CMake’s ugly programming language

I’ve just discovered Rosetta Code not long ago, and found it quite fun to browse around. It shows you the code for various programming tasks in different programming languages. While looking at the Quicksort page, I noticed that it didn’t have a CMake version, so I decided to try writing one.

function (quicksort array_var)
    set (array ${${array_var}})
    if ("${array}" STREQUAL "")
        return ()
    endif ()

    set (less)
    set (equal)
    set (greater)
    list (GET array 0 pivot)

    foreach (x ${array})
        if (x LESS pivot)
            list (APPEND less "${x}")
        elseif (x EQUAL pivot)
            list (APPEND equal "${x}")
        else ()
            list (APPEND greater "${x}")
        endif ()
    endforeach ()

    set (array)
    if (NOT less STREQUAL "")
        quicksort (less)
        list (APPEND array ${less})
    endif ()
    list (APPEND array ${equal})
    if (NOT greater STREQUAL "")
        quicksort (greater)
        list (APPEND array ${greater})
    endif ()
    set ("${array_var}" ${array} PARENT_SCOPE)
endfunction ()

set (a 4 65 2 -31 0 99 83 782 1)
quicksort (a)
message ("${a}")

I’ve worked with CMake for years, and I think it’s a good build system, but I really wish it had switched to a saner language. The CMake language is actually pretty simple and consistent at the syntax level: everything is in the form command(string), where the string syntax is slightly confusing but still rather understandable once you’ve figured out the quoting and variable expansion mechanisms. It’s how that string argument is used that can be messy, inconsistent, and ambiguous. Effectively, it’s as if every command had its own syntax.

Around 2008, there was an experiment to allow writing CMake scripts in Lua. The project never caught on and was abandoned. I think part of the reason was that the thread discussing it in Lua’s mailing list was single-handedly derailed into pointless bickering (which reminds me of the “poisonous people” talk).

CMake is stuck with a mediocre programming language for the foreseeable future. It’s not as bad as it sounds, though. The simplicity of the syntax has its advantages, and writing CMake buildfiles rarely gets frustrating. It would make a terrible general programming language, but as a build system scripting language it’s workable.

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