Book Image

CMake Best Practices

By : Dominik Berner, Mustafa Kemal Gilor
5 (2)
Book Image

CMake Best Practices

5 (2)
By: Dominik Berner, Mustafa Kemal Gilor

Overview of this book

CMake is a powerful tool used to perform a wide variety of tasks, so finding a good starting point for learning CMake is difficult. This book cuts to the core and covers the most common tasks that can be accomplished with CMake without taking an academic approach. While the CMake documentation is comprehensive, it is often hard to find good examples of how things fit together, especially since there are lots of dirty hacks and obsolete solutions available on the internet. This book focuses on helping you to tie things together and create clean and maintainable projects with CMake. You'll not only get to grips with the basics but also work through real-world examples of structuring large and complex maintainable projects and creating builds that run in any programming environment. You'll understand the steps to integrate and automate various tools for improving the overall software quality, such as testing frameworks, fuzzers, and automatic generation of documentation. And since writing code is only half of the work, the book also guides you in creating installers and packaging and distributing your software. All this is tailored to modern development workflows that make heavy use of CI/CD infrastructure. By the end of this CMake book, you'll be able to set up and maintain complex software projects using CMake in the best way possible.
Table of Contents (22 chapters)
Part 1: The Basics
Part 2: Practical CMake – Getting Your Hands Dirty with CMake
Part 3: Mastering the Details

Writing CMake files

When you're writing CMake files, there are a few core concepts and language features that you need to know about. We won't cover every detail of the language here as CMake's documentation does a pretty good job at this – especially when it comes to being comprehensive. In the following sections, we will provide an overview of the core concepts and language features. Further chapters will dive into the details of different aspects.

The full documentation for the language can be found at

The CMake language – a 10,000-feet overview

CMake uses configuration files called CMakeLists.txt files to determine build specifications. These files are written in a scripting language, often called CMake as well. The language itself is simple and supports variables, string functions, macros, function definitions, and importing other CMake files.

Apart from lists, there is no support for data structures such as structs or classes. But it is this relative simplicity that makes the CMake project inherently maintainable if done properly.

The syntax is based on keywords and whitespace-separated arguments. For example, the following command tells CMake which files are to be added to a library:

                PUBLIC include/api.h
                PRIVATE src/internals.cpp src/foo.cpp)

The PUBLIC and PRIVATE keywords denote the visibility of the files when they're linked against this library and serve as delimiters between the lists of files.

Additionally, the CMake language supports so-called "generator expressions," which are evaluated during build system generation. These are commonly used to specify special information for each build configuration. They will be covered extensively in Chapter 3, Creating a CMake Project.


CMake organizes the various build artifacts such as libraries, executables, tests, and documentation into projects. There is always exactly one root project, although projects can be encapsulated into each other. As a rule, there should only be one project per CMakeLists.txt file, which means that each project has to have a separate folder in the source directory.

Projects are described like this:

DESCRIPTION "A simple C++ project to demonstrate basic CMake 

The current project that's being parsed is stored in the PROJECT_NAME variable. For the root project, this is also stored in CMAKE_PROJECT_NAME, which is useful for determining whether a project is standalone or encapsulated in another. Since version 3.21, there's also a PROJECT_IS_TOP_LEVEL variable to directly determine whether the current project is the top-level project. Additionally, with <PROJECT-NAME>_IS_TOP_LEVEL, you can detect whether a specific project is a top-level project.

The following are some additional variables regarding the projects. All of them can be prefixed with CMAKE_ to the value for the root project. If they're not defined in the project() directive, the strings are empty:

  • PROJECT_DESCRIPTION: The description string of the project
  • PROJECT_HOMEPAGE_URL: The URL string for the project
  • PROJECT_VERSION: The full version that's given to the project
  • PROJECT_VERSION_MAJOR: The first number of the version string
  • PROJECT_VERSION_MINOR: The second number of the version string
  • PROJECT_VERSION_PATCH: The third number of the version string
  • PROJECT_VERSION_TWEAK: The fourth number of the version string

Each project has a source and binary directory, and they may be encapsulated in each other. Let's assume that each of the CMakeFiles.txt files in the following example defines a project:

├── CMakeLists.txt #defines project("CMakeBestPractices"...)
├── chapter_1
│   ├── CMakeLists.txt # defines project("Chapter 1"...)

