C++ is one of the most widely used programming languages in the world, from mobile apps to gaming to robotics. Personally, I’ve used it for at least these things, but there are hundreds and thousands of more uses of the language. Invariably, the majority of those uses will, at some point, involve having to write C++ libraries and executables.

CMake is one of the most commonly-used ways to create a set of build files to construct the library or executable. It’s a meta-build system since does not build anything itself: it creates the files that we then use to build, e.g., generating Makefiles to run make. Learning CMake is challenging since tutorials and the official CMake documentation and public projects either range from constructing the very basic “Hello World” to constructing multi-platform, multi-compiler submodular libraries. In other words, the complexity is often binary from “let’s build this one C++ file!” to “let’s build something like Boost!” The majority of times, I’ve found that a CMake structure somewhere in between tends to be good enough for most projects.

In this post, I’ll describe a good-enough C++ library project structure and CMake file that accomplishes enough to build a fairly flexible library for a client to build from scratch and use (or some automated build system to generate binaries). To concretely demonstrate this, I’ve started on a catch-all miscellaneous C++ library called bagel, named after an “everything bagel” that I had for breakfast that day 😄, that I’m going to be using as a C++ playground going forward.

I don’t intend for this to be a CMake tutorial for complete beginners; I’ll assume you have enough CMake knowledge where I won’t have to explain syntax or basic commands like set or project. The purpose of this post is to talk more about how to use that CMake knowledge to create a project structure that makes building easy and flexible.

A Good-enough Project Structure

Before getting into the CMake file, let’s describe a good-enough directory structure for a mid-sized project:

├── CMakeLists.txt
├── Readme.md
├── cmake
│   └── Config.cmake.in
├── examples
│   ├── CMakeLists.txt
│   └── timer.cpp
├── include
│   └── bagel
│       ├── chrono
│       │   └── timer.hpp
│       └── export.hpp
├── src
│   └── chrono
│       └── timer.cpp
└── tests
    ├── CMakeLists.txt
    └── chrono
        └── test_timer.cpp

10 directories, 11 files

In this directory, we have a few “required” files like Readme.md and LICENSE that provide an overall description of the library (among many other things) as well as the legal software license it falls under. Often times open-source libraries have more files like CONTRIBUTING.md and AUTHORS.md that explain how to contribute to the library and the core authors of the library, respectively.

The crux of building the library is in the CMakeLists.txt which is the CMake file that’s used by the CMake executable to write the Makefiles used to actually build this library; it contains the actual library definition including things like compile options and where to install the headers and whatnot. When we run the CMake command in a directory like cmake ., it will search for CMakeLists.txt in that directory and parse and execute it. A related directory we’ll cover in the later sections is cmake, which tends to store auxiliary CMake files used by the root CMakeLists.txt.

The next directory examples contains example usage of the library with its own CMakeLists.txt that just builds the examples. This allows the builder to control if they want to build examples or not. In this case, examples is flat, but it could be more hierarchical if we had a larger library. We’ll get to this definition later as well. The tests directory contains our tests for the library and it’s own CMakeLists.txt for the same reason as the examples directory. We use GoogleTest to validate our library, but any testing framework will do. I’d highly recommend having tests for your libraries so it helps provide credibility and confidence to users that your library actually does what it intends to do.

The next two directories include and src contain the actual content of our library. In the case of include, we have some subdirectories, the main one being the name of the library bagel. Then we have subdirectories for the subcomponents like chrono. The reason we use a subdirectory bagel with the same name as the project is so that, when we install the header files, e.g., to a place like /usr/local/include in a Linux system, that our headers like timer.hpp are prefixed by the library folder to avoid overwriting some other file named timer.hpp from some other library.

We’ll see most of these directories play a part in the project-level CMakeLists.txt. The focus for this post is on the CMake required to build our library and not on what the library itself actually does so we won’t necessarily talk about what timer.hpp/timer.cpp contains. The contents aren’t as important as how we build the contents into a library.

