This lesson is being piloted (Beta version)



Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 0 min
  • What is CMake, anyway?

  • Understand why CMake is used

  • Understand that CMake is not Make

Building code is hard. You need long commands to build each part of your code; and you need do to this on many parts of your code.

So people came up with Build Systems; these had ways set up dependencies (such as file A needs to be built to build file B), and ways to store the commands used to build each file or type of file. These are language independent (mostly), allowing you to setup builds of almost anything; you can use make to build LaTeX documents if you wish. Some common build systems include make (the classic pervasive one), ninja (a newer one from Google designed in the age of build system generators), and rake (Ruby make, nice syntax for Ruby users).

However, this is:

Enter Build System Generators (hereby labeled BSGs for brevity). These understand the concepts of your programming language build; they usually support common compilers, languages, libraries, and output formats. These usually write a build system (or IDE) file and then let that do the actually build. The most popular BSG is CMake, which stands for Cross-platform Make. But as we’ve just shown, it is not really in the same category as make. Other BSGs include Meson (by Google), SCons (older Python system), Meson (very young Python system), and a few others. But CMake has unparalleled support by IDEs, libraries, and compilers.

Note that both CMake and Make are custom languages rather than being built in an existing language, like rake and SCons, etc. While it is nice to consolidate languages, the requirement that you have an external language installed and configured was too high for any of these to catch on for general use.

To recap, you should use CMake if:

(More) Modern CMake

CMake has really changed dramatically since it was introduced around 2000. And, by the time of 2.8, it was available in lots of Linux Distribution package managers. However, this means there often are really old versions of CMake “available by default” in your environment. Please, please upgrade and design for newer CMake. No one likes writing or debugging build systems. Using a newer version can cut your build system code in less than half, reduce bugs, integrate better with external dependents, and more. Installing CMake can be as little as one line, and doesn’t require sudo access. See more info here.

Other sources

There are some other places to find good information on the web. Here are some of them:

Key Points

  • CMake is a build system generator