Boost C++ Libraries of the most highly regarded and expertly designed C++ library projects in the world. Herb Sutter and Andrei Alexandrescu, C++ Coding Standards

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Common tasks

Custom commands
Precompiled Headers
Generated headers

This section describes main targets types that Boost.Build supports out-of-the-box. Unless otherwise noted, all mentioned main target rules have the common signature, described in the section called “Declaring Targets”.


Programs are created using the exe rule, which follows the common syntax. For example:

exe hello : hello.cpp some_library.lib /some_project//library
          : <threading>multi

This will create an executable file from the sources -- in this case, one C++ file, one library file present in the same directory, and another library that is created by Boost.Build. Generally, sources can include C and C++ files, object files and libraries. Boost.Build will automatically try to convert targets of other types.

[Tip] Tip

On Windows, if an application uses dynamic libraries, and both the application and the libraries are built by Boost.Build, its not possible to immediately run the application, because the PATH environment variable should include the path to the libraries. It means you have to either add the paths manually, or place the application and the libraries to the same directory. See the section called “Installing”.


Libraries are created using the lib rule, which follows the common syntax. For example:

lib helpers : helpers.cpp : <include>boost : : <include>. ;

In the most common case, the lib creates a library from the specified sources. Depending on the value of <link> feature the library will be either static or shared. There are two other cases. First is when the library is installed somewhere in compiler's search paths, and should be searched by the compiler (typically, using the -l option). The second case is where the library is available as a prebuilt file and the full path is known.

The syntax for these case is given below:

lib z : : <name>z <search>/home/ghost ;
lib compress : : <file>/opt/libs/compress.a ;

The name property specifies the name that should be passed to the -l option, and the file property specifies the file location. The search feature specifies paths in which to search for the library. That feature can be specified several times, or it can be omitted, in which case only default compiler paths will be searched.

The difference between using the file feature as opposed to the name feature together with the search feature is that file is more precise. A specific file will be used. On the other hand, the search feature only adds a library path, and the name feature gives the basic name of the library. The search rules are specific to the linker. For example, given these definition:

lib a : : <variant>release <file>/pool/release/ ;
lib a : : <variant>debug <file>/pool/debug/ ;
lib b : : <variant>release <file>/pool/release/ ;
lib b : : <variant>debug <file>/pool/debug/ ;

It's possible to use release version of a and debug version of b. Had we used the name and search features, the linker would always pick either release or debug versions.

For convenience, the following syntax is allowed:

lib z ;
lib gui db aux ;

and is does exactly the same as:

lib z : : <name>z ;
lib gui : : <name>gui ;
lib db : : <name>db ;
lib aux : : <name>aux ;

When a library uses another library you should put that other library in the list of sources. This will do the right thing in all cases. For portability, you should specify library dependencies even for searched and prebuilt libraries, othewise, static linking on Unix will not work. For example:

lib z ;
lib png : z : <name>png ;

[Note] Note

When a library (say, a), that has another library, (say, b) is linked dynamically, the b library will be incorporated in a. (If b is dynamic library as well, then a will only refer to it, and not include any extra code.) When the a library is linked statically, Boost.Build will assure that all executables that link to a will also link to b.

One feature of Boost.Build that is very important for libraries is usage requirements. For example, if you write:

lib helpers : helpers.cpp : : : <include>. ;

then the compiler include path for all targets that use helpers will contain the directory where the target is defined.path to "helpers.cpp". The user only needs to add helpers to the list of sources, and needn't consider the requirements its use imposes on a dependent target. This feature greatly simplifies Jamfiles.

[Note] Note

If you don't want shared libraries to include all libraries that are specified in sources (especially statically linked ones), you'd need to use the following:

lib b : a.cpp ;
lib a : a.cpp : <use>b : : <library>b ;

This specifies that a uses b, and causes all executables that link to a also link to b. In this case, even for shared linking, the a library won't even refer to b.


The alias rule gives an alternative name to a group of targets. For example, to give the name core to a group of three other targets with the following code:

alias core : im reader writer ;

Using core on the command line, or in the source list of any other target is the same as explicitly using im, reader, and writer, but it is just more convenient.

Another use of the alias rule is to change build properties. For example, if you always want static linking for a specific C++ Boost library, you can write the following:

alias threads : /boost/thread//boost_thread : <link>static ;

and use only the threads alias in your Jamfiles.

You can also specify usage requirements for the alias target. If you write the following:

alias header_only_library : : : :  <include>/usr/include/header_only_library ;

then using header_only_library in sources will only add an include path. Also note that when an alias has sources, their usage requirements are propagated as well. For example:

lib library1 : library1.cpp : : : <include>/library/include1 ;
lib library2 : library2.cpp : : : <include>/library/include2 ;
alias static_libraries : library1 library2 : <link>static ;
exe main : main.cpp static_libraries ;

will compile main.cpp with additional includes required for using the specified static libraries.