Anatomy of a Good-enough CMakeLists.txt

Building a project starts with the CMakeLists.txt file that defines the project, build artifacts, and other options. I like to divide the CMake into several larger sections:

  1. Preamble: define the entire CMake project as a whole.
  2. Configuration: check any project-level variables and configure building examples and tests
  3. Build: define the library and its associated source files, compile options, versions, and other properties
  4. Install: configure where to install the library and headers
  5. Extra stuff: recurse into directories for tests and examples as well as build documentation


The preamble defines the minimum CMake binary version as well as defines the project.

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.14)
    VERSION 0.1.0
    DESCRIPTION "An everything bagel of C++"

In general, using a too-recent version of CMake can make it difficult for developers to use your library since not everyone might be able to use the latest version of CMake, especially in industry where upgrades to newer build tools can be very slow. For the versioning, semantic versioning is usually a popular choice.


After defining the root CMake project, we define some project-level configurations and check some variables. One of the first configurations we’ll provide to builders is the ability to build our code into a shared or a static library. A shared library (also called shared object hence the .so file extension) is a kind of library that is dynamically loaded into an executable at runtime; these kinds of libraries make the overall executable smaller but, since the library is loaded dynamically at runtime, the executable requires the shared library to be located in the right place in the filesystem otherwise the exectuable fails when you run it. On the other hand, a static library (file extension .a for archive) is the other kind of library that is actually built into an executable at compile-time; these kinds of libraries make the executable larger but, since they’re built into the executable, it ensures the exectuable is self-sufficient.

CMake allows the builder to specific which kind of library they want to build. There’s a built-in variable called BUILD_SHARED_LIBS. However, since this is general to all CMake libraries and is coupled to other CMake behavior, oftentimes we provide a project-specific override usually called something like ${PROJECT_NAME}_SHARED_LIBS. If that is defined, then we can use it, otherwise, we can default to whatever the BUILD_SHARED_LIBS variable decides. The default option is to build static libraries.

One nuance is that we want the variable to be defined like BAGEL_BUILD_SHARED_LIBS not bagel_BUILD_SHARED_LIBS for consistencency so we’ll define a ${UPPER_PROJECT_NAME} variable that’s just ${PROJECT_NAME} but uppercase.

set(namespace ${PROJECT_NAME})


message(CHECK_START "Building shared libraries")
    message(CHECK_PASS "yes")
    message(CHECK_FAIL "no")

We’re also defining a ${namespace} that we’ll use later. To write things to the screen, we use the message macro but use the CHECK_START, CHECK_PASS, and CHECK_FAIL settings so that CMake formats our message nicely like the following.

[cmake] -- Checking BAGEL_SHARED_LIBS
[cmake] -- Checking BAGEL_SHARED_LIBS - ON
[cmake] -- Building shared libraries
[cmake] -- Building shared libraries - yes

In CMake, like in bash, there’s a difference between a variable existing and not existing and a variable having a value. We first check if the variable ${UPPER_PROJECT_NAME}_SHARED_LIBS exists. Note that we don’t use ${} around the entire expression since we’re not checking if the contents of the variable exist, we want to check if the variable itself exists. If the variable is defined, then we override the value of BUILD_SHARED_LIBS, otherwise we default to BUILD_SHARED_LIBS. If that also doesn’t exist, then we’ll use CMake’s default (building a static library).

There are several ways to set these variables. One way is to do it using the cmake command like cmake -DMY_VAR to set define MY_VAR.

Another common CMake configuration is the build type. The build type mostly sets the compiler optimizations and options such as debug symbols. The most commonly-used ones are Debug, Release, and RelWithDebInfo. Debug has minimal optimizations but retains debug symbols; Release has the strongest optimizations but strips any debug symbols for debugging through a debugger like gdb. The last one has the optimizations of release mode but still contains debug symbols. Similar to BUILD_SHARED_LIBS, if CMAKE_BUILD_TYPE isn’t defined, we’ll default to Release mode since that’s what builders of our library will tend to use.

    set(CMAKE_BUILD_TYPE Release CACHE STRING "Build type" FORCE)
message(STATUS "Setting build type: ${CMAKE_BUILD_TYPE}")

Using the CACHE and FORCE options, we override whatever user-defined value is set in the cache with this value; this is fine since the user didn’t specify a CMAKE_BUILD_TYPE in the first place. The STRING "Build type" tells CMake that CMAKE_BUILD_TYPE is a string.

