Some stuff I wish I was taught straight away about CMake

It was a long time coming but finally I had an excuse to push CMake up my learning priority queue. It’s a tool I long respected and now it’s certainly my weapon of choice when it comes to build systems. It can, however, be quite annoying to learn and so, following ye olde "not made here syndrome", I’ve decided to go ahead and write down some of the things that I not only find important, but also that I find can go somewhat unsaid when you’re learning CMake "in the wild" as a lot it is just "assumed" from you, the learner. Well, here’s how I’d put it…

Foreword: Do I actually want to use CMake?

Well, if you’re still debating whether it’s worth or not to learn CMake and use it for your projects, be them professional or hobbyist, I will just go ahead and recommend it. CMake is damn bloody powerful and not too clunky to use. I, for the longest time stuck to QMake, as the thing I’d learnt and knew how to wrestle pretty efficiently and as much I will still defend QMake to be much better and more versatile than people give it credit for (i.e: It’s a perfectly fine multi platform build system for projects even if you do not use Qt itself) it still has some annoying quirks and shortcomings (like how some crazy people keep insisting there are IDEs they’d like to use over QtCreator or how QMake is actually tied to the specific version of Qt you’re using (I mean, this is proper weird, as there’s a binary for Qt 5.7, another for 5.8…)). Regardless, not only it is being phased out itself in favour of Qbs, but we CAN do much better.

Though not free of occasional rage and confusion my time with CMake has been pretty good and this is a build system that will go pretty far in giving you tons of power over your build. The multi-platform support is great and you are given the power to make use of native tools. And it’s crazy extensible, something other people have already made use of and made your life easier. Probably one of the things that most attract me is CMake’s management of "packages" which can be created and "found" to help you manage dependencies. Many of which through built-in modules which helps you keep your paths and linking somewhat sane. I’ll talk a bit more about them later but, TL;DR:

Oh no! Now I have to sort out THIS and link it in?

target_link_libraries(MyLovelyProject SomeMonster)

Congratulations! You have you library linking, your includes pointed to, your language standard requirement notified and any compile flags or defines needed already forwarded

It’s a level of power I haven’t found anything else and it’s fantastic. The more complex your projects become, the more you feel this is saving you from the nightmare that might be managing all that.

I am, however, a firm believer that as long as some magic like that remains magical it actually means you’re not understanding what’s going on and, thus, are unable to make any use of if other than just downloading someone else’s project, typing the commands and hoping it works. And this is what this is about.

How is THIS document any special?

CMake has good documentation.

This is a fact. If you disagree you are way too blessed. Go spend half an hour trying to understand any Windows API function through MSDN… you’ll agree.

CMake’s documentation though, is good reference. It doesn’t do too great a job in "teaching" you how to use it. It mostly assumes you need to know how each individual thing works and does a good job at that. And it is pretty extensive and comprehensive.

Likewise, most of the CMake learning material elsewhere fall in one of two categories, by and large:

On the one hand you have some step by step tutorials which get you building some code, all right. There’s a decent official one, even.

And on the other hand there’s a pretty good number of StackOverflow questions with often good answers that will help you with a particular trick or situation.

Where all that is lacking, I feel, is in teaching you the mindset of writing CMake, in a way. A lot of the concepts and jargon that underlie how this works. And to me, that is central to demystifying a lot of what CMake does for you, and then, getting CMake to do it when you want it to.


I intend to go over these core principles to try and help you understand how CMake is doing things or how it expects you to do those things. Also how other people who are more experienced with CMake will expect them. So a mix of basic introduction with a splash of Good Practices for good measure.

Though there are some good documents on this, I still think there are some things I had to sort of piece together on my own and would have liked to have seen before I started doing my own stuff. With that in mind, on we go.

The Basics

What IS CMake?

We normally call CMake a build system but that is not entirely accurate, though you can say it’s not wrong either. CMake is a meta build system. This is, in the end, technicality to an extent, but still useful to keep in mind. A normal Build System takes a bunch of instructions on what tools to call and a list of the stuff you want built, makes the necessary calls and delivers you the finished product. Be it a library or an executable…

CMake doesn’t actually do that.

Because CMake is a Meta build system and those take the same sort of input and, instead, generate instructions for those plain old build systems, which you may then call to get your stuff built.

So CMake won’t call /usr/bin/clang or cl.exe, instead it will generate the appropriate build files and call /usr/bin/make or nmake.exe which then will do all the actual calls to the compilers and linkers.

This is part of what makes CMake so flexible across different platforms. In the end it will leverage whatever native tools you specify and they will get that work done. So keep in mind that there is "another layer" hidden, so to speak.

CMakeLists.txt – The source of it all

One of the practical things about CMake is that all your build system code is defined in one (or more) plain text file that is pretty human-readable. This file is always named CMakeLists.txt and is what CMake always looks for. Different components in your project will generally have each their own CMakeLists.txt and when you use add_subdirectory(SomeDir), that’s exactly what CMake is looking for in that directory.

CMakeCache.txt – Your own little sandbox

When CMake goes and processes your CMakeLists it creates a file called CmakeCache.txt. This file contains all the different CMake variables as they are configured specifically for that build of your project. So paths that might have been found, library names of detected dependencies, compiler flags, deployment paths, etc.

This is the file you might have to tweak when, for instance, CMake tells you "I can’t find OpenCV. Can you tell me where it is?". The main pane of the cmake-gui tool will show you precisely variables on that cache. And will write there the variables and flags you set.

