CMake Part 2 – Release and Debug builds

In my previous blog post CMake Part – The Dark Arts I discussed how to configure CMake to cross-compile to target hardware such as our STM32F407 Discovery board.

We looked at the minimum requirements to configure the CMake build generator for a cross-compilation project using a project definition file (CMakeLists.txt), a toolchain definition file (toolchain-STM32F407.cmake). The CMake commands used to generate and build the project are:

cmake -S . -B build -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=toolchain-STM32F407.cmake
cmake --build build

In the real world, projects are never as simple as this minimal example, and we try to reflect this in our training. To support the different phases and objectives of a Software Development Lifecycle a project will need to differentiate between developing code, testing (in its various forms) and releasing a version for end-use. We usually do this using build configurations.

Outputs from each type of build configuration are usually different. For example, a developer’s build typically includes metadata used by a debugger which is not required for a released version of the project. Therefore, we need to configure our build process to cater for these different output requirements.

Both Visual Studio and Xcode  support multiple build configurations, and CMake can generate appropriate build configuration files for these systems.

On the other hand, the Unix/Linux/GNU Make system does not support build configurations. When using CMake to generate different build requirements using make files we take this into account by placing different build configurations in different output directories for each type of build we want to support.

Configuring Debug and Release Builds

CMake refers to different build configurations as a Build Type.  Suggested build types are values such as Debug and Release, but CMake allows any type that is supported by the build tool. The build type specification is case insensitive, so we prefer to be consistent and use all upper case types despite the fact that the CMake documentation refers to capitalised types.

Our underlying build system for training is Make, so we need to create separate output folders for each type of build we require. Unfortunately, this means we have to run two very similar cmake commands to generate different configurations:

cmake -S . -B build/debug -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=DEBUG \

cmake -S . -B build/release -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=RELEASE \

We also have two separate commands, one for each build type:

cmake --build build/debug
cmake --build build/release

Aside: as a traditional Unix/Linux developer used to typing make I find these long and complex commands irksome and I know I’m not alone in this as it is a common source of criticism of CMake.

At this point, using a shell script, or scripts, to encapsulate the underlying cmake commands to simplify build the system would be advisable. There is an example shell script in the accompanying GitHub project

For developer’s working with build tools supporting multiple build configurations (like Xcode and Visual Studio), the build type is not passed on the generate command line (using -CCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=…) but on the cmake build command with the –config option. For example:

cmake -S . -B build
cmake --build build --config Debug

Note: when using Make builds, the –config option is silently ignored, and when using multi-configuration build tools like Visual Studio, the setting for CMAKE_BUILD_TYPE is also silently ignored. A source of confusion and criticism when first starting to use CMake.

To support multiple build configurations for our training projects we just need to refactor the project and toolchain configuration files to be aware of build types. To do this, we make use of CMake generator expressions, so we need a short digression to discuss this feature of CMake.

CMake Generator Expressions

A generator expression is used to query aspects of the build as the build files are generated giving us a  dynamic view of the build generation process.

A static view of the build generation process is provided by command line definitions and variables defined in the configuration files, which are saved to the build cache file CMakeCache.txt in the build target directory. Note that variables should not change value once the build file generation process begins as this can cause discrepancies in the generated files.

Generator expressions are specified using  $< expression > where the expression can take many different forms, whereas variable values are specified using ${ name }. Variables, once set, can be used at any point in the CMake files, whereas generator expressions query the current build generation environment and are only valid in specific contexts.

The use of the generator expression $<TARGET_FILE:Application> resolves to the path to the output file in the build rule for our main application (Application is the target name). This expression is only valid after both the target and the target suffix have been defined:

add_executable(Application src/main.cpp)
set_target_properties(Application PROPERTIES
    SUFFIX .elf

For our project this is the absolute path to build/debug/Application.elf.

A generator expression is defined using a $< : > syntax with the entry after the colon defining the value of the expression. The first part before the colon takes different forms such as:

  • a conditional test such as $<CONFIG:DEBUG> is true if this is a debug build type  defined by the command line option -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=DEBUG
  • a target-dependent query such as $<TARGET_FILE: name >
  • a string manipulation expression
  • a variable query

The generator expressions manual page describes the complete range of generator expressions.

Toolchain Configuration

Refactoring our project toolchain file (toolchain-STM32F407.cmake) requires identifying compilation options only applicable to debug builds:


In this example $<CONFIG:DEBUG> is true for a debug build type and similarly $<CONFIG:RELEASE> (not used in the example) is true for a release build. Note that the generator expression is all uppercase regardless of the actual value defined for CMAKE_BUILD_TYPE. The CMake documentation often refers to DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Debug but the generator expression is always $<CONFIG:DEBUG>.

In our example we have added compiler definitions entries to support using host debugging via a serial port for a debug project.

For our training project we will need to use different runtime support configurations for the debug runtime (rdimon.specs) and a bare metal release (nosys.specs):


As an alternative to using $<CONFIG:RELEASE> we could have tested for the absence of debug mode using the more complex syntax:


Here we use an inner generator expression to control the inclusion of an enclosing generator expression.

Build Customisation

With the toolchain correctly configured we will update the project configuration (CMakeLists.txt) to refactor the compiler optimisations and symbol definitions for each build type:



Note: we need to define the compiler DEBUG symbol ourselves – it doesn’t happen automatically when we select the debug build type. The build type variable CMAKE_BUILD_TYPE is a CMake variable and not a linker or compiler defined symbol. The familiar syntax of using -D on the command line to define CMake variables can be confusing when first using CMake as these are not definitions for the underlying compiler.

As an alternative approach for the build type definition we could have simply inserted the $<CONFIG> generator expression as a compiler pre-processor definition:


This approach would add the pre-processor build type value as a compiler definition. However in this approach the value used would keep the original letter case so that using the CMake approach of -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Debug would define a compiler variable called Debug which would not match the expected upper case definition (DEBUG).

Our example project does not need any linker options specific to the build type for our example project as these were handled in the toolchain file.

Post Build Tools

Often when creating a target, such as our executable program, there are additional actions required after a successful build.

In our cross compiler project, we want to use the objcopy command to generate the hex file used by some flash memory programmers.

We use add_custom_command() function calls to run actions after a successful build of a target. CMake automatically generates a variable (CMAKE_OBJCOPY) for the path of the objcopy program when the C or C++ compiler is specified in  the toolchain configuration file (in our case it will be arm-none-eabi-objcopy) . We should use this  variable preference to the raw command name:

  TARGET Application
  COMMAND ${CMAKE_OBJCOPY} -O ihex $<TARGET_FILE:Application> 

The use of POST_BUILD command line should be self-explanatory: CMAKE_OBJCOPY is set to the path of the the objcopy command (implicitly defined in toolchain-STM32F407.cmake) and CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR is the path to the build folder (-B on the command line).

In building the objcopy command line we need to use generator expressions to get the path to the target application ELF file ($<TARGET_FILE:Application>) and the base filename defined by $<TARGET_NAME:Application> because these are specific to that target.

Conditional Tests

One minor complication to using CMAKE_OBJCOPY in the previous section is that the objcopy command may not be part of the toolchain we are using, in which case CMake sets CMAKE_OBJCOPY to the value CMAKE_OBJCOPY-NOTFOUND.

We should test a command path variable to make sure the command exists:

  TARGET Application
  message(STATUS "'objcopy' not found: cannot generate .hex file")

Note the use of parentheses on the else() and endif() functions – everything is a function in CMake. The else() part is optional, but we have used it to output a message during the build file generation phase, but this won’t be displayed in the actual build.

The first (optional) parameter to message() is a type indicator: in our case a STATUS message is output prefixed with . In contrast, a FATAL message will display the message and stop the build generation at that point. Other message types are described in the CMake manual.

It is worth reinforcing the idea that CMake uses whitespace separated arguments to functions so the COMMAND arguments can be given across multiple lines without using a line continuation character (such as \  in shell or Python scripts).

