Monthly Archives: January 2016

Emacs as a C++ IDE: headers

So, headers. Because of backward compatibility and the hardware limitations of when C was created, it’s 2016 and we’re still stuck with them. I doubt that modules will make it into C++17, but even if they do headers aren’t going away any time soon. For one, C++ might still need to call C code and that’s one of the languages killer features: no C bindings needed.

If, like me, you’ve created a package to make Emacs a better C++ environment, they present a challenge. My cmake-ide package actually just organises data to pass to the packages that do heavy lifting, it’s just glue code really. And the data to pass are the compiler flags used for any given file. That way, using libclang it’s possible to find and jump to definitions, get autocomplete information and all that jazz. CMake is kind enought to output a JSON compilation database with every file in the project and the exact command-line used. So it’s a question of parsing the JSON and setting the appropriate variables. Easy peasy.

But… headers. They don’t show up in the compilation database. They shouldn’t – they’re usually not directly compiled, only as a result of being included elsewhere. But where? Unlike Python, Java, or D, there’s no way to know where the source files that include a particular header are in the filesystem. They might be in the same directory. They might be nowhere near. To complicate matters further, the same header file might be compiled with different flags in different translation units. Fun.

What’s a package maintainer to do? In the beginning I punted and took the set of unique compiler flags taken from every flag in the project. The reasoning is that most of the time the compiler flags are the same everywhere anyway. For simple projects that’s true, but I quickly ran into limitations of this approach at work.

A quick and easy fix is to check if there’s an “other” file in Emacs parlance. Essentially this means a Foo.cpp file for a Foo.hpp header. If there is, use its compiler flags. This works, but leaves out the other header files that don’t have a corresponding source file out in the cold. There’s also a runtime cost to pay – if no other file is found it takes several seconds to make sure of that by scouring the file system.

I then looked at all source files in the project sorted by levenshtein distance of their directories to the directory the header file is in. If any of them directly includes the header, use its flags. Unfortunately, this only works for direct includes. In many cases a header is included by another header, which includes another header which…

In the end, I realised the only sure way to go about it is to use compiler-computed dependencies. Unfortunately for me, ninja deletes the .d dependency files when it runs. Fortunately for me, you can ask ninja for all the dependencies in the project.

I haven’t written the code for the CMake Makefile generator yet, but I should soon. ninja already works. I’m going to test it myself in “real life” for a week then release it to the world.