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First written on 2020–09–11.
Last updated on 2021–01–02.

In this article and several more, I will be discussing developing a very simple C++ library and application using CMake and Visual Studio Code. I will also use git and Google Test, and port the project from Windows to Linux. Most of the information is applicable to using almost any IDE, or indeed, no IDE at all.

  1. After 10 years with Sublime Text, I switched to VSCode — the new open source cross-platform editor everyone’s talking about. I’ve spent over a thousand hours perfecting my setup to help you switch today and bring all your custom settings and the power user workflows for HTML/CSS, GitHub/Git & Open Source, supercharged Markdown, and everything from JavaScript to PHP, Go, Python, C, C#, ROR.
  2. What is a CMake generator? — Stack Overflow Ubuntu Manpage: cmake-generators — CMake Generators Reference cmake(1) — CMake 3.5.2 Documentation Visual Studio Code Setup for Beginners using C and CMake C Development using Visual Studio Code, CMake and LLDB How to compile C code with VS Code, CMake and NMake — 40tude.

Why Use CMake?

In the Explorer list, select VSCODE-CMAKE-HELLO in VS Code and create a new file.

You can specify the build tools that you want to use; for example, you can use MSVC or LLVM on Windows, and gnu or LLVM on Unix-like systems, including Linux, OSX, and MSYS or MinGW. Aside from specifying the tools to use, no other changes are required to the CMake specification files. You will see this when I port my project from Windows using the Visual Studio build tools to Linux using the gnu build tools.

With CMake, you can download, build, and use a large number of tools. I will show one example of this when I use Google Test in this project. Just about any tool that can be downloaded from the internet, and which provides CMake files for building, can be used.

Installing the Needed Tools

So let’s begin.

Installing Visual Studio Code and Extensions

Next, we need two VSCode extensions. Start VS Code and display the extensions panel (select View → Extensions from the main menu). In the search box, enter C++. A number of C and C++ extensions are displayed. You want the one called C++. Make sure it is from Microsoft. This extension provides Intellisense, debugging, and browsing capabilities. Click on the Install button to install it.

The second extension is CMake Tools. Search for and install it.

Installing Visual Studio Build Tools

On the Visual Studio downloads page, move down into the All Downloads section. As I write this, the current version of Visual Studio is 2019, so I will be referring to it in this section. If a later version is available, use that instead. Select Tools for Visual Studio 2019. Click on the Download button for Build Tools for Visual Studio 2019. Download and save the file. When the download has completed, open the file. This starts Visual Studio Installer. Again, don’t worry, we are not installing Visual Studio, just the build tools. When the installer window opens select only the build tools. After some time (several minutes), the install will complete. Close the installer.

Open the Windows Start menu and start Developer Command Prompt for VS 2019; do not open the standard command prompt or Powershell. At the command prompt, enter:

The following should be displayed, although the version number may be different:

If the message says that it cannot find CMake, then the build tools did not install correctly.

You will almost always be starting VS Code from the command line of Developer Command Prompt, so you will probably want to add it to the Productivity section of the Start menu.

Installing Git

A Simple C++ Program With Library

Open a Developer Command Prompt. Enter:

In the Explorer list in VS Code, select the hello/include directory and create a new file called hello.h. Place the following code in that file and save it:

Again in the Explorer list, select hello/src and create a new file called hello.cpp. Place the following code in that file and save it:

That is all the code we need for our library. Now create the program to use the library. In the Explorer list, select the apps directory and create a new file called main.cpp. Place the following code in that file and save it:

To build the library and program, we will use CMake. There are many examples of CMake on the internet, many of which are outdated or just plain bad. For this program and library, I am following Modern CMake by Henry Schreiner and others.

In the Explorer list, select VSCODE-CMAKE-HELLO in VS Code and create a new file. Call it CMakeLists.txt. Enter the following and save the file:

In the Explorer list, select apps and create a new file. Call it CMakeLists.txt. Enter the following and save the file:

Create a file called CMakeLists.txt in the hello directory and place the following code in it:

Using CMake With Visual Studio Code

Vscode Cmake Intellisense

From left to right, master* indicates that you are editing the git master branch and that changes have been made. The symbols and 0s indicate that there are currently no errors in workspace. Next is a button that will run CMake (CMake: [Debug]). No Kit Selected indicates that the build tools have not yet been selected; we will get to them in a moment. Following that is a Build button, the default target, a bug button that will run the application in debug mode, and a button that will run the application without starting the debugger. The remainder of the status bar provides other information that we are not currently concerned with.

We first have to run CMake to create the build files. Click on the CMake: [Debug] button. The first time you do so, a list of build tool kits is displayed below the main menu. Select either Unspecified, or Visual Studio Build Tools 2019 Release - amd64. The No Kit Selected text in the status bar will change to [Visual Studio Build Tools 2019 Release - amd64], and a list of CMake configurations are displayed: Debug, Release, MinSizeRel, and RelWithDebInfo.

Select Debug. This will execute CMake and generate a Visual Studio solution file (.sln) and Visual Studio project files (.vcxproj) if there are no errors. If there are errors, then something is not right with the CMakeLists.txt files or the C++ source files.

If you selected any of the other CMake actions, the executable, library, and debug related files would be placed in other subdirectories. For example, if you build release versions, they will be placed in build/Release.

The first time you run debugging by either clicking on the Bug button, or by selecting Run → Start Debugging, a list of build environments will be displayed just below the main menu. Select C++ (Windows).

Vscode Cmake
Vscode Cmake

To do a clean and rebuild, all we have to do is delete the build directory and all of its contents, then run CMake and Build.


Vscode Cmake Generator

In either case, a file called launch.json is added to the .vscode directory. Open that file and change the program to ${workspaceFolder}/build/apps/Debug/main.exe

Now you can run debug from either the bug button or the menu item.

Summary and What’s Next

Vscode Cmake Extension

There is still much to do, but that will be discussed in the following articles:

  • Adding GoogleTest to the project.


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