This section describes various ways to install built target and arbitrary files.

Basic install

For installing a built target you should use the install rule, which follows the common syntax. For example:

install dist : hello helpers ;

will cause the targets hello and helpers to be moved to the dist directory, relative to Jamfile's directory. The directory can be changed with the location property:

install dist : hello helpers : <location>/usr/bin ;

While you can achieve the same effect by changing the target name to /usr/bin, using the location property is better, because it allows you to use a mnemonic target name.

The location property is especially handy when the location is not fixed, but depends on build variant or environment variables:

install dist : hello helpers : <variant>release:<location>dist/release
                             <variant>debug:<location>dist/debug ;
install dist2 : hello helpers : <location>$(DIST) ;

See also conditional properties and environment variables

Installing with all dependencies

Specifying the names of all libraries to install can be boring. The install allows you to specify only the top-level executable targets to install, and automatically install all dependencies:

install dist : hello
           : <install-dependencies>on <install-type>EXE

will find all targets that hello depends on, and install all of those which are either executables or libraries. More specifically, for each target, other targets that were specified as sources or as dependency properties, will be recursively found. One exception is that targets referred with the use feature are not considered, because that feature is typically used to refer to header-only libraries. If the set of target types is specified, only targets of that type will be installed, otherwise, all found target will be installed.

Preserving Directory Hierarchy

By default, the install rules will stip paths from it's sources. So, if sources include a/b/c.hpp, the a/b part will be ignored. To make the install rule preserve the directory hierarchy you need to use the install-source-root feature to specify the root of the hierarchy you are installing. Relative paths from that root will be preserved. For example, if you write:

install headers
    : a/b/c.h
    : <location>/tmp <install-source-root>a

the a file named /tmp/b/c.h will be created.

The glob-tree rule can be used to find all files below a given directory, making it easy to install entire directory tree.

Installing into Several Directories

The alias rule can be used when targets must be installed into several directories:

alias install : install-bin install-lib ;
install install-bin : applications : /usr/bin ;
install install-lib : helper : /usr/lib ;

Because the install rule just copies targets, most free features [8] have no effect when used in requirements of the install rule. The only two which matter are dependency and, on Unix, dll-path.

[Note] Note

(Unix specific). On Unix, executables built with Boost.Build typically contain the list of paths to all used dynamic libraries. For installing, this is not desired, so Boost.Build relinks the executable with an empty list of paths. You can also specify additional paths for installed executables with the dll-path feature.


Boost.Build has convenient support for running unit tests. The simplest way is the unit-test rule, which follows the common syntax. For example:

unit-test helpers_test : helpers_test.cpp helpers ;

The unit-test rule behaves like the exe rule, but after the executable is created it is run. If the executable returns an error code, the build system will also return an error and will try running the executable on the next invocation until it runs successfully. This behaviour ensures that you can't miss a unit test failure.

By default, the executable is run directly. Sometimes, it's desirable to run the executable using some helper command. You should use the testing.launcher property to specify the name of the helper command. For example, if you write:

unit-test helpers_test
   : helpers_test.cpp helpers
   : <testing.launcher>valgrind

The command used to run the executable will be:

valgrind bin/$toolset/debug/helpers_test

There are few specialized testing rules, listed below:

rule compile ( sources : requirements * : target-name ? )
rule compile-fail ( sources : requirements * : target-name ? )
rule link ( sources + : requirements * : target-name ? )
rule link-fail ( sources + : requirements * : target-name ? )

They are are given a list of sources and requirements. If the target name is not provided, the name of the first source file is used instead. The compile* tests try to compile the passed source. The link* rules try to compile and link an application from all the passed sources. The compile and link rules expect that compilation/linking succeeds. The compile-fail and link-fail rules, on the opposite, expect that the compilation/linking fails.

There are two specialized rules for running applications, which are more powerful than the unit-test rule. The run rule has the following signature:

rule run ( sources + : args * : input-files * : requirements * : target-name ?
    : default-build * )

The rule builds application from the provided sources and runs it, passing args and input-files as command-line arguments. The args parameter is passed verbatim and the values of the input-files parameter are treated as paths relative to containing Jamfile, and are adjusted if bjam is invoked from a different directory. The run-fail rule is identical to the run rule, except that it expects that the run fails.

All rules described in this section, if executed successfully, create a special manifest file to indicate that the test passed. For the unit-test rule the files is named target-name.passed and for the other rules it is called target-name.test. The run* rules also capture all output from the program, and store it in a file named target-name.output.

The run and the run-fail rules, if the test passes, automatically delete the linked executable, to save space. This behaviour can be suppressed by passing the --preserve-test-targets command line option.

It is possible to print the list of all test targets (except for unit-test) declared in your project, by passing the --dump-tests command-line option. The output will consist of lines of the form:

boost-test(test-type) path : sources

It is possible to process the list of tests, the output of bjam during command run, and the presense/absense of the *.test files created when test passes into human-readable status table of tests. Such processing utilities are not included in Boost.Build.

