Build System Basics - CMake Concepts


In Part 1, we went through the definition of what building means. In this post, we will build(!) on top of that and understand how CMake approaches this process.

There are many good CMake tutorials out there, but their aim is usually to teach through practical examples. I want to take a more fundamental approach here, focusing on the concepts rather than on their implementation; this will make other tutorials, talks and documentation easier to understand.

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 generates build description files for a build system of your choice. In other words, CMake by itself is not enough to build a project.

CMake places the build system description file (Makefile, build.ninja, etc) inside the build directory. This 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 may use a different build system than a build on Mac.

Consider, for instance, a project based exclusively on the Ninja build system. A Windows developer who wants to work on this project and use Visual Studio would need some kind of Visual Studio / Ninja integration. The same applies for the Mac/Xcode combination. Alternatively, the project can use CMake and generate native Visual Studio / Xcode build descriptions.

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)

That’s all the information CMake needs to get started:


CMake generates 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 concept that is key to understanding the language.

Strings, String Everywhere!

In the CMake language, almost everything is a string. The contents of a variable are 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:


Have a look at these examples:

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:

Let’s look at one such property: include directories. This specifies 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 library1, whereas the PUBLIC path will be visible both when compiling library1 and any targets that link to it. To understand this, let’s look at the link libraries property:

    PRIVATE library1

Here, executable1 needs to be linked against library1 and it 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 public/interface 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, producing a graph file:

If you can produce such a graph for your project - and it looks manageable in complexity - you have a clear understanding of the project as a whole.


At the end of Part 1, we listed some symptoms of problematic 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?

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, and CMake comes with tools that allow inspection of the build configuration, like ccmake or cmake-gui.

Different compilers 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.

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

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

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

Rerun cmake --build $BUILD_DIRECTORY.

Here I stop, having gone from the basics of building in Part 1 to the basics of CMake, with the hopes that you’ll now understand other tutorials faster than I did.

Further reading