How to Find Packages With CMake: The Basics
I originally posted this to dev.to, as I’ve been busy with work during quarantine and honestly haven’t had time to focus on making sure my site is stable. It’s in need of a redesign again, and thus the energy of wanting to write a post gets sucked out of me knowing I’ll have to modify the site and its posts one day. That said, I figured it’s time to move this post over to my personal site as this is where I want all of my content (projects, papers, and posts) to be found, even if they are syndicated elsewhere. This might mean moving to “yet another site generator”, as I tire of hugo’s shortcomings and while it’s nice that it can build a site quickly, I wish there was better tooling for how I currently deploy the site. But I digress.
Whether we want to or not, many folks have to interact with CMake at least once
in their life. If they are unlucky, they might have to find dependencies using
find_package. If they are extremely unlucky, they might have to write a file
to work with
find_package. At the end of this, they might have a file that
kind of works, but most likely is based off of a tutorial from 2008. A lot of
things have changed since then. There’s an easier way to do it these days!
In a previous post, I alluded to a project I’ve been working on since 2018.
It’s called IXM, and while it’s not ready for general use, it is where I
realized there is a common set of operations for finding packages, their
components, and setting their correct properties. We’ll be using some of what
I’ve learned and figured out over the past two years to understand how
find_package files work and how to make them useful for your projects and the
folks who depend on them.
This tutorial is written for CMake 3.14 and later, though I personally recommend using CMake 3.16 as it is the version installed with the most recent Ubuntu LTS release, 20.04.
Additionally, this tutorial isn’t meant to discuss how to write a
<package-name>-config.cmake file. Those have a different set of options but
also tend to be smaller in practice. Instead I’ll be showing how to write
what’s known as a
MODULE file. That said, we will eventually
tackle how to handle writing a usable
find_package file that can be used in
cmake --find-package mode, in the so-called Script
cpack for the External
now, however, we’ll focus on the most common workflow for CMake: Configure and
Within CMake, there are several commands that are used when writing a
find_package file. The most important ones are find_program,
find_library, find_path, and lastly find_file. Each of these has
a purpose, but we will not always use them. Depending on what you are trying
to find, you might also find yourself using execute_process,
file(READ), file(STRINGS), string(REGEX MATCH), and
mark_as_advanced. Additionally, 99.9% of the time, you’ll want to use the
CMake provided module FindPackageHandleStandardArgs.
Before we can use
find_package, however, we need to make sure CMake can find
it in the first place. The most common place to put your cmake scripts is
inside the project’s root directory under a
cmake/ directory. We can then add
this path to our
CMAKE_MODULE_PATH variable so CMake knows where to find us.
This is the bare minimum we need for CMake to find our following
The commands most typically used have a very large amount of documentation and thus it can be a bit overwhelming. Worry not. Most of the time you don’t need to worry about these additional parameters. We can cover them in detail in later posts.
This is used to find the path to a file that the system considers executable.
Whether it is a script or an actual executable is actually irrelevant. As long
as you could execute it via something like
Windows), it can be used as an executable.
This is used to find both shared and static libraries. The form for this is a
bit odd, as languages with custom static library formats (e.g., Rust’s
won’t ever be found, however we can find
.lib files by default. on macOS,
.frameworks are also searched for first.
Users can configure this with the
Finding executables in packages is one of the easiest things, compared to
finding libraries. Executables can be made into imported targets, much like
libraries, and they can then be used in the
add_custom_target commands with their imported name.
A popular tool that we can use as an example here is
sphinx-build, the actual
“compiler” for the sphinx documentation framework.
Inside of a file named
FindSphinx.cmake, we have
You’ll notice that, unlike what you might be used to, we use
Sphinx_EXECUTABLE and not
SPHINX_EXECUTABLE. This will make more even more
sense in later posts, but it’s consider “good behavior” to prefix your
variables with the package name, and not an upper cased version of said
package name. This also prevents a theoretical
find_package(SPHINX) and a
find_package(Sphinx) having a variable collision.
That’s the basics of it! We can now let
take care of business for us, and then hide our cache variable if it’s been
Seems simple enough, right? Well, we still need to import this executable so
it’s usable by the build system. To do that we’re going to create what’s known
as an imported executable and set the
IMPORTED_LOCATION property to the
value stored in
Of course, it’s not enough to just do this. We need to guard our sphinx target creation. What if we never found it in the first place? The file would error for users and that’s no bueno!
Additionally, what if someone wants to name their target
Sphinx? It’s best to
try to stay out of their way, or our simple documentation generator might
interfere with someone’s actual dependency or project! We can do this by
Sphinx target, which is only permitted for imported
But wait! What if multiple projects in our build tree depend on
find_package(Sphinx)? Then it will fail to work because
already a target! We should fix that by only creating the target if we’ve found
Sphinx and it hasn’t been created yet.
While this might seem simple, once we move into later posts in this tutorial, we will expand on this and get it to its proper state.
Finding libraries in CMake is deceptively simple. It should just be as easy as finding the path to a single file, setting a variable, and calling it a day… right?
If only that were the case. Remember, we have access to imported targets, and this can be used to provide more information to CMake when generating the build system, and prevents typos for variables. Even more important, we can create dependency lists of libraries and their components so that users can follow the “YOLO” principle (i.e., You Only Link Once).
Worse, sometimes these libraries provide
<library>-config.cmake files which might not create
imported targets and simply export cache variables. One such library is
SDL2. SDL2 is a wonderfully neat library, but it’s CMake experience
leaves a lot to be desired. Sounds like a perfect way to create our own
Using what we’ve learned above regarding
find_package for executable based
packages, we can start with a basic skeleton file that’s eerily similar to what
we did before.
Try to use this however, and you’ll quickly find there is no way to
#include <SDL2/SDL.h> 😱! That just won’t do! We need to find the path where this
file is found. This is where
find_path comes into play to find the
SDL2_INCLUDE_DIR. It’s a requirement for us to use SDL2 at all, so it’ll be
added to the
REQUIRED_VARS parameter to
Because it’s a cache variable, we’ll also mark it as
ADVANCED if we found
SDL2, and finally add it to the
INTERFACE_INCLUDE_DIRECTORIES property for
Awesome! We can now just call
target_link_libraries(<my-target> PRIVATE SDL2::SDL2) and we’ve got full access to its headers and automatically link
against the library itself.
That… should be it right? Unfortunately, no. On Windows, we must sometimes
SDL2main (other platforms are permitted to as well), because
SDL2 sometimes overrides the
main function with a redefinition. We can ask
find_package search for
SDL2main by declaring a component called
SDL2::Main. Ideally, we will always search for all components, and let
find_package_handle_standard_args take care of the
details. However we need to (of course) do some extra work.
Firstly, we need to find the
SDL2main library itself. CMake’s
cares less about how variables are named, but does care about how the
_FOUND variables are named. Effectively, for each component in a package,
find_package_handle_standard_args considers a component found if
<package>_<component>_FOUND is true or false. Generally, you’ll want to stick
to a consistent naming convention, so we’ll name our
SDL2_Main_LIBRARY, and if it’s set at all, we’ll just set
YES (one of the strings CMake considers to be a boolean)
We then pass
HANDLE_COMPONENTS as a flag to
Next we’ll need to also mark the variable as advanced but only if its found
and ONLY if
find_package_handle_standard_args didn’t return early. This might
seem counter-intuitive, but that’s CMake for ya! We might as well also import
the library and make it depend on
That should be it, right? Again, things are not as simple as they may seem.
SDL2 introduces bug fixes, new APIs, etc. in minor point releases. How do we
know for sure we’re building with SDL2 2.15? We need to check the version. How
does SDL2 express this? Inside of the
SDL2/SDL_version.h header. This, here,
is the part where things will become very painful. The only solution we have is
to… use a regex 😱😭.
SDL2 has the following C preprocessor defines declared:
Luckily, these are fairly simple to find, so we can just get a list of matching
OK, but that doesn’t actually get us the data right? So we need to extract it
further, and this is where it really does get messy. We’ll also pass it to
find_package_handle_standard_args as the
VERSION_VAR and then set the
VERSION property of
And that’s all we need to do! We’re done 🎉 (for now 😱)
Exhausting wasn’t it? Luckily, once you write a file like these you rarely need to ever touch them again… At least, until the next entry in this series. 😈