Header-only library CMake install

In this post I would like to show how to write install rules in CMake build system in order to be able to reuse a library later in CMake/non-CMake environment. That may be also useful during library distribution.

As an example we will take the caches library which is the header-only library and discuss adding pkg-config and CMake export support.

pkg-config support

First, let’s create a pkg-config file that will allow to populate necessary build flags for the library. Here is the content of the pkg-config.pc.in that will be configured with the CMake later:


Description: LRU/LFU/FIFO caches implementation
Cflags: -I${includedir}

There is a tricky part about that configuration file that is well explained here. In short - it is not safe to simply concatenate CMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX with CMAKE_INSTALL_<dir> variables, because they might be absolute paths thus results in invalid paths in the pkg-config files.

Then just add configuration call into project’s CMakeLists.txt:


Here pay attention to GNUInstallDirs module

  • it is used to have proper installation paths according to GNU Coding Standard.

CMake Package Configuration file

So, we have successfully added pkg-config support to our library. Now we want to export our library properly so other CMake projects can easily import it. One of the options is to provide CMake Find module FindCache.cmake or create a CacheConfig.cmake or cache-config.cmake file that will make everything for us.

Since we have a header-only target we have to deal with generator expressions a little. For the cache library we made the following target specification:

add_library(caches INTERFACE)
target_include_directories(caches INTERFACE

Here we have two generator expressions - $<INSTALL_INTERFACE:...> and $<BUILD_INTERFACE:...>. As documentation says - INSTALL_INTERFACE generator takes place only when the property is exported using install(EXPORT) and empty otherwise. BUILD_INTERFACE generator can be considered as opposite - empty in the case of install() and populates a path when either export() called or when the target is used by other targets within the same build system.

So, let’s create a <package>-config.cmake.in (cache-config.cmake.in in our case with the caches library):


To simplify things there is the standard CMake module CMakePackageConfigHelpers that provides us with variables that works perfectly fine under Linux, Windows and OSX. As you can see, for our header-only library it is pretty simple - just includes caches-targets.cmake file that populates required variables for other CMake projects we may want to use that library in.

In library’s CMakeLists.txt we use configure_package_config_file():


That is, pass configure file, output directory, install destination as we want that CMake config file to be the part of our distribution and variables we would like to use during the configuration process.

CMake Install rules

The final step to perform is to add install rules. For the caches library they are the following:

# type of installation for our headers - include
# export our caches interface library - export name is caches-targets, type = INCLUDES and destination also
# include directory
install(TARGETS caches
    EXPORT ${PROJECT_NAME}-targets
# export our install target via install(EXPORT)
# it specifies the namespace our target will be exported under -
# the namespace is caches::, so our target
# will be available by specifying 'caches::caches' like:
# add_executable(<some_exec> <some_src>)
# target_link_library(<some_exec> PUBLIC/PRIVATE caches::caches)
# That way <some_exec> target will be populated with correct include directory(directories) where our
# library headers are located
install(EXPORT ${PROJECT_NAME}-targets
# Export pkg-config and CMake config files

That is it! Now we can validate that our rules works as expected. Let’s say I have the caches library source somewhere in the temp:

$ mktemp -d
$ git clone https://github.com/vpetrigo/caches.git /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni
$ cd /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni
$ git submodule update --init --recursive
$ mkdir build
$ cmake -B build/ -S . -DINSTALL_CACHES=ON -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=build/install

Here I specified CMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX to be inside the build directory just as an example to show how we can use that non-standard directory in other projects we want to include caches in.

Build and install it!

$ cmake --build build -- -j4
$ cmake --install build
-- Install configuration: ""
-- Installing: /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/include
-- Installing: /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/include/lru_cache_policy.hpp
-- Installing: /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/include/lfu_cache_policy.hpp
-- Installing: /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/include/fifo_cache_policy.hpp
-- Installing: /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/include/cache_policy.hpp
-- Installing: /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/include/cache.hpp
-- Installing: /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/lib64/caches/caches-targets.cmake
-- Installing: /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/lib64/pkgconfig/caches.pc
-- Installing: /tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/lib64/caches/caches-config.cmake

We can see that caches-targets.cmake, caches.pc and caches-config.cmake files are properly installed.

Let’s try to reuse our installation in another project. I created another project with the following content:

  • CMakeLists.txt
# CMakeLists.txt
cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.21)


string(APPEND CMAKE_PREFIX_PATH "/tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install")
# OR another option
# set(caches_DIR "/tmp/tmp.gsK7NQF0ni/build/install/lib64/caches")

add_executable(caches_usage main.cpp)
target_link_libraries(caches_usage PRIVATE caches::caches)
  • main.cpp
#include "cache.hpp"
#include "lru_cache_policy.hpp"

#include <iostream>
#include <string>

// alias for easy class typing
template<typename Key, typename Value>
using lru_cache_t =
        typename caches::fixed_sized_cache<Key, Value, caches::LRUCachePolicy>;

void foo() {
    constexpr std::size_t CACHE_SIZE = 256;
    lru_cache_t<std::string, int> cache(CACHE_SIZE);

    cache.Put("Hello", 1);
    cache.Put("world", 2);

    std::cout << cache.Get("Hello") << cache.Get("world") << "\n";
    // "12"

int main() {
    std::cout << "Hello from caches_use\n" << std::flush;

    return 0;

The output after I build and run that stuff:

$ caches_use
Hello from caches_use

The same can be achieved with the FindPkgConfig module, but I’d leave that part as a hometask :smile: