When something seemingly simple isn’t implemented in an open source project, there are two likely reasons. One, nobody has bothered to sit down and work on it because it’s so simple. Two, it’s not actually as simple as it may seem. Getting Kconfig help text really felt like it should be that simple but, alas, was not.

When I see a config option I don’t understand, my usual methods for finding out more information are either to invoke make menuconfig and search there or running git grep "config FOO" to find the file. Both of these work but are manual and not really suitable for automation. What I wanted was a single command to run and spit out only the help text on the command line.

All the kconfig work lives in scripts/kconfig. Roughly speaking, each of the ways to invoke config (menuconfig, xconfig, etc.) uses a common set of parsing code and then a different set of methods to display/use the kconfig information in whatever way. How to handle input is handled by the specfic instance of kconfig invocation. Theoretically, it means it would be easy to add another target to parse the kconfig and get the help text that way, e.g.

@@ -158,6 +162,11 @@ conf-objs  := conf.o $(common-objs)
 hostprogs-y    += nconf
 nconf-objs     := nconf.o nconf.gui.o $(common-objs)

+# helpconf: get the dang help menu
+hostprogs-y    += helpconf
+helpconf-objs  := help.o $(common-objs)
 HOSTLDLIBS_nconf       = $(shell . $(obj)/nconf-cfg && echo $$libs)
 HOSTCFLAGS_nconf.o     = $(shell . $(obj)/nconf-cfg && echo $$cflags)
 HOSTCFLAGS_nconf.gui.o = $(shell . $(obj)/nconf-cfg && echo $$cflags)

The trick here is that all the kconfig work gets invoked via make (e.g. make menuconfig, make defconfig). It turns out, if you try and invoke any of the kconfig programs without make, things blow up:

$ make V=1 listnewconfig
make -f ./scripts/Makefile.build obj=scripts/basic
rm -f .tmp_quiet_recordmcount
make -f ./scripts/Makefile.build obj=scripts/kconfig listnewconfig
scripts/kconfig/conf  --listnewconfig Kconfig
$ scripts/kconfig/conf  --listnewconfig Kconfig
sh: /scripts/gcc-version.sh: No such file or directory
sh: /scripts/gcc-version.sh: No such file or directory
init/Kconfig:18: syntax error
init/Kconfig:17: invalid statement
init/Kconfig:18: invalid statement
sh: /scripts/clang-version.sh: No such file or directory
init/Kconfig:26: syntax error
init/Kconfig:25: invalid statement
Recursive inclusion detected.
Inclusion path:
current file : arch//Kconfig
included from: arch//Kconfig:10

this is because Kconfig expects certain make variables to be defined:

$ srctree=`pwd` CC=gcc ARCH=x86 SRCARCH=x86 scripts/kconfig/conf --listnewconfig Kconfig

So unless we (really) want to be reinventing the wheel, we’re stuck invoking all kconfig programs via make.

This doesn’t sound terrible but if we think about what a reasonable command might be (e.g. make helpconfig CONFIG_FOO), this means we need to parse arguments passed to make itself, which is is not something make is easily designed to handle. Yes, you can do so but it really isn’t pretty. One suggested workaround is to have the option as an environment variable (e.g. make OPTION=CONFIG_FOO helpconfig) but that ends up feeling pretty ugly and prone to namespace collisions.

The end result is that adding the feature by itself ends up causing more problems than it actually solves. I do have an actual use case for getting help text from the command line but my proposed solution for that will almost certainly look different than this idea.