It is, however, just as fine for you to go and edit the file on your own and though it can look a bit overwhelming initially because it gets so big, you’ll find that it ain’t so bad once you’ve taken a look. Generally, when you call cmake it reads your lists, and does a configure step, where it writes your cache if it’s not there. The it has a generate step, which will write your build files. Finally, cmake --build will call your build tools. (or you can call them yourself)

A function based build system

If you compare CMake to QMake (which I often do given QMake is a system I’ve used for quite a while) there is a "philosophical" difference between them. Where as in QMake you’d say something like:

SOURCES += main.cpp
LIBS += -lSomeLib

in CMake, the equivalent is something more like:

set(MYPROJ_SOURCES main.cpp)
add_executable(MyProj ${MYPROJ_SOURCES})
target_link_libraries(MyProj SomeLib)
target_compile_definitions(MyProj MyDef)

In CMake every statement is a function or a macro (which work mostly like functions, but there are some differences, even loops. This can be a bit strange in the beginning but most of them aren’t too arcane once you get a feel for the mindset behind them. So rather than tweaking something, more likely than not, each CMake statement is giving a more direct command.

Casing conventions

Once upon a time it was considered good practice to have all your CMake commands in capitals, so… rewriting the previous code block


CMake doesn’t really care either way but it was decided that doing things like that is ugly and reeks of macro hell. Instead, the more modern conventions are that function names are all in lower case, using_underscores_where_appropriate and then variables are left in UPPER_CASE in order to make them more easily distinguishable. Keeping this in mind might be an easy way to spot very old code if you come across it.

Server Mode

With the growing popularity of CMake a lot of interest grew on using CMake as a more general development-ready build system. Traditionally if you want to work on a CMake project rather than just getting it to build, you’d probably want CMake to generate you either a Code::Blocks project or (eeeeewwww) a Visual Studio solution, as those IDEs give you a lot more "interaction" so to speak, helping you add and remove files, parse code, walk through debugging….

Somewhat recently, from version 3.7, CMake, working with some IDE vendors (at least the people from Qt, that I know of) added a new feature called Server Mode. cmake-server is a special mode that provides additional information for IDEs and helps them interpret all that through JSON. The goal is to make it much easier for IDEs to support CMake natively.

Integrated Development Environments

And with that, we can talk a bit about IDEs themselves. Going all atom and bash is fine but a good IDE does help a lot in managing all the things and without some good IDE support, even a good system will still be painful to use. So I’m using this section to talk about some of the strong and weak points of IDEs I’ve tried which have CMake support (or for which CMake has unilateral support).

This DID turn out pretty long though so if you want a TL;DR: "Qt Creator is amazing, use it. Clion is also really good, do consider it. Visual Studio is… geez, no need for martyrdom guise."

Qt Creator

This is what I’ve been using by and large. I’m a long fan of the IDE and in general it is the measuring stick I apply to every other thing I come across ("hurr durr, I can go and download QtC for free. Are you AT LEAST as good as it? I doubt it.")

A disclaimer that this is what I use so it’ll be overwhelmingly the one of which I have the most to say. 100% objective and unbiased opinion, if you use anything else you’re just wrong and should use this instead.

Qt Creator has long had support for CMake but I will say that my initial contact, way back, was pretty disappointing. I felt a bit that the support was kinda lack lustre and it was one of the things which kept me to QMake (I guess Qt never made enough noise about Qbs to push me into learning that) Its support has been steadily getting better but some things still have me disappointed. Like, say as the fact that if I want to create a new class I have to pop Guake down and touch newclass.{h,c}pp and then manually add them to the CMakeLists.

It’s still annoying but a small detail and the rest of what Qt Creator offers has made me stick to it, at least for now

If you’re not familiar, Qt Creator works with the concept of "kits". A kit is a "collection of settings" which include

  • A Qt version
  • A C compiler
  • A C++ compiler
  • A debugger backend
  • A deploy device (desktop, android phone…)
  • A Cmake executable
  • Some CMake configurations
  • Possibly some alternative QMake configurations

That’s a whole bunch of stuff and in those CMake configurations you can specify which generators you want to use with that kit as well as any additional defines you want to pass CMake. By default QT adds its own root to the CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH as well as the executables for the compilers you’ve set up in the kit and for the QMake executable associated with it.

That already gives you some good help but wait, there’s more!

In addition to that Qt Creator has, on its Projects tab, a visual parser of the CMakeCache which is pretty helpful when tweaking variables and options for your build. It is very reminiscent (possibly a lot of the very same code, I’d guess) of the cmake-gui editor.

Finally, something that QtCreator always makes me miss on other IDEs is the ability to set up custom build and deploy steps. Adding either cmake -- install or make package (if you’re using CPack) as a deploy step is generally super helpful and something I myself may have got way too used to as it’s always something I look for (and often don’t find) in other environments. Combined with it being a pretty strong debugging frontend, having native valgrind integration, great code completion, very configurable editor with maybe the best code highlighting I’ve seen anywhere… yeah, this IDE is pretty amazing. It IS a very tall stick to measure things by.

That said it’s not without its own flaws and annoyances.

I’ve mentioned CMake Server Mode earlier and Qt is jumping on it. So if you intend to use Qt Creator to work with CMake, you DO want a version later than 4.3 which, right now is in beta is finally out, so MAKE SURE the IDE is up-to-date if you’re using it. You can look for the Qt blog post on this if you’re curious, but the support has got drastically better with this version.

That gui-like cache editor too, as helpful as it is, will not show up if your CMake "configure" step fails, even if it’d be the easiest way to get it working. It’s driven at least one decision I’ve made regarding my own CMake practices.

