automated build system dune. Now we shall look under the hood.

Compilation basics

In this section, we will first see how to compile a simple program using only ocamlc or ocamlopt. Then we will see how to use libraries and how to take advantage of the findlib system, which provides the ocamlfind command.

The ocamlc and ocamlopt compilers

OCaml comes with two compilers: ocamlc is the bytecode compiler, and ocamlopt is the native code compiler. If you don't know which one to use, use ocamlopt since it provides executables that are faster than bytecode.

Let's assume that our program program has two source files, module1.ml and module2.ml. We will compile them to native code, using ocamlopt. For now, we also assume that they do not use any other library than the standard library, which is automatically loaded. You can compile the program in one single step:

ocamlopt -o program module1.ml module2.ml

The compiler produces an executable named program or program.exe. The order of the source files matters, and so module1.ml cannot depend upon things that are defined in module2.ml. Please also note that you should avoid creating a file that conflicts with a module exposed by a library you are using. For instance, if you create a file graphics.ml and use the graphics library, the Graphics module exposed from the graphics library will be hidden by your newly defined module, hence all of the functions defined in it will be made inaccessible.

The OCaml distribution is shipped with the standard library, plus several other libraries. There are also a large number of third-party libraries, for a wide range of applications, from networking to graphics. You should understand the following:

  1. The OCaml compilers know where the standard library is and use it systematically (try: ocamlc -where). You don't have to worry much about it.

  2. The other libraries that ship with the OCaml distribution (str, unix, etc.) are installed in the same directory as the standard library.

  3. Third-party libraries may be installed in various places, and even a given library can be installed in different places from one system to another.

If your program uses the unix library in addition to the standard library, for example, the command line would be:

ocamlopt -o program unix.cmxa module1.ml module2.ml

Note that .cmxa is the extension of native code libraries, while .cma is the extension of bytecode libraries. The file unix.cmxa is found because it is always installed at the same place as the standard library, and this directory is in the library search path.

If your program depends upon third-party libraries, you must pass them on the command line. You must also indicate the libraries on which these libraries depend. You must also pass the -I option to ocamlopt for each directory where they may be found. This becomes complicated, and this information is installation dependent. So we will use ocamlfind instead, which does these jobs for us.

Using the ocamlfind front-end

The ocamlfind front-end is often used for compiling programs that use third-party OCaml libraries. Library authors themselves make their library installable with ocamlfind as well. You can install ocamlfind using the opam package manager, by typing opam install ocamlfind.

Let's assume that all the libraries you want to use have been installed properly with ocamlfind. You can see which libraries are available in your system by typing:

ocamlfind list

This shows the list of package names, with their versions. Note that most opam packages install software using ocamlfind, so your list of ocamlfind libraries will be somewhat similar to your list of installed opam packages obtained by opam list.

The command for compiling our program using package pkg will be:

ocamlfind ocamlopt -o program -linkpkg -package pkg module1.ml module2.ml

Multiple packages may be specified using commas e.g pkg1,pkg2. Ocamlfind knows how to find any files ocamlopt may need from the package, for example .cmxa implementation files or .cmi interface files, because they have been packaged together and installed at a known location by ocamlfind. We need only the name pkg to refer to them all - ocamlfind does the rest.

Note that you can compile the files separately. This is useful if you want to recompile only some parts of the programs. Here are the equivalent commands that perform a separate compilation of the source files and link them together in a final step:

ocamlfind ocamlopt -c -package pkg module1.ml
ocamlfind ocamlopt -c -package pkg module2.ml
ocamlfind ocamlopt -o program -linkpkg -package pkg module1.cmx module2.cmx

Separate compilation (one command for module1.ml, another for module2.ml and another to link the final output) is usually not performed manually but only when using an automated build system that will take care of recompiling only what it necessary.

Interlude: making a custom toplevel

OCaml provides another tool ocamlmktop to make an interactive toplevel with libraries accessible. For example:

ocamlmktop -o toplevel unix.cma module1.ml module2.ml

We run toplevel and get an OCaml toplevel with modules Unix, Module1, and Module2 all available, allowing us to experiment interactively with our program.

OCamlfind also supports ocamlmktop:

ocamlfind ocamlmktop -o toplevel unix.cma -package pkg module1.ml module2.ml

Dune: an automated build system

The most popular modern system for building OCaml projects is dune which may be installed with opam install dune. It allows one to build OCaml projects from a simple description of their elements. For example, the dune file for our project might look like this:

;; our example project
(executable
  (name program)
  (libraries unix pkg))

The dune quick-start guide shows you how to write such description files for more complicated situations, and how to structure, build, and run dune projects.

Other build systems

  • OMake Another OCaml build system.
  • GNU make GNU make can build anything, including OCaml. May be used in conjunction with OCamlmakefile
  • Oasis Generates a configure, build, and install system from a specification.

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