CLion 2016.2 Help

Quick CMake Tutorial



CMake is a build system that uses a single script (defined in a CMakeLists.txt file) to generate appropriate platform-specific build scripts. For example, on Windows, CMake can generate files targeting Microsoft Visual Studio and the MSBuild system, whereas on other operating system it can target various MAKE variants.
The first command you typically encounter in the root CMakeLists.txt file is the specification of the minimum required CMake version, cmake_minimum_required(VERSION x.x.x). This command specifies the necessary minimum for the project to build. When you create a new project in CLion, the IDE automatically generates the CMakeLists.txt file and inserts the current version of CMake (taking the value from the version of CMake that’s set to be used in CLion), so you don’t need to explicitly specify it yourself.
By default, CLion expect a CMakeLists.txt file to be provided in the root directory of all project-related files. This can be customized, though, by moving CMakeLists.txt and changing the project root accordingly.

Following the minimum required version we have the project() directive which defines the name of the project. A project is simply a collection of files that are all somehow related. You declare the name of the project like so

This commands accepts additional parameters and variables: definitions of source and binary directories, project version numbers, et cetera. For more information please refer to CMake official documentation.

CMake lets you create text variables. For this purpose, the set() command is used. For instance, to create a variable MY_VAR with the value "hello", we write:

set (MY_VAR "hello")
To refer to a variable later on, simply enclose it in the round braces prepended by a dollar sign:
set (OTHER_VAR "${MY_VAR} world!")
You’ll notice that, by default, CLion will attempt to aggregate all project source files into a single variable as follows:
set (SOURCE_FILES foo.cpp bar.cpp baz.cpp)

Project file reloading

It’s important to understand that, when you change the project file (CMakeLists.txt), CLion needs to reload this file in order to have an updated understanding of the project structure.
The first time you change CMakeLists.txt, you will see a popup where CLion is asking you how you want to reload the file. The options are:

  • To simply reload the file. You will have to keep doing this every time you change the file. Not very convenient!
  • Enable auto-reload. This means CLion will monitor changes in CMakeLists.txt and will reload the project on any change.

The option for enabling or disabling auto-reload is also available in CLion’s options under File | Settings | Build, Execution, Deployment | CMake (or CLion | Preferences | Build, Execution, Deployment | CMake for OS X users).

Specifying header search paths

Header search paths are important for both the compiler (so that it knows where to search for headers) but also for CLion, since the IDE can index the relevant directories and provide code completion and navigation facilities on #include statements.

The compiler searches the headers in several predefined locations that are specific to the operating system being used. In addition, you can specify further directories with header files using CMake’s include_directories() command:

include_directories( ${MY_SOURCE_DIR}/src )
where MY_SOURCE_DIR is the fully qualified path to the desired directory.

You can control the order of inclusion of the directories with additional BEFORE and AFTER keywords. The default behavior is to append the include directory with the current item:

include_directories( BEFORE ${MY_SOURCE_DIR}/src )

Compiler settings

The compiler settings are used to determine which compiler is being used to compile the code and what options it uses. CLion also makes use of this information in order to tune its analysis to the features available in the compiler under the specified settings. CLion uses the GCC or Clang compilers, which you need to download and install before trying to compile applications in CLion. If you’ve already got a suitable compiler installed, CLion will automatically detect it, and no further action is required.
If, on the other hand, you want to explicitly specify the compiler to use, you can open up the options under File | Settings | Build, Execution, Deployment | CMake (or CLion | Preferences | Build, Execution, Deployment | CMake for OS X users) and specify the desired compiler by passing in the following string:

-D CMAKE_<LANG>_COMPILER=[fully qualified compiler name]
The LANG part specifies the language to compile (C for C and CXX for C++). You need to provide the full path to the compiler, for example:

The CMake settings in CLion let you define the options for CMake project generation, such as e.g., defining your own variables. In addition, you can predefine environment variables:


To find out which environment variables are already defined on the host system, you can use the Show link on the bottom — this will pop up a separate window:


Setting language standard

To enable a particular language standard, you need to add the respected flag to CMAKE_<LANG>_FLAGS variable, where the LANG part specifies the language (C for C and CXX for C++):

set (CMAKE_C_FLAGS "${CMAKE_C_FLAGS} -std=c99") # enable C99 standard
set (CMAKE_CXX_FLAGS "${CMAKE_CXX_FLAGS} -std=c++11") # enable C++11 standard
Additional compiler-related settings can be passed with the same command:
set (CMAKE_CXX_FLAGS "${CMAKE_CXX_FLAGS} -std=c++11 -Wall")
The above commands enables the C++11 standard and also instructs the compiler to show all the compiler errors and warnings. To get the later versions of the compiler, instead of using the c++11 string you might need to use c++1y, c++1z and so on.

Changing build directory

An alternative way to pass an argument to CMake, you can use the corresponding CLion settings instead. CLion provides an input box for specifying the build options, and also lets you change the build output path:

Please note that CLion does not support in-source builds: you can customize the build output directory, but you cannot customize the directory where the CMake command executed by CLion is invoked. This directory is used internally by CLion and is not available to the end user.