And… maybe stretching, but it does seem to have some annoying bug with Clang+C2 toolchain on Windows (because of course) where kits configured with that compiler will sometimes lose their configuration and you’ll notice the wrong compiler being called in the terminal. I don’t know why this happens but it is very much a Qt Creator bug in some way, not a CMake related thing (it’ll happen to your QMake projects as well, as the kit itself needs to be fixed). For me that seems to happen every other time I run the IDE. And it fails silently before by apparently failing to run vcvarsall.bat`. It’s an easy fix, you just restart the IDE, make sure the kits show as having no compiler set up, re-select the compiler from the drop down menu and it’ll work again as it should have the whole time. Again this is specific to that toolchain in Windows so… I dunno. Additionally, because QtCreator doesn’t consider Clang+C2 a C compiler if that’s what you want to use (which you should if the other option is VC) you might want to go in the CMake Options and tweaking the CMAKE_C_COMPILER option to point to the same thing as the CXX compiler. QtCreator will tell you that looks weird but will do it all the same, as it should. And you should be fine

JetBrains Clion

Clion is a favourite among quite a few CMake veterans. It’s yet another IDE JetBrains built on top of IntelliJ, their Java IDE and they seem to know their stuff because their IDEs seem to always be rated among the best available for each one. Clion is no exception there. It is more closely integrated with CMake than QtCreator. It has better completion and more awareness of how the project should relate to the CMakeLists. It is definitely worth a check. From what I understand, JetBrains puts a lot of value in making sure their IDE is helpful in getting tons of code refactoring done easy. Things like adding inheritance on the fly, renaming functions… If you’re curious it might be interesting to search YouTube for a "Clion Tips and Tricks" talk that happened at CppCon2015. It’s 15 minutes long and looks pretty impressive if that’s the way you like working. JetBrains are also the people behind ReSharper so their code completion is pretty strong. I have considered this IDE pretty strongly a few times but it unfortunately couldn’t win me over yet. The points where it lacks, either by itself or by comparison, are the following

  • Cache editor

    Whereas Qt Creator has that nifty tool, Clion just gives you quick access to open CMakeCache.txt in their text editor quickly and work from there. It’s not bad, but knowing there can be much more, I keep wanting more.

  • Custom build and deploy steps

    ~This is the deal breaker for me. Namely for not giving me access to calling "install" from the IDE. It keeps sounding small but it’s a thing I find myself less and less willing to give away. THAT SAID JetBrains are aware people want this and there’s a feature request being looked at referring to this. So it may very well come in a version in the near future~

    This actually HAS been adressed in recent versions, which for me means Clion is much more usable. Though I remain preferring QtCreator (which has also been improving grealtly when it comes to CMake integration) this was massive

  • No Support for Clang+C2

    VC is a terrible compiler and no one should ever have to use it.

    So far, so good, as Clion doesn’t normally support VC. You have to enable it in a hidden menu to remind you of the terrible mistake you’re making. What Clion gives you instead is the option of using either MinGW or Cygwin. As far as I’m concerned that is fine and it’s the way I want MY stuff to happen when I need to deploy them to Windows. However the world is a big place and sometimes you need to link to standard VC. Clion has support for the VC toolchain, yes, but just the standard one. It goes ahead and detects cl.exe and sets that up as your compiler and there’s not much you can do about it (that I have found, at least). It does work, but then you’re using a horrible compiler that will make your life harder and produce worse code.

  • Eeeewwww, Java!

    Jokes aside, the fact that IntelliJ, is built on Java, makes that a feature of every JetBrains IDE which might mean some systems may struggle a bit with it. I say this not from a theoretical point of view but from an empyrical one. For a while, my main development machine at home was called "Crappy Lappy" and that name is pretty adequate (if you wonder how crappy, It’s one of these ) It seems to struggle quite a bit with Clion parsing all the things. Not sensible on a properly powerful dev machine (i.e: 100% smooth sailing on my 6700K at work, for instance) but, apparently we can’t always have one handy. Again, comparatively, Qt Creator seems to be easier on it.

  • It costs real moneys

    Clion is not crazy expensive and from what I’ve used of the IDE,it seems to be money very well spent. When I’ve looked at it, that hasn’t been thegreatest factor in me not going for it, but it’s there, every penny it costs is a penny it costs over what QtCreator costs, and as I said, that is an excellent IDE you’re getting. So… there’s that factor as well. They do offer open source licenses if you contribute to Open projects and have a 30 day trial I’ve probably taken two or three times now. So it’s easy to check it and see if it works for you (or, like me, keep an eye on how your own pet peeves are being adressed from version to version)

Visual Studio

It’s been a while since I originally wrote this and VS2017 is actually out and allegedly supports CMake. Life, however, has been good, and not only have I not had to use VS in… over a year? I don’t think I was forced to boot windows in months so my knowledge on this is a bit outdated and I’m in no hurry to remedy that (much like I remain successfully oblivious of the fiddly bits of building anything in MacOS, really). That all said, I’ve used Visual Studio Code a little bit and I consider it actually a pretty decent IDE. It’s also cross-platform, so if you get used to it, you don’t need to use a different one if you need to hop OS. I not only consider it easily the superior VS, I’d say it’s actually worth checking it out (please don’t ban me, Stallman)

Have a penny, go download a good IDE.

Jokes about VS being horrible aside (it’s not, it’s just pretty bad) if you do want to use it I’m sorry for you, CMake helps you a lot. One of the available generators for Windows is called Visual Studio and what it does for you is generate a Visual Studio solution for you to work on. I can’t tell you much about it because once I knew Qt Creator I just could never go back to Visual Studio without being increasingly horrified at it so there’s about 6 years I don’t really use that IDE much any more but the generated solution is actually pretty good, I’ve been told. It tracks changes to the CMakeLists and helps a bit with that. I’ve also heard rumours that VS 2017 might have actual CMake support and I would imagine that is pretty good news as far as I’m concerned since solutions and msbuild are one of the things I abhor in the IDE. But, again, given I avoid it as much as I can, I’m potentially not qualified to talk meaningful details about this, nor confirm the truth in it.

So if you want to insist on this, you probably want to open your project with cmake-gui, pick the right version of Visual Studio from the available generators and then open the solution with the IDE.

Code::Blocks and KDevelop

VS is an IDE I have barely touched in years. CodeBlocks is an IDE I have barely used at all so, again this is something I can’t comment deeply on but if it’s something you’ve used and/or liked, this another "project" generator that CMake provides.

There is also one for KDevelop on Linux, so another possibility to be checked out if you’re comfortable there.