Next we set some variables for later and define some custom other build options like building examples, tests, and documentation.

set(export_header_name "export.hpp")
set(export_file_name "${CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR}/include/${PROJECT_NAME}/${export_header_name}")

set(cmake_config_dir ${CMAKE_INSTALL_LIBDIR}/cmake/${PROJECT_NAME})

option(${build_tests} "Builds tests" OFF)
option(${build_examples} "Builds examples" OFF)
option(${build_docs} "Builds docs" OFF)

We use a few CMake variables:

  • ${CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR}: the directory being processed by CMake; in our case, since our library itself is a top-level CMake project itself, this is the root of the project. This usually refers to the root of the project for single-project CMakes.
  • ${CMAKE_INSTALL_LIBDIR}: the install directory for libraries; in Linux systems, this is usually called lib (or sometimes lib32 and lib64). Note that the install prefix is prepended to this folder. Since we used include(GNUInstallDirs) earlier, it will set this folder correctly for us.

We’ll discuss the export header and config directory later.


Now we’re getting into actually building the library. First thing we’ll do is define the library itself and an alias.


The alias is so that, if someone was building our library from source and linking it as part of their library, then the target_link_libraries would look the same. We’re not adding any sources to it yet, just defining the library’s existence. After we define the library, we also set the minimum C++ version and provide some compile-time options.

target_compile_features(${PROJECT_NAME} PUBLIC cxx_std_17)
target_compile_options(${PROJECT_NAME} PRIVATE -Wall -Wextra)

We use PUBLIC for the minimum C++ version so that it’s visible to users when they try to link against our library. For the compile options, those are PRIVATE since they’re only applicable to our library; we don’t want our library decisions on warnings and errors to be propagated to all of our users!

C++ provides access specifiers like public and private, but when building a shared library, we also kind of have a notion of “library” visibility. For shared libraries, each class and function defines a symbol in the symbol table of the library. When you link the shared library to an executable (or other library), the linker resolves those symbols to actual memory addresses. Think of them as placeholders and the actual interface that your library itself provides (sometimes called its ABI or Application Binary Interface). By default, all defined symbols (except the defined inline ones) are exported by our shared library. However, sometimes we have some internal classes or functions that we don’t want to export as part of the shared library interface. It would be better to explicitly mark which symbols should be part of our library’s interface and default all other symbols to be hidden. The asymmetry is that, for static libraries, we don’t have this distinction since the static library is built into the executable in its entirety; the linker doesn’t apply such symbol visibility to static libraries. So we have a few criteria we need to satisfy:

  1. By default, hide all symbols
  2. Provide a mechanism to manually export symbols
  3. Ignore the export symbol mechanism for static libraries

CMake handles this by generating an export header that can create a symbol like BAGEL_EXPORT that’ll export symbols for shared libraries but it becomes a no-op operation for static libraries.

    target_compile_definitions(${PROJECT_NAME} PUBLIC ${UPPER_PROJECT_NAME}_STATIC_DEFINE)

    EXPORT_FILE_NAME ${export_file_name}

The first part will add a macro definition BAGEL_STATIC_DEFINE that will no-op BAGEL_EXPORT. The generate_export_header will auto-generate a header file at ${export_file_name} that will define macros to change the visibility of a symbol. To export certain classes or functions, we can import that header and use BAGEL_EXPORT right before the symbol name like the following.

class BAGEL_EXPORT MyClass {

void BAGEL_EXPORT myFunc() {

If we inspect the symbol table of shared library, we’ll see only those symbols exported while others won’t be. For a class, exporting the class exports all symbols but the export header also defined a BAGEL_NO_EXPORT that “un-exports” the symbol again.

