How to cross-compile your applications using Conan: host and build contexts

Important

In this example, we will retrieve Conan packages from a Conan repository with packages compatible with Conan 2.0. To run this example successfully you should add this remote to your Conan configuration (if did not already do it) doing: conan remote add conanv2 https://conanv2beta.jfrog.io/artifactory/api/conan/conan --index 0

Please, first clone the sources to recreate this project. You can find them in the examples2.0 repository on GitHub:

$ git clone https://github.com/conan-io/examples2.git
$ cd examples2/tutorial/consuming_packages/cross_building

In the previous examples, we learned how to use a conanfile.py or conanfile.txt to build an application that compresses strings using the Zlib and CMake Conan packages. Also, we explained that you can set information like the operating system, compiler or build configuration in a file called the Conan profile. You can use that profile as an argument (--profile) to invoke the conan install. We also explained that not specifying that profile is equivalent to using the --profile=default argument.

For all those examples, we used the same platform for building and running the application. But, what if you want to build the application on your machine running Ubuntu Linux and then run it on another platform like a Raspberry Pi? Conan can model that case using two different profiles, one for the machine that builds the application (Ubuntu Linux) and another for the machine that runs the application (Raspberry Pi). We will explain this “two profiles” approach in the next section.

Conan two profiles model: build and host profiles

Even if you specify only one --profile argument when invoking Conan, Conan will internally use two profiles. One for the machine that builds the binaries (called the build profile) and another for the machine that runs those binaries (called the host profile). Calling this command:

$ conan install . --build=missing --profile=someprofile

Is equivalent to:

$ conan install . --build=missing --profile:host=someprofile --profile:build=default

As you can see we used two new arguments:

  • profile:host: This is the profile that defines the platform where the built binaries will run. For our string compressor application this profile would be the one applied for the Zlib library that will run in a Raspberry Pi.
  • profile:build: This is the profile that defines the platform where the binaries will be built. For our string compressor application, this profile would be the one used by the CMake tool that will compile it on the Ubuntu Linux machine.

Note that when you just use one argument for the profile --profile is equivalent to --profile:host. If you don’t specify the --profile:build argument, Conan will use the default profile internally.

So, if we want to build the compressor application in the Ubuntu Linux machine but run it in a Raspberry Pi, we should use two different profiles. For the build machine we could use the default profile, that in our case looks like this:

<conan home>/profiles/default
[settings]
os=Linux
arch=x86_64
build_type=Release
compiler=gcc
compiler.cppstd=gnu14
compiler.libcxx=libstdc++11
compiler.version=9

And the profile for the Raspberry Pi that is the host machine:

<local folder>/profiles/raspberry
[settings]
os=Linux
arch=armv7hf
compiler=gcc
build_type=Release
compiler.cppstd=gnu14
compiler.libcxx=libstdc++11
compiler.version=9
[buildenv]
CC=arm-linux-gnueabihf-gcc-9
CXX=arm-linux-gnueabihf-g++-9
LD=arm-linux-gnueabihf-ld

Important

Please, take into account that in order to build this example successfully, you should have installed a toolchain that includes the compiler and all the tools to build the application for the proper architecture. In this case the host machine is a Raspberry Pi 3 with armv7hf architecture operating system and we have the arm-linux-gnueabihf toolchain installed in the Ubuntu machine.

If you have a look at the raspberry profile, there is a section named [buildenv]. This section is used to set the environment variables that are needed to build the application. In this case we declare the CC, CXX and LD variables pointing to the cross-build toolchain compilers and linker, respectively. Adding this section to the profile will invoke the VirtualBuildEnv generator everytime we do a conan install. This generator will add that environment information to the conanbuild.sh script that we will source before building with CMake so that it can use the cross-build toolchain.

Build and host contexts

Now that we have our two profiles prepared, let’s have a look at our conanfile.py:

conanfile.py
from conan import ConanFile
from conan.tools.cmake import cmake_layout

class CompressorRecipe(ConanFile):
    settings = "os", "compiler", "build_type", "arch"
    generators = "CMakeToolchain", "CMakeDeps"

    def requirements(self):
        self.requires("zlib/1.2.11")
        self.tool_requires("cmake/3.19.8")

    def layout(self):
        cmake_layout(self)

As you can see, this is practically the same conanfile.py we used in the previous example. We will require zlib/1.2.11 as a regular dependency and cmake/3.19.8 as a tool needed for building the application.

We will need the application to build for the Raspberry Pi with the cross-build toolchain and also link the zlib/1.2.11 library built for the same platform. On the other side, we need the cmake/3.19.8 binary to run in Ubuntu Linux. Conan manages this internally in the dependency graph differentiating between what we call the “build context” and the “host context”:

  • The host context is populated with the root package (the one specified in the conan install or conan create command) and all its requirements added via self.requires(). In this case, this includes the compressor application and the zlib/1.2.11 dependency.
  • The build context contains the tool requirements used in the build machine. This category typically includes all the developer tools like CMake, compilers and linkers. In this case, this includes the cmake/3.19.8 tool.

These contexts define how Conan will manage each one of the dependencies. For example, as zlib/1.2.11 belongs to the host context, the [buildenv] build environment we defined in the raspberry profile (profile host) will only apply to the zlib/1.2.11 library when building and won’t affect anything that belongs to the build context like the cmake/3.19.8 dependency.

Now, let’s build the application. First, call conan install with the profiles for the build and host platforms. This will install the zlib/1.2.11 dependency built for armv7hf architecture and a cmake/3.19.8 version that runs for 64-bit architecture.

$ conan install . --build missing -pr:b=default -pr:h=./profiles/raspberry

Then, let’s call CMake to build the application. As we did in the previous example we have to activate the build environment running source generators/conanbuild.sh. That will set the environment variables needed to locate the cross-build toolchain and build the application.

$ cd build
$ source generators/conanbuild.sh
Capturing current environment in deactivate_conanbuildenv-release-armv7hf.sh
Configuring environment variables
$ cmake .. -DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE=generators/conan_toolchain.cmake -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Release
$ cmake --build .
...
-- Conan toolchain: C++ Standard 14 with extensions ON
-- The C compiler identification is GNU 9.4.0
-- Detecting C compiler ABI info
-- Detecting C compiler ABI info - done
-- Check for working C compiler: /usr/bin/arm-linux-gnueabihf-gcc-9 - skipped
-- Detecting C compile features
-- Detecting C compile features - done    [100%] Built target compressor
...
$ source generators/deactivate_conanbuild.sh

You could check that we built the application for the correct architecture by running the file Linux utility:

$ file compressor
compressor: ELF 32-bit LSB shared object, ARM, EABI5 version 1 (SYSV), dynamically
linked, interpreter /lib/ld-linux-armhf.so.3,
BuildID[sha1]=2a216076864a1b1f30211debf297ac37a9195196, for GNU/Linux 3.2.0, not
stripped

Read more

  • Cross building to Android with the NDK
  • Cross-build using a tool_requires
  • How to require test frameworks like gtest: using test_requires
  • Using Conan to build for iOS
  • Link to the VirtualBuildEnv reference