Tue 09 June 2020

Consuming BuildStream projects in Bazel: the bazelize plugin

Bazel and BuildStream

Bazel and BuildStream, although their methodologies are different, could be considered to be "build orchestration tools" since they operate in similar problem spaces: these are clients that organise the tasks of tools that build software via high-level declarations. The clients share compatible goals; they both aim to organize builds so that the product is a deterministic result of the build function on the inputs, and this requirement applies equally to elemental software units and to complex systems. In other words, these clients aim to be correct (above all). They also intend to be efficient and fast by employing caching and analyses of executions and products to avoid unnecessary computation. As a side benefit, these caching strategies facilitate the sharing of build products and this includes partial builds consisting of one or more components of systems.

The strengths of Bazel are its efficiency and correctness: Bazel projects can be built quickly and incrementally by analysis of execution action graphs. Bazel's core build methodology treats projects at an application level and so it excels at building software which is monolithically organized. In this way it’s similar to systems such as CMake. One of the disadvantages of this methodology is that integration of external dependencies is often costly and inflexible. Additionally the output format of Bazel is fixed and the client requires a statically defined toolchain.

Of particular difficulty for Bazel project owners is integrating their application with foreign libraries. Pre-compiled libraries impart the burden of maintaining them as available archives which are difficult to effectively inspect in a change control process. These libraries must also be made visible as valid targets in the Bazel project which requires manually defining those targets: files are often collected as target sources via greedy regexes which obscures the explicit list of filenames. Finally, when the application is shipped it requires a clean environment that integrates those libraries. This is often accomplished using a Docker container with the drawback that the application is then closely coupled to this format. If those libraries need to be built from source then bespoke rules are required to dispatch foreign build systems (such as CMake) in addition to the above mentioned integrations. BuildStream neatly handles this category of problem by operating at a higher level of abstraction than Bazel.

BuildStream’s methodology focuses on integrating systems by organizing and dispatching tasks to build systems with the perspective that systems are composed of elements. The client’s configuration allows for local availability of elements in remote projects as well as multiple output formats via its plugin system. BuildStream could be adopted by Bazel users to achieve greater flexibility and an easier path to integrating third party dependencies specifically because it gracefully handles remote sources, remote projects, integrations, and multiple formats and build systems. However, there is no clear path to integrating the product of a BuildStream project (an artifact) as a dependency in a Bazel project. For example, building libfoo.so in a BuildStream project will not render the library available as a target in a Bazel project because there is no valid Bazel target binding that library. Consequently the artifact needs to be packaged as a Bazel project. This has generally been accomplished manually and is non-trivial for projects as complex as a typical Linux environment which imparts significant cost to the developer.

The bazelize plugin


The bazelize plugin eases the consumption of artifacts by Bazel projects. Technically it allows the artifact to be recognized as a Bazel package by providing a BUILD file. Currently this automation is limited to a subset of Bazel rules for constructing C/C++ targets: the plugin offers cc_import and cc_library targets automatically with the ability to override these rules (for example with cc_binary).

Targets are gathered for inclusion in the package by traversing the dependency graph of the element. The manifest (which dynamically provides mapping of elements to artifact files) is inspected for files with extensions matching those which would be valid values in the srcs field of cc_library. The dependencies of these targets themselves are also inspected in order to populate the deps field of the relevant Bazel rules.

Gathered targets are transformed several times to ensure correctness: unresolved dependencies are removed and field values are sorted so that the contents of the package will be deterministic. Additionally, cc_library targets that meet a certain criteria are transformed into cc_import targets. This collection of targets is formatted and written directly to a file defining the package.


Like other BuildStream plugins, the bazelize plugin is configurable at an element level: several keys are supported to allow the creation of subpackages in the artifact and to override default Bazel rules as well as specifying linking and compiling options. Additionally a special 'none' rule is provided to prevent the element itself from appearing in the package. This is particularly useful when it's used as a bolt-on to the top of a BuildStream project: it can be used to provide Bazel target bindings for its dependencies and act as a transparent translation layer between the projects.

  # output directory for the buildfile
  buildfile-dir: "%{prefix}"
  # list of options to add to the C++ compilation command
  copts: []
  # list of defines to add to the compile line
  linkopts: []
  bazel-rule: "BST.BAZEL_NONE_RULE"

Depending on a BuildStream artifact

As a contrived example consider the shift-cipher project (a toy project for mapping latin characters to latin characters). This Bazel package provides a binding for cipher-shifter that depends upon the static library libshift_cipher_lib.a. In a traditional Bazel project the cipher-shifter target might be defined as:

    name = "cipher-shifter",
    srcs = ["cipher-shifter-srcs",],
    deps = ["libshift-cipher-lib",],

However, the library is part of the artifact (specifically it's imported by the libshift.bst element) and so is invisible to Bazel. The libimport.bst element depends upon libshift.bst and when built produces a BUILD file as an artifact:

package(default_visibility = ["//visibility:public"])
load("@rules_cc//cc:defs.bzl", "cc_import")
    name = "libshift",
    static_library = "libshift_cipher_lib.a",

Executing bst build libimport.bst && bst artifact checkout libimport.bst will make the artifact available at ./libimport as a Bazel subpackage. The dependency is now available to the Bazel project:

    name = "cipher-shifter",
    srcs = ["cipher-shifter-srcs",],
    deps = ["//libimport:libshift",],


Development of the bazelize plugin has now reached a point where simple libraries can be constructed and consumed as dependencies in Bazel projects. However it is still experimental and has some considerable limitations: it only supports a small number of rules, visibility is not configurable at the target level, copts and linkopts need to be explicitly configured, files are included via extension matching rather than inspection, and subpackages are only naively supported.

Integrating BuildStream projects which provide global dependencies and toolchains to Bazel projects can significantly reduce development and maintenance cost to the application owners. As discussed above this reduces the burden of archive availability, allows for easier change control, and handles remote dependencies gracefully. Installer scripts in the Apollo program, for example, can be replaced with a single BuildStream project which is not itself necessarily colocated with the Bazel project. The only requirement is that the artifact is accessible (which can be achieved via a federal cache) and the bazelize plugin will provide the necessary target bindings automatically. This neatly resolves the issue of non-application dependencies discussed above and allows Bazel project owners to leverage BuildStream’s integration abilities.

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