There are a few more also listed but these keep slipping more and more distant from my own familiarity. I’m mentioning them more on this idea that "they’re a thing, if you like it, you might want to check them out". You can look for more information on CMake’s official docs

Lexicon – all the mumbo-jumbo

So a lot of what’s difficult about learning any new tech really is getting around the specifics of the lexicon around it. It may not seem at first but then you remember that in C++ you have structs and classes which are the same thing but not really except exactly that. And if you’re learning Java, you come across Primitive Types which have their own special rules and for some reason are treated differently than other variables.

CMake, like any proper tool has it’s own language which seems made to confuse any new users. And I feel that behind them are some of the important concepts to wrapping your head around how CMake works.


Generator are, in a way, the "templates" for CMake. CMake works in two steps: Configure and Generate. In the Configure step, CMake reads through your CMakeLists and creates a bunch of temporary build files, includind CMakeCache.txt. Afterwards, when you’ve tweaked all you need, if anything, once you Generate (by clicking the button if you’re on the gui or just running cmake again if you’re on the CLI), cmake writes the output build files for the Generator you’ve chosen.

The most common ones are either Unix Makefiles or NMake Makefiles but as I mentioned in the IDE section, there are also some that generate project files for specific IDEs. CMake can do both, as some of these generators (such as the CodeBlocks generator) are considered "Extra Generator" so you have your build instructions for whatever native tool you’re using AND some project files to check things out in an IDE.

If you use CPack, CMake’s own packaging tool, that also has its own set of generators, each outputting a different type of package such as 7Z, which creates a zipped package with files you’ve chosen or IFW, which creates a graphical installer built on the Qt Installer Framework (basically exactly like the ones you get to install Qt itself from their website). You can check Cpack’s own documentation and cpack --help for more info on those.

Build Tree

Way back I mentioned a CMake command called add_subdirectory(SomeProj). That command does what it says on the tin, so speak, but it also exposes a concept upon which CMake is built, the Build Tree. When you call CMake, it looks for a CMakeLists.txt and sets that as the root of the build tree. Projects which you add as subdirectories may or may not be actually independent projects on their own.

Lets imagine a project:


Now, assuming myApp and myLib are both added as subdirectories and that myApp uses myLib and links it in. Let’s say you want to reference, in myLib, the root folder for it, for whatever reason, let’s say defining include paths. CMake has a variable you’re likely to come across very soon in examples, CMAKE_SOURCE_DIR which points to the directory you’re reading the source code from, where you have your CMakeLists is. If, in myLib/CMakeLists you enter message(${CMAKE_SOURCE_DIR}) you will get <SomePath>/OurProject as an output.

That might be strange at first, but your Source Dir is the root of your build tree. What you’d be looking for in this case is CMAKE_CURRENT_LIST_DIR, which gives you the path to the file that’s currently being processed by cmake, regardless of the build tree structure.

This becomes more relevant when you’re talking about variables since variables set for a father node will be inherited by the child nodes etc… So projects don’t necessarily exist in isolation. Additionally, targets are shared with the rest of the tree, which is why myApp can link myLib

Target – The building block

This was probably one of the most "revealing" realizations for me personally. CMake revolves around targets. They are the fundamental block of how CMake wants you to think about your project. Basically nothing means much to CMake unless it’s tied to a target. And while this is not strictly true, it’s a good way to start thinking about this. Let’s go back to QMake, my old comparison. In QMake, you’re assumed to have a target per .pro file. A target here, as it is for both systems, is generally either an executable or a library you’re going to ask it to build. CMake has special custom targets which are used for custom operations or a bit of magic here and there, but libs and bins are the important ones.

So, in QMake you might want to do something like:

INCLUDEPATH += <SomePath>/include
LIBS += -L<SomePath>/deps -lsomeDep

But in CMake, the correct way to do this is to tie them to a target. So instead you should use:

add_executable(MyApp ${MYAPP_SOURCES})

target_include_directories(MyApp <SomePath>/include)
target_link_libraries(MyApp someDep)
target_compile_definitions(MyApp "USE_DEP")

These includes, libs, defines… they don’t belong to "our project", they belong to MyApp. And for CMake this is crucial in getting things to work properly as those commands will populate properties in that target that CMake will use.

Spoiler warning that the last bit on this section is about something in CMake called "Property transitivity" and that’s where this will hit for real. But for now, keep in mind that your CMakeLists pretty much doesn’t start until you declared your target, as that’s what you’ll need to tie all the things to.

Library Types

Aside from the standard STATIC and SHARED libraries we’ve come to expect, CMake understands some additional types of libraries which you may want to be aware of.

  • INTERFACE libraries are your header-only libraries. And CMake treats them specially because with no source files, they can’t normally be a build target since they have no output. But you may still want to have them so you can easily use them. So this is a convenience type for that.

  • OBJECT libraries are an ever cruder form of a static library. Sometimes you have code that is like a library but not really. You just want to get that partial compile in and then use it. That’s where an Object library comes in. You do that compile and then, instead of linking it in, you can just tell CMake to "add these object files to the target too".

  • ALIAS libraries are what it sounds. You can use it if you imported an alternative version of a library or if you intend to have your library used in lieu of a more common one.

You can find more information about these on CMake’s documentation,for the add_library() command


One of the first bits of "arcane magic" you may come in contact with when getting to grips and using CMake will probably be along the lines of something like this:

target_link_libraries(MyApp ${SDL_LIBRARIES})
target_include_directories(MyApp ${SDL_INCLUDE_DIRS})

The whole find_package() thing is a very powerful and very common CMake thing.

What that line does is call one of two CMake scripts. It’ll look for either a FindSDL.cmake or a SDL-config.cmake

The former is a legacy format. Though still used, it is being phased out. In CMake documentation this is known as a MODULE package. CMake actually ships with a ton of these by default. You can check for them in CMake’s documentation and have a look at the individual files in either CMake’s installed folder or /usr/share/cmake-<version>/Modules depending on your OS.

What these are in rough terms are scripts that in general work through calls of find_library() and find_path() in order to try and locate the includes and library files related to the package you’re looking for. These files generally will set variables such as those in the example, so you can add the relevant commands to your own code.

