10 Nov 2018, 17:53

Build Systems: CMake and Autotools

I think I am finally warming up to CMake.

Eight years ago (at FOSDEM 2010), I gave a talk on build systems that explains the fundamentals of automake, autoconf and libtool:

There is nothing in this talk that is no longer valid today as far as I can see, though CMake was “newfangled” then and is a lot less so today. In any case, my conclusion still stands:

  • Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, use a popular build system.
  • You cannot write a portable build system from scratch – so don’t try.

My advice came from pent-up frustration over software that does not build on my platform (MirBSD, at the time) but remains true today. And to be clear:

Autotools is still a good choice for new code.


However, recent experience has made me like CMake a lot more. For one, it is more common today, which means that packaging systems such as pkgsrc have good support for using it. For instance, in a pkgsrc Makefile, configuring using CMake is as easy as specifying


As the user of a package (i.e. the person who compiles it), CMake builds are compelling because they (a) configure faster and (b) build faster.

Regarding configuring, it is infuriating (to me) how the run time of the configure script in autotools totally dominates build time, as long as you run make -j12 or similar. CMake typically checks fewer things (I think) and does not run giant blobs of shell, so it is faster.

For the latter, I have noticed that CMake builds typically manage to use all the cores of the machine, while automake-based builds do not. I think (again, this is speculation) that this is because automake encourages one Makefile per directory (which are being run sequentially, not in parallel) and one directory per target, while CMake builds all in one go. Automake can do one Makefile for all directories too, but support for that was added only a few years ago, and it seems rarely used.

CMake builds also have different diagnostics (console output), optionally in color. Some people hate the colors, and they can be garish, but I do like the percentages that are shown for every line.

Concrete case: icewm

When I recently packaged wm/icewm14, I noticed that you now have the choice of CMake or autotools, and I ended up with CMake. There were a few things to fix but its CMakeLists.txt file is reasonably easy to edit. Note that it contains both configuration tests and target declarations. Here is a small example:

ADD_EXECUTABLE(genpref${EXEEXT} genpref.cc ${MISC_SRCS})

# ... other targets ...

INSTALL(TARGETS icewm${EXEEXT} icesh${EXEEXT} icewm-session${EXEEXT} icewmhint${EXEEXT} icewmbg${EXEEXT} DESTINATION ${BINDIR})

Compared to the same thing in automake:

noinst_PROGRAMS = \

genpref_SOURCES = \
	intl.h \
	debug.h \
	sysdep.h \
	base.h \
	bindkey.h \
	themable.h \
	default.h \
genpref_LDADD = libice.la @LIBINTL@

So if anything, the syntax is no worse but the result is a bit better. I was able to rummage around in CMakeLists.txt without reading any documentation.