October 2020


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Setting the Visual Studio Debugger path using CMake

Debugging our just-built executables was a real source of frustration early on in our Windows programming experience. Getting all the correct libraries into the path was tedious at best, and more often than not a nightmare of hellish proportion. To be certain, copying files around and hacking environment variables to this end is just asking for it. It’s not a matter of if a critical mistake will be made, it’s a matter of when; and that’s just the command line version of events. Needless to say, we weren’t happy.

When it came time to run the code in the Windows Debugger, things were almost just as bad. Every time we wanted to debug an executable, we had to make modifications to a generated Visual Studio project file. The procedure was time consuming, tedious, and error prone. We needed a solution that would ensure the correct behavior every time, and without any human intervention. The problem was that CMake did not, and to the best of my knowledge does not currently have, any mechanism for modifying the Visual Studio Debugger path in a generated project. Still, we needed to get the job done with CMake. Maybe it couldn’t set the debugger path, but it could write out a configured file. Enter the Visual Studio .user file.

The Solution

Before we begin, I am aware that Microsoft suggests avoiding the use of .user files. Their caution stems from source code control issues however, and the files we are about to generate are intentionally volatile. We aren’t going to commit anything in the build directory to our source code repository, though the input file that follows should be placed somewhere in your source tree and committed.

Step 1:
Create a CMake input file called “project.vcxproj.user.in” with the following content:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>	 	
<Project ToolsVersion="4.0" xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/developer/msbuild/2003">	 	
 <PropertyGroup Condition="'$(Configuration)|$(Platform)'=='Debug|x64'">	 	

The value for PATH in the LocalDebuggerEnvironment tag is of course up to you; the above is merely a simple example using “Debug” as the Configuration Type.

Step 2:
Configure project.vcxproj.user.in for each executable in your solution/project; something like this:

foreach(src ${EXEC_SRCS}) 
	add_executable(${src} ${src}.cc) 
	configure_file(project.vcxproj.user.in ${CMAKE_BINARY_DIR}/${src}.vcxproj.user @ONLY) 

Now when you start a debugging session, the appropriate paths will be set and things should work as expected. There are likely other and perhaps better ways to accomplish this goal, with the ideal solution being to set the debugger path with some CMake property. In the meantime, we make do with the tools avalable to us.

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