The last thing we need to do is to disable exporting all symbols by default.

    set_target_properties(${PROJECT_NAME} PROPERTIES
    set_target_properties(${PROJECT_NAME} PROPERTIES

That finishes our symbol exporting stuff. Moving on, one minor thing we’ll do is also set our library’s version based on what we set in the project() macro.

set_target_properties(${PROJECT_NAME} PROPERTIES

After all of that, we’re finally ready to actually add header and source files.

target_sources(${PROJECT_NAME} PRIVATE

We use target_include_directories to add headers to our library. The PRIVATE part means that only our source files in our src can also access headers in our src directory but external users can’t (since those are meant to be for library use only). For the PUBLIC part, we use CMake generators to specify a build and install interface. When building the library, we can also use headers in the include directory directly; for users, they’ll use headers wherever we’ve install them as part of the install stage. Recall that ${CMAKE_INSTALL_INCLUDEDIR} is just like ${CMAKE_INSTALL_LIBDIR} but for includes instead of libraries (set to include by GNUInstallDirs).

target_sources adds sources to our library and PRIVATE is really the only thing that makes sense here. We could also glob all source files under the src directory but I like to be more explicit about which source files are added to the library.


At this point, we have our library and header files ready and we just need to install them in a way so that users can find the library and link against it. The ideal user experience is to be as simple as possible.

find_package(bagel REQUIRED)
target_link_libraries(${PROJECT_NAME} bagel)

These two lines should be all that’s required to link against the installed library. So how can we accomplish this? First thing we need to do is install the headers. There’s a PUBLIC_HEADERS field but that doesn’t work so nicely for nested directory structures. I’ve found it easier to just install the entire include directory into the right place.


This does go against my previous sentiment about being more explicit about which files are added to the library but we’ve already configured out project to find headers in the src directory only for our project so we have a mechanism to keep some headers private. The next thing we need to install is our actual library itself and associate the headers with it.


Installing the library isn’t enough: we need to create an export target for our library that describes how to find the header files and library file from the target itself. We’ll use the export target we just created and create a corresponding *Targets.cmake for it. We’ll give it a namespace; this is a more modern way for CMake to know that a particular alias is a build target and not a folder or something else.

install(EXPORT "${PROJECT_NAME}Targets"
    FILE "${PROJECT_NAME}Targets.cmake"
    NAMESPACE ${namespace}::
    DESTINATION ${cmake_config_dir}

We’ll get to why we’re installing this into ${cmake_config_dir} in just a second.

The last thing we need is to write a package config so that find_package (using pkg-config) in a client CMakeLists.txt can actually find it and import the build target. First thing we’ll do is write a version config file, but there’s a helper we can use.

    COMPATIBILITY SameMajorVersion

Recall ${CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR} is the location of the build directory; this is fine since we’ll be installing these generated files immediately anyways. We’re setting the compatibility to be the SameMajorVersion since, under our semantic versioning scheme, there are no breaking changes across major versions. Next thing we need to create is a config file that imports our previously-created target file. For that, first we create a separate Config.cmake.in.




Some of this is a bit esoteric, but the documentation says to ensure @PACKAGE_INIT@ is at the start and check_required_components(@PROJECT_NAME@) is at the bottom. In the middle, all we have to do is include our targets file. Finally, we install both of these to the right location.

    DESTINATION ${cmake_config_dir}

Note that we install the package config files and the targets file to the ${cmake_config_dir} we defined earlier. This effectively installs to a filepath like lib/bagel/cmake on a Linux system. This is where pkg-config looks when you write find_package(bagel): it’ll go through the folder of each library stored in lib and look for a cmake diretory. If we were to put it somewhere else, we’d get some error like the following.

CMake Error at CMakeLists.txt:6 (find_package):
  Could not find a package configuration file provided by "bagel" with any of
  the following names:


  Add the installation prefix of "bagel" to CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH or set
  "bagel_DIR" to a directory containing one of the above files.  If "bagel"
  provides a separate development package or SDK, be sure it has been

Alternatively, we could install this anywhere and append to the CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH or define a bagel_DIR, but it’s convenient to have the right suffix location by default so clients don’t have to do that extra step. Of course a client could add an install prefix to anywhere but then it’s on them to set either of the two variables above.