As an aside, you should be aware that CMake does not warn when an undefined variable is used, it simply substitutes nothing. This can be problematic, so we advise using the command line option –warn-uninitialized, which will display a warning message but won’t stop the build. So make sure you check the output from the build generation steps carefully in case you’ve mistyped a variable name.

cmake -S . -B build --warn-uninitialized -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=toolchain-STM32F407.cmake

There is one downside to adding this warning and that is when CMake generates the build files and the output directory already contains generated files CMake does not usethe toolchain file if the toolchain file has not been recently modified. In this situation the CMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE is effectively unused and a warning is issued. To suppress this warning, which implies something is wrong when it isn’t, you can simply read the variable in a message:


Custom Commands

While the CMake toolchain includes a few commonly used commands like objcopy and ar there are often additional project or environment specific commands you need to run post (or pre) build. While you can add these to the CMakeList.txt file, we think the toolchain file is the right place to configure the custom command paths.

In our cross compilation toolchain file (toolchain-STM32F407.cmake) we added logic to locate additional Arm commands not recognised by CMake:

find_program(CROSS_GCC_PATH "arm-none-eabi-gcc")
  message(FATAL_ERROR "Cannot find ARM GCC compiler: arm-none-eabi-gcc")
get_filename_component(TOOLCHAIN ${CROSS_GCC_PATH} PATH)

set(CMAKE_C_COMPILER ${TOOLCHAIN}/arm-none-eabi-gcc)
set(CMAKE_Cxx_COMPILER ${TOOLCHAIN}/arm-none-eabi-g++)
set(TOOLCHAIN_AS ${TOOLCHAIN}/arm-none-eabi-as CACHE STRING "arm-none-eabi-as")
set(TOOLCHAIN_LD ${TOOLCHAIN}/arm-none-eabi-ld CACHE STRING "arm-none-eabi-ld")
set(TOOLCHAIN_SIZE ${TOOLCHAIN}/arm-none-eabi-size CACHE STRING "arm-none-eabi-size")

The find_program function searches the host filesystem for the path to a given program which it stores in the variable name given as the first parameter. If the program isn’t found, the variable is set to <name>-NOTFOUND, in our case CROSS_GCC_PATH-NOTFOUND. We can check that the ARM compiler has been found by testing  CROSS_GCC_PATH:variable values ending with -NOTFOUND evaluate to false.

Our search is complicated because we haven’t put the Arm toolchain in the standard Linux folders (such as /usr/bin), so we have to extract the directory path part of the arm-none-eabi-gcc command so we can get the toolchain directory location with get_filename_component.

We have prefixed our custom variables defining the paths to the toolchain commands with TOOLCHAIN- to differentiate them from the standard CMake commands.

We need to store these variables where the main project can reference them, so we add them to the cache file using CACHE STRING followed by a variable description. Each CMake definition file is a separate processing environment, and variables not added to the cache will be discarded after build file processing is finished.

If you are interested, the variable cache is stored the file CMakeCache.txt in the build folder. An entry for the arm-none-eabi-as commnd looks like:


Note that we don’t use strings for the variable values but use what Perl calls bare words which are values without the quotes (so long as we don’t have whitespace characters in the value). We have chosen to set the variable descriptions as strings because they usually contain spaces: in our case, as we have just used the program name as the description, these too could have been bare words.

Running Post Build Custom Commands

In the project file (CMakeLists.txt) we don’t assume the custom toolchain commands exist because we may be supplying a different toolchain on the command line. As with objcopy we verify we can find the required post build commands:

    TARGET Application
    COMMAND ${TOOLCHAIN_SIZE} --format=berkeley $<TARGET_FILE:Application>
    TARGET Application
    COMMAND ${TOOLCHAIN_SIZE} --format=sysv -x $<TARGET_FILE:Application>


    message(STATUS "'size' not found: cannot generate .[bs]sz files")


There is nothing in this code that we haven’t seen before.


Real-world projects are always more complex than the simple examples used in most tutorials. In this post, we’ve looked at how CMake can be configured to generate two separate makefile build configurations using the same project and toolchain definition. This ability to add build configuration types to the GNU Make system is a good reason to use CMake in conjunction with the make command.

We recommend that you use the –warn-uninitialized when running CMake to generate the build files check the output from the build generation as this will help identify mistyped variable names.

A prototype project containing the code shown in this blog can be found in the GitHub project

In the next blog, we’ll look at multiple source and header files for a project and discuss how to organise a more extensive project into subsystems and libraries.

Postscript – A Simple Build Script

The GitHub project supporting for this blog contains a minimal shell script ( for building debug and release projects under Linux.

Linux Build Script (bash)

set -o errexit
set -o nounset
USAGE="Usage: (basename $0) [-v | --verbose] [ reset | clean | debug | release ]"


for arg; do
  case "$arg" in
    --help|-h)    echo $USAGE; exit 0;;
    -v|--verbose) VERBOSE='VERBOSE=1' ;;
    debug)        TYPE=DEBUG; BUILD_DIR=$BUILD/debug ;;
    release)      TYPE=RELEASE; BUILD_DIR=$BUILD/release ;;
    clean)        CLEAN=1 ;;
    reset)        RESET=1 ;;
    *)            echo -e "unknown option $arg\n$USAGE" >&2; exit 1 ;;

[[ -n $RESET && -d $BUILD_DIR ]] && rm -rf $BUILD_DIR

$CMAKE -S . -B $BUILD_DIR --warn-uninitialized -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=$TYPE -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=toolchain-STM32F407.cmake

[[ -n $CLEAN ]] && $CMAKE --build $BUILD_DIR --target clean


Windows Build Script

Developers working on Windows who install CMake will find that the default build generation targets the Microsoft Build Tools for Visual Studio compilers. Configuring CMake on Windows to cross compile using the Arm Embedded Toolchain is not straightforward and will be the subject of a later blog post and will include a suitable example build script.

Posted in ARM, Build-systems, C/C++ Programming, Cortex, General, Toolchain | Tagged , | 10 Comments

CMake Part 1 – The Dark Arts

In our previous post Why We Need Build Systems we examined the need for Build Systems in modern software development. In this post we will examine how to use CMake to mange the build process for a cross compilation project.

CMake can be described as a marmite application: you either love it or hate it. Here at Feabhas, we find ourselves falling in the latter category, despite the fact the CMake is widely used within the embedded and deeply embedded development community.

But we also know that many of the C/C++ static analysis and code quality tools integrate well with the CMake build system. For this reason, we’ve put aside our prejudices and reconsidered the way we build our example projects used during training by replacing scons with CMake.

This blog post is a mix of musings and advice when using CMake for cross-compiling  to the STM STM32F407 Discovery board that we use for our embedded C and C++ training. It is the first of a small series of posts looking at how we build our training projects comprising application code, supporting library code, real-time operating system and bare metal driver code.

The code and examples used in this blog are from CMake 3.16 on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS using the GNU Arm Embedded Toolchain and can be download from the GitHub project

What is CMake

CMake is not a build system like Unix Make but a build system generator. Its purpose is to take your description of a project and generate a set of configuration files to build that project.

As part of the generation of build configuration files CMake also analyses source code to create a dependency graph of components so that when building the project unnecessary recompilation steps can be omitted to reduce build times. For larger projects this can reduce build times down from tens of minutes or hours, to a few minutes, perhaps even less than one minute.

The following schematic overview shows the complexity of building a modern software system with multiple inputs and output artefacts which will help explain why we need to use a build system to manage the process.

CMake supports several hosted build systems such as GNU Make,(Linux), Visual Studio (Microsoft Windows), Xcode (OSX) and Ninja (multiple platforms) as well as cross-compilation systems such as Android Studio and IAR Workbench.

This plethora of different build systems adds to the confusion about using CMake. At a fundamental level both Visual Studio and Xcode provide a GUI environment that supports multiple build configurations such as Debug and Release. Make, on the other hand, is command-line based and does not support different build configurations. CMake tries hard to hide these differences but doesn’t always succeed.

