common-lisp ASDF - Another System Definition Facility


ASDF - Another System Definition Facility

ASDF is a tool for specifying how systems of Common Lisp software are made up of components (sub-systems and files), and how to operate on these components in the right order so that they can be compiled, loaded, tested, etc.

Simple ASDF system with a flat directory structure

Consider this simple project with a flat directory structure:

|-- example.asd
|-- functions.lisp
|-- main.lisp
|-- packages.lisp
`-- tools.lisp

The example.asd file is really just another Lisp file with little more than an ASDF-specific function call. Assuming your project depends on the drakma and clsql systems, its contents can be something like this:

(asdf:defsystem :example
    :description "a simple example project"
    :version "1.0"
    :author "TheAuthor"
    :depends-on (:clsql
    :components ((:file "packages")
                 (:file "tools" :depends-on ("packages"))
                 (:file "functions" :depends-on ("packages"))
                 (:file "main" :depends-on ("packages"

When you load this Lisp file, you tell ASDF about your :example system, but you're not loading the system itself yet. That is done either by (asdf:require-system :example) or (ql:quickload :example).

And when you load the system, ASDF will:

  1. Load the dependencies - in this case the ASDF systems clsql and drakma
  2. Compile and load the components of your system, i.e. the Lisp files, based on the given dependencies
    1. packages first (no dependencies)
    2. functions after packages (as it only depends on packages), but before main (which depends on it)
    3. main after functions (as it depends on packages and functions)
    4. tools anytime after packages

Keep in mind:

  • Enter the dependencies as they are needed (e.g. macro definitions are needed before usage). If you don't, ASDF will error when loading your system.
  • All files listed end on .lisp but this postfix should be dropped in the asdf script
  • If your system is named the same as its .asd file, and you move (or symlink) its folder into quicklisp/local-projects/ folder, you can then load the project using (ql:quickload "example").
  • Libraries your system depends on have to be known to either ASDF (via the ASDF:*CENTRAL-REGISTRY variable) or Quicklisp (either via the QUICKLISP-CLIENT:*LOCAL-PROJECT-DIRECTORIES* variable or available in any of its dists)

How to define a test operation for a system

(in-package #:asdf-user)

(defsystem #:foo
  :components ((:file "foo"))
  :in-order-to ((asdf:test-op (asdf:load-op :foo)))
  :perform (asdf:test-op (o c)
                    (uiop:symbol-call :foo-tests 'run-tests)))

(defsystem #:foo-tests
  :name "foo-test"
  :components ((:file "tests")))

;; Afterwards to run the tests we type in the REPL
(asdf:test-system :foo)


  • We are assuming that the system :foo-tests defines a package named "FOO-TESTS"
  • run-tests is the entry point for the test runner
  • uoip:symbol-call allows as to define a method that calls a function that hasn't been read yet. The package the function is defined in doesn't exist when we define the system

In what package should I define my ASDF system?

ASDF provides the package ASDF-USER for developers to define their packages in.