More modern however will be in the latter of those two formats. Those are called, conveniently, CONFIG packages and in general do a bit more work. Some libraries will install their config scripts to your system when installed, for my system, for example (Arch Linux) the standard OpenCV package does this, and those files are located in /usr/share/opencv. I know that OpenCV also distributes these with their Windows binaries so that’s somewhere you can look for a production example, so to speak.

There are two main reasons why CONFIG packages are better than MODULE packages, and that’s not even going into the fact that they’re much cleaner in your code.

The first reason is that CONFIG packages are constituted of a few different files on one of them will be called something like OpenCV-config-version.cmake This config-version file gives you power to control version compatibility. That file enables you to tell users of your package whether they can expect to have compatibility broken never, on each different major version, for ever single version…. It also allows users to ask for a specific version and CMake will try to find it according to these rules.

Second reason is more teaser material, sorry. I mentioned, back when I was talking about targets that there’s a thing called property transitivity and CONFIG packages are made to make use of that, and make your life much easier. What I’ll say for now is that they make the process of using them much less error prone and simpler.

Probably more exciting is the fact that it isn’t too difficult for you to provide such packages for libraries of your own. CMake has a CMakePackageConfigHelpers module you can include to precisely help you with that. It’s worth a look once you’re ready to dive into this. A later part of this document is a more in-depth look at precisely this so we’ll go there.

Source Folder and Binary Folder (List Folder makes a return cameo)

I jumped the gun a little bit and talked some about the source folder before but I’m putting everything together right now just for some perspective.

When a developer hears Source Folder the pretty obvious response is

"OBVIOUSLY the folder with my source files"

And for Binary Folder

"Pretty evidently the folder for my compiled binaries"

And if I’m putting it like that it’s because both are pretty predictably wrong.

When CMake hears something like CMAKE_SOURCE_DIR what it means is, as mentioned before, the directory containing the CMakeLists.txt for the root of the project currently opened, whereas CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR means the directory containing the CMakeLists.txt that is currently being processed:

And while CMAKE_BINARY_DIR is a bit closer to what we’d expect, what it means is "That folder where I’m going to write CMakeCache.txt and build all the things! ALL THE THINGS!". CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR follows the same rules of CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR. For every directory included with add_subdirectory(), a subfolder is created inside the CMAKE_BINARY_DIR, that folder is CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR.

As we mentioned before too, the last one of these is CMAKE_CURRENT_LIST_DIR which is similar to current source dir, but relates to the file it is used in, even if it’s a module.

A bit confusing, yes? So let’s just hack out a quick mock-up example.

projDir $ ls -R





Okay, now for these files, let’s imagine

projDir/CMakeLists.txt has a line that reads add_sudirectory(lib)

projDir/lib/CMakeLists.txt has one that says include(cmake/somescript.cmake)


projDir $ cat ./lib/cmake/someScript.cmake

message("Current Binary dir = ${CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR}" )
message("Current Source dir = ${CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR}" )
message("Current List dir = ${CMAKE_CURRENT_LIST_DIR}" )

message("Binary dir = ${CMAKE_BINARY_DIR}" )
message("Source dir = ${CMAKE_SOURCE_DIR}" )

When we run CMake and it reaches someScript.cmake it’ll process these messages and the output to the console will be:

Current Binary dir = projDir/build/lib
Current Source dir = projDir/lib
Current List dir = projDir/lib/cmake

Binary dir = projDir/build
Source dir = projDir

It’s a little strange at first to wrap your head around this and it’s a result of CMake’s build tree structure. Entering different CMakeLists.txt will update your CURRENT Build and source folders, but you’ll always have a reference to the root of the tree and CMAKE_CURRENT_LIST_DIR always points to the location of the current file being processed, even if it is a module, or script. Incidentally, you also have CMAKE_CURRENT_LIST_FILE as well as a CMAKE_CURRENT_LIST_LINE, this time, giving you the information they sound like they should

In-Source Builds vs Out-of-Source Builds

You want to build your projects Out-of-source. Always. Every project. FIN~

That said AND being overwhelmingly true, what DOES it mean, though. Let’s imagine

~ $ cd projects
~/projects $ git clone [Google Protobuf's repo here] protobuf
~/projects $ cd protobuf
~/projects/protobuf $ cmake .

Besides the fact that you may be "oof, building protobuf. Coffee time…" that is pretty reasonable, especially considering CMake IS in fact protobuf’s official build system. And while that is all fine, when I joked "ALL THE THINGS" that was sadly somewhat real. CMake will produce a TON of intermediate files and if what you did looks like that example, all of that will go right together with your project files and source code.

This is what is called an In-source build, and you can find a project you know and build it and you’ll see just how big of a mess it is. Some projects attempt to prevent in-source builds, but CMake will always generate some things before you can tell it to stop. So… do it once. On a controlled environment where you can marvel at the horror of what you’ve done and never ever do it again.

Instead, what you want is something more like:

~ $ cd projects
~/projects $ git clone [Google Protobuf repo here] protobuf
~/projects $ cd protobuf
~/projects/protobuf $ mkdir build
~/projects/protobuf $ cd build
~/projects/protobuf/build $ cmake ..

What this achieves is that all that garbage gets put inside that build folder. Keep in mind to do this, pain will ensue if you don’t. I know both QtCreator and Clion do try and help you do this by default and cmake-gui does display a field for you to choose a build folder which should be separate. Just… be aware… no in-source if you intend to retain your sanity.

install(EXPORT) and export(TARGETS)

These two similarly-named commands mean annoyingly different things. You’ll come across the first one a lot as it’s a key command when generating packages. It creates the file that describes the targets you’re exporting through said packages.

export(TARGETS) works in a similar way except the file generated is specific to the source tree it was generated in. So it’s the same, except the complete opposite. Most of the time you want install(EXPORT) but docs give a few examples on where you might need the other. Just keep in mind that export will not provide you with files for creating packages

PUBLIC PRIVATE INTERFACE – The Magic Words of transitivity

I’ve teased it a bit and now it’s time to talk about this. It’s really not particularly complicated but it ties up some of the stuff we mentioned before.