CMake was originally developed in 1999, but the release of version 3.0 in 2014 introduced a new style of defining a project which is generally referred to as Modern CMake. This has added to the confusion over using CMake because there are many resources on the web that refer to the legacy style of CMake.

While CMake has extensive documentation, it is very much a guide to what (descriptions of function and variables) that lacks the how (examples) and the why. It was difficult for us to access information that helped us understand how CMake works: specifically an overall understanding of how to configure a cross-compilation project.

Having said all that, CMake does work and achieves its purpose for creating a cross-platform build system that will generate build files that optimise the compilation steps.

A Minimal Host Project

To use CMake, you create a CMakeLists.txt file, usually located in the root folder of your project. This file defines the source configuration, compiler and linker options, plus anything else needed to build and, if required, install your project.

The first thing in the file is the minimum CMake version, followed by a name for the project.

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.16)

By default, the project will support a C and C++ toolchain, but we could declare this explicitly with:

project(simple-host LANGUAGES C CXX)

Each CMake configuration requires one or more targets: either an executable program or a library; plus, the source files used to create that target. We’re going to use a single source file, src/main.cpp, to create a host-based executable Application:

add_executable(Application src/main.cpp)

That’s it for a minimal host build. CMake will use the default host toolchain to figure out how to generate the required build files. For our Ubuntu Linux build, it will be GNU Make files using g++, on Windows it would generate a Visual Studio workspace configuration, and Xcode for OSX.

Generate and Build

Using CMake is a two-step process:

  1. Generate the build files
  2. Run the build system

Step one only needs to be run when creating a project, modifying compiler and/or linker options, adding (removing or renaming) source and header files, or making other configuration changes such as inter-file dependencies defined by #include statements.

Step two is run every time the project needs building (recompiling and linking).

We can shown this schematically for our project that generates GNU Make files.

Our minimal host CMakeLists.txt file looks like:

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.16)
project(simple-host LANGUAGES C CXX)
add_executable(Application src/main.cpp)

If we were to run cmake with no command-line arguments, it will generate the build files in the project root known as an in-source build. This build will intermix the object files, dependency files and executables in with the configuration and source files.

The in-source build approach is not a good idea as it is hard to differentiate source files (requiring source code management) from generated files (which should not be added to a source repository).

The best practice is to generate an out-of-source build, which we do by specifying the project source root (-S option) and target build location (-B option) on the command line:

cmake -S . -B build/

With modern CMake also run the build process via cmake –build (this was introduced with version 3.12 in 2018):

cmake --build build/

The older CMake approach was to change to the build folder to explicitly run the build tool (make) from that folder:

mkdir build
cd build
cmake ..

Either way, we now have an executable called Application (in the build folder) that we can run on the host using:


Should we want to use a different build system instead of the host default (GNU Make for Linux) we need to tell CMake which build generator to use using the -G command option.  For example, to generate Ninja build files we would use:

cmake -S . -B build/ -G Ninja

Source File Dependencies

CMake does more than just generate the build files used to create object files and executable programs. It will generate a dependency file for each source file in the project. For example a main.cpp file will have a generated main.cpp.d file saved in the build folder hierarchy honouring the directory structure of the source files (in our case the file path is build/CMakeFiles/Application.dir/src/main.cpp.d).

For C/C++ source files  CMake will scan each file for #include statements and add these to the list of dependencies for that file. The generated configuration files for the build system (make in our case) will include those dependencies in its build rules. This will allow the build system to optimise the compilation steps avoiding recompiling source files that are unaffected by changes to other files.

The following diagram shows an example system with dependencies to illustrate how CMake can generate optimised build steps.

In this example if we modify the gpio.cpp file this is the only file that is recompiled as there is no other file that depends on it. Obviously, we will always need to link the entire project to create the new executable image.

If, in our example, we now modify gpio.h then by implication display.h is also out of date as it depends on gpio.h. Now we have to recompile:

  • gpio.cpp (depends on gpio.h)
  • display.cpp (depends on display.h and gpio.h)
  • main.cpp (depends on display.h and gpio.h)

This is an example the generated main.cpp.d file (full path names have been replaced by …):

CMakeFiles/Application.dir/src/main.cpp.obj: \
 .../src/main.cpp .../src/display.h .../src/gpio.h

These dependency files could be used by other applications such as static analysis tools.

If we were to manually maintain our make system build files without using CMake we would have to specify all of these dependencies ourselves. This will be a tedious and error prone process for large projects due to the number of files and inter-dependencies involved. Failure to record the dependencies correctly can result in  unnecessary compilations taking place slowing the build down, or worse, modules not being recompiled when they should be leading to inconsistencies and potential bugs in the built project.

Furthermore, adding, deleting or modifying #include statements in any file requires us to update the build system dependency graph accordingly. Using CMake to manage the build files means we simply regenerate the build when required rather than having manually check and update the affected build configuration files ourselves.

Using CMake to generate the build files is a relatively quick operation compared to  compilation and linking, so many project administrators choose to always regenerate the build files at the start of a system build. That way any new dependencies (changed #include statements) will automatically be recorded in the generated dependency files.

This automated management of the build dependencies is a very powerful argument for using CMake, especially on larger projects with multiple source and headers files where dependencies can quickly become very labyrinthine. Even small projects like our training projects with around 40 sources files benefit from using CMake to manage the build process.


Perhaps the most significant source of confusion we see in articles and questions on web sites is how CMake uses a toolchain when generating the build files.

A toolchain must be defined before CMake starts processing the CMakeLists.txt file. Unless you provide a command-line argument to tell CMake which toolchain to use it use the default toolchain for the current host. Any attempt to modify or override the toolchain from within CMakeLists.txt typically won’t work or is just plain wrong.

Once the toolchain is defined, CMake will then validate the compiler and linker by building and discarding a simple test application. A toolchain configuration must define all the compiler and linker options necessary to perform a successful test build.

Cross Compiling

If the default host toolchain is not suitable, as is the case for cross compiling, then the recommended way of specifying the toolchain details is in a separate toolchain file. In fact this is the only reliable way of overriding the default toolchain due to the lifecycle of the CMake processing steps.

To generate a cross compilation build using CMake, we specify the location and command names of the compiler, linker and other build tools (the toolchain). We also have to define compiler and linker options that will ensure the test build works.

To do this, we add a command-line option to cmake to tell it to read toolchain information from a file using the CMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE variable:

cmake -S . -B build/ -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=toolchain-STM32F407.cmake

There are no standard naming conventions for toolchain files, but we’ve followed other examples and included the target specification in the file toolchain-STM32F407.cmake.

Toolchain Definition File

In the toolchain-STM32F407.cmake file we define variables for the target system name and  version:


CMake has a standard set of known system names (Linux, Windows, OSX, Android and others) but we are using Generic as there is no predefined name for a bare-metal embedded system.

Setting the system name tells CMake that this is a cross compilation project, and it will define the CROSS_COMPILING variable as true.

The system version can be anything we want, and we decided to use it to identify the actual target rather than a version number.

Toolchain Program Paths

The next step is to specify the toolchain programs. We have added the toolchain directory to the search path, so we just need to set the C and C++ compiler command names which are prefixed with arm-none-eabi- for the GNU Arm Embedded Toolchain:

set(CMAKE_C_COMPILER arm-none-eabi-gcc)
set(CMAKE_CXX_COMPILER arm-none-eabi-g++)

CMake has rules for finding the location of the other toolchain commands. Typically, a cross compiler toolchain uses a common command prefix (arm-none-eabi- for GNU Arm) and CMake uses this convention to generate names for the other tools (arm-none-eabi-gcc, arm-none-eabi-ar, and so on) if we provide the name of the C compiler. This means we could have just defined the CMAKE_C_COMPILER as arm-none-eabi-gcc and CMake will have inferred the name of the C++ compiler as arm-none-eabi-g++.

CMake will use the full pathnames for the tools rather than the command name so that the actual build tool can be run without adding the build tools directory to the search path.

A downside of using full pathnames in the generated build files is that the build configuration must be regenerated if the build tool location changes. This happens when Arm release a new version of their GNU Toolchain as the version number is part of the path. You cannnot generate build files that use relative pathnames, even if you use relative pathnames in the toolchain definitions.