Extra stuff

At this point, we technically have everything we need for our library, but let’s also provide a way to build examples, tests, and documentation. In the project-level CMakeLists.txt, we just need to recurse into the lower-level CMakeLists.txt.

message(CHECK_START "Building tests")
    message(CHECK_PASS "yes")

    message(CHECK_FAIL "no")

message(CHECK_START "Building examples")
    message(CHECK_PASS "yes")

    message(CHECK_FAIL "no")

We’ll get into those in a minute but building documentation relies on Doxygen and there are some CMake variables that can be set and the doxygen_add_docs command generates docs. One additional thing we can do is to create a dependency in our project to our generate_docs target so that, whenever we rebuild the library due to a code change, the documentation will automatically be re-generated too!

message(CHECK_START "Building docs")
    message(CHECK_PASS "yes")

    find_package(Doxygen REQUIRED)
    doxygen_add_docs(generate_docs include "${README_PATH}"
        COMMENT "Generating docs")
    add_dependencies(${PROJECT_NAME} generate_docs)
    message(CHECK_FAIL "no")

Alternatively, we could use a backup documentation generator and not make Doxygen required but that’s a choice.

The CMakeLists.txt in the examples folder is fairly straightforward

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.16)

add_executable(timer timer.cpp)
target_link_libraries(timer PRIVATE bagel::bagel)

Notice how we link our example executable to our library with bagel::bagel using PRIVATE since we have an executable.

Tests are slightly more complicated beacuse of downloading and using GoogleTest, but still readable.

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.16)



    URL https://github.com/google/googletest/archive/refs/tags/v1.14.0.zip


add_executable(test_timer chrono/test_timer.cpp)

Again notice how we link our library to a test binary (and also to the GoogleTest binary).

To evaluate if we did everything correct, I created a dummy C++ executable for testing purposes. The main.cpp simply imports the header and does some work.

#include <chrono>
#include <iostream>
#include <thread>
#include <bagel/chrono/timer.hpp>

using namespace std::chrono_literals;

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
    bagel::WallTimer t;
    auto elapsed = t.stop();
    std::cout << elapsed.count() << "s\n";
    return 0;

We create a timer, intentionally pause the main thread for about 10ms, stop the timer, and record the value in the timer.

The CMakeLists.txt simply defines an executable and links against our library. Since I’ve installed the library to a custom location for development purposes, I’m manually appending the location to the CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH.

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.14)

list(APPEND CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH "/Users/mohit/Developer/bagel/install/")

find_package(bagel CONFIG REQUIRED)

add_executable(hungry main.cpp)

target_link_libraries(hungry PRIVATE bagel::bagel)

Now we can create a build directory, run cmake, build our executable, and run it!

mkdir build && cd build
cmake ..

The output is what we expect: a value close to 10ms (a little off depending on your scheduler).



CMake is the most popular meta-build system to build C++ libraries and executables, but it’s also one of the most challenging ones to learn well. In this post, we went over a project structure and CMakeLists.txt for a medium-sized project with multiple subcomponents. We broke the CMakeLists.txt down into a parts: (i) preamble, (ii) configuration, (iii) building, (iv) installing, and (v) extra stuff. In (i), we simply define the project. In (ii), we define some variables that clients can use to configure how they build our library. (iii) is where we actually build the library and set things like include directories. After building the library, (iv) is where we install it and the headers in a way and place where clients can easily link against it. Finally, (v) is where we build optional things like examples, tests, and documentation.

CMake can be pretty complicated to “get right” and there’s a lot of variability in how developers use CMake to write libraries and executables. Hopefully this little tutorial provides some guidance on how to provide more structure your CMakeLists.txt abiding to some best practices to avoid. If you’re working on C++ stuff, try to crystallize some of this guidance into your team or project’s standards and let me know how it goes 🙂