Way back, when I mentioned targets, I had some example snippets like so:

add_executable(MyApp ${MYAPP_SOURCES})

target_include_directories(MyApp <SomePath>/include)
target_link_libraries(MyApp someDep)
target_compile_definitions(MyApp "USE_DEP")

Well, the thing is, those are not 100% correct. Let’s change this up a bit, and let’s make MyApp into MyLib so that some of this can make better sense:

add_library(MyLib ${MYLIB_SOURCES})

target_include_directories(MyLib PRIVATE <SomePath>/include)
target_link_libraries(MyLib PUBLIC someDep)
target_compile_definitions(MyLib INTERFACE "USE_DEP")

Now, what these keywords control is the transitivity of these properties. And the way this comes into play is when we re-introduce My app

add_executable(MyApp ${MYAPP_SOURCES})

target_link_libraries(MyApp MyLib)

Now, when that target_link_libraries() happens, if MyLib is a CMake target, either native or imported (say through a find_package(CONFIG)), CMake is going to make some magic happen.

For us right here, it’ll make sure that MyApp is built with -DUSE_DEP and also that it links in someDep. Properties on CMake targets live in two spaces, so to speak. There’s the PRIVATE space which applies to your target when it is being built and the INTERFACE space which applies to projects that use it, say for MyApp when it "links in" MyLib.

When something is declared PUBLIC it means it applies to both spaces. The target needs it and targets linking it in also need it.

This mechanism drives a lot of the power behind how config-packages work, and you can set them for custom or imported targets as well. Once you got that set up smoothly, you can have other dependencies, your include paths, compile defines, compile options (/BigObj, -mavx2), language standard requirements ( must have cxx_constexpr)… all forwarded to targets that depend on your project, all set with just a target_link_libraries() call.

General Practics / Hints & Tips

Like any other tool, there are always a few tricks here and there that can generally make your life a bit easier or provide a smart solution to an annoying situation. Here are a few I’ve picked up upon, some are generally well known and you’re likely to have stumbled upon similar recommendations from other people, others I have figured out (still am?) the hard way.

Don’t mangle your lists

Let’s start with one of them well known traps.

Say you want to tell CMake to look for your packages in a certain path. You look up the docs and find out what variable tells it that. Easy peasy:


And that looks easy except you stop finding all the other things. And that makes sense once you realize that this is equivalent to:


and you really wanted:


So the equivalent in CMake for what you want is, instead:


OR, even better most of the time:


Commands like target_link_libraries and target_compile_definitions explicitly state in the documentation that they keep adding more things. But be careful with set(). You may also want to consider using list()

Project Management and organization

I guess everyone ends up having their own little preferences about this topic. Personally it’s something I maybe tend to worry about even a bit too much.

CMake helps a bit in shaping how you do this because of the tree structure. Let’s revisit some of our old examples and talk a bit about it.


Something interesting about CMake is that in this example, myLib/CMakelists.txt could be a whole project on its own, independent from the rest of the tree. Whether to make it like that or not, it’s your choice.

Something I find useful, at times, though, is having the root CMakeLists used for managing the more general "project-wide" options such as installation dirs, options such as "build examples", or choosing components, the package generation stuff…

Regarding which targets to define in which Lists, having more than one in a list can make for some tricky to manage files and it can make it harder to keep you files nicely readable. But if you think they DO belong together, either because they’re all too small or because they share some of their sources maybe… things won’t just fall apart because you’re doing it, but be careful when you it and remember to ask yourself a couple of times if "is this REALLY the best way to do this?"

Another "trick" you can do is in regard to your source files, but first:

Don’t use GLOB for this. Just list them out one by one

It’s annoying but although it kinda works, it’s sort of hacky and it can lead you to some trouble. GLOB is not magic and it generates at list when CMake is run. If anything changes, you’ll need to go back to square one. Additionally you lose the ability to comment files in and out, all that thing. Just don’t go there, regret will catch up to you sooner or later.

What you CAN do instead should your sources become unsightly on your lists is move them to an include. So you could have a myprojsources.cmake with

set(MYPROJ_SOURCES ${MYPROJ_SOURCES} <around 379 files here>)

and include(myprojsources) to have those sources moved to somewhere less awkward. You can see some CMake I don’t hate on Protobuf’s repo They don’t use subdirectories but do use some includes to the same effect and it’s pretty quick to see that a project of that size would get unwieldy pretty fast without some good organization.

Generator Expressions

Generator Expressions are a handy feature that’s been introduced in recent-ish versions of CMake. They’re basically in-line text substitution functions which can help you make some pretty nifty tricks.

They’ve got their own documentation page as expected and it’s well worth a look. A couple of them will be of very constant use if you’re building a lot of libraries.


There are maybe three things to talk about includes in CMake that are of some interest.

The first one is that initially CMake doesn’t care about header files. And it makes sense from a build system perspective. Headers don’t generate object code, they’re the preprocesor’s problem and as long as IT knows where to find those files, why should the build system ever care? So unless you explicitly tell CMake "Well, yeah, but I care about them" then don’t expect to even see them.

However we’ve moved past that, and we decided CMake is so shiny we want to use it to even during development. So the first thing is that we need to tell CMake explicitly WE care about those headers. The traditional way of doing this is doing something which, after we realised CMake doesn’t care about includes is somewhat wasteful and nonsensical. It’s also something you might have seen elsewhere.

set(MYLIB_SOURCES ${MYLIB_SOURCES} class1.cpp class2.cpp class3.cpp)

set(MYLIB_HEADERS ${MYLIB_HEADERS} class1.hpp class2.hpp class3.hpp)

add_library(MyLib ${MYLIB_SOURCES} ${MYLIB_HEADERS})

And the truth of the fact is that listing those headers there makes no difference to CMake. but it generally WILL make a difference for IDEs reading your Lists.txt It’s the traditional way of getting your headers to be properly displayed and listed on your IDE.