If you are interested, you can look at the generated configuration variables in the file CMakeCache.txt in the output build directory. If your build isn’t working as expected, this is one of the files to examine to look for a misconfiguration. To check for the C++ compiler path look for the line following the comment line containing CXX  compiler:

//CXX compiler

All that’s left to do in the toolchain file is to provide sufficient compiler and linker options to ensure the test build will compile and link successfully.

At this point we should digress and explain the syntax for CMake functions, arguments, and strings.

CMake Functions and Variables

The CMake configuration language is simply a series of function calls with function arguments (parameters) passed in parentheses (round brackets). Flow control constructs such as if statements and loops are also implemented as functions.Parameters are white space separated and long argument lists are usually split across multiple lines (one argument per line) to aid readability.

There is no need to surround arguments with double quotes unless a space or round bracket is needed in the argument.An argument in quotes defines a string and sometimes CMake can be confused by an empty argument and an empty string. It is best to avoid strings except when using the if() function to test string values.

Multiple arguments form a list and most functions accept arbitrary sized lists. Some functions use context-sensitive keywords (such as PRIVATE shown later in the CMakeLists.txt file) to supply function specific information or partition the list of arguments into different sections.

Variable substitution uses ${…} (the curly brackets are mandatory) – there is no need to wrap variable substitution in a string (even when the variable value contains white space or round brackets).

Toolchain Compiler and Linker Options

Resuming our example of a minimal cross compiler build definition we have to supply a some common compiler and linker options for the Arm target. We’ll put these into a custom CMake variable so we can reuse the values:

set(ARM_OPTIONS -mcpu=cortex-m4 -mfloat-abi=soft --specs=nano.specs)

Cross Compiler Options

We add our common options along with other cross compiler options using the add_compile_options function:


And some required pre-processor defines using add_compile_definitions:


We could have equally well have added the compiler SEMIHOSTING definitions in our main CMakeLists.txt file, but as they are standard for all cross compilations for the target we’ve put them in the toolchain configuration.

Cross Linker Options

Linker options defined using add_link_options need to include a minimal bare metal C runtime library specification:


CMake uses the LINKER: prefix to indicate a linker specific directive. On older gcc linkers this will generate a Wl, option, whereas on  other compilers (later gcc, clang, etc.), it will generate -Xlinker options.

Cross Compiler Search Paths

Finally, we need to tell CMake which locations to search when resolving the absolute paths for toolchain components:


This is a standard definition that basically says the toolchain commands (programs) are outside the project, but libraries, packages and include file locations are within the project folder hierarchy.

We now have a complete toolchain configuration file which, just to remind you, we must add to the cmake command line only when generating the build files (it isn’t required when we perform the actual build):

cmake -S . -B build -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=toolchain-STM32F407.cmake
cmake --build build

Compilation Options

In our cross compilation configuration in CMakeLists.txt, as with our hosted projects, we need to define the CMake version and project name:

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.16)
project(target-cortexm LANGUAGES C CXX)

In most projects we will want to override the standard compiler and linker options to configure C/C++ standards compliance and warning levels (at the very least). So, before we define the cross compiler build target using add_executable, we now set C and C++ options to use for all compilations:



The last four lines ensure we use recommended compiler options -std=c++17 instead of the GNU specific versions -std=gnu17; we also enforce ISO C/C++ compiler standards.

We add compiler options and definitions, in the same manner, we used in the toolchain file:



The options and definitions are cumulative. If there are any conflicts, then the values defined in CMakeLists.txt take precedence.

Adding a Target

As with the host project we need to add an executable target:

add_executable(Application src/main.cpp)

Again it is worth emphasising the add_executable function must define the target before you set any target specific definitions. CMake is generating the build files and must be told what to build first, and then how to define the build steps.

After we have added the project executable, we can set compiler and linker options for the target. For a cross compilation we want the target executable to have a .elf suffix. This is achieved using target specific function calls that require the name of the target (Application) as the first argument.

set_target_properties(Application PROPERTIES
  SUFFIX .elf

We must define the target hardware configuration for the linker memory allocation, display memory usage after linking, and generate a map file:

target_link_options(Application PRIVATE

As a minor digression we’ll point out the duplication of the word Application used for Application.exe and We have done this for simplicity while we get the basic concepts sorted. In the next post we’ll look at using CMake generator functions to avoid this repetition.

Although our simple example currently  doesn’t include any user defined header files we normally need to tell CMake which include directories to add to the compiler command line:

target_include_directories(Application PRIVATE

The PRIVATE keyword defines the scope of the include directories when using the target. This is more applicable to a library target (discussed in a later post) where we may want to define INTERFACE or PUBLIC includes to be used with the library. As this is an executable program there is no external dependency on the include files, so we mark these as private.

Note that at this point we haven’t included any driver files for our target board, just a single main application file. Additional source files could be added to the source dependencies on the add_executable definition but this doesn’t capture the architecture of our application. To add support files for the target hardware, and possibly a Real Time OS we will use the target_link_libraries to define a subsystem in out application in a later blog post.

For now if you want to view the complete project you can do so in out public git repo

For completeness, if we had any target-specific compiler configuration requirements that are not included in the toolchain file, we’d have used the target_compile_definitions and target_compile_options functions specifying our target name (Application) as the first argument.

As an aside, CMake automatically sets several variables that reflect the project build environment. We have used:

  • ${CMAKE_SOURCE_DIR} – the project root folder (-S on the cmake command line)
  • ${CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR} – the output build directory (-B on the cmake command line)

This configuration will create the build/Application.elf file ready for use by our target loader tools:

cmake -S . -B build -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=toolchain-STM32F407.cmake
cmake --build build

Tracing the Build Commands

CMake prints out information about the build files as they are generated and includes in those generated files print statements about what is being built, but how the compilation and linker commands themselves.

To diagnose problems with the generated commands you can add the VERBOSE=1 option to the cmake –build command to passed into the build. This is not a CMake command option so must be added after option to mark the end of the options:

cmake -S . -B build -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=toolchain-STM32F407.cmake 
cmake --build build -- VERBOSE=1

Clean Builds

Build systems typically optimise the build process by omitting steps that produce artefacts that are already up to date – in simple terms don’t recompile a file if the source and the dependency files have not changed since the last build.

When the build fails, or the generated artefacts are missing or incorrect, a first step is to force a rebuild of the entire system. You can do this by adding the – -target clean option to the build command line and then rerun the build step:

cmake --build build --target clean
cmake --build build

The clean target will remove the generated files forcing all build steps to be executed on the next build command (cleaning the build does not automatically initiate a new build).

When changing and updating the build configuration itself inconsistencies can arise in the build folder. Frequently obsolete files that are no longer required can be left around in the build sub-folders. A more dramatic clean build is to remove the entire build folder and regenerate the build files. On our Linux system we’d simply run an rm command:

rm -r build
cmake -S . -B build -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=toolchain-STM32F407.cmake
cmake --build build

As these CMake build steps start to get more complex many sites will add a front end script to simplify running the different build steps so developers do not have to learn and enter the potentially long CMake build commands.


Once you understand that the CMake toolchain must be configured on the command line, problems associated with using a cross compiler should be much easier to resolve.

Cross compiler toolchain configuration is complex enough to require a separate toolchain definition file specified with the -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE command-line option.

If you simply wanted to use a different compiler such as clang you could possibly get away with setting the compiler name or compiler path on the CMake command line:

cmake -S . -B build -DCMAKE_CXX_COMPILER=clang++
cmake --build build

But this approach will only define the C++ compiler command leaving the C compiler and standard toolchain programs with their default names. To use the full Clang toolchain (often called binutils), you should use a toolchain definition file without defining the CMAKE_SYSTEM_NAME variable because this won’t be a cross compilation – the target architecture is still the host.

NOTE: if you read about toolchain configuration on some web pages, you may find references to  _CMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_PREFIX or CMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_PREFIX variables. This is a common misconception as these variables do not exist in modern CMake and cannot be used to configure a toolchain by defining a common prefix before the command name.

