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For the first commit, which includes the pristine script without any modernisations, see:

You might also be interested in fabricate, which was inspired by memoize.


Memoize is a replacement for make. It is designed to be simple and easy to use. Above all, it allows you to write build scripts in normal languages like Python or the shell rather than forcing you to rely on make's hopelessly recondite makefile language. Memoize takes advantage of the fact that programmers are likely to be better versed in a general-purpose scripting language than in make.

Limitation: Doesn't work in Windows (requires strace). Sorry Cygwinners.


As an example, here is a simple shell script that uses memoize to build a C program.

#!/bin/sh gcc -c file1.c gcc -c file2.c gcc -o program file1.o file2.o

Except for the addition of the prefix, these are exactly the commands you would type at the shell to compile the program manually. However, the use of memoize ensures that no file will be compiled unless it or something it depends on has changed. This speeds up builds tremendously for even medium-size projects, and it's what makes make so useful.

It's also possible to write a build script in Python. Writing the script in Python is particularly nice because memoize is itself written in Python, so the interpreter only needs to be loaded once (rather than once per command). This results in about a 5x to 10x speedup. Here is an example Python build script.

#!/usr/bin/env python
import sys
from memoize import memoize

def run(cmd):
    status = memoize(cmd)
    if status: sys.exit(status)

run('ocamllex x86lex.mll')
run('ocamlyacc x86parse.mly')

run('ocamlc -c x86parse.mli')
run('ocamlc -c')
run('ocamlc -c')
run('ocamlc -c')
run('ocamlc -o program x86parse.cmi x86parse.cmo x86lex.cmo main.cmo')

Unlike the shell script, this script checks the exit status of each command and exits if the command fails. This is more like the typical behavior of make, while the shell script behaved more like make -k.

Since this is Python, it's easy to make this script much fancier. We could modify it to make it easier to specify input files, to allow input files to be nested inside different directories, and to output object files to a separate location. Much of this functionality is hard to get right in make. Python makes this stuff easy, since it has good built-in support for string processing and file handling.

As an example, here is an example build script used in a real ocaml project. It builds source code from two directories and puts the output in an obj/ directory. It supports both the bytecode and the native code compiler, and it has functionality analogous to make clean. It uses a few Python functions that could be abstracted into a library, which is a good way of writing these scripts.

In my experience, writing build scripts in a more imperative fashion is easier than doing it declaratively. Declarative designs typically rely on a restricted domain-specific language for expressing build rules based on filename extensions and environment variables. These approaches work fine when programs are simple, but they're usually hard to use when any kind of out-of-the-ordinary functionality is needed. Although imperative scripts (like the example in the previous paragraph) may seem less elegant, they are very flexible and usually just as concise.

How It Works

The key to memoize is an algorithm that determines whether a command actually needs to be run. Memoize assumes that given the same command line options and the same input files, a program will always produce the same output (this is typically true for compilers and other build tools). When memoize is called with a command, it checks if it has run that command before with the same options. If it has been, it determines what input files were used by the command. If those files haven't changed since the command was run, then there is no need to rerun it.

Deciding whether a file has changed is easy: memoize can either check the modification time of the file, or it can compute an MD5 sum of the file and see if it differs from the old value. The tricky part is figuring out what input files were used by the command when it was run. Memoize uses the strace command to do this. Strace is capable of logging all the system calls made by a program. Memoize uses strace to find all the open system calls made by a command. If a file is opened in O_RDONLY or O_RDWR mode, and it is located in the directory tree where the build started, then it is considered an input. (Other people have proposed using strace in this way before, but I don't know of any general-purpose implementations out there. I probably "borrowed" the idea from someone else who had it first, but I can't remember who. If it's you, I apologize.)

Memoize keeps a file called .deps in the build directory. For each command that has already been run, it lists the input dependencies for the command. For each dependency file, the modification time and MD5 sum of the file at the time the command was executed are listed. When asked to execute the command again, memoize checks the current version of the inputs against the .deps file. It only reruns the command if they don't match.


You can download here. The software is under the BSD license.

If you intend to use it from Python, you should put this file somewhere in your PYTHONPATH so that it can be imported. Alternatively, you could put it in the same directory as your build script. You could also add the following lines to the top of the build script.

import sys
sys.path.append(' where can be found...')
import memoize

You can also use memoize from the command line. In that case, put it in your shell PATH. You can optionally rename it to just memoize. This is the preferred method if you don't intend to use Python.


  • June 6, 2008. Incorporated bugfixes, extra flags, and documentation due to Ben Leslie. Thanks!
  • June 2, 2008. Added support for commands that change to a different directory (as in a shell command using cd). Also added a BSD license.


Using memoize is pretty simple. It only takes two command line options. By default, it uses MD5 sums to check for changes. If you'd rather it use access times, pass in the -t option before the command. There's also a -d dir option that searches for input dependencies in other directories. Normally, memoize ignores a dependency if it's not located in some subdirectory of the current working directory.

Contact & Bug Reports

Please report bugs or feature requests to bill.mccloskey at gmail dot com. Also, if you have any interesting build script libraries that might be useful to other people, send them to me and I'll post them here.