Problems with external dependencies in C++

In the series:

  1. Problems with external dependencies in C++
  2. Introduction to Conan package manager

Dependencies are usually the most problematic part of the build system (next to the toolchain setup) in programming projects. In C++ this is especially hard because there is no one standard build system. Many more problems arise if we target an embedded system. Other programming languages resolve this issue by having one built-in package manager (usually accompanied by an integrated build system). In C++ we lack both of them, so our lives are much harder. Fortunately, there are a few third-party package managers which get more and more popular. In this series of posts, I will try to convince you to start using one of them – Conan.

Table Of Contents

Why do we need a package manager for C++

Before I introduce you to Conan in the next article, let’s try now to define all the problems, that our package manager should be able to solve, in order to call it “generic” and “usable”. Of course, let’s not expect that it will be a remedy for everything out of the box. We are looking for a tool, that will provide us with simple mechanisms that can directly or indirectly address the day-to-day problems that most of us encounter in projects. Here is a list of immediate issues/concerns that one should look into before making any decision about dependencies or package managers:

  1. getting the sources of the external libraries – how are we actually going to get the sources of the libraries? Should we hardcode the URLs in our build system? Or maybe we should incorporate them into our repository? The former makes multiple assumptions about the location, format and availability of the library. The latter option increases our codebase, makes it harder to update and de facto turns us into local maintainers of that dependency.
  2. managing versions of the dependencies – in some cases we need to use a very specific version of the external library. For example, we want to use some hot new feature, which is available only in the latest release. How should we specify that? How should we manage dependencies of the third-party code which could change from version to version? This point is closely related to the next one.
  3. satisfying dependencies of the libraries – it is quite natural, that our dependencies will have their own dependencies. In such a case we would have to meet some preconditions, possibly by installing another set of libraries (which could again have dependencies). It is quite easy to get yourself into a loop of relations between libraries that is hard to manage or even fully satisfy.
  4. dynamically selecting the required dependencies – sometimes we can build many applications from the same codebase. It is usually the case when we have a lot of common code. In such situation it may happen, that one application is using some part of the common code, but the second application is using another one. Both modules can have different dependencies and we want to build only what is currently required. We would like to be able to dynamically say that dependency A should be installed only while we compile “this” directory and dependency B while we compile “that” directory. I have seen projects, in which such selection is not trivial and manually managing it can generate a lot of boilerplate code in the build system.
  5. (cross-)compiling the libraries – if we are working on a PC application, then we don’t have to worry about the type of processor that will run our program or other platform-specific things. In the case of embedded systems, we must cross-compile every source file that will be used. We need to be able to specify the concrete toolchain and all required compilation flags.
  6. customizing/patching dependencies – in many cases we need to modify a little the external library. For example, some of them are not ready for cross-compilation and their build system has to be adjusted. In other cases, it turns out, that our dependency is not compiling with our compilation flags (e.g. we have -Werror flag enabled and the library is producing warnings or we are using clang compiler and the external code is using GCC-specific extensions). The most irritating thing (at least for me) is when I find a perfect library that solves my problem, but it is using a different build system than mine. In such situations, we need to adapt it to our needs.
  7. installing compiled dependencies in the host system – once we compile the external libraries, they have to be installed somewhere. There are two options: we either put them in our build directory or install them in the host system. The first one will require us to build dependencies every time a build directory is cleaned. The second one solves this problem, but installed binaries may be in conflict with the already installed packages in our operating system. Also, we may want to distinguish libraries compiled with a different set of flags.
  8. making the whole process easy to use – it is important to keep it simple for the average programmer to build and install the dependencies. If things get complicated, then our coworkers will be frustrated. They will either try to remove the dependency and replace it with a self-written code (bad) or will modify a carefully designed build system in their own way and thus may complicate it even more (equally bad).
  9. (optional) handling compilation on the target platform – in some rare (or not) cases we need to support building the project on the target. In my experience, I had to do this in order to correctly calculate code coverage. Maybe I did something wrong, nevertheless, the situation forced me to run a compilation on the board. It was quite problematic because my target already had all the dependencies installed in the system. As a consequence build system and package manager had to take that into an account and rather use those libraries than compiling them from scratch.

These are only a few of problems that may arise in our projects. Also, once we choose one mechanism for managing the dependecies, then it will be hard to change it in the future. This is why this topic is important and requires a deep thought.

Possible solutions for external dependencies

There are a few solutions for managing the dependencies on the market nowadays. It is good to know them at least briefly. Below you can find a list of the most popular that I know of:

Note

This list not complete and extremely brief. I have no experience with package managers other than Conan or CMake fetch_content. Consult the official docs to get more information and have a better overview on available solutions.

CMake fetch_content

  • Official documentation: cmake.org.
  • This mechanism is part of the CMake build system (read this article to learn more) and doesn’t require anything additional to be installed. It is very primitive but quite effective if your dependency is also using CMake (non-CMake projects can also be built, but it is less flexible that way).
  • It allows you to specify a repository or file to be downloaded. Additionally, you can select a branch or tag in case of the git VCS.
  • Dependencies are downloaded into the current build directory and can be built just like any other code in your project. To be precise, you need to explicitly include them with a add_subdirectory command in CMakeLists.txt file. This allows you to build third-party code with the exact same compilation configuration (toolchain and compilation flags) as your codebase. On the other side, CMake treats that code as if it was your code which sometimes can cause problems (warnings treated as errors or conflicting CMake variables).