In the next post, we’ll look at using CMake to configure different debug and release builds.

You can download the complete project from our GitHub repository

Posted in ARM, Build-systems, C/C++ Programming, Cortex, Toolchain | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Why We Need Build Systems

Build systems were developed to simplify and automate running the compiler and linker and are an essential part of modern software development. This blog post is a precursor to future posts discussing our experiences refactoring the training projects to use the CMake build generator.

Using Build Systems

Build systems can be standalone command line applications such as  Make, Scons and Ninja; or part of an (Integrated Development Environment IDE) like Visual Studio , XCode or IAR Workbench.

Configuring build systems for a project can be complex and there are a few applications around that will generate the required build files from a simpler project configuration file. The most popular of these tools are CMake, which generates files for several build systems, and Meson, which generates Ninja build files.

A 2021 survey by the Standard C++ Foundation showed that CMake was used by 4 out of 5 of the respondents, while Meson and  scons are each used by less than 1 in 20. The survey also showed that Make/nmake and MSBuild (Visual Studio) are used roughly equally by 2 out of 5 people and Ninja by 1 out of every 3. In many cases the respondents will be using more than one build system across multiple projects.

Interestingly, or worryingly, from our perspective of moving our training projects to CMake, about two thirds of the respondents found CMake to be a major or minor pain point. Managing CMake was the third most frustrating aspect of C++ development behind managing libraries and project build times.

We need to use build systems because compiling an application from source code is no longer as simple as running a single compilation command such as:

$ g++ -o Application main.cpp

While this works, it relies on default configuration options for the compiler and linker.

We should point out that referring to g++ as a compiler is misleading. It isn’t very obvious, but g++ is itself a very simplistic build system responsible for running a number of build phases:

  • the preprocessor
  • the compiler
  • the assembler (code generator)
  • the linker

Anyone who has worked with the Microsoft C++ tools will be aware that there is a separate compiler (cl.exe which includes the preprocessor and assembler) and linker (link.exe).

The build process is complex and involves many stages with different requirements, inputs and outputs and can be summarised in the following diagram.

In reality, we use a build system to manage some or all of the following aspects of software development:

  • source code organisation
  • source code inter-dependecies
  • managing third party libraries
  • compilation options
  • code generation options
  • program linker configuration
  • post build processing
  • managing testing

It’s worth looking closely at these steps in order to understand the requirements of a build system and the concept of a development Toolchain.

Source Code Organisation – In Source Builds

Our simple example above generates the intermediary object files and executable program in the current directory. When we store the output files in the same directory as the source files we call this an In-source build: this is generally considered a bad idea. Managing the source code will become problematical when our application gets more complex and requires multiple files.

The output files from a build process can be re-created from the source code so do not need to be saved using a backup regime, whereas source code must be saved which these days is usually achieved using a source code repository such as Git.

The lifecycle management of source code and build output files are independent and should be stored in different locations. Many build tools and tool generators (like Meson) do not even support in-source builds.

Source Code Organisation – Out of Source Builds

All projects should store generated artefacts (object files, executable applications, etc.) in a separate location to the source code.

A typical C/C++ application will separate out logical subsystems into different components and these will usually be stored in a hierarchical directories structure representing the application’s architecture. A build system should manage source code (including header files) stored in multiple directory locations.

There is no standard structure for C/C++ source code and a quick browse of open source projects in GitHub shows nearly as many different source code structures as there are projects (a bit of an exaggeration but it does show there is no single standard).

Many projects intermingle the header files with the source files, which can lead to complex compilation options when the source code is stored in hierarchical directories. Header files define the interface to a module’s functionality, and a best practice approach is to separate interface from implementation. Applying this approach to source code organisation implies that header files should be stored separately from the implementation files.

Back when I was developing code using Unix I used directory names src for source files and hdr for the header files, with both directories stored in the project’s root directory; but the use of src and inc is the usual practice in embedded system. Not everyone likes the traditional Unix style of shortening words (often by omitting vowels) preferring to use source and include instead.

What everyone does agree on is that the generated output files go in a separate folder: normally in the project workspace. Typical names are build or target as used by the Maven build system.

No matter how the source code is organised, the compiler must be told where the source and header files are located.

Another aspect of source code organisation is integrating the build process with a source code management system. The ability to download the latest committed version of source code before building means the same build system can be used for local development as well as the centralised pipelines of Continuous Integration commonly used in agile development methodologies.

Once the locations of source and headers files are determined, a definition of the component files is also required for a build process. These files can be supplied individually or by using wildcard patterns – a good build system will support both.

The benefit of listing each file individually is that the build system provides a definitive list of source dependencies for the build artefacts, which is helpful for general administration tasks and undertaking a risk analysis for business continuity purposes. The drawback is that this list has to be maintained and the extra administration required can nudge developers into including code in existing modules rather than creating a new module, especially if the build configuration is centrally administered in an overly restrictive manner.

A wildcard approach to filenames (e.g. src/*.cpp) superficially seems more straightforward as it doesn’t require the developer to list each file allowing new files to be easily added. The downside is that the build system does not have a definitive list of the source code files for a given artefact, making it harder to track dependencies and understand precisely what components are required. Wildcards also allow spurious files to be included in the build – maybe an older module that has been superseded but not removed from the source folder.

Best practice says to list all source modules individually despite the, hopefully minor, extra workload involved when first configuring the project or adding additional modules as the project evolves.

Source File Dependencies

Larger projects will use multiple source files to breakdown a large code base into smaller manageable units, probably using directories to group files in component subsystems. There will be interdependencies between these files. For C/C++ projects the dependencies can be identified through the occurrence of #include statements.

Large projects can take a while to compile and link all of the separate files from scratch (a clean build).  A large C project can take 20 or 30 minutes to build even using a fast multi-core server. For C++ projects making heavy use of templates the build times can be measured in hours rather than minutes.

Most build systems will optimise the build process by omitting stages that are already up to date. For C/C++ builds this means omitting the compilation of a source file if neither the source nor any of the files it depends have been changed since the last build.

But a build optimisation only works correctly if the build configuration correctly captures the dependencies between files. For simple build system like GNU Make the developer must specify and maintain these dependencies manually. A build system generator like CMake will scan the source files to maintain the dependencies automatically.

Compilation Options

Compilation options must specify:

  • the source language version, sometimes the source language
  • compilation options
  • include file locations
  • preprocessor symbols (or defines)

Typically, compilation options are provided as command-line parameters but there is no reason why a compiler couldn’t read a configuration from a specification file.

As an example of a compilation option the GNU g++ compiler uses the -std=c++17 for working with C++17 whereas the Microsoft cl compiler uses /std:c++17. It’s also worth pointing out that the GNU Compiler Collection uses different compiler for C (gcc) and C++ ( g++), but Microsoft supplies one compiler (cl) and uses the filename extension to determine the language (.c or .cpp).

A build file generator such as CMake or Meson must handle these different approaches.

An essential compilation option is setting the correct level of compiler warnings. A C/C++ compiler will attempt to generate code whenever possible; only if code cannot be generated will a compilation error be issued. This means that the compiler sometimes makes assumptions about what the programmer intended when writing the source code statements. The phrase “never assume because you make an ASS out of U and ME” has some significance here.

Using g++, we recommend, as a minimum, using the -Wall and -Wextra options to enable warnings for code use that is generally regarded as questionable (this doesn’t include implicit type conversion). The -pedantic and/or -ansi options enforce strict ISO (formerly ANSI) language compliance which is advisable as it will ensure you don’t make use of g++ specific features and pre-empt potential problems if you decide to use a different tool chain in the future.

Other compilation options are used to generate warnings when the compiler infers a programmer’s intentions when the source code is not explicit. A good example of the compiler inferring the programmer’s intentions where the source code is not explicit is the implicit conversion of a signed to an unsigned integer value. Implicit sign conversion can cause subtle problems when working with hardware device registers, so we usually add the -Wconversion and -Wsign-conversion warnings on g++ to identify these situations.

