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A target A depends upon a target B if B is needed by A at build or execution time. The depends upon relation induces a Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) over targets, and it is called a dependency graph.

A target's direct dependencies are those other targets reachable by a path of length 1 in the dependency graph. A target's transitive dependencies are those targets upon which it depends via a path of any length through the graph.

In fact, in the context of builds, there are two dependency graphs, the graph of actual dependencies and the graph of declared dependencies. Most of the time, the two graphs are so similar that this distinction need not be made, but it is useful for the discussion below.

Actual and declared dependencies

A target X is actually dependent on target Y if Y must be present, built, and up-to-date in order for X to be built correctly. Built could mean generated, processed, compiled, linked, archived, compressed, executed, or any of the other kinds of tasks that routinely occur during a build.

A target X has a declared dependency on target Y if there is a dependency edge from X to Y in the package of X.

For correct builds, the graph of actual dependencies A must be a subgraph of the graph of declared dependencies D. That is, every pair of directly-connected nodes x --> y in A must also be directly connected in D. It can be said that D is an overapproximation of A.

BUILD file writers must explicitly declare all of the actual direct dependencies for every rule to the build system, and no more.

Failure to observe this principle causes undefined behavior: the build may fail, but worse, the build may depend on some prior operations, or upon transitive declared dependencies the target happens to have. Bazel checks for missing dependencies and report errors, but it's not possible for this checking to be complete in all cases.

You need not (and should not) attempt to list everything indirectly imported, even if it is needed by A at execution time.

During a build of target X, the build tool inspects the entire transitive closure of dependencies of X to ensure that any changes in those targets are reflected in the final result, rebuilding intermediates as needed.

The transitive nature of dependencies leads to a common mistake. Sometimes, code in one file may use code provided by an indirect dependency — a transitive but not direct edge in the declared dependency graph. Indirect dependencies don't appear in the BUILD file. Because the rule doesn't directly depend on the provider, there is no way to track changes, as shown in the following example timeline:

1. Declared dependencies match actual dependencies

At first, everything works. The code in package a uses code in package b. The code in package b uses code in package c, and thus a transitively depends on c.

    name = "a",
    srcs = "",
    deps = "//b:b",
    name = "b",
    srcs = "",
    deps = "//c:c",
a / b /
import b;;
import c;
function foo() {;
Declared dependency graph with arrows connecting a, b, and c
Declared dependency graph
Actual dependency graph that matches the declared dependency
                  graph with arrows connecting a, b, and c
Actual dependency graph

The declared dependencies overapproximate the actual dependencies. All is well.

2. Adding an undeclared dependency

A latent hazard is introduced when someone adds code to a that creates a direct actual dependency on c, but forgets to declare it in the build file a/BUILD.

a /  
        import b;
        import c;;
Declared dependency graph with arrows connecting a, b, and c
Declared dependency graph
Actual dependency graph with arrows connecting a, b, and c. An
                  arrow now connects A to C as well. This does not match the
                  declared dependency graph
Actual dependency graph

The declared dependencies no longer overapproximate the actual dependencies. This may build ok, because the transitive closures of the two graphs are equal, but masks a problem: a has an actual but undeclared dependency on c.

3. Divergence between declared and actual dependency graphs

The hazard is revealed when someone refactors b so that it no longer depends on c, inadvertently breaking a through no fault of their own.

    name = "b",
    srcs = "",
    deps = "//d:d",
  b /
      import d;
      function foo() {
Declared dependency graph with arrows connecting a and b.
                  b no longer connects to c, which breaks a's connection to c
Declared dependency graph
Actual dependency graph that shows a connecting to b and c,
                  but b no longer connects to c
Actual dependency graph

The declared dependency graph is now an underapproximation of the actual dependencies, even when transitively closed; the build is likely to fail.

The problem could have been averted by ensuring that the actual dependency from a to c introduced in Step 2 was properly declared in the BUILD file.

Types of dependencies

Most build rules have three attributes for specifying different kinds of generic dependencies: srcs, deps and data. These are explained below. For more details, see Attributes common to all rules.

Many rules also have additional attributes for rule-specific kinds of dependencies, for example, compiler or resources. These are detailed in the Build Encyclopedia.

srcs dependencies

Files consumed directly by the rule or rules that output source files.

deps dependencies

Rule pointing to separately-compiled modules providing header files, symbols, libraries, data, etc.

data dependencies

A build target might need some data files to run correctly. These data files aren't source code: they don't affect how the target is built. For example, a unit test might compare a function's output to the contents of a file. When you build the unit test you don't need the file, but you do need it when you run the test. The same applies to tools that are launched during execution.

The build system runs tests in an isolated directory where only files listed as data are available. Thus, if a binary/library/test needs some files to run, specify them (or a build rule containing them) in data. For example:

# I need a config file from a directory named env:
    name = "setenv",
    data = [":env/default_env.txt"],

# I need test data from another directory
    name = "regtest",
    srcs = [""],
    data = [

These files are available using the relative path path/to/data/file. In tests, you can refer to these files by joining the paths of the test's source directory and the workspace-relative path, for example, ${TEST_SRCDIR}/workspace/path/to/data/file.

Using labels to reference directories

As you look over our BUILD files, you might notice that some data labels refer to directories. These labels end with /. or / like these examples, which you should not use:

Not recommendeddata = ["//data/regression:unittest/."]

Not recommendeddata = ["testdata/."]

Not recommendeddata = ["testdata/"]

This seems convenient, particularly for tests because it allows a test to use all the data files in the directory.

But try not to do this. In order to ensure correct incremental rebuilds (and re-execution of tests) after a change, the build system must be aware of the complete set of files that are inputs to the build (or test). When you specify a directory, the build system performs a rebuild only when the directory itself changes (due to addition or deletion of files), but won't be able to detect edits to individual files as those changes don't affect the enclosing directory. Rather than specifying directories as inputs to the build system, you should enumerate the set of files contained within them, either explicitly or using the glob() function. (Use ** to force the glob() to be recursive.)

Recommendeddata = glob(["testdata/**"])

Unfortunately, there are some scenarios where directory labels must be used. For example, if the testdata directory contains files whose names don't conform to the label syntax, then explicit enumeration of files, or use of the glob() function produces an invalid labels error. You must use directory labels in this case, but beware of the associated risk of incorrect rebuilds described above.

If you must use directory labels, keep in mind that you can't refer to the parent package with a relative ../ path; instead, use an absolute path like //data/regression:unittest/..

Any external rule, such as a test, that needs to use multiple files must explicitly declare its dependence on all of them. You can use filegroup() to group files together in the BUILD file:

        name = 'my_data',
        srcs = glob(['my_unittest_data/*'])

You can then reference the label my_data as the data dependency in your test.

BUILD files Visibility