Using modern CMake to test private C++ implementation files

The Problem

When writing C++ code, I often find myself wanting to write tests for private implementation files. Consider a small example project with the following folder structure:

├── include
│   └── src.h
├── private_include
│   └── private_impl.h
├── src
│   ├── src.cpp
│   └── private_impl.cpp
├── test
│   ├── test.t.cpp
│   └── CMakeLists.txt
└── CMakeLists.txt

Where the top-level CMakeLists.txt could look something like this:

add_library(<component_target> SHARED src/src.cpp src/private_impl.cpp)
target_include_directories (<component_target> PRIVATE include)

and the test/CMakeLists.txt like this:

add_executable(<test_target> test.t.cpp)
target_link_libraries(<test_target> PUBLIC <component_target>)

When writing tests in test/test.t.cpp, how can we access private implementations from the private_include directory?

The “pitfall” solution

I have seen people do things, like including the relevant source file in their sources.

# This is the wrong thing to do
set (sources

This is a bad solution for several reasons.

  • First, the implementation in src/private_impl.cpp is used outside the original component, e.g., link dependencies may no longer be satisfied.
  • Second, oftentimes there exists some logic (within CMake or otherwise) that sets context (like macros) depending on the current component. With the “patch” from before we now test private_impl.cpp in another context than it is normally used in.

A better solution

Luckily, modern CMake has our back. We can explicitly model the depency on the private implementation of <component>, since we already specify all required information within the top level CMakeLists.txt. We simply need to access this information within our test environment. This can be done using CMakes property system, i.e., we can get the necessary properties from <component_target> and reuse them for <test_target>:

add_executable(<test_target> test.t.cpp)
target_link_libraries(<test_target> PRIVATE <component_target>)

get_target_property (private_include_dirs <test_target> INCLUDE_DIRECTORIES)
get_target_property (private_link_libraries <test_target> LINK_LIBRARIES)

target_include_directories (<test_target> PRIVATE ${private_include_dirs})
target_link_libraries (<test_target> PRIVATE ${private_link_libraries})

This way, we make sure that we use the content of private_impl.cpp in the right context. We furthermore explicitly express the link dependency between our <test_target> and the corresponding <component_target>.

Symbol Visibility (-fvisibility=hidden)1

If you are hiding ELF symbols by default (which you should), this method has the drawback that symbols from private_impl.h you are testing need to be marked as exported, so the linker can find them when linking <test_target>. This is done by specifying

__attribute__ ((visibility ("default")))

for the symbol in question. Both GCC and Clang support this syntax. As a side note, with modern CMake versions > 3.0.2, you can auto generate a cross platform export definition using GenerateExportHeader2

See my other post on symbol visibility if you want to dive deeper into this topic.

Philipp Jung
Philipp Jung
Software Engineer

My interest include C++, Rust, modern CMake and other programming related topics.