This lesson is being piloted (Beta version)

Working with Targets


Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 15 min
  • How do targets work?

  • Know how to set up targets


Now you know how to compile a single file using three lines of CMake. But what happens if you have more than one file with dependencies? You need to be able to tell CMake about the structure of your project, and it will help you build it. To do so, you will need targets.

You’ve already seen a target:

add_executable(myexample simple.cpp)

This creates an “executable” target with the name mytarget. Target names must be unique (and there is a way to set the executable name to something other than the target name if you really want to).

Targets are much like “objects” in other languages; they have properties (member variables) that hold information. The SOURCE_FILES property, for example, will have simple.cpp in it.

Another type of target is a library:

add_library(mylibrary simplelib.cpp)

You can add the keywords STATIC, SHARED, or MODULE if you know what kind of library you want to make; the default is sort-of an “auto” library that is user selectable with BUILD_SHARED_LIBS.

You can make non-built libraries too. More on that later, once we see what we can do with targets.


Once you have several targets, you can describe the relationship between them with target_link_libraries and a keyword; one of PUBLIC, PRIVATE, and INTERFACE.

Example of Public and Private inheritance

Figure 1: Example of PUBLIC, PRIVATE, and INTERFACE. myprogram will build the three libraries it sees through mylibrary; the private library will not affect it.

There are two collections of properties on every target that can be filled with values; the “private” properties control what happens when you build that target, and the “interface” properties tell targets linked to this one what to do when building. The PUBLIC keyword fills both property fields at the same time.

Try it out

Get this repository and go to the example. Try to write a CMakeLists that will correctly build.

git clone
cd cmake_workshop/code/01-simple

The files here are:

  • simple_lib.cpp: Must be compiled with MYLIB_PRIVATE and MYLIB_PUBLIC defined.
  • simple_example.cpp: Must be compiled with MYLIB_PUBLIC defined, but not MYLIB_PRIVATE

Use target_compile_definitions(<target> <private or public> <definition(s)>) to set the definitions on simple_lib.


cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.11)

project(MyExample01 LANGUAGES CXX)

# This is the library
# Including the headers is not required, but is nice for users

# The above line *did not* set the includes - we need to
# We can also set ., and it should be expanded to the current source dir

target_include_directories(simple_lib PUBLIC "${CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR}")

# Adding definitions
target_compile_definitions(simple_lib PUBLIC MYLIB_PUBLIC)
target_compile_definitions(simple_lib PRIVATE MYLIB_PRIVATE)

# Now add the executable

# Adding the all-important link to simple-lib
target_link_libraries(simple_example PUBLIC simple_lib)

Things you can set on targets

See more commands here.

Other types of targets

You might be really exited by targets and are already planning out how you can describe your programs in terms of targets. That’s great! However, you’ll quickly run into two more situations where the target language is useful, but you need some extra flexibility over what we’ve covered.

First, you might have a library that conceptually should be a target, but doesn’t actually have any built components - a “header-only” library. These are called interface libraries in CMake and you would write:

add_library(some_header_only_lib INTERFACE)

Notice you didn’t need to add any source files. Now you can set INTERFACE properties on this only (since there is no built component).

The second situation is if you have a pre-built library that you want to use. This is called an imported library in CMake, and uses the keyword IMPORTED. Imported libraries can also be interface libraries, they can built and modified using the same syntax as other libraries (starting in CMake 3.11), and they can have :: in their name. (ALIAS libraries, which simply rename some other library, are also allowed to have ::). Most of the time you will get imported libraries from other places, and will not be making your own.

More reading

Key Points

  • Work with targets in CMake