New Buildsystem and CI/CD

A GSoC project by Avinal Kumar

Hello CMake!

I proposed a new architecture for FOSSology that uses CMake instead of bare-metal Make as a Google Summer of Code 2021 project. Although these tutorials will be useful for anyone interested in learning CMake they are specifically tailored to the FOSSology project. This is the first blog on CMake in this series. In this blog, I will discuss CMake syntax and various features.

What is CMake?

CMake stands for Cross-platform Make. Normally, a build tool like Make will parse a configuration file (Makefile) that contains all the commands required to build an artifact based on the source files and other resources inside the project. On the other hand, CMake will also parse a configuration file (CMakeLists.txt), but instead of directly build the artifact, it’ll generate another configuration file that will build the artifact.

This approach is very common in Computer Science and is called adding another level of indirection. In short, you may say that:

Another nice CMake feature is the so-called out-of-source build. Any file required for the final build, executables included, will be stored in a separated build directory (usually called build/). This prevents cluttering up the source directory and makes it easy to start over again: just remove the build directory and you are done.

CMake Syntax

CMake unlike Make is a configuration language itself. CMake supplies a rich library of inherent functions as well as common programming language features like conditions, looping, macros, and functions. In addition to that CMake is highly modular and you can always write a CMake module yourself independent of any project. Specifically for C/C++ programming, it supplies commands to find and link libraries automatically and lot many features.

Language Rules

As mentioned above CMake is a language itself hence there are some language rules related to syntax, comments, variables, etc.

  • There are two types of comment in CMake, both start with # character. The first one is line comments, as clear by name it is delimited by a newline. The other one is bracket comment and can span until the matching brackets are found.

    # This is a line comment and it ends with the line.
    #[[This is a bracket comment and it can span up to multiple lines.
    But it is only supported in CMake 3.0 or later.]]
  • Variables in CMake are like any other programming language. They are case-sensitive and have any alphanumeric characters. In general, it is recommended using upper case names as variables. They can be assigned and unassigned using set and unset commands. A variable can be referenced using ${VARIABLE_NAME}.

  • The CMake commands are case insensitive in the latest version (3.0) of CMake. That means message(), Message() or MESSAGE() are all same.

Basic CMake Commands

  • The project() command is used to set the name of the CMake project and optionally a language that is used by the project. Every top-level CMake configuration must have this option set. The syntax is as below:

    project (projectname [CXX] [C] [Java] [NONE])

    If no language is specified then CMake defaults to supporting C/C++. If NONE is specified then no language support is enabled.

  • The set() command is used to set a variable to a value or lists of values. It is one of the most used CMake commands. The accompanying command is unset(). The unset() command is used to unset a variable or remove a variable from the current scope. The syntax for the three commands are:

    set (BLOG_TITLE "CMake Introduction")                # assign single value
    set (BLOG_TAGS "gsoc" "cmake" "fossology" "gsoc21")  # assign a list of values
    unset (BLOG_TITLE)                                   # unset BLOG_TITLE
  • The message() command can be used to display formatted messages with different alert modes. There are lots of modes <> of displaying messages. The syntax is :

    message ([<mode>] "message text" ...)
    message(NOTICE "Hey this is ${BLOG_TITLE}")         # Example message with variable
  • The cmake_minimum_required() is used to set the minimum CMake version to use to generate the build files. If any older version is used than specified then the user gets an error message. It must be specified at the top of the CMakeLists.txt file.

    cmake_minimum_required (VERSION 3.0)
  • The commands add_executable() and add_library() specifies what executables and libraries to build and what source files must be used to build them. One of the two commands must be used for any binary generation.

    add_executable(<name> [WIN32] [MACOSX_BUNDLE]
        [source1] [source2 ...])
    add_library(<name> [STATIC | SHARED | MODULE]

Flow Control

CMake provides three flow control structures. They are conditional statements (if), looping constructs (foreach and while) and procedure definitions (function and macro). I will explain each of them one by one.

  • Conditional Statements The if command in CMake is just like the if command in any other language. It evaluates its expression and based on that either executes the code in its body or optionally the code in the else clause.

    if (FOO)
        # do something here
    elseif (BAR)
        if (NESTED_BAR)
            # do something nested here
        # do something else
    else ()
        # do something here
    endif (FOO)

    You can use many operators to form complex conditions. Available options are NOT, AND, OR, COMMAND, DEFINED, EXISTS, IS_DIRECTORY, IS_ABSOLUTE, MATCHES, IS_NEWER_THAN, and operators for numerical comparisons EQUAL, LESS, GREATER, STRLESS, STREQUAL, STRGREATER.

  • Looping Constructs The foreach command enables you to execute a group of CMake commands repeatedly on the members of a list.The first argument of the foreach command is the name of the variable that will take on a different value with each iteration of the loop. The remaining arguments are the list of values over which to loop.

    foreach(<loop_var> <items>)

    The while command provides for looping based on a test condition. The format for the test expression in the while command is the same as that for the if command described earlier.


    It is worth mentioning that foreach loops can be nested and that the loop variable is replaced prior to any other variable expansion. This means that in the body of a foreach loop you can construct variable names using the loop variable.

  • Procedure Definitions A function in CMake is very much like a function in C or C++. You can pass arguments into it, and the arguments passed in become variables within the function. The first argument is the name of the function to define. All additional arguments are formal parameters to the function.

    function(<name> [<arg1> ...])
        # write the function body here

    Macros are defined and called in the same manner as functions. The main differences are that a macro does not push and pop a new variable scope, and the arguments to a macro are not treated as variables but are string replaced prior to execution. This is very much like the differences between a macro and a function in C or C++. The first argument is the name of the macro to create. All additional arguments are formal parameters to the macro.

    macro(<name> [<arg1> ...])
        # write macro definition here

A Hello CMake example

This example compiles a simple hello_cmake program. This example and the terminal commands are used in Linux context, however there is very little difference in different platforms. Make sure to install CMake for your platform.

  • Create a folder and create a file named hello_cmake.cpp in that. You may add your own code. Here is my example code.

    int main() {
        std::cout << "Hello CMake\n";
        return 0;
  • Create another file named CMakeLists.txt and add the following script in that file.

    cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.0)
    # set project name
    # print compiler info
    message("The compiler is ${CMAKE_CXX_COMPILER}")
    # add executable
    add_executable(Hello_cmake hello_cmake.cpp)
  • Create another directory build and run the following commands.

    # create folder and change directory
    mkdir build && cd build
    # run cmake config
    cmake ..
    # build project
    cmake --build .

You will be able to see a Hello_cmake binary in the build folder. Hooray you have successfully built a project using CMake. For more read here. In the next blog I will explain how to create CMake configuration for a more complex project.


References and Credits

This Blog is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International

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