Notes on CMake

Recently I started working on a project that uses CMake. I've used CMake a little before, but never really had to dive much into it. In particular, I needed to understand the scripting parts of CMake for adding tests for CTest.

Below are some comments on aspects of CMake.

Variables and variable substitution

Variables names are strings. Substitution occurs when the variable is dereferenced with ${}.

SET(var, a)
MESSAGE("var = ${var}")


var = a

Nested substitutions are possible

SET(var, a)
SET(a, b)
MESSAGE("var = ${var}  ${${var}}")

will produce var = a b

Variable names can be composed during substitution

SET(var, a)
SET(a_one, apple)
MESSAGE("var =  ${${var}_one}")

will produce var = apple

Variables and functions

Variable references act a little like pointers, but without a type system to enforce (and guide) how many indirections should be performed.

Example of using a variable inside a function:

    MESSAGE("arg1 = ${arg1}")

SET(var, a)
MY_FUNC(var) # arg1 is set to 'var'
MY_FUNC(${var}) # arg1 is set to 'a' - this is usually what you want


arg1 = var
arg1 = a

Return values from functions

There is no built-in notion of a return value from a function. To get values out of a function, write to one of the arguments.

A function creates a new scope - changes to a variable will only affect the variable's value inside the function. To affect the value in the parent, the PARENT_SCOPE modifier should be given to the SET command. (More on variable scopes here)

Another issue is the variable name for the output value needs to be dereferenced before being set. Otherwise a variable with the name used in the function will be set in the parent, which can work by accident if the variables have the same name.


    # The following line works by accident if the name of variable in the parent
    # is the same as in the function
    SET(ret "in function" PARENT_SCOPE)
    # This is the correct way to get the variable name passed to the function
    SET(${ret} "in function" PARENT_SCOPE)

SET(ret "before function")
MESSAGE("output from function = ${ret}")

will produce output from function = in function

Data structures

There is only the List type, with some functions for operations on lists. The documentation on lists says that "Lists ... should not be used for complex data processing tasks", but doesn't say what to use instead.

For associative arrays or maps there are some options:

  • Two parallel lists - one of keys and one of values. Search the key list and use the index to look up value. More awkward for passing to functions.
  • Single list with alternating keys and values. Search the list for the key, and use index+1 to look up the value. Only works if the range of possibilities for keys and values are distinct (e.g., keys are strings and values are always numbers).
  • The environment (ENV{key}) is a built-in associative array. It could be overloaded to store other values, at the risk of polluting the environment.

Test timeout

The default timeout per test is 1500 seconds (25 minutes).

To increase this, adjust the value of DART_TESTING_TIMEOUT. It needs to be set as a cache variable, and it needs to be set before the enable_testing() or include(CTest) is specified.

SET( DART_TESTING_TIMEOUT 3600 CACHE STRING "Maximum time for one test")

See also this Stack Overflow post


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