In general, set warnings to the highest level possible and remove all, or at least as many warnings as possible, from the compilation.

Your compilation phase should be augmented by static analysis tools such as clang-tidy, cppcheck or commercial tools such as Coverity which examine code structure and data flow without executing the code. These tools use heuristic rules to identify potential logic flaws and non compliance to coding guidelines such as MISRA widely used in embedded systems.

Include File Locations

We find that when teaching the use of #include preprocessor directive is a common source of confusion, even amongst experienced C/C++ programmers. We’re often asked what is the difference between using angle brackets < > and quotes ” “?

Originally angle brackets were used for header files in standard locations known to the compiler, whereas quotes were used to define a string literal specifying the path to the header file (relative to the project workspace). These days life isn’t quite that clear cut, but the general approach is to use < > for library headers and “” for user-defined headers.

The ISO C and C++ standards both say that “The named source file is searched for in an implementation-defined manner” for both < > and ” “ (see the “Source File Inclusion” section in the relevant standard).

The C++ standard header files are defined with logical module names like <iostream> whereas in C we use the header filenames like <stdio.h>. When using C header files with C++ the logical name is the base part of the filename prefixed by c so <stdio.h> becomes <cstdio>.

The compiler knows where standard header files are located. For example, the Linux host g++ compiler looks in /usr/include whereas the Arm g++ compiler (located at /opt/arm-toolchain/bin/arm-none-eabi-g++) looks in /opt/arm-toolchain/include. There is a full description for hosted GNU compilers in the Search Path section of the manual.

We can tell the compiler to look in other locations using the -I directive which specifies an additional directory to search for include headers. Note that this is just the top-level directory and not a recursive directory search.

We can use multiple include path locations on a compilation so we could include nested include directories as separate -I options. For example, when developing out embedded target code for an STM Discovery board ( we include standard header files using -Isystem/include/cmsis and -Isystem/include/stm32f4xx separately;  we cannot just use  -Isystem/include. Note that these are relative paths from the project workspace (not an absolute path like /usr/include).

When using #include directives with string literals we are specifying file pathnames. But this approach can be abused by using a directive such as:

#include “../hdr/mylib.h”

This approach has coupled the organisation of the files on the file system to the C++ program code structure. We could not rename the hdr directory to include without modifying every source file that uses this header file. A maintenance nightmare – so this should be avoided.

To solve the file system dependency, we would add -Ihdr to include the hdr folder in source include files search (some people prefer to use -i./hdr to make it explicit this is relative to the project workspace). Our include path now becomes “mylib.h” without any path information. It is common to organise headers files in sub-directories so it would still be acceptable to use “lib/mysublib.h” as the header file organisation is part of the project structure.

The compiler uses the include locations to resolve all include directives so in the previous example we could also have written #include <mylib.h> but this would not follow the accepted conventions of using string literals for user defined header files.

In resolving include file paths modern compilers will typically look for the header file relative to the location of the source files containing the #include statement. If the header file is not found that way the compiler will search the specified include locations, in the order given on the command line, until it finds an exact filename match (Note, both Windows and OSX are case insensitive when searching for included filenames).

Some compilers may adopt a different approach such as initially looking for include files relative to the current working directory rather than the location of the source file. Defining and using a compiler’s -I option (or equivalent) in a build system removes the dependency on a compiler’s include file lookup strategy.

The specified order of the include directories is therefore important and a possible source of problems if there are multiple header files with the same name: the first filename match is used and the same filename in subsequent include directories are ignored: duplicated include header filenames are not treated as an error. The best practice is to use unique header filenames or, failing that, use hierarchical directories to ensure unique paths. A good example of the directory approach is the standard Linux header types.h which is included as <sys/types.h>.

Code generation Options

Code generation or assembler options are specified on the compilation command line and include general concepts like optimisation levels and architecture-specific options. For example, when cross compiling to an Arm processor, we use -mcpu=cortex-m4 flag to set the correct architecture and -mfloat-abi=soft to use a software FPU library because the QEMU we use for online training does not include support for a hardware FPU.

Code optimisation is typically disabled during development by using the -Og option (the g is short for gdb the name of the Gnu debugger), but for a released version of the application (see build types described later) we may want to include some optimisation. For example, using -Ofast will optimise for speed at the expense of a potentially larger memory footprint whereas -Os will optimise for the smallest memory usage usually with slower code execution (the s means size).

Usually, we apply the same options to all compilation units (each source file is compiled independently) but sometimes it may be desirable to treat some source files differently. A good example would be targeting an embedded system with a limited amount of memory where we optimise for small size with -Os. However, if one module is a critical performance bottleneck, we may need that compilation unit to be optimised for speed with -Ofast.

Make sure whatever build system you use will support different compilation options for different source files: even if you don’t need it now, you might in the future.

Preprocessor Directives

We use preprocessor directives to configure our source code so that we can use a single code base (one project) to build potentially different applications.

Examples of standard preprocessor symbols are __STDC_VERSION_ and __cplusplus which can be used to verify the compiler options are set to the correct C or C++ language version.

To ensure we are using C++17 we would a check in our code such as:

#if __cplusplus < 201703L
#error “__FILE__ requires a C++17 compiler”

Here the symbol __FILE__ is the filename of the current compilation unit.

If we knew we were always using a Modern C++ compiler (C++11 or later) we could also have used:

static_assert(__cplusplus >= 201703L)

A good example of user-defined configuration options can be seen in our embedded training projects currently using an STM Discovery board (STM32F407VG) with hardware components configured at specific addresses. We know that we may need to change this to a different board in the future; perhaps STM will stop manufacturing this particular board.

If we need to move to a different board with similar hardware components in the future, these components could be mapped to different physical addresses. We can build this dependency into our source code using conditional compilation based on preprocessor symbol definitions.

To resolve our theoretical problem of differing physical addresses we use pre-processor directives to include the appropriate device header file:

#ifdef STM32F407xx
#include “stm32f407xx.h”
#elif defined(STM32F417xx)
#include "stm32f417xx.h"

Our build configuration would define the appropriate preprocessor symbol on the command line: in this case using -DSTM32F407xx to select the appropriate hardware configuration.

Similarly, we can use -DDEBUG to define a debug symbol which we use to set options applicable to developing and debugging code such a -Og to optimise for the debugger.

Compiler defines are used to support the concept of different Build Configurations which CMake refers to as build type, but an IDE usually calls a build configuration or build target.

Build Configuration

A build configuration can be described as the combination of all the build options that uniquely define the application being built. Many projects have the idea of a debug build optimised for development and a release build optimised for use.

Each build configuration uses a separate output folder for the build artefacts (object files, executable and additional supporting files). This prevents a one build configuration from overwriting the output from a different configuration.

Build configurations can be used for many purposes. Our previous example of using two different target hardware boards would be separate builds for each hardware target. Actually, including debug and release versions for the two different hardware targets, that’s four different configurations and for separate build output locations.

We can also use build configurations to install our application in a central location or a web server where end-users can access and use our build artefacts.

A good build system will allow us to automate this deployment and/or installation process.

Program Linker Configuration

Like the compiler, linker options are provided as command line parameters usually augmented by configuration files and run-time libraries. The linking stage for embedded systems is often more complex than the compilation stage because it as at this point that run time libraries, and the physical memory architecture have to be resolved to create a image suitable for the target board.

When using the Gnu toolchain, the use of linker options can be confusing because the same command (gcc or g++) is used for both compilation and linking. Linker options specified to a compilation are ignored, similarly compiler options are ignored when linking. Working with Arm g++ we might build a system using a compilation command and a link command:

$ g++ -c -o build/main.o -std=c++17 --specs=rdimon.specs src/main.cpp
$ g++ -o build/Application.elf -std=c++17 --specs=rdimon.specs main.o

While this works it isn’t clear that the std=c++17 option is probably not used by the linker. Similarly, the –specs option tells the linker to include a debug version of the embedded C standard library, which isn’t required by the compiler.

