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Title:Separation of build environment and source tree tools
Author:Tully Foote <tfoote at openrobotics.org>, Dirk Thomas, Thibault Kruse <kruset at in.tum.de>, William Woodall <william at openrobotics.org>


This REP defines the redesign of the rosinstall/rosws [1], [4] tools for catkin [2] workspaces. It suggest introducing two new commands, called wstool and catkin_make, such that rosws and rosinstall will go out of support at the same time as rosbuild.


For catkin workspaces in ROS groovy, the rosws command will be replaced by a similar command that mirrors rosws syntax and functionality, with minor exceptions. wstool will not generate environment setup files (setup.sh, setup.bash, setup.zsh), nor an initial catkin CMakeLists.txt.

wstool commands and options will be those of rosws:

wstool init: same as rosws init, but wstool has no --catkin and no --cmake-prefix-path option, also does not generate setup files.

The following commands retain their options and semantics from rosws:

wstool update
wstool diff
wstool status
wstool info
wstool set
wstool merge

There is no equivalent command for rosws regenerate, which only regenerates env setup files.

The wstool command will not use the ROS_WORKSPACE environment that rosws used to allow manipulations of the workspace from anywhere in the filesystem with workspace-relative paths. This means the user has to either enter the vcs workspace he wants to operate on, or pass a target parameter to the command. For safety of operations, this also means that ROS_WORKSPACE will be unset by ros distributions when activating catkin workspaces, to prevent users from accidentally invoking the wrong tool and changing the wrong source tree.

The wstool command will ignore non-vcs entries in the target workspace of the command, but it will raise errors for any command that attempts to add such entries to the target workspace configuration file (.rosinstall). Raising errors is considered useful as this should mostly happen if users attempt to set up invalid wstool workspaces, e.g. by mistakenly applying the wstool command similar to the rosws command to initialize a folder.


Early ROS releases were supported by the rosinstall tool, which provided communication with several VCSs, maintenance of a list of folders to crawl for packages to be built and creation of a build and runtime environment (via the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH set in generated setup.*sh files). REP 110 introduced the rosws tool, which covered the same functionality but provided a VCS-like command syntax.

The introduction of catkin as a buildsystem to replace rosbuild changes the requirements or a tool to support multiple VCS repositories:

Environment setup.*sh file generation

With rosbuild, rosinstall/rosws did not only perform VCS operations, but also generated setup.*sh files. Sourcing those files established an environment (mainly setting of ROS_PACKAGE_PATH) where tools like rosrun would operate with the given source tree as runtime environment. This allowed several separate developer runtime environments on the same computer.

With catkin, the environment setup is done for every development or install space, not once for each workspaces, and thus catkin itself provides the generation of setup.*sh files in the devel and install spaces.

In catkin workspaces, the workspace folder instead requires a CMakeLists.txt that triggers the build of catkin packages in the subfolder tree. However setting up a catkin workspace involves several further steps which are likely to vary over time as catkin changes, so the setup of a build environment should no more be provided by a workspace support tool.

Build set management, the "other" element

rosbuild relies on an environment variable called ROS_PACKAGE_PATH (colon separated paths) to manage the set of packages to be build, and the runtime environment. Other rosbuild related tools (e.g. rospack) used the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH variable to determine the location of a package given a package name. The order of entries in ROS_PACKAGE_PATH allowed overlaying packages, with similarly named packages, earlier entries would be preferred.

rosinstall/rosws provide a means to set a ROS_PACKAGE_PATH via sourcing of setup.*sh files that read the entries or .rosinstall and set the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH. The list of folders in ROS_PACKAGE_PATH also allows overlaying of e.g. installed packages with custom packages.

This has another feature as a side-effect. Dropping new package folders into the rosbuild workspace folder would not automatically add those to the build process. This behavior was only possible by adding folders to a so-called "sandbox" folder, a folder that rosws / rosinstall ignored for vcs commands but put on the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH anyway.

Both for supporting packages not yet under version control as well as sandbox folders, rosinstall/rosws defines a non-vcs element that can be added to the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH, the "other" element. Any such folder is used placed in the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH for build and runtime tools, but is not used for workspace vcs operations.

With catkin workspaces and catkin generated runtime environments, the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH is not used to determine overlaying order of catkin packages. Instead, at build time catkin crawls the whole source folder for package folders, with the ability to prevent crawling subfolders by using marker files. The runtime environments (install space and develspace) use the FHS layout instead of the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH to locate package resources.

So using a rosws workspace, a folder copied into the workspace is not part of the build process by default (unless added to a sandbox), whereas in catkin a newly added folder is by default immediately part of the build process (unless in the subtree of a folder marked to be ignored).

Regarding build_time overlaying, catkin does not allow the same package to exist twice in a given workspace. So overlaying is possible only via separate, chained workspaces. Regarding run-time overlaying, catkin uses the CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH to overlay packages.