When parsing the CMakeLists.txt file in the root folder, PROJECT_NAME and CMAKE_PROJECT_NAME will both be CMakeBestPractices. When you're parsing chapter_1/CMakeLists.txt, the PROJECT_NAME variable will change to "Chapter_1" but CMAKE_PROJECT_NAME will stay as CMakeBestPractices, as set in the file in the root folder.

Although projects can be nested, it is good practice to write them in a way that they can work standalone. While they may depend on other projects that are lower in the file hierarchy, there should be no need for a project to live as a child of another. It is possible to put multiple calls to project() in the same CMakeLists.txt file, but we discourage this practice as it tends to make projects confusing and hard to maintain. In general, it is better to create a CMakeLists.txt file for each project and organize the structure with subfolders.

This book's GitHub repository, which contains the examples in this book, is organized in a hierarchical way, where each chapter is a separate project that may contain even more projects for different sections and examples.

While each example can be built on its own, you can also build this whole book from the root of the repository.


Variables are a core part of the CMake language. Variables can be set using the set command and deleted using unset. Variable names are case-sensitive. The following example shows how to set a variable named MYVAR and assign a value of 1234 to it:

set(MYVAR "1234") 

To delete the MYVAR variable, we can use unset:


The general code convention is to write variables in all caps. Internally, variables are always represented as strings.

You can access the value of a variable with the $ sign and curly brackets:

message(STATUS "The content of MYVAR are ${MYVAR}")

Variable references can even be nested and are evaluated inside out:


Variables might be scoped in the following way:

  • Function scope: Variables that are set inside a function are only visible inside the function.
  • Directory scope: Each of the subdirectories in a source tree binds variables and includes any variable bindings from the parent directory.
  • Persistent cache: Cached variables can be either system- or user-defined. These persist their values over multiple runs.

Passing the PARENT_SCOPE option to set() makes the variable visible in the parent scope.

CMake comes with a wide variety of predefined variables. These are prefixed with CMAKE_. A full list is available at


Even though CMake stores variables as strings internally, it is possible to work with lists in CMake by splitting values with a semicolon. Lists can be created by either passing multiple unquoted variables to set() or directly as a semicolon-separated string:

set(MYLIST abc def ghi)
 set(MYLIST "abc;def;ghi")

Manipulating lists by modifying their contents, reordering, or finding things can be done using the list command. The following code will query MYLIST for the index of the abc value and then retrieve the value and store it in the variable called ABC:


To append a value to a list, we can use the APPEND keyword. Here, the xyz value is appended to MYLIST:

list(APPEND MYLIST "xyz")

Cached variables and options

CMake caches some variables so that they run faster in subsequent builds. The variables are stored in CMakeCache.txt files. Usually, you don't have to edit them manually, but they are great for debugging builds that do not behave as expected.

All the variables that are used to configure the build are cached. To cache a custom variable called ch1_MYVAR with the foo value, you can use the set command, like this:

 set(ch1_MYVAR foo CACHE STRING "Variable foo that configures 

Note that cached variables must have a type and a documentation string that provides a quick summary of them.

Most of the cached variables that are automatically generated are marked as advanced, which means they are hidden from the user in cmake-gui and ccmake by default. To make them visible, they have to be toggled explicitly. If additional cache variables are generated by a CMakeLists.txt file, they can also be hidden by calling the mark_as_advanced(MYVAR) command:

Figure 1.4 – Left – cmake-gui does not show variables marked as advanced. Right – Marking the "Advanced" checkbox displays all the variables marked as advanced

Figure 1.4 – Left – cmake-gui does not show variables marked as advanced. Right – Marking the "Advanced" checkbox displays all the variables marked as advanced

As a rule of thumb, any option or variable that the user should change should be marked as advanced. This should happen rarely.

For simple Boolean cache variables, CMake also provides the option keyword. option has a default value of OFF unless specified otherwise. They can also depend on each other via the CMakeDependentOption module:

option(CHAPTER1_PRINT_LANGUAGE_EXAMPLES "Print examples for 
  each language" OFF)
cmake_dependent_option(CHAPTER1_PRINT_HELLO_WORLD "print a 
  greeting from chapter1 " ON CHAPTER1_PRINT_LANGUAGE_EXAMPLES 

Options are often a convenient way to specify simple project configuration. They are cache variables of the bool type. If a variable with the same name as the option already exists, a call to option does nothing.