Hunter

  • Official documentation: hunter.readthedocs.io.
  • Third-party package manager, which is fully dependant on CMake. In fact, Hunter is simply a set of CMake modules that manage given dependencies internally via ExternalProject_Add command.
  • Hunter provides a customization point for building the libraries via the native CMake toolchain file mechanism. This is quite clean and nice, but it can be problematic if someone is not using toolchain files or don’t know how they work (read this article to learn more about toolchain files).
  • Using libraries built by Hunter is done in a typical CMake way: after adding some initialization code in the beginning, you can call find_package to locate the demanded library and use target_link_libraries to link against it.
  • Packages that are supported by Hunter have to be added to the official package repository and usually a bit modified in order to cooperate with the package manager. Such libraries are said to be “Hunterized”. It seems, that there is no easy way to add custom packages other than through the official package list. This is quite limiting because it usually takes time to analyze, review and accept such changes by the package manager maintainers. Also, this is dangerous to depend on the work and time of people outside your organization or project. Sometimes you need to make changes very quickly (e.g. hotfix for the client) and you can’t have delays on the third-party people side.
  • Hunter makes it easy to manage multiple versions and configurations of the same dependency because each build directory is stored separately in a specified root path. Thus it is possible to reuse prebuilt packages in all your projects.

vcpkg

  • Official documentation: vcpkg.readthedocs.io.
  • Like Hunter, this is a package manager but managed by Microsoft. In order to install it, you have to clone its repository and compile it for your local machine. It runs on all major platforms and fully supports CMake by default.
  • Installing dependencies is done in a separate step from the command line: vcpkg install <package_name>. All files and binaries are stored in a user-specified root directory, so packages are not conflicting with the host system. However, it is not clear to me, how is vcpkg actually building the code: is it assuming that we are targeting a local machine? How should we specify the compiler and compilation flags that should be used during compilation? If you know, then please share it in the comments.
  • A major drawback (at least for me) is the fact, that in order to use dependencies provided by the vcpkg you need to use a special toolchain file from the vcpkg root directory. I don’t have any experience with this package manager except for some tutorials and a few personal trials, but it seems that you can’t explicitly use your own toolchain file in the project. If that is true then this eliminates vcpkg for my projects.
  • Incorporating dependencies managed by vcpkg is done exactly like in Hunter: find_package + target_link_libraries – clean and easy.
  • Only libraries that are registered in the official vcpkg package repository can be used. This has a very similar limitation as with Hunter: we depend on other people’s time and will. However, since Microsoft is behind this, then we can expect better support than usual. Also, it is said that Microsoft is running regular CI jobs with all registered packages in order to maintain quality and quickly detect problems.

Conan

  • Official documentation: docs.conan.io.
  • A package manager written in Python. Available in multiple forms, but the most recommended one is through a pip package.
  • It has very good integration with multiple build systems like CMake, Makefiles and Visual Studio. In the case of the first one, packages can be used via specially created Conan targets for each library or with a well-known find_package command.
  • Dependencies can be built and installed both from the command line or directly from the CMake. The first method expects a simple config file similar to pip’s requirements.txt file.
  • All binaries are stored in a per-user cache, allowing to reuse the prebuilt packages across compilations and projects.
  • Conan is able to build external dependencies that use the most popular build systems like CMake, Autotools (Makefiles), Visual Studio and Meson. Of course, it is up to the maintainer of the Conan package config (aka recipe) to correctly set up the build process, but Conan provides all the required tools to do that. Regardless of which build framework is used, we can quite easily reason about building the library and then (separately) reason about making a binding out of its binary output. This is possible because for Conan these are two not related phases. In other words, it is possible to use the external library which is using Makefiles and generate an integration layer to your CMake project.
  • Packages have to be registered in a package repository, but fortunately, you can freely add your own and register them in a self-hosted or public repository for binaries. This is a huge benefit because you can maintain your own package repository with your own package recipes even on your company’s server. Usually, you don’t need to keep a local copy of the third-party code, because Conan packages should only tell the package manager where to get the sources and how to build them. Additionally, you can apply custom patches in between.

Yocto SDK

  • Official documentation yoctoproject.org.
  • This mechanism is different from the previous ones, but since I’m actively using it recently I decided to mention it here. It comes from the Yocto Project, which is a Linux distribution generator/builder. It allows you to specify what should be included in your final Linux image and for which platform it should be cross-compiled. Yocto SDK is a set of libraries + toolchain that can be used by application developers to cross-compile applications that should be deployed later into that image. It creates for you the same environment, that your application will meet on the target (libraries, tools, etc).
  • SDK installation is done with a Bash script and it simply installs all the packages and tools that your app can link against in the development environment. It also provides you with a complete cross-toolchain and sets up all required environment variables. If your build system is relying on the CC and CXX variables to detect the compiler, then you won’t have to change anything.
  • Integration with CMake is done with a specially generated toolchain file.
  • SDK is usually generated in one of the build stages of the Yocto image. Adding new packages or changing their versions is done by simply running the Yocto build again and reinstalling the SDK. As a consequence, your build environment will always reflect the newest target image, that will host your application.

Summary

Each of these package managers has advantages and disadvantages. It really depends on your needs and resources. I personally have the biggest (but still relatively small) experience with Conan. It served me well for the last year and allowed me to incorporate external libraries into my projects, which would never be possible otherwise within given time constraints. Mainly because of their lack of support for cross-compilation. With Conan, it was quite easy to adjust them without making a local copy of the package. In the next articles, I will try to present how Conan works and what are its main advantages and how I use it in my CMake projects.


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In the series:

  1. Problems with external dependencies in C++
  2. Introduction to Conan package manager