So the requirement to maintain a list of locations inside a workspace folder is currently not relevant for the catkin build process anymore, and any "other" element in a catkin workspace is ignored for both the build and the vcs processes, such elements have currently no purpose.

Similarly, the "setup-file" element introduced with ROS fuerte has no purpose with catkin anymore. This element allowed the setup.sh file generated by rosws to include other shell scripts in the sourcing process, and thus to source ROS environment setup files.

Single workspace and global command invocation

rosinstall/rosws was limited to using a single workspace folder at a time, because chaining of workspaces using include or import semantics proved to bring more effort than benefits. The rosws command came with a convenience feature that allowed performing VCS actions without specifying a target workspace. rosinstall and rosws both use a single file called ".rosinstall" located in the root of a workspace folder. The rosws command would consider the current folder and its parent folder, and an environment variable ROS_WORKSPACE, so that the user could call "rosws update" from anywhere in the file tree, and the last activated workspace folder would be used (or an ancestor folder with a .rosinstall file if no ROS_WORKSPACE env var had been set).

With catkin, it becomes difficult to infer a desired workspace for a vcs command based on the environment created by catkin's setup.sh files. An ad hoc initial solution used the value from .catkin which in a devel space points to folders used with the cmake invocation. However, this solution is problematic for several reasons:

  • the install space does not point to source folders that way, .catkin is empty then.
  • .catkin may have multiple entries, supporting isolated builds and merging the builds of several source spaces.

So in general, an environment generated by catkins setup.*sh does not point to a single folder, but to 0-n folders.

This means commands like 'rosws merge foo.rosinstall' cannot be provided with a single target source folder from the catkin environment, similarly no global ROS_WORKSPACE variable can be set from the catkin environment.

The --catkin option

With the migration to catkin fuerte, a quick workaround solution was implemented, adding a --catkin option to rosinstall and rosws commands that would suppress generation of setup.*sh files and generate a CMakeLists.txt file compliant with catkin instead:

rosinstall --catkin ...
rosws init --catkin ...
rosws regenerate --catkin ...

The --catkin option suppresses generation of setup.*sh files, and instead generates a CMakeLists.txt (incompatible with catkin groovy at the time of writing, pending new release of catkin fuerte and change to rosinstall code to invoke catkin_init_workspace).

With this option the user always has to remember to call the --catkin option, else setup.*sh files would be generated. While there is no harm, this approach easily causes user confusion, and since catkin is supposed to replace rosbuild, the default behavior should not require users to invoke commands providing the --catkin option. However replacing the default behavior or rosws would be equally bad for users of ROS electric and fuerte using rosbuild.

Devel and install spaces with out-of-source builds

rosbuild used in-source builds, such that each package source folder also contained the build artifacts next to the source files.

catkin strongly suggests out-of-source and out-of-project builds. This means build artifacts for a package will be generated into a different folder than the package folder (as opposed to simple out-of-source builds, where a build folder in the package folder contains the build artifacts).

The recommended catkin workflow recommends separating source space, build space, devel space and install space into four separate folders, where with rosbuild a single folder contained all artifacts. This also impacts setting up a build process. Whereas with rosbuild, the rosmake command allowed starting a build process globally, with catkin, a cmake command invocation with specialized options is required.


Therefore, differently named commands will be used for each kind of workspace, providing a clearer separation of concerns with the tools.

There will be a wstool command for all VCS commands, and a catkin_make tool for help with setting up a build folder layout and invoking cmake and make accordingly.

The new tools can also later be extended to better support the different constraints of catkin workspaces without compromising the simplicity and robustness which currently exist in rosws/rosinstall.

Also this problem reveals the general problem of mixing source management with setting up an environment. While rosinstall allowed setting up a workspace with just a single command, this design made it hard for rosinstall to support several ROS distributions with ever changing environment properties.

Therefore, the rosws replacement for catkin workspaces will not offer any environment generation capabilities (setup.sh and similar), but merely maintain a single declarative file with source projects and the file tree (the .rosinstall file, as usual).


REP128 drafts a model workspace for usage with catkin.

This is the recommended layout for development:

workspace_folder/        --WORKSPACE
  src/                   --SOURCE SPACE
    CMakeLists.txt       --This is symlinked to catkin/cmake/toplevel.cmake
  build/                 --BUILD SPACE
    CATKIN_IGNORE        --Marking the folder to be ignored when crawling for packages
  devel/                 --DEVEL SPACE
    .catkin              --Marking the folder as a development space (the file contains a semicolon separated list of Source space paths)

Setting up this workspace manually is tedious and error-prone. The catkin_make tool will help creating this structure, possibly by invoking other tools such as cmake. The implementation details of catkin_make are not part of this REP.

A user would use wstool only on the src folder:

workspace_folder/        --WORKSPACE
  src/                   --SOURCE SPACE
    CMakeLists.txt       --This is symlinked to catkin/cmake/toplevel.cmake

wstool init will create a .rosinstall file which will act the same way as for the rosinstall tool before.

The wstool commands will affect this .rosinstall file and folders mentioned in it.

Caveat: Using .rosinstall as marker file for wstool may cause some confusion for users when creating rosbuild workspaces overlaying catkin workspaces. Those will not get useful results when trying to init with a wstool workspace, since they should instead init with a catkin devel space or install space.

E.g.: This will yield positive results:

$ rosws init ~/rosbuild_ws ~/groovy_underlay/devel

while this will not:

$ rosws init ~/rosbuild_ws ~/groovy_underlay/src

However using a differently named marker file may equally be difficult to learn, and to use while switching between rosbuild and catkin workspaces.

Design decisions

This section describes the alternative possibilities that were considerd. The first choice in each list is what made it into the specificaton.

A. Alternatives for VCS workspace activation

VCS workspace activation means changing something in the environment variables such that wstool can infer what folder to work on.

The problem is not only to activate a workspace, but also to deactivate it when the user is working on a different one. In particular we can expect our users to sometimes call the wrong tool (rosws vs. wstool), and we need such situations to remain benign.

The following design decisions are possible:

1. No activation, context-only

Determine wstool target workspace by searching for .rosinstall file in chain of path ancestors (similar to git). A target parameter can be used to override context.

Deactivation is required for ROS_WORKSPACE to prevent accidental calls to rosws to harm the users source tree.

2. Using CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH / catkin_pkg heuristically

wstool could crawl the CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH, take the first one that contains a .catkin file, parse that file for semicolon-separated entries, and use the first of those or all as workspace root. Using all entries would create further problems and is a corner case anyway, since with most users, there should only ever be one location in a .cmake file.

One problem with this is that this introduces a dependency to catkin internals. A pure vcs support tool should not rely on a variable like CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH or a build tool to operate. Also some confusion may arise when rosws and wstool have different was of globally determining the current workspace. Finally this does not work with install spaces.

Another huge problem is that when the user uses a rosbuild workspace on top of a catkin workspace, or after it in the same terminal, the catkin workspace cannot get deactivated. So accidental calls to wstool harm the users source tree.

3. Providing a separate setup.sh file setting ROS_WORKSPACE

wstool could still generate a shell file (e.g. setup.sh, wstool_env.sh) which does nothing else than setting an environment variable, e.g. ROS_WORKSPACE, and rely on the user to source it.

Such a file may also be confusing because it does not set up a catkin environment.

No deactivation required.

4. Use custom env hook

catkin allows environment hooks, meaning shell scripts that will be run when sourcing setup.*sh files. Such a hook could be provided by a catkin package and set ROS_WORKSPACE to one of the source spaces (usually there is just one) used to build:

_SPACES=(`echo $ROS_PACKAGE_PATH | tr ':' ' '`)
# select the first entry, if several
unset _SPACES
@[end if]@

A proof-of-concept implementation of the wstool env hook exists at https://github.com/tkruse/wstool_catkin

Equivalent solutions might use the CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH and .catkin file instead.

However this fails with install spaces and also with multiple source trees contributing to the same devel space.

Deactivation is required for ROS_WORKSPACE for catkin install spaces with this solution.

B. Alternatives regarding the creation of wstools

As mentioned before, the creation of a second tool is also driven by the wish to create catkin source trees without using a --catkin option with rosinstall/rosws.

1. Create a new tool wstool

This covers the same features as rosws, but for catkin workspaces. Meaning no setup.*sh files will be generated, it is not possible to create rosbuild workspaces with this tool. A similar replacement for rosinstall is not planned at this time.

2. Keep rosws with --catkin option

Not desirable because of user confusion. When a user forgets to pass that option during a rosinstall, rosws init or rosws merge call, setup.*sh files will be generated that have no purpose.

However, this alternative has the benefit that it allows more easily to later introduce a new tool wstool which drops several other rosinstall design decisions that are no more relevant in catkin. Examples are the requirement to determine a fixed order of local repositories (for ROS_PACKAGE_PATH precedence) and the resulting registry of each ROS_PACKAGE_PATH entry (instead of just a root folder).

3. Change rosws default behavior to be setup.*sh agnostic

In theory rosws could be changed to never generate anything else than a .rosinstall file. For the rosbuild case, this would mean we'd need a small helper script to create those files, like ros_create_env [PATH]. This might also have benefits, but would mean that plenty of tutorials on the web would have to change their installation instructions.