Adding build targets

A build target defines an executable or a library that the CMake script helps you build. A script can have more than one build target. To create an executable binary, you use the add_executable() command, i.e.,

add_executable (my_executable ${SOURCE_FILES})
In the above example, it is expected that the SOURCE_FILES variable contains all the necessary .cpp files required to construct the final executable. If you created a project using CLion, you’ve already got such a variable set up for you, together with a default build target.

If you want to build a library instead, you can use the add_library() command:

add_library (my_library STATIC|SHARED|MODULE ${SOURCE_FILES})
There are three types of library that you can build:
  • STATIC builds a static library, i.e. a library that gets embedded into whichever executable decides to use it.
  • SHARED builds a shared library (.so on Linux, .dll on Windows).
  • MODULE builds a plugin library — something that you do not link against, but can load dynamically at runtime.

Build targets and CLion’s configurations

When you run or debug a target in CLion, you do so based on a configuration. A configuration is a collection of settings that defines what you are building and how. Please note that configurations are not the same as targets— however, it’s worth noting also that CLion automatically creates configurations for each target you have in your project. By default, when you create a new project in CLion, you get two configurations:

  • <projectname> is the configuration which matches the name of your both your project and the default target.
  • Build All is a configuration which builds all targets.

When it comes to running/debugging, you need to specify the target you actually want to run/debug. You specify the configuration either by going into Run | Build Configurations or by using CLion’s drop-down menu:


In the configuration editor, you can add and remove new configurations. Removing is important because renaming a target will result in a stale configuration that will no longer run, and CLion will tell you about it by putting a red cross on top of its icon.
Here’s what the configuration editor looks like. Note that the name of the target and the name of an executable file (in case when the target is the executable) are taken directly from CMakeLists.txt from the target's description).

Please note that CLion generates all the four existing configuration types, regardless the chosen type of a build. This also implies that, when analyzing your code, you can instruct CLion to use not only CMakeLists.txt but also information from the build configuration by setting the so-called resolve context. You can access it by clicking the Context field of the Status bar:
For our example run/debug configuration the Resolve context looks as follows:

Including libraries

Here’s how you actually make use of a library. As the first step, you need to instruct the compiler to find a desired library and its components:

find_package (my_library COMPONENTS REQUIRED component1 component2 OPTIONAL_COMPONENTS opt_component)
In this example, option REQUIRED determines component1 and component2 as the mandatory components for a project. The component opt_component is qualified as an optional one; this means, that compilation can proceeded regardless of whether the optional component is actually available.

Next up, you need to link an executable to the located library:

target_link_libraries (my_target ${my_library};${another_library})
Note, that target_link_libraries() shall be placed after add_executable() command.

Using Boost

The Boost libraries are the most popular C++ library set. While many libraries are header-only (meaning you don’t need to perform any linking, just include a few files), some libraries do, in fact, require compilation and linking.

So let’s get started by including the files. For this, you can use CLion’s incboost live template, which will generate the following:

find_package(Boost) IF (Boost_FOUND) include_directories(${Boost_INCLUDE_DIR}) endif()

Now, when it comes to libraries, Boost offers you options for both static and dynamic linking. There are also additional options, such as whether or not you want to enable multithreading (feel free to read up on this option, since it doesn’t actually make code parallel). Also, you can cherry-pick which Boost components you want:

set (Boost_USE_STATIC_LIBS OFF) # enable dynamic linking set (Boost_USE_MULTITHREAD ON) # enable multithreading find_package (Boost COMPONENTS REQUIRED chrono filesystem)
And finally, to get the libraries, you use the good old target_link_libraries() command:
target_link_libraries (my_target ${Boost_LIBRARIES})

An alternative approach to using libraries is to use an external dependencies manager that can use CMake to configure and build projects.

Including sub-projects

Projects can have dependencies to other projects. CMake does not have the notion of a ‘solution’ — instead, it allows you to define dependencies between projects. Typically, you want to organize your multi-project workspace such that:

  • When opening the main project, the IDE shall open all the dependant projects as well.
  • All the settings of the main project shall be applied to the dependant projects automatically.
  • All the smart features (e.g refactoring, code completion, etc) shall take effect in all the projects.

The above points can be achieved with proper configuration of the CMakeLists file. Essentially, you need to organize your projects as a tree of subdirectories with the top-level CMakeLists.txt file in the root directory. Then, each subdirectory of that tree shall represent a single sub-project and contain its own CMakeLists.txt file, which is then included to the main project in the top-level CMakeLists.txt file, as follows:

add_subdirectory (project1) # including project1 into the main project add_subdirectory (project2) # including project2 into the main project

CMake Cache

When you run CMake for the first time, what it will do is assemble the so-called CMake cache, collecting the variables and settings found in the system and storing them so it doesn’t have to regenerate them later on.
In most cases, you should not worry about this cache, but if you want to fine-tune it, you can. CLion gives you an editor window where you can view and edit the values:


If you’ve changed values, be sure to press the Apply Changes and Reload button so that your changes are actually internalized by CLion.

See Also

Last modified: 20 July 2016