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Comparing Linux System Package Managers with C++ Package Managers

· 3 min read
Christopher McArthur
C++ DevOps Expert

Feeling lost in the jungle of C++ package managers? You're not alone. Wrangling dependencies in the C++ world can feel like navigating a tangled mess of vines, with cryptic tools and endless options leaving you frustrated. But fear not, intrepid C++ developer! This guide will cut through the undergrowth and help you get on the right path.

First things first: Let's dispel a common misconception. System package managers like rpm and apt are great for keeping your operating system humming, but they're not designed for the unique challenges of C++ development. That's where C++ specific package managers like vcpkg, Conan, and Xrepo come in.

These specialized tools understand the pain points you face:

  • Dependency hell: Trying to manually juggle library versions and conflicts can drive you mad. Package managers automate this, ensuring your project has the right ingredients and plays nicely with others.
  • Finding the right tools: With a vast ecosystem of libraries, discovering the best one for your needs can be overwhelming. Package managers offer curated repositories and search functionality to save you time and effort.
  • Cross-platform headaches: Building code for different operating systems often means wrestling with compatibility issues. Package managers can streamline this process, providing pre-built binaries or simplifying the build process.

Linux System Package Managers

  • Purpose: Manage entire operating systems and their applications.
  • Package Scope: Primarily distribute pre-built binaries of complete software packages, including libraries, applications, system tools, and utilities.
  • Focus: Stability, security, and compatibility with the chosen Linux distribution.
  • Examples:
    • Debian/Ubuntu: dpkg, apt
    • Red Hat/CentOS: rpm
    • macOS: Homebrew (not technically a system package manager, but similar functionality)

C++ Package Managers

  • Purpose: Manage C++ libraries and their dependencies specifically.
  • Package Scope: Primarily focus on libraries used in C++ development, offering both pre-built binaries and source code options.
  • Focus: Ease of use, flexibility, dependency management, and providing various versions and build configurations.
  • Examples:
    • vcpkg: Easy to use, large open-source library repository, good for Windows development.
    • Conan: Powerful and flexible, supports binary and source-based packages, manages private libraries.
    • Build2: Next-generation build toolchain, integrated ecosystem, modern build practices.
    • Hunter: Simple and easy to use for finding specific libraries, integrates well with CMake.


FeatureLinux System Package ManagersC++ Package Managers
Main PurposeManage operating system and applicationsManage C++ libraries and dependencies
Package ScopeBroader: system tools, apps, librariesNarrower: C++ libraries
FocusStability, security, compatibilityEase of use, flexibility, dependency management
Pre-built BinariesYesYes, but also often offer source code
Dependency ManagementLimitedAdvanced, can handle complex scenarios
Multiple VersionsLimitedOften offer multiple versions and configurations
Community and ResourcesLarge and establishedVaried, some larger, some smaller communities

Choosing the Right Tool

The best choice depends on your specific needs:

  • Managing system-wide software: Use your distro's package manager (e.g., apt, rpm).
  • Managing C++ libraries for your project: Use a dedicated C++ package manager like vcpkg, Conan, Build2, etc., considering factors like project size, library needs, and your experience level.

Remember, these categories aren't mutually exclusive. You can use both types of package managers in your workflow depending on your needs.