There is another solution though, which is, in a way, more adequate.

set(MYLIB_SOURCES ${MYLIB_SOURCES} class1.cpp class2.cpp class3.cpp)

set(MYLIB_HEADERS ${MYLIB_HEADERS} class1.hpp class2.hpp class3.hpp)

add_custom_target(MyLib_Headers SOURCES ${MYLIB_HEADERS})

add_library(MyLib ${MYLIB_SOURCES})


The target added by add_custom_target() needs not be compiled, as it won’t when there aren’t any object files. But it will be listed, and so should your headers.

Some IDEs, though, can have trouble understanding this is part of the same project (with regards to includepaths and so forth).This can be very useful for also additional "random" project files such as shader code, Qt resource and UI/QML files… this sort of thing.

And the last thing is more of a packaging consideration, perhaps. But given CMake provides you with so much control over how you’re doing things, if your target is a library, you may want to consider splitting your headers into public and private headers. That way you can install() just the ones you want your users to see. Additionally, this is a good opportunity to remind you that GLOB is a trap. So.. amending our snippet:

set(MYLIB_SOURCES ${MYLIB_SOURCES} class1.cpp class2.cpp class3.cpp)




add_library(MyLib ${MYLIB_SOURCES})


Don’t use find_package(REQUIRED)

Yeah, why not? If it is… required… then it should say there REQUIRED.

What I propose is instead of

find_package(GLEW REQUIRED)

You write something like


#Look for the set value in documentation

    message(WARNING "GLEW not found! Compiling will fail!")


And yeah, this looks verbose and dumb in comparison but this a decision I’ve come to the hard way. And I’ve decided to go there just to work around IDEs. That’s not a CMake-based advice, really.

If you’ve read my (rather extensive) comments on Qt Creator you might remember that as much as I love their CMakeCache parser and editor, if Cmake configure fails, it’ll just go "Well, this failed. Tough luck" and won’t actually give you the chance to fix it (say, by setting GLEW_DIR, or appending CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH)

You may want to experiment with this, but if you expect people to go that way, keep it in mind that a solution like this might provide them with a better way of getting the project set up on their environment, even if it DOES feel quite counter-intuitive.

Packaging and redistribution

To me this is one of the most exciting aspects of CMake, so I’ve decided to set aside a section just for talking a bit about some of the aspects of this.

Creating your own packages

I intended to talk a bit about MODULE packages vs CONFIG packages but I already did a bit and there is basically just one thing to talk about module packages at this point I guess.

Module packages are a thing of the past and they should remain in the past

There you go. So let’s talk a bit more about creating you own packages.

Another thing I’ve is that mentioned CMake provides a helper module to help you create those packages. But, how do you go about it?

That page has an example which looks pretty small but actually tells you most of what you need to know. For the extra bits, lemme copypasta some code from Warp Drive’s CMakeLists.txt , a project I maintain to study on my spare time and which I’ve converted to use CMake as well.

# Install all public headers to the correct folders

                DESTINATION include/WarpDrive/3dmaths       )
                DESTINATION include/WarpDrive/basemaths     )
                DESTINATION include/WarpDrive/basesystem    )
                DESTINATION include/WarpDrive/display       )
                DESTINATION include/WarpDrive/events        )
                DESTINATION include/WarpDrive/physics       )
                DESTINATION include/WarpDrive/sound         )

install(    TARGETS WarpDrive
            EXPORT  WarpDrive-targets
            COMPONENT WarpDrive

###     Package Creation


    VERSION ${WarpDrive_VERSION}
    COMPATIBILITY ExactVersion

install( FILES
    RENAME WarpDrive-config-version.cmake

install( FILES
    RENAME WarpDrive-config.cmake

install(EXPORT WarpDrive-targets DESTINATION ${WarpDrive_INSTALL_DIR})

And that code includes a certain that reads:





if (NOT TARGET WarpDrive)

And that REALLY is the entire file.

Once CMake runs through all of that, it generates 4 files:


Plus, it copies my library files and my includes to the correct locations.

So… let’s run over that CMakeLists

First thing that happens is that it copies a bunch of headers to a bunch of different folders. It’s only several statements because I have some headers in the original folders I don’t deploy. If you can narrow what you want to a regexp, you can use install(DIRECTORY) which will copy the folder structure for you. (GLOBing the files and install(FILES) the list will "squash" you folder structure, with all the files being put in the same place)

The DESTINATION for all those install() is a relative path. It is appended to a variable called _CMAKE_INSTALLPREFIX. That variable is what you need to set to where you want to install.

The next call is an install(TARGETS) What it does is copy the output files of the listed targets according to their type. So executables on X, libraries on Y… whatever you decide. If you are unlucky to be in Windows, it helps you a bit as it considers DLLs as RUNTIME targets. So you .lib goes to your LIBRARY destination but your dll is copied to the same folder as your .exe, as Windows would expect it.

That command also takes an EXPORT parameter. That EXPORT is part of the final config files and if you go back you’ll see that the very final call there is an install(EXPORT). Those files have the information about the targets you’re installing. They know what the libraries are called, register the transitive properties you’ve set for them…

The statements in the middle create the "entry points" so to speak. The first one, configure_package_config_file() tells the module you’ve just included (you… DID include the module, right?) to process that we give it and it basically writes down where to find stuff, either relative to your file or in absolute (say you want something on /etc)

You DO need to set those paths though through, say


That module is a bit picky with the names of the variables and how it expects them. I know it looks simple enough but it’s given me a bit of annoyance when I went and tried to use custom names so, consider treating those as "magical names" to stay on the easy road.

The second command is also interesting. write_basic_package_version_file() is what gives you the chance to control compatibility for your package. In my case I don’t give much of a thought when it comes to breaking the API of this code since it’s something I’m the only person likely to seriously use. So I state COMPATIBILITY ExactVersion. Now, the person who is using your library might not know or care what version they have, it’s THE ONE THEY HAVE. And even that compatibility flag will not hinder them. Asking for a version when you find a config package is optional. But if you do, the file that comes from that statement will let you know if you’re good.

And after that it’s just copying the files. It is pretty clean and satisfying and if everything IS correct, you get a nice redistributable. All that’s left then is to "package" it.

Do notice that we never set any variables like _WARPDRIVELIBRARIES or _WARPDRIVE_INCLUDEDIRS like you would expect. Because we’re exporting the targets from CMake, these are all defined in those targets properties. Well, as long as whoever’s using them IS using CMake. If they’re not, then it’s the old school way.

Relocatable packages

Well… if your packages can’t be used outside your own dev environment or, the build tree that spawned them then there’s not a lot of point to them, right? But to ensure that your packages are relocatable there are a few things you must be careful about.

It’s also worth a read (and by that I mean, you’re going to end up here anyway at one point or several in the future) on the documentation that deals specifically with this. But here’s the gist of their advice, and some of my own.

What you want for these packages is to never have hard-coded paths in them and that can be a bit tricky. Well, an exception is if you really need to install something to a different folder, like we mentioned with /etc but even the install prefix might change… maybe your user doesn’t want that on /usr and decides to put that in /opt If your hardcoded your include paths to /usr/include your package is just broken now.

This is a place where generator expressions come to the rescue. Specifically, there’s a pair you’re very likely to use all the time:

target_include_directories(${PROJECT_NAME} PUBLIC

What these mean is "If you’re building this, use this one, but if you’re installing this, use the other one." Each gets substituted by an empty string on the other step. This enables you to more easily deal with whatever situation your working environment might be in so you can match what you want. And for the build interface it’s 100% okay to have a hard path… and the one I have there, that _CURRENT_LISTDIR? That DOES get expanded to a hard path.

Something to also keep in mind is that if your library is a static library and it has dependencies, those haven’t been linked so those dependencies must be forwarded through INTERFACE and that also means your users will need to find_package() your dependencies so this can be annoying so if you depend on stuff other than windows libraries or OpenGL… consider distributing shared library binaries.


Ever wanted to create an installer with all your 46 things you need to get to your client and make sure it’s all there but those are always a pain to set up?



CPack can be called from the command line as a separate tool but you can also include(CPack) the module. And it’ll get things more or less set up for you. Just like you’d make install to get your files copied, if you’re using the CPack module you can instead make package and it’ll pack your things up for you. By default, CPack packages up everything you called install() on so you really just add it to a project if you’ve been doing all the stuff I’ve talked about, you don’t really build anything else around it.

CPack has its own set of generators. 7Z (or plain old ZIP) will just compress your files and create the archive for you, it can also give you a checksum for your generated file. If you want something fancy, there are some platform-specific options but those are for losers. Instead, you can download Qt’s Installer Framework and CPack works with that. It’s even getting better and there’s a specific module for it if you want specific configuration of that installer.

IFW is definitely my recommendation if you want to make a visual installer. It’s pretty literally an installer exactly like the one you get for any version of Qt you Download. Cpack will bundle everything and generate you an offline installer. The ONE downside is that IFW doesn’t support CLI installing so if you need that then you might want to generate another pack…

Good news is you can have your cake and eat it too. set(CPACK_GENERATOR "7Z;IFW") will conveniently enough have CPack generate both packs.

A few generators (IFW included) support component installation. Again, if you’ve installed Qt using the online installer (which should be the way you install Qt always) you’ve probably seen the huge tree of things you can choose to install. So you CAN produce complex installations like that if you have tons of optional components. CMake wiki is quite out of date for the most part, but their examples are still pretty good and they do talk some about this so a valid resource if you’re interested in this.

If you ARE going the route of multiple CPack generators and/or going all out on all the details of the configuration (seriously, this is just the common settings, for the general parts. You can go pretty deep here) you probably want to consider using separate CPack config files and you want to spend some time in the official docs looking for how to get that nice and polished

Keep in mind CPack include must always be AFTER you’ve done all that

Anyways it is a pretty fantastic tool and though I mentioned only a couple, if you want it does have a ton of other generators (NSIS, DEB, RPM, …) and the fact that it’s integrated on your build system is really amazing.

INSTALL with windeployqt using CPack

So way CPack ACTUALLY works is it creates a directory ${CMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX}/_CPack_Packages and does an install there, then it packages all the things there. This is how it "knows" what you’ve INSTALLed. For people who have worked with Qt on Windows before, windeployqt is pretty certain to have come VERY in handy. If you’ve worked with Qt on Windows and don’t know this thing exists, go look it up, it’s crazy useful. It deploys not only Qt’s libraries dependencies, but also qml dependencies, runs internationalization…

But because it’s a separate process it doesn’t immediately work together with cpack. I’ve been after this for a while and couldn’t find it so today I took a couple hours to proper wrangle CMake and, more importantly, CPack into making it work and, turns out I did it:

       find_program(WINDEPLOYQT windeployqt HINTS ${QT_INSTALL_DIR} PATH_SUFFIXES bin)
           install(CODE "execute_process(COMMAND ${WINDEPLOYQT} bin WORKING_DIRECTORY \${CMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX})")
           message("Can't find windeployqt")
       message("QT_INSTALL_DIR not defined")

Just chuck this with your project’s other install calls and you’re good.

What happens here is not too mysterious. First we try and find windeployqt for whatever version of Qt we’re using. Then there’s the install(CODE) call. That is one of two "let’s do some crazy install then" options CMake provides. This is just an inlined version of install(SCRIPT) which literally calls the CMake script during install, and whilst CMake can be somewhat clunky as a scripting language, you can still push it pretty far.

There are just two details to watch for here:

First, that /bin folder will, obviously, depend on where you’re deploying your binaries.

And second, make sure you escape that $ for the WORKING_DIRECTORY. If you don’t, CMake will make the substitution for you and then write the call, which means CPack will make the wrong call when it’s running, since it will deploy to a different directory.