Mastering Cross-Platform Development with CMake and C++

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Cross-platform development is essential in the ever-diverse world of software. Whether you're targeting Windows, macOS, Linux, or even embedded systems, ensuring your C++ code runs consistently across platforms is crucial. CMake, a powerful build system and project configuration tool, is your ally in this endeavor. In this deep-dive article, we'll explore advanced techniques and best practices for achieving seamless cross-platform development with CMake and C++.

The Foundation: CMakeLists.txt

At the heart of cross-platform development with CMake is the CMakeLists.txt file. This file defines the project structure, compilation settings, and dependencies. To create a cross-platform project, you should:

1. Set Up Project and Version:

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.12)

2. Define Executable or Library Targets:

add_executable(MyApp main.cpp)

3. Platform-Independent Code:

Organize your codebase to separate platform-specific code from platform-independent code. Use conditional statements in CMake to handle platform-specific configurations:

    # Unix-specific configurations
    # Windows-specific configurations

Managing Dependencies

Handling dependencies across platforms can be complex. CMake simplifies this with its find_package() mechanism. For example, to include the Boost C++ Libraries:

find_package(Boost REQUIRED)
target_link_libraries(MyApp ${Boost_LIBRARIES})

Remember to consider platform-specific dependencies and configure your project accordingly.

Compiler and Build Settings

CMake helps you manage compiler and build settings for different platforms:

1. Compiler Flags:

Set compiler flags using target_compile_options() or add_compile_options(). For instance, to enable C++11 for all platforms:

target_compile_features(MyApp PUBLIC cxx_std_11)

2. Output Paths:

Control where build artifacts are stored using set(CMAKE_ARCHIVE_OUTPUT_DIRECTORY ...) and related variables.

3. Cross-Compiling:

For embedded or cross-compiling scenarios, set the CMake toolchain file using the -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE option:

cmake -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=your_toolchain.cmake ..

Handling Third-Party Libraries

CMake simplifies the integration of third-party libraries, making them consistent across platforms. Use ExternalProject or FetchContent for this purpose. For example, using FetchContent for the SQLite library:


Building for Different Platforms

To build for specific platforms, use the -G option with CMake to specify the generator:

  • Windows (Visual Studio): -G "Visual Studio 16 2019"
  • macOS (Xcode): -G Xcode
  • Linux (Makefiles): -G "Unix Makefiles"

Testing Across Platforms

CMake facilitates cross-platform testing with tools like CTest and Google Test. To add tests to your project, use add_test() and enable_testing() in your CMakeLists.txt file.

Packaging and Distribution

Consider packaging your application for different platforms. CMake can help create platform-specific installers or packages, such as MSI installers for Windows, DMGs for macOS, or DEB/RPM packages for Linux.

Continuous Integration

To ensure code quality and cross-platform compatibility, set up a Continuous Integration (CI) system like Travis CI, Jenkins, or GitHub Actions. Automate your build and test processes for multiple platforms.


Cross-platform development with CMake and C++ empowers you to reach a broader audience and ensures consistent code execution across diverse environments. By mastering CMake's capabilities for managing dependencies, configuring compilers, handling third-party libraries, and testing, you'll become adept at crafting robust, cross-platform C++ applications. Whether you're developing desktop software, mobile apps, or embedded systems, CMake equips you with the tools to conquer the complexities of cross-platform development, bringing your software to users worldwide.

Want to read more? Check out "Mastering CMake: A Cross-Platform Build System" by Ken Martin, Bill Hoffman, and Robert Maynard

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