4 Tips for better CMake

We are doing one of those list posts again! This time, I will share some tips and insights on better CMake. Number four will surprise you! Let’s hop right in:

Tip #1

model dependencies with target_link_libraries

I have written about this before, and this is still my number one tip on CMake. In short: Do not use the old functions that force properties down the file hierarchy such as include_directories. Instead set properties on the targets via target_link_libraries and its siblings target_compile_definitions, target_include_directories and target_compile_options and “inherit” those properties via target_link_libraries from different modules.

Tip #2

always use find_package with REQUIRED

Sure, having optional dependencies is nice, but skipping on REQUIRED is not the way you want to do it. In the worst case, some of your features will just not work if those packages are not found, with no explanation whatsoever. Instead, use explicit feature-toggles (e.g. using option()) that either skip the find_package call or use it with REQUIRED, so the user will know that another lib is needed for this feature.

Tip #3

follow the physical project structure

You want your build setup to be as straight forward as possible. One way to simplify it is to follow the file system and and the artifact structure of your code. That way, you only have one structure to maintain. Use one “top level” file that does your global configuration, e.g. find_package calls and CPack configuration, and then only defers to subdirectories via add_subdirectory. Only for direct subdirectories though: if you need extra levels, those levels should have their own CMake files. Then build exactly one artifact (e.g. add_executable or add_library) per leaf folder.

Tip #4

make install() an option()

It is often desirable to include other libraries directly into your build process. For example, we usually do this with googletest for our unit test. However, if you do that and use your install target, it will also install the googletest headers. That is usually not what you want! Some libraries handle this automagically by only doing the install() calls when they are the top level project. Similar to the find_package tip above, I like to do this with an option() for explicit user control!

Generating done

That is it for today! I hope this is helps and we will all see better CMake code in the future.

MSBuild Basics

MSBuild is Microsoft’s build system for Visual Studio. Visual Studio project files (*.csproj, *.vbproj) do not only describe the project structure, but are also build scripts for MSBuild. They’re executed when you click the run button in the IDE, but they can also be called via the MSBuild command line utility.

> MSBuild.exe Project.csproj

These project files / build scripts are in XML format, comparable to Ant scripts in the Java land.

Edit project files

You can edit these files in any text editor, of course. But if you want to edit them within Visual Studio, you have to unload the project first:

  • Right click on the project in the Solution Explorer -> Unload Project
  • Right click on the project in the Solution Explorer -> Edit MyProject.csproj

After you’re done editing you can reload the project again via the context menu.

Targets and tasks

The concepts of MSBuild are comparable to many other build systems: a build script contains a set of named targets, and each target consists of a sequence of task calls.

A project can have one or more default targets, referenced by the DefaultTargets attribute of the Project root element:

<Project DefaultTargets="Build" ...>

Multiple targets can be separated by semicolons.

Targets are declared via Target tags containig the task calls:

  <Target Name="Clean">
    <Delete Files="xyz.tmp" />

MSBuild comes with a set of common tasks, such as Message, Copy, Delete, Exec, …

If you need more tasks you should have a look at these community provided task collections:

Both are available as NuGet packages and can be checked into your code repository alongside the project for self-containment. For the Extension Pack you have to set the ExtensionTasksPath property correctly before importing the tasks, for example:

  <ExtensionTasksPath Condition="'$(ExtensionTasksPath)' == ''">$(MSBuildProjectDirectory)\packages\MSBuild.Extension.Pack.1.5.0\tools\net40</ExtensionTasksPath>

<Import Project="$(ExtensionTasksPath)MSBuild.ExtensionPack.tasks">


Properties are defined within PropertyGroup tags, containing one or many property tags. The names of these tags are the property names and the tag contents are the property values. Properties are referenced via $(PropertyName). A property definition can have an optional Condition attribute, which determines whether a property should be set or not. The condition ‘$(PropertyName)’ == ”, for example, checks if a property is not yet set.

Here’s an example build target that uses the ZIP compression task from the Extension Pack and some properties to create a ZIP file artifact from the build results:

<Target Name="AfterBuild">
  <MSBuild.ExtensionPack.Compression.Zip TaskAction="Create" CompressPath="$(OutputPath)" ZipFileName="bin\$(ProjectName)-$(BuildNumber).zip" />

You can also set property values from the outside via the MSBuild call:

> MSBuild.exe /t:Build /p:Configuration=Release;BuildNumber=1234 Project.csproj

  • The /t switch determines which targets to run. Multiple targets can be separated by semicolons.
  • The /p switch sets properties in the form of PropertyName=value, also separated by semicolons.

This way you can pass environment variables like $BUILD_NUMBER from your Continuous Integration system (e.g. Jenkins) to your build script:

> MSBuild.exe /t:Build /p:Configuration=Release;BuildNumber=$BUILD_NUMBER Project.csproj

Now you could use the MSBuild.ExtensionPack.Framework.AssemblyInfo task to write the $(BuildNumber) property into your AssemblyInfo file.