Microsoft developers have a separate link.exe program used to link the application so the two build steps are clearly differentiated.

A good build system will clearly differentiate between compiler and linker options.

On a host compilation the linker is specific to the host and simply needs to be given the list of optional run time libraries used by the project. In our C++ courses we discuss threading which requires the linker to include the POSIX threading library using the g++ option -lpthread.  The other common linking requirement is for handling libraries: should they be included in the executable image (static linkage), or use dynamic linking to a shared library (.so or .dll file) at application startup.

Using a development toolchain for an embedded (cross compiled) system has more complex linkage requirements. The physical board memory layout must be supplied to the linker: the GNU Arm Embedded Toolchain  uses .ld files for this purpose. There will be runtime kernel or executive code that executes at board reset to initialise the hardware, setup the stack, heap and static data sections before calling the main function to start the program.

An embedded system linker needs to include the C/C++ runtime libraries. In the case of the GNU Arm Embedded Toolchain these are provided by the  –specs options. For a debug version the rdimon.specs is linked to support semi-hosted debugging (I/O streams are mapped onto the serial port used to flash memory), while a release version uses nosys.specs which has stubs for standard I/O support and unsupported host system functions.

Post Build Processing

The last step in our build (if we ignore deployment and installation) is any additional processing required after a successful build.

For a hosted application, we might strip the generated executable to remove all embedded symbols and other redundant information to reduce the size of the executable image.

For a cross-compilation to target hardware, we usually have to generate additional binary (or hex) files containing the image to load into flash memory. If we have embedded debug support, we will need map files to support post-crash analysis it allows the programmer to understand and review the target memory layout.

Managing Testing and Debugging

Testing and debugging is too extensive a subject to cover in any detail in this post, but a build system should be capable of running automated tests at any point of the build cycle. Test management should include unit testing on a per-source code module, integration testing, and functional testing of the various build artefacts generated by the build process.

Using debugging tools such as Open OCD  and Segger Ozone while a necessary part of development may be too much for a build system to manage. Typically build systems like to create artefacts such as object files, executable images or other output files such as generated web pages for reports and build summaries. Interactive debugging does not fit very well with this approach.

Limitations of a  Build System

Tools such as CMake have a very extensive “programming language” used to configure the build process. While it may appear attractive to use this programmable capability to incorporate additional steps to the build system this can end up adding huge complexity to the build instructions. It may be better kept some aspect oft the development lifecycle decoupled from the build system.

Moving away from a Build System will introduce problems to do with portability and maintenance of the supporting scripts. Bash scripts are supported on Linux and OSX but on Windows are provided by third party libraries such as MinGW or Cygwin. Recently Microsoft have been integrating Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) more closely with Windows 10 and this provides another source for running shell scripts. Using bash scripts for Windows developers in not straightforward. Similarly PowerShell is standard on Windows 10, but has to be installed on Linux and OSX.

While Python is cross platform some of the standard libraries are only available on Linux like platforms (usually including OSX) while others are only available on Windows. Python’s popularity is partly down to the extensive range of third-party libraries available, which would have to be installed on the developer’s workstations.

Stepping away from the build tool to provide additional development lifecycle support but that loses the inherent portability of a build tool like CMake. Developers can find themselves deciding to use a build tool to configure the build environment before they can even start development work on a project.


Hopefully, you now know why we need build systems to support modern software development. Applications have complex configuration and build requirements that need to be captured and implemented by a build system. Applications are no longer single source files that can be compiled using a single command line.

In case it isn’t apparent, the build system configuration is part of the project’s source code and should be stored in the same code repository as the program source. Anyone checking out a project source code will then be able to build the project.

This blog post is a pre-cursor to posts discussing what we learned when configuring CMake for our cross compilation and hosted training projects.

Posted in Build-systems, C/C++ Programming, Toolchain | 8 Comments

Modern Embedded C++ – Deprecation of volatile

Compiling the following, straightforward code:

volatile int x;

int main() {
    x += 10;

Using g++ with the directive -std=c++17 builds without any warnings or errors. However, change the directive to -std=c++20, and the result is:

source>: In function 'int main()':
<source>:5:5: warning: compound assignment with 'volatile'-qualified left operand is deprecated [-Wvolatile]
    5 |   x += 10;
      |   ~~^~~~~
Compiler returned: 0

The new C++ standard, C++20, has deprecated volatile! So, what does this mean for the embedded programmer?

We covered the need for and use of, volatile in a previous posting. That post (written in April 2020) did state that:

In C++20 many general uses of volatile are being deprecated.

The key phrase here is general uses.

Volatile in embedded

Continue reading

Posted in ARM, C/C++ Programming | Tagged | Leave a comment

GitHub Codespaces and online development

In our previous posting, we discussed using VSCode’s Dev Container extension to allow running workspaces directly within a Docker container.

In December 2020, I was granted early access to a new feature developed by GitHub called Codespaces. Codespaces offers an online VSCode development environment, enabling you to develop entirely in the cloud.

The great news is that Codespaces uses the same core process, and file structure, as Dev Containers; meaning once we have our .devcontainer folder setup (if you are unfamiliar with Dev Containers it is worth reading the previous blog first) “it just works” online.

TDD in the cloud

Using our example from the previous blog (GoogleTest and meson) to run using Codespaces is Simples!.

When granted Codespaces access, open the GitHub project and under the Clone or download button you are offered the option Open with Codespaces

Continue reading

Posted in Agile, C/C++ Programming, General, Industry Analysis, Testing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

VSCode, Dev Containers and Docker: moving software development forward

Long term readers of this blog will know our devotion to using container-based technology, especially Docker, to significantly improve software quality through repeatable builds.

In the Autumn/fall of 2020, Microsoft introduced a Visual Studio Code (VSCode) extension Remote – Containers. With one quick stroke, this extension allows you to open a VSCode project within a Docker container.

Getting started with Dev Containers and Docker

There are several different approaches to using Dev Containers. In this post, we shall cover three options:

  1. Using an existing Docker image from Docker Hub
  2. Using a pre-build Microsoft container setup
  3. Using a custom Docker image based on a project specific Dockerfile

There are a couple of prerequisites:

Using an existing Docker image – TDD in C with Ceedling

Anyone using or experimenting with Test-Driven-Development in C will probably be aware of Ceedling, unity and CMock.

Whether or not you have Ceedling, or any dependents, such as Ruby, installed we can begin using Dev Container with an existing Dockerhub container image. Containerisation ensures we can quickly get up and running with Ceedling in a known environment. In true ‘Blue Peter‘ style, we happen to have a pre-built Ceedling based Docker image on Docker Hub.

  1. Create an empty folder, e.g.
$ mkdir ceedling_test
  1. In the new folder, create another folder called .devcontainer (note the preceding .)
$ cd ceedling_test
$ mkdir .devcontainer
  1. In that new folder, add a file called devcontainer.json with the contents
    "image": "feabhas/ceedling"
  1. Your project structure should now be:
    └── devcontainer.json
  1. Now open VSCode in the working directory
$ code .
  1. VScode will detect the Dev Container configuration file and ask if you want to reopen the folder in a container. Click Reopen in Container.
  2. Open a terminal window within VSCode, and you will be presented with a shell prompt #. We are now running within a Docker container based on the image feabhas/ceedling.
  3. Test the container, e.g.
# ceedling new test_project
Welcome to Ceedling!
      create  test_project/project.yml

Project 'test_project' created!
 - Execute 'ceedling help' from test_project to view available test & build tasks

# cd test_project

# ceedling module:create[widget]
File src/widget.c created
File src/widget.h created
File test/test_widget.c created
Generate Complete

# ceedling test

Test 'test_widget.c'
Generating runner for test_widget.c...
Compiling test_widget_runner.c...
Compiling test_widget.c...
Compiling unity.c...
Compiling widget.c...
Compiling cmock.c...
Linking test_widget.out...
Running test_widget.out...

  Test: test_widget_NeedToImplement
  At line (15): "Need to Implement widget"



After exiting VSCode, all files created will exist in your local file system. Reopening VSCode, you will once again be prompted to reopen in the container.

