Build system basics: part 2

Part 1 discussed a few basic concepts related to build systems. Part 2 focuses on how one can use CMake to accomplish the goals described in Part 1.

There are many good CMake tutorials out there, but their aim is usually to teach through practical examples. As part 1 demonstrated, I want to take a more fundamental approach, and focus on the concepts rather than on their implementation or detailed explanations about particular CMake functions. Once the fundamentals are understood, other tutorials, talks and documentation will make a lot more sense. I will link some useful resources that can be used to take this to the next level.

The first order of business is to clarify a small lie that has been told.

CMake is not a build system.

Strictly speaking, CMake is a build system generator. In other words, CMake reads the project description and, instead of building the project, it simply generates build description files for a build system of your choice. In other words, CMake by itself is not enough to build a project.

example 1

As the picture shows, CMake will place the build system description file (Makefile,, etc) inside the build directory. It might seem odd at first, but it makes sense if one views the build system as a property of a particular build, not as a property of the project itself. For example, a build on Windows will likely use a different build system than a build on Mac.

Consider, for instance, a project based exclusively on the ninja system. A Windows developer who wants to work on this project and use Visual Studio would have to hope Visual Studio has support for Ninja. The same applies for Mac/Xcode, or any other platform. Alternatively, the project can use CMake and generate native Visual Studio / Xcode build descriptions for those builds.

The canonical CMake invocation

To start a CMake-based build, gather the following information:

  1. The source directory path, $SOURCE_DIRECTORY.
  2. The build directory path, $BUILD_DIRECTORY.
  3. The desired build system, $BUILD_SYSTEM. (Ninja, Unix Makefiles, etc)

Then, run:


Those steps generate the required files inside the build directory. To build, either run the build system specific command inside the build directory (make, ninja, etc) or let CMake abstract this in a system-agnostic way:

cmake --build $BUILD_DIRECTORY

CMakeLists.txt files

A CMake-based project will contain many CMakeLists.txt files throughout its directory hierarchy. These files contain a description of each module (target) in the project and their relationship (properties); it is the programmer's goal to express those ideas as cleanly as possible using the CMake language.

The CMake language

The CMake language is just a programming language, it has functions, loops, conditionals, etc. It also has its quirks and oddities. Like any language, it is merely a tool to express intent, and getting the basics right is crucial to writing expressive code.

It's impossible to fully describe the language in a blog, but there is one key concept that needs to be explained.

Strings, string everywhere!

In the CMake language, almost everything is a string. The contents of a variable is a string, the variable name itself is a string. Here's how one would write an assignment command:

set(my_var hello)

The mental model I use when thinking about the CMake language is that "assignment to a variable creates a map from a string to another". In other words:

map["my_var"] = "hello";

Dereferencing a variable is done with the ${} operator:


We can think of it simply querying the map:


Go crazy

Convince yourself you understand what these lines are doing:

set(hello_str hello)                 # map[“hello_str”] = “hello”
set(world_str world)                 # map[“world_str”] = “world”
set(helloworld “Hello world!”)       # map[“helloworld”] = “Hello world!”
${hello_str}                         # Queries map[“hello_str”] finds “hello”
${${hello_str}}                      # Queries map[“hello”]... empty!
${${hello_str}${world_str}}          # Queries map[“helloworld”] finds “Hello world!”

A word on whitespaces

Whitespaces separating two strings cause those strings to be interpreted as a list, internally represented as a semicolon-separated concatenation of the strings.

set(my_var hello world)              # map[“my_var”] = “hello;world”
set(my_var hello;world)              # same as above.
set(my_var “hello world”)            # map[“my_var”] = “hello world”


In CMake, a target is anything one wants to build. It is typically an executable or a library, but it's possible to define any custom set of commands.




Properties provide information on targets. There are three flavors of properties:

  • Private: information about how the target does something. Other targets need not be aware of private properties.
  • Interface: information about what the target does. Other targets need to know about interfaces.
  • Public: information that is both private and on the interface.

Let's look at one such property: include directories. This specifies include paths the compiler should use when looking for header files.

    PRIVATE /my/private/path
    PUBLIC /my/public/path

Note the two distinct paths specified above. The PRIVATE path will not be visible to any other targets using my_lib1, whereas the PUBLIC path will. To understand this, let's look at the link libraries property:

    PRIVATE library1

This expresses that executable1 needs to be linked against library1. Furthermore, executable1 also depends privately on everything that is part of library1's interface. In particular, the /my/public/path include path will also be visible to executable1.

Visual representation

Targets are the building blocks of a CMake project description and properties tell CMake how to build targets. Linking targets cause properties to flow from one target to another transitively and create dependencies that define an order in which actions must happen at build time.

The dependency between targets and the flow of properties can be visualized by passing --graphviz=<some_prefix> to the CMake command call. It will cause CMake to generate a DOT graph file that can be plotted to generate something like this:

example 2

If you can (easily) produce such a graph for your project, you have a clear understanding of the project as a whole.


At the end of part 1, we concluded by listing some symptoms of bad build systems. Let's see how a CMake-based project handles those issues.

How easy is it to spawn a second build from the same source directory?

Simply create a new empty build directory and rerun the CMake configure command.

How easy is it to identify files that must be under version control?

A file must be under version control if and only if it is inside the source directory.

Can you identify the compiler that is used in a given build? How easily can that be changed?

The CMake command prints out the C and C++ compilers detected as part of the configure command. A different compiler may be used by passing extra flags to the configure command: -DCMAKE_CXX_COMPILER=path/to/c++/compiler and -DCMAKE_C_COMPILER=path/to/c/compiler. The cmake-gui tool (shipped with CMake) allows inspection of the current configuration of a given build directory.

Can you build a single component of the project and its dependencies, without building anything unnecessary?

Yes, just run cmake --build $BUILD_DIRECTORY --target <target_name>.

If a source file is changed, how easy is it to incrementally build the affected components?

Simply rerun cmake --build $BUILD_DIRECTORY.

Here I stop, having taken you from the basics of building to the fundamentals of CMake, with the hopes that you'll find other tutorials much more palatable than they were for me. There are suggestions below if you want to continue your journey on this world of building software; knowing how to build existing projects and how to start new ones is a useful skill to have. If you want to stop, I don't blame you. It is no easy road.

Further reading

  • The CMake documentation is really good and comprehensive, I use it a lot and it rarely disappoints. Learn how to navigate this and interpret the docs and you'll be able to understand new commands and functions much faster (this is a general advice for any software). For example, read the Normal libraries section of the add_library documentation, a command we used in this tutorial.

  • The "official" CMake tutorial covers a lot of material. As such, it is a good way to survey everything that can be done with CMake, without going into too much detail. You should be able to follow it having read these two blog posts.

  • Craig Scott's Professional CMake book is great both as a learning tool and as a reference. Whenever I find myself thinking How do I do X again? or I'm sure there is a better way to this, this book comes to the rescue. It was also my primary way to learn about CMake.

  • Daniel Pfeifer's Effective CMake talk is a good introduction to the CMake language and to good CMake practices. The second half of the talk is pretty heavy on details though, so don't worry too much about it right now.

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