Custom commands

When you use most of main target rules, Boost.Build automatically figures what commands to run and it what order. As soon as you want to use new file types, or support new tools, one approach is to extend Boost.Build to smoothly support them, as documented in the section called “Extender Manual”. However, if there's a single place where the new tool is used, it might be easier to just explicitly specify the commands to run.

Three main target rules can be used for that. The make rule allows you to construct a single file from any number of source file, by running a command you specify. The notfile rule allows you to run an arbitrary command, without creating any files. And finaly, the generate rule allows you to describe transformation using Boost.Build's virtual targets. This is higher-level than file names that the make rule operates with and allows you to create more than one target, create differently named targets depending on properties or use more than one tool.

The make rule is used when you want to create one file from a number of sources using some specific command. The notfile is used to unconditionally run a command.

Suppose you want to create file file.out from file by running command in2out. Here is how you would do this in Boost.Build:

make file.out : : @in2out ;
actions in2out
    in2out $(<) $(>)

If you run bjam and file.out does not exist, Boost.Build will run the in2out command to create that file. For more details on specifying actions, see the section called “Boost.Jam Language”.

It could be that you just want to run some command unconditionally, and that command does not create any specific files. For that you can use the notfile rule. For example:

notfile echo_something : @echo ;
actions echo
    echo "something"

The only difference from the make rule is that the name of the target is not considered a name of a file, so Boost.Build will unconditionally run the action.

The generate rule is used when you want to express transformations using Boost.Build's virtual targets, as opposed to just filenames. The generate rule has the standard main target rule signature, but you are required to specify the generating-rule property. The value of the property should be in the form @rule-name, the named rule should have the following signature:

rule generating-rule ( project name : property-set : sources * )

and will be called with an instance of the project-target class, the name of the main target, an instance of the property-set class containing build properties, and the list of instances of the virtual-target class corresponding to sources. The rule must return a list of virtual-target instances. The interface of the virtual-target class can be learned by looking at the build/virtual-target.jam file. The generate example contained in the Boost.Build distribution illustrates how the generate rule can be used.

Precompiled Headers

Precompiled headers is a mechanism to speed up compilation by creating a partially processed version of some header files, and then using that version during compilations rather then repeatedly parsing the original headers. Boost.Build supports precompiled headers with gcc and msvc toolsets.

To use precompiled headers, follow the following steps:

  1. Create a header that includes headers used by your project that you want precompiled. It is better to include only headers that are sufficiently stable — like headers from the compiler and external libraries. Please wrap the header in #ifdef BOOST_BUILD_PCH_ENABLED, so that the potentially expensive inclusion of headers is not done when PCH is not enabled. Include the new header at the top of your source files.

  2. Declare a new Boost.Build target for the precompiled header and add that precompiled header to the sources of the target whose compilation you want to speed up:

    cpp-pch pch : pch.hpp ;
    exe main : main.cpp pch ;

    You can use the c-pch rule if you want to use the precompiled header in C programs.

The pch example in Boost.Build distribution can be used as reference.

Please note the following:

  • The inclusion of the precompiled header must be the first thing in a source file, before any code or preprocessor directives.

  • The build properties used to compile the source files and the precompiled header must be the same. Consider using project requirements to assure this.

  • Precompiled headers must be used purely as a way to improve compilation time, not to save the number of #include statements. If a source file needs to include some header, explicitly include it in the source file, even if the same header is included from the precompiled header. This makes sure that your project will build even if precompiled headers are not supported.

  • On the gcc compiler, the name of the header being precompiled must be equal to the name of the cpp-pch target. This is a gcc requirement.

  • Prior to version 4.2, the gcc compiler did not allow anonymous namespaces in precompiled headers, which limits their utility. See the bug report for details.

Generated headers

Usually, Boost.Build handles implicit dependendies completely automatically. For example, for C++ files, all #include statements are found and handled. The only aspect where user help might be needed is implicit dependency on generated files.

By default, Boost.Build handles such dependencies within one main target. For example, assume that main target "app" has two sources, "app.cpp" and "parser.y". The latter source is converted into "parser.c" and "parser.h". Then, if "app.cpp" includes "parser.h", Boost.Build will detect this dependency. Moreover, since "parser.h" will be generated into a build directory, the path to that directory will automatically added to include path.

Making this mechanism work across main target boundaries is possible, but imposes certain overhead. For that reason, if there's implicit dependency on files from other main targets, the <implicit-dependency> [ link ] feature must be used, for example:

lib parser : parser.y ;
exe app : app.cpp : <implicit-dependency>parser ;

The above example tells the build system that when scanning all sources of "app" for implicit-dependencies, it should consider targets from "parser" as potential dependencies.

[8] see the definition of "free" in the section called “Feature Attributes”.