A C++ Template Project

September 26, 2018

How should I get started with a new C++ project? Usually when I have an idea for a new project, this is the first question I need to answer. Many other languages have a simple answer, like cargo new hello_world --bin (Rust) or rails new blog (Ruby on Rails). In just a few seconds, I’m writing the actual code for the project, without the need to worry about the minutiae of setting up a build or unit test system or even continuous integration.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the flexibility of C++, but without a common project system, getting starting can be daunting. This time, I decided to start a new project with a few days of setup, then use that setup as a general template project. More than a month later, here we are! But I do have a C++ template project which has proven useful for me. I hope it will be for you also.


This C++ template project is based on the project from the excellent Hello, CMake! blog post series by Arne Mertz. Most often, I struggle early in the project with indecision about the directory structure. Should production and test code be in separate directories? How does test code access production code? Should the build output be in-tree or out-of-tree? Arne’s project structure answers these question with simplicity in ways that make sense to me.

What’s in the box

The template project comes with some opinionated choices. They work for me - but they are easy to change if something works better for you. The project builds with CMake and uses Catch for unit tests. It builds on Linux and macOS via Travis CI and on Windows via Appveyor.

Project structure

The project has the following top-level directories:

  • The src directory is the location of all of the project’s source code (header files and source files). The main.cpp file is built into the final executable, all other source files in this directory are built into a static library. Only code in this static library will be tested.
  • The test directory contains the unit tests. The unit test executable links with the static library built from src directory.
  • The thirdparty directory contains external code used by this project, namely, Catch and the CMake sanitizer integration.
  • The tools directory contains a number of scripts used for building and other tool integration with the project.

Other tool integration

The project integrates with a few other tools to aid in development.

  • The clang-format utility is used to enforce common source code formatting. The tools/format script can be used locally to update code formatting to match the style in the .clang-format file. The tools/run-clang-format.py script is used on Travis CI to check formatting.
  • The clang-tidy utility is used to run static analysis on the source code. The tools/tidy script can be used locally and on Travis CI to run clang-tidy.
  • The clang address, thread, and undefined behavior sanitizers are run on the unit tests. The tools/sanitize script can be used to run them locally.

Since I primarily do hobby development on Linux (on Azure!), these tooling scripts are configured to run on Linux.

My favorite tool

One of my favorite tools in the project is the very simple watch script. I enjoy running unit tests each time I save a source file. I’ve used many-featured Guard project for this before. It works great on Ruby projects where I already use Bundler, but the requirement to have Bundler installed for a C++ project is pretty high. Enter the wonderful little entr tool, which gives me the immediate feedback I want without the need for Guard and Bundler.

Try it for yourself

Most of all, I enjoy how commands like cargo new or rails new quickly get a working project up and running, immediately ready for real code. While not as pithy, this command will get you started with my C++ template project:

| python - <my project name>

So give it a try, modify the template to meet your needs, and start building someting fun!

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