Properties in CMake are values that are attached to a specific object or scope of CMake, such as a file, target, directory, or test case. Properties can be set or changed by using the set_property function. To read the value of a property, you can use the get_property function, which follows a similar pattern. By default, set_property overwrites the values that are already stored inside a property. Values can be added to the current value by passing APPEND or APPEND_STRING to set_property.

The full signature is as follows:

set_property(<Scope> <EntityName>
              [APPEND] [APPEND_STRING]
              PROPERTY <propertyName> [<values>]) 

The scope specifier may have the following values:

  • GLOBAL: Global properties that affect the whole build process.
  • DIRECTORY <dir>: Properties that are bound to the current directory or the directories specified in <dir>. These can also be set directly using the set_directory_properties command.
  • TARGET <targets>: Properties of specific targets. They can also be set using the set_target_properties function.
  • SOURCE <files>: Applies a property to a list of source files. They can also be set directly using set_source_files_properties. Additionally, there are the SOURCE DIRECTORY and SOURCE TARGET_DIRECTORY extended options:
    • DIRECTORY <dirs>: This sets the property for the source files in the directory's scope. The directory must already be parsed by CMake by either being the current directory or by being added with add_subdirectory.
    • TARGET_DIRECTORY <targets>: This sets the property to the directory where the specified targets are created. Again, the targets must already exist at the point where the property is set.
  • INSTALL <files>: This sets the properties for installed files. These can be used to control the behavior of cpack.
  • TEST <tests>: This sets the properties for tests. They can also be set directly using set_test_properties.
  • CACHE <entry>: This sets the properties for cached variables. The most common ones include setting variables as advanced or adding documentation strings to them.

The full list of supported properties, sorted by their different entities, can be found at

It is good practice to use direct functions such as set_target_properties and set_test_properties when modifying properties instead of the more general set_property command. Using explicit commands avoids making mistakes and confusion between the property names and is generally more readable. There's also the define_property function, which creates a property without setting the value. We advise that you don't use this as properties should always have a sane default value.

Loops and conditions

Like any programming language, CMake supports conditional and loop blocks. Conditional blocks are in-between if(), elseif(), else(), and endif() statements. Conditions are expressed using various keywords.

Unary keywords are prefixed before the value, as shown here:


The unary keywords to be used in conditions are as follows:

  • COMMAND: True if the supplied value is a command
  • EXISTS: Checks whether a file or a path exists
  • DEFINED: True if the value is a defined variable

Additionally, there are unary filesystem conditions:

  • EXISTS: True if the passed file or directory exits
  • IS_DIRECTORY: Checks whether the supplied path is a directory
  • IS_SYMLINK: True if the supplied path is a symbolic link
  • IS_ABSOULTE: Checks whether a supplied path is an absolute path

Binary tests compare two values and are placed between the values to be compared, like this:


The binary operators are as follows:

  • LESS, GREATER, EQUAL, LESS_EQUAL, and GREATER_EQUAL: These compare numeric values.
  • STRLESS, STREQUAL, STRGREATER, STRLESS_EQUAL, and STRGREATER_EQUAL: These lexicographically compare strings.
  • MATCHES: This compares against a regular expression.
  • IS_NEWER_THAN: Checks which of the two files that passed has been modified recently.
  • IS_NEWER_THAN: Unfortunately, this is not very precise because if both files have the same timestamp, it also returns true. There is also more confusion because if either of the files is missing, the result is also true.

Finally, there's the Boolean OR, AND, and NOT operators.

Loops are either achieved by while() and endwhile() or foreach() and endforeach(). Loops can be terminated using break(); continue() aborts the current iteration and starts the next one immediately.

while loops take the same conditions as an if statement. The following example loops as long as MYVAR is less than 5. Note that to increase the variable, we are using the math() function:

 set(MYVAR 0)
while(MYVAR LESS "5") 
  message(STATUS "Chapter1: MYVAR is '${MYVAR}'")
  math(EXPR MYVAR "${MYVAR}+1") 

In addition to while loops, CMake also knows loops for iterating over lists or ranges:

# do something with ${ITEM}

for loops over a specific range can be created by using the RANGE keyword:

foreach(ITEM RANGE 0 10)
# do something with ${ITEM}

Although the RANGE version of foreach() could work with only a stop variable, it is good practice to always specify both the start and end values.


