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Scope of variables in CMake

In CMake variables don't have to be declared, they are created upon their first usage:


 set(SomeVariable "Hello world")

This creates (if it didn't exist yet) the variable SomeVariable. All variables in CMake are global. Global means that the variables exist in the file where they have been created, in all subdirectories connected using ADD_SUBDIRECTORY() or SUBDIRS(), and in all included files in any of these directories. They don't propagate up to the parent directories. Also if the value of a variable is changed in a subdirectory, the change doesn't propagate up to the variable in the parent directory.

Strings vs. lists

In CMake all variables are of the type string. Nevertheless CMake can deal also with lists. If a string contains semicolons, these semicolons can be interpreted as separators of string values.

set(MyString "Hello world")

This sets MyString to "Hello world", which is always only one string.

set(MyList Hello world)

This sets MyList to a list with the items "Hello" and "world". It will be stored as a string "Hello;world".

Emulating maps

Since CMake only has the string type (and somewhat lists), you can't use maps directly, but you can emulate them.

Let's say you'd like to do the following:

void InsertIntoMap(string key, string value)
string k = "foo";
string v = "bar";
InsertIntoMap(k, v); 

you can do the following in CMake:

  SET("MyMap_${_KEY}" "${_VALUE}")

SET(MyKey "foo")
SET(MyValue "bar")
INSERT_INTO_MAP("${MyKey}" "${MyValue}")

You can test for the existence of a key using IF(DEFINED ...)

Boolean values in CMake

The following values are interpreted as false by CMake. Upper/lower casing doesn't matter:

  • OFF
  • N
  • NO
  • 0
  • "" (empty string)
  • a null variable, such as produced by "set(variable)".
  • any string ending in -NOTFOUND


  • ON
  • TRUE
  • Y
  • YE
  • YES
  • 1
  • everything not listed under false

Using CMake regexps


Sometimes you need to escape a $

  • In a regex, outside of [] you need \\$
  • In a regex, inside of [] you do not need anything. [$] is fine.
  • In a non-regex string, in front of a curly bracket you need \${
 set(blah "whatever but \${do_not_evaluate}")
  • In a regex string, in front of a curly bracket you need \\\${
   ".*whatever but \\\${do not evaluate}"

The CMake cache

CMake uses an on-disk cache file to store variables and their values for later runs. This file is located in CMAKE_BINARY_DIR and is named CMakeCache.txt. The variables in this file are global to the whole build tree.

Most configure-checks save their result in this file, so they don't have to be executed again on later CMake runs.