C. Mutual compatibility between rosws and wstool

Since initially, rosws and wstool perform the same vcs operations using the same rosinstall file syntax, it is possible to make them mutually compatible except for the workspace initialization (generation of setup.*sh files).

1. Both use ".rosinstall" filename

Doing so allows calling the tools interchangeably most of the times, but prevents the tool from telling the user he should be using wstool for catkin workspaces, and rosws for rosbuild workspaces.

This also allows to keep using the rosinstall tool for catkin workspaces, as done in automated scripts.

2. Use a new filename for wstool

Meaning e.g. ".wstool" instead of ".rosinstall". Doing so allows the tools to diverge more in the long run, but prevent the users from using the same command where it would technically be possible. Also the extension ".rosinstall" indicates a certain file syntax, and it is beneficial to keep the same name as long as the syntax remains the same. Such a change of name would be more reasonable in the future along with a change of the syntax within the file.

However, it must be noted that in catkin, the "other" element of the rosinstall syntax has no effect on the build anymore, so in a way, the syntaxes are already different.

3. Use a new file format for wstool

wstool could introduce a new file format, or a flag inside the .rosinstall file that rosws and wstool use to tell the user he is using the wrong tool for the given workspace. However introducing a new syntax cleanly takes more time than we currently have.

D. Drop-in support for vcs folders like catkin

For the build process, catkin allows drop-ins per default, meaning a user can copy a package into the source space, and by default it will be used in the next build process. rosws required using the rosws tool to declare any new packages in the .rosinstall file before they became part of the build process, unless using a sandbox folder. A sandbox folder however also prevented subfolders to be part of VCS operations.

Supporting drop-in behavior for vcs operations is generally unsafe for the user, as it does not allow keeping a local clone at a specific version.

rosinstall/rosws define an "other" element with the semantics that this folder will no be considered for SCM operations, but its subfolders will be added to the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH via the setup.*sh env files generated by rosws/rosinstall. The "other" element has no function in catkin anymore, given that in catkin no setup.*sh are generated by rosws.

While the specification of this REP does not decide on this, discussions around this feature has influenced the other decisions.

1. No support for drop-in repositories

Like with rosws, new local clones of repositories have to be registered in the .rosinstall file individually to be included in VCS operations. wstool does not support vcs operations outside listed vcs elements.

2. Support for generic SCM operations in new-style dropin folders

wstool (and rosws) could be extended to have a new element (similar to the "other" element) which point to a path, under which all vcs folders will have default semantic VCS operations applied to them on wstool invocations.

3. Support for generic SCM operations in sandbox folders

wstool (and rosws) could be extended to support some default vcs behavior when a user drops local repositories in a sandbox folder. Currently sandbox folders in rosbuild are declared in the rosinstall syntax using the "other" element, which implies that subfolders will be part of the ROS_PACKAGE_PATH, but no VCS operation will be performed on them by rosws/rosinstall.

A new element like "drop-in" could change that behavior, such that subfolders would also be included in vcs operations via default semantics.

4. Generally update all workspace subfolders

wstool could crawl all workspace subfolders, and either perform the usual operation if the subfolder is listed with a version in the .rosinstall file, or perform some VCS operation with default semantics.

D. "other" and "setup-file" elements in wstool

Currently, "other" and "setup-file" elements in a catkin workspace have no effect whatsoever. They have effect only in rosbuild workspaces. This can be confusing to users if they happen to see such elements in rosinstall files for rosbuild.

1. Forbid adding "other" elements for wstool, ignore existing

wstool commands fail if working on files having an "other" element.

It is slightly inconsistent, but allows the code base to remain largely the same. This should not break anything. This also allows to invoke wstool commands on existing rosws workspaces, which may be a small bonus.

2. Raise error whenever detecting a non-vcs element

wstool command raises an error whenever a .rosinstall file it reads has a non-vcs element.

This allows very consistent usage of rosinstall files in the new environment.

3. Ignore "other" elements in wstool

wstool does not create "other" elements, and but does not raise an error when this is attempted neither. When reading .rosinstall files, it ignores "other" elements as if they were commented out (e.g. they are not shown on wstool info).

This is very inconsistent, but allows even more of the code base to remain largely the same.

4. Support "other" elements in wstool

wstool treats "other" elements exactly like rosws, meaning it may create currently pointless "other" elements, and the set command can turn vcs elements into "other" elements. A deprecation warning can be displayed.

While this would be confusing in the long run if the "other" element never gets any purpose, in the short term this allows easier sharing of code between rosws and wstool, and thus lesss maintenance effort.

This is a quirk that does not cause breakage, just confusion.

On the Groovy release date, this behavior was present in wstool.

Backwards Compatibility

The rosws command remains functionally identical and will continue to be maintained.

Reference Implementation

The Groovy distribution of ROS will provide two separate additional tools wstool and catkin_make following the guidelines of this REP.