Functions are defined by function()/endfunction(). Functions open a new scope for variables, so all the variables that are defined inside are not accessible from the outside unless the PARENT_SCOPE option is passed to set().

Functions are case-insensitive and are invoked by calling function, followed by parentheses:

function(foo ARG1)
# do something
# invoke foo with parameter bar

Functions are a great way to make parts of your CMake reusable and often come in handy when you're working on larger projects.


CMake macros are defined using the macro()/endmacro() commands. They are a bit like functions, with the difference that in functions, the arguments are true variables, whereas in macros, they are string replacements. This means that all the arguments of a macro must be accessed using curly brackets.

Another difference is that by calling a function, control is transferred to the functions. Macros are executed as if the body of the macro had been pasted into the place of the calling state. This means that macros are not creating scopes regarding variables and control flow. Consequently, it is highly recommended to avoid calling return() in macros as this would stop the scope from executing where the macro is called.


The build system of CMake is organized as a set of logical targets that correspond to an executable, library, or custom command or artifact, such as documentation or similar.

There are three major ways to create a target in CMake – add_executable, add_library, and add_custom_target. The first two are used to create executables and static or shared libraries, while the third can contain almost any custom command to be executed.

Targets can be made dependent on each other so that one target has to be built before another.

It is good practice to work with targets instead of global variables when you're setting properties for build configurations or compiler options. Some of the target properties have visibility modifiers such as PRIVATE, PUBLIC, or INTERFACE to denote which requirements are transitive – that is, which properties have to be "inherited" by a dependent target.

Generator expressions

Generator expressions are small statements that are evaluated during the configuration phase of the build. Most functions allow generator expressions to be used, with a few exceptions. They take the form of $<OPERATOR:VALUE>, where OPERATOR is applied or compared to VALUE. You can think of generator expressions as small inline if-statements.

In the following example, a generator expression is being used to enable the –Wall compiler flag for my_target if the compiler is either GCC, Clang, or Apple Clang. Note that GCC is identified as COMPILER_ID "GNU":

target_compile_options(my_target PRIVATE 

This example tells CMake to evaluate the CXX_COMPILER_ID variable to the comma-separated GNU, Clang, AppleClang list and that if it matches either, append the -Wall option to the target – that is, my_target. Generator expressions come in very handy for writing platform- and compiler-independent CMake files.

In addition to querying values, generator expressions can be used to transform strings and lists:


This will output cmake.

You can learn more about generator expressions at

Since CMake supports a variety of build systems, compilers, and linkers, it is often used to build software for different platforms. In the next section, we will learn how CMake can be told which toolchain to use and how to configure the different build types, such as debug or release.

CMake policies

For the top-level CMakeLists.txt file, cmake_minimum_required must be called before any call to the project as it also sets which internal policies for CMake are used to build the project.

Policies are used to maintain backward compatibility across multiple CMake releases. They can be configured to use the OLD behavior, which means that cmake behaves backward compatible, or as NEW, which means the new policy is in effect. As each new version will introduce new rules and features, policies will be used to warn you of backward-compatibility issues. Policies can be disabled or enabled using the cmake_policy call.

In the following example, the CMP0121 policy has been set to a backward-compatible value. CMP0121 was introduced in CMake version 3.21 and checks whether index variables for the list() commands are in a valid format – that is, whether they are integers:

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.21)
cmake_policy(SET CMP0121 OLD)
list(APPEND MYLIST "abc;def;ghi")
list(GET MYLIST "any" OUT_VAR)

By setting cmake_policy(SET CMP0121 OLD), backward compatibility is enabled and the preceding code will not produce a warning, despite the access to MYLIST with the "any" index, which is not an integer.

Setting the policy to NEW will throw an error – [build] list index: any is not a valid index – during the configuration step of CMake.

Avoid Setting Single Policies Except When You're Including Legacy Projects

Generally, policies should be controlled by setting the cmake_minimum_required command and not by changing individual policies. The most common use case for changing single policies is when you're including legacy projects as subfolders.

So far, we have covered the basic concepts behind the CMake language, which is used to configure build systems. CMake is used to generate build instructions for different kinds of builds and languages. In the next section, we will learn how to specify the compiler to use and how builds can be configured.