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Introduction to the ARM® Cortex®-M7 Cache – Part 3 Optimising software to use cache

Part 1 Cache Basics

Part 2 Cache Replacement Policy

Caches – Why do we miss?

Cold Start

As stated, both data and instruction caches are required to be invalidated on system start. Therefore, the first load of any object (code or data) cannot be in cache (thus the cold start condition).

One available technique to help with cold-start conditions is the ability to pre-load data into the cache. The ARMv7-M instruction set adds the Preload Data (PLD) instruction. The PLD instruction signals to the memory system that data memory accesses from a specified address are likely shortly. If the address is cacheable, then the memory system responds by pre-loading the cache line containing the specified address into the cache. Unfortunately, there is currently no CMSIS intrinsic support for the PLD instruction.

It is worth noting that some processor data caches implement an automatic prefetcher (e.g. Cortex-A15). This monitors cache misses, and when a pattern is detected, the automatic prefetcher starts linefills in the background. Unfortunately, the Cortex-M7 data cache does not support automatic prefetch.


The other most obvious reason for misses is that of cache capacity. The larger the cache, the higher the probability of a cache hit and the lower the frequency of eviction. However, all this comes at a cost, not only financial but also power.

A larger cache is, naturally, going to contribute to the overall System-on-Chip (SoC) costs, making the end microprocessor more expensive. In high volume designs, this is always a significant factor in SoC choice.

Among all processor components, the cache and memory subsystem generally consume a large portion of the total microprocessor system power, commonly 30-50% of the total power [Zang13]. Caches, thus, add a further level of complexity to the poor-overworked engineer trying to calculate the design’s power model and has an impact on all battery-based designs.


Finally, misses will occur due to natural eviction followed by a reload. So a simple loop such as:

for(uint32_t i = 0; i < N; ++i) {
   dst[i] = src[i];

may result in multiple eviction/reload cycles depending on the memory addresses of dst and src. Also, any dst[i] eviction will result in a memory write as the line is marked dirty. The 4-way data cache goes a long way to help reduce the potential of dst[i] eviction, but because of the pseudo-random replacement policy, it may happen more often than we would expect or like.

Code Optimizations

There are a key number of areas where we, as a software developer, can potentially impact the performance of cache:

  • Algorithms
  • Data structures
  • Code structures

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Introduction to the ARM® Cortex®-M7 Cache – Part 2 Cache Replacement Policy

Part 1 Cache Basics

Instruction Cache Replacement Policy

Starting with the simpler instruction cache case; when we encounter a cache miss the normal policy is to evict the current cache line and replace it with the new cache line. This is known as a read-allocate policy and is the default on all instruction caches.

Cold start (first read)

It should also be noted that on system power-up the initial state of the cache is unknown. On the ARMv7-M all caches are disabled at reset. Before the cache is accessed, it needs invalidating. As well as each line having a tag associated with it, each line also has a valid flag (V-bit) which indicates whether the current cache line has been populated from main memory or not.

The cache must be invalidated before being enabled. The method for this is implementation-defined. In some cases, invalidation is performed by hardware, whereas in other cases it is a requirement of the boot code. CMSIS- has added a specific instruction cache API to support these operations for the Cortex-M7:

void SCB_InvalidateICache(void);
void SCB_EnableICache(void);    
void SCB_DisableICache(void);

Direct Mapped Cache

So far, we have assumed that the whole of the cache is mapped as one contiguous area, we call this a Direct Mapped cache. A lot of work in trying to improve cache performance has been done over the years and the key metric has been found to be that of cache hit/miss rate, i.e. what is our ratio of reads that result is a cache fetch against those requiring a main memory fetch and cache line eviction.

Studies have shown that the Direct Mapped Cache may not always achieve the best cache hit ratios. Take, for example, the following code:

// file1.c
int filter_algo(int p)
   return result;

// file2.c
void apply_filter(int* p, int N)
   for(int i = 0; i < N, ++i) {
     x[N] = filter_algo(*(p+i)) + k[N];

If, unluckily, apply_filter was in the address range of 0x00004000 and filter_algo was around 0x00005000 then each time apply_filter called on filter_algo, this would result in an eviction of the apply_filter code and the filling of the filter_algo instructions. But upon return, we would have to evict filter_algo code and refill with apply_filter instructions. As the algorithm executed it would cause cache thrashing.

Set-associative cache

Due to the principles of locality, research suggested that rather than a single direct-mapped cache, a better approach is to split the cache into an array of buffers, where two addresses with the same line index can reside in different array indices.

In cache terminology, each array index is known as a way, so we talk about N-Way caches. The number of ways can vary, typically ranging from 2 to 8. For the Cortex-M7 the instruction cache is a 2-way system. When we access an address, we now have ‘N’ possible lines to make a tag match against. The number of valid lines involved in the tag comparison is called the set. Continue reading

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Introduction to the ARM® Cortex®-M7 Cache – Part 1 Cache Basics

For many years, the majority of smaller microprocessor-based systems have typically not used caches. With the launch of the ARMv7 architectures, caches were supported in the ARMv7-A family (e.g. Cortex-A8, etc.) but not supported in the core design of the ARMv7-M micro-controllers such as the Cortex-M3 and Cortex-M4. However, when the Cortex-M7 was announced, it broke that mould by offering cache support for the smaller embedded micro-controller.

This series is broken down in three parts:

  1. Basic principles of cache
  2. Cache replacement policies
  3. Optimising software to use cache

Why introduce caches into the architecture?

The purpose of a cache is to increase the average speed of memory access. The most immediate and obvious benefit is one of improved application performance, which in turn can lead to an enhanced power model. Caches have been used for many years (dating back as far as the 1960s) in high-end processor-based systems.

The driver behind the development and use of a cache is based on The Locality Principle.

Caches operate on two principles of locality:

  • Spatial locality
    • Access to one memory location is likely to be followed by accesses to adjacent locations.
  • Temporal locality
    • Access to an area of memory is likely to be repeated within a short period.

Also of note is Sequentiality – Given that a reference has been made to a particular location s it is likely that within the next several references, a reference to the location of s + 1 will be made. Sequentiality is a restricted type of spatial locality and can be regarded as a subset of it.

In high-end modern systems, there can be many forms of cache, including network and disk caches, but here we will focus on main memory caches. In addition, main memory caches can also be hierarchical, i.e. there are multiple caches between the processor and main memory, often referred too as L1, L2, L3, etc., with L1 being nearest to the processor core.

The Cache

The simplest way to think of a cache is as a small, high-speed buffer placed between the central processor unit (CPU) and main memory that stores blocks of recently referred to main memory.

Once we’re using a cache, each memory read will result in one of two outcomes:

  • A cache hit – the memory for the address is already in cache.
  • A cache miss – the memory access was not in cache, and therefore we have to go out to main memory to access it.

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TDD with Compiler Explorer

Compiler Explorer (CE) has been around for several years now. When it first appeared on the scene, it immediately became an invaluable tool. Its ability to show generated assembler from given source code across many different compilers and ISAs (Instruction Set Architectures) is “mind-blowing”. We use it extensively when teaching as it allows you to clarify the effect your code can have on both performance and memory usage. 

However, rather than limiting itself to only showing generated assembler, recent developments include the ability to execute the code and examine the program output. Having online support for this is nothing especially new (e.g. ColiruWandbox, etc.), but it’s helpful to have it within one tool.

For example, given a simple “hello, world!” program, we see the standard output in a new tab:

Test-Driven Development

One of the significant benefits to come out of the growth of Agile development is the acceptance that unit testing is just part of the development cycle, rather than a separate activity after coding.

Agile unit-testing, better known as Test-Driven Development, or TDD for short, has lead to a growth of unit-test frameworks, all based around the original xUnit model, typified by GoogleTest (gtest). 

As part of the continuing improvements and feature extensions, CE added support for various libraries to be included as part of the build. Included in this set is support for gtest, as well as two other, more modern, test frameworks; Catch2 and doctest.

Using Google Test with Compiler Explorer

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