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Unlock Efficiency & Innovation in C++ Development: Building More Configuration than You Ship

· 4 min read
Christopher McArthur

In the steadily evolving landscape of C++, where incremental improvements shape the tools we use, it can quickly become a challenge to stay up to date with the latest technologies while still supporting the code already in production. If you're apart of the 61% of C++ developers, the concept of building more configurations might initially seem counterintuitive. However, it's precisely under such circumstances that this approach serves as a solution to the challenge of limited access to new features and tools within the C++ ecosystem.

By prioritizing testing a comprehensive list of configuration during CI, your team can unleash access to new features and tools, boosting productivity and ensuring project longevity and compatibility in a competitive landscape by establishing guardrails for the project.

Let's delve deeper into the compelling reasons why this DevOps approach, centered around building more configurations, deserves widespread adoption in C++ environments.

The simplicity of building more

As with C++, the Golang's runtime is backwards compatibility. Older binaries typically run seamlessly on newer Go versions without recompilation. This helped establish the best practice of thoroughly testing applications with multiple Go versions. In CI pipelines, running automated tests against multiple Go versions looks something like this:

runs-on: ubuntu-latest
go: [ '1.21', '1.20', '1.19' ]
name: build (go-${{ matrix.go }})
- uses: actions/checkout@v4
- uses: actions/setup-go@v5
go-version: ${{ matrix.go }}
- run: go build app.go

The key concept to note is the strategy, pun intended, which has the matrix, a declarative list, of Golang versions to test against. Go's approach can inspire similar practices in C++. All the popular CI services offer this feature (just with unique names).

At a high level, it's easy to think of this as a template<typename version> class where multiple instance of the job are instantiated each with a different version but perform the same algorithm and can be parallelized.

Tackling C++ Configurations

The best strategy to identify the "version matrix" is looking at the platforms your project already supports. At a minimum that should be your LTS, production (latest release), and current build tools. This will help ensure any changes introduced will be compatible across the board. Building and testing the product with a newer toolchain will help build confidence with business stake holders as operation risk will be reduced.

Testing with more compilers

The unified tool set behind Go is amazing, however competition is healthy and drives innovation for end-users. Let's do something similar to go version but try it with C++ compilers and language standards.

compiler: [g++-12, clang-15] # Specify compiler versions to test
cxxstd: [17, 23] # Specify the language standard to test

You can the configure you build system normally.

- run: cmake --preset release \
-DCMAKE_CXX_COMPILER=${{ matrix.compiler }} \
-CMAKE_CXX_STANDARD=${{ matrix.cxxstd }}

The full workflow is over on Gist. It's a great idea to apply this idea to sanitizer presets.

Ensuring cross-platform compatibility

And there is no reason for this to not be cross-platform. Though for GitHub Actions, this is a little bit more involved since not all the C++ build environments are installed.

This should give you a good idea how you can tailor a strategy.matrix to your specific needs.

runs-on: ${{ matrix.os }} # Use dynamic runner based on OS
os: [windows-latest, ubuntu-latest, macos-latest]
compiler: [gcc-11, clang-14]
- os: windows-latest
compiler: gcc-11
# Add extra fields to `choco install mingw-w64-x86_64-gcc-11``
name: mingw-w64
version: 11.2.0
- os: windows-latest
# Override `clang-14` to use the MSVC provided clang
compiler: cl-clang
- os: macos-latest
compiler: gcc-11
# Add extra fields to `brew install` the correct version
package: gcc@11

The full workflow can be viewed as a Gist.


Incorporate these principles into your CI practices! Here's a few steps to get you started

  • Identify the toolchains you are using to build you software.
  • Refactor you pipeline to isolate those changes and create a matrix with those preliminary configurations.
  • Once you've stabilized the builds, you are ready to introduce more configurations with updated toolchains to build.

Designing a flexible CI pipeline with a variety of configurations breaks down barriers to adding new compilers. Staying up-to-date is essential for efficient software development, and comprehensive configuration testing ensures code quality, performance, and security from the outset.