w64devkit: (Almost) Everything You Need

This article was discussed on Hacker News.

This past May I put together my own C and C++ development distribution for Windows called w64devkit. The entire release weighs under 80MB and requires no installation. Unzip and run it in-place anywhere. It’s also entirely offline. It will never automatically update, or even touch the network. In mere seconds any Windows system can become a reliable development machine. (To further increase reliability, disconnect it from the internet.) Despite its simple nature and small packaging, w64devkit is almost everything you need to develop any professional desktop application, from a command line utility to a AAA game.

I don’t mean this in some useless Turing-complete sense, but in a practical, get-stuff-done sense. It’s much more a matter of know-how than of tools or libraries. So then what is this “almost” about?

Everything else

As I said in my announcement, w64devkit includes a powerful text editor that fulfills all text editing needs, from code to documentation. The editor includes a tutorial (vimtutor) and complete, built-in manual (:help) in case you’re not yet familiar with it.

What about navigation? Use the included ctags to generate a tags database (ctags -R), then jump instantly to any definition at any time. No need for that Language Server Protocol rubbish. This does not mean you must laboriously type identifiers as you work. Use built-in completion!

Build system? That’s also covered, via a Windows-aware unix-like environment that includes make. Learning how to use it is a breeze. Software is by its nature unavoidably complicated, so don’t make it more complicated than necessary.

What about debugging? Use the debugger, GDB. Performance problems? Use the profiler, gprof. Inspect compiler output either by asking for it (-S) or via the disassembler (objdump -d). No need to go online for the Godbolt Compiler Explorer, as slick as it is. If the compiler output is insufficient, use SIMD intrinsics. In the worst case there are two different assemblers available. Real time graphics? Use an operating system API like OpenGL, DirectX, or Vulkan.

w64devkit really is nearly everything you need in a single, no nonsense, fully-offline package! It’s difficult to emphasize this point as much as I’d like. When interacting with the broader software ecosystem, I often despair that software development has lost its way. This distribution is my way of carving out an escape from some of the insanity. As a C and C++ toolchain, w64devkit by default produces lean, sane, trivially-distributable, offline-friendly artifacts. All runtime components in the distribution are static link only, so no need to distribute DLLs with your application either.

Customize the distribution, own the toolchain

While most users would likely stick to my published releases, building w64devkit is a two-step process with a single build dependency, Docker. Anyone can easily customize it for their own needs. Don’t care about C++? Toss it to shave 20% off the distribution. Need to tune the runtime for a specific microarchitecture? Tweak the compiler flags.

One of the intended strengths of open source is users can modify software to suit their needs. With w64devkit, you own the toolchain itself. It is one of your dependencies after all. Unfortunately the build initially requires an internet connection even when working from source tarballs, but at least it’s a one-time event.

If you choose to take on dependencies, and you build those dependencies using w64devkit, all the better! You can tweak them to your needs and choose precisely how they’re built. You won’t be relying on the goodwill of internet randos nor the generosity of a free package registry.

Customization examples

Building existing software using w64devkit is probably easier than expected, particularly since much of it has already been “ported” to MinGW and Mingw-w64. Just don’t bother with GNU Autoconf configure scripts. They never work in w64devkit despite having everything they technically need. So other than that, here’s a demonstration of building some popular software.

One of my coworkers uses his own version of PuTTY patched to play more nicely with Emacs. If you wanted to do the same, grab the source tarball, unpack it using the provided tools, then in the unpacked source:

$ make -C windows -f Makefile.mgw

You’ll have a custom-built putty.exe, as well as the other tools. If you have any patches, apply those first!

Would you like to embed an extension language in your application? Lua is a solid choice, in part because it’s such a well-behaved dependency. After unpacking the source tarball:

$ make PLAT=mingw

This produces a complete Lua compiler, runtime, and library. It’s not even necessary to use the Makefile, as it’s nearly as simple as “cc *.c” — painless to integrate or embed into any project.

Do you enjoy NetHack? Perhaps you’d like to try a few of the custom patches. This one is a little more complicated, but I was able to build NetHack 3.6.6 like so:

$ sys/winnt/nhsetup.bat
$ make -C src -f Makefile.gcc cc="cc -fcommon" link="cc"

NetHack has a bug necessitating -fcommon. If you have any patches, apply them with patch before the last step. I won’t belabor it here, but with just a little more effort I was also able to produce a NetHack binary with curses support via PDCurses — statically-linked of course.

How about my archive encryption tool, Enchive? The one that even works with 16-bit DOS compilers. It requires nothing special at all!

$ make

w64devkit can also host parts of itself: Universal Ctags, Vim, and NASM. This means you can modify and recompile these tools without going through the Docker build. Sadly busybox-w32 cannot host itself, though it’s close. I’d love if w64devkit could fully host itself, and so Docker — and therefore an internet connection and such — would only be needed to bootstrap, but unfortunately that’s not realistic given the state of the GNU components.

Offline and reliable

Software development has increasingly become dependent on a constant internet connection. Robust, offline tooling and development is undervalued.

Consider: Does your current project depend on an external service? Do you pay for this service to ensure that it remains up? If you pull your dependencies from a repository, how much do you trust those who maintain the packages? Do you even know their names? What would be your project’s fate if that service went down permanently? It will someday, though hopefully only after your project is dead and forgotten. If you have the ability to work permanently offline, then you already have happy answers to all these questions.

Have a comment on this article? Start a discussion in my public inbox by sending an email to ~skeeto/public-inbox@lists.sr.ht [mailing list etiquette] , or see existing discussions.

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Chris Wellons

wellons@nullprogram.com (PGP)
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