Tuesday, September 17, 2013

C/C++ Project Built with GNU Build System (A.K.A. GNU Autotools): NetBeans vs. Eclipse CDT

Recently, I had to work on a C++ project built with the GNU Build System and decided to use the NetBeans IDE. I already use NetBeans for many Java EE projects and since it claims support for the GNU Build System it was natural for me to import the project there.

I encountered some issues due to the fact that the GNU Build System I was using was deployed in my home directory (OS X (1.8) ships old components which I could not use). To try to solve this issue, I decided to try Eclipse CDT.

Neither tool solved that problem, but I had the opportunity of working side-by-side on the same project with two widely used IDEs I never used for serious C++ programming before. After a couple of months I had a very clear idea about what each IDE offered me in this specific use case and made my final decision. This post is not a detailed comparison of all their features: first of all, because I believe that the "Eclipse vs. NetBeans" debate, even though in the C/C++ realm, is more a matter of taste rather than a matter of functionality. Secondly, because there is plenty of information on the internet. What I could not find, and that is the reason I am writing this blog post, is how these tools compare when the GNU Build System is part of the equation.

Both IDEs Claim Support for the GNU Build System

As stated in the introduction, both IDEs claim support for the GNU Build System and in fact I could build my project in less than 10 minutes in either IDE without previous knowledge. However, setting up my workspace with either tool was a very different experience.

Setting up the project in NetBeans was so easy that at first I thought it ignored the build system altogether. NetBeans imported the sources, configured my OS toolchain, detected the presence of autoconf and automake files, configured the project running configure and built it straight away.

Setting up the project in Eclipse CDT was easy, but not as straightforward as it was with NetBeans, the main difference being Eclipse CDT requiring manual intervention (a click, basically) to setup the GNU Build System in the imported project. On the bright side, as we will see, Eclipse CDT is much more configurable than NetBeans and offers you clean ways to configure how the build system is invoked.

Importing the Sources into a NetBeans Project

Importing the project sources into a NetBeans project is straightforward. First of all, uncompress your source tar-ball somewhere (assuming you created it with make dist). Then, choose File/New Project and select the C/C++ Project with Existing Sources in the New Project dialog, as shown in the next picture.

Create New C++ Project

In the next dialog, just choose the path of your sources and an appropriate tool collection (this project is a C++11 project, so that CLang was chosen on OS X). If you leave the configuration mode to automatic NetBeans will check for the existence of either a make file or a configuration script and will setup your project to configure and build in the its root directory. If you prefer building it in a separate directory or have multiple build configurations, then choose Custom and fine tune your project.

Configure C++ Project

NetBeans will create a new project using your sources, will configure it and make it:

Running configure

Running make

From now on, until you modify your configuration files, you can just build the project in NetBeans and make will be invoked on the generated makefile.

If you need to reconfigure the project, you can select Project/More Build Commands/Reconfigure Project. A configuration dialog will pop up where you can specify additional configure parameters:

Configure parameters

As you have seen, NetBeans offers a very easy way to import a project built with the GNU Build System with almost no user interaction. The basic functionality (configure and make) is there, hidden behind a very thin and intuitive UI layer.

Importing the Sources into an Eclipse CDT Project

Creating a working Eclipse CDT project from the same tar-ball is easy, but not as easy as it is with NetBeans.  First of all, choose File/Import/Existing Code as Makefile Project:

Import Existing Code

In the next dialog, pretty much as in the NetBeans case, the only required user input is the source path.

Configure C++ Project

When Eclipse imports the project it does not detect the presence of GNU Build System configuration files. To configure the build system, the user must select File/New/Convert to a C/C++ Autotools Project (a very bad naming choice, because I would not expect to find this feature in the File/New submenu):

Convert C++ Project to Autotools Project

Once the project has been converted to an Autotools project, Eclipse will run configure and you can start working on it.

Running configure

Since only CLang can properly compile this C++11 project on OS X 1.8, I need to reconfigure the project (basically, to have Eclipse add CXX=clang++ when invoking configure).

Autotools configuration is where Eclipse CDT shines. Autotools settings can be found in the project settings:

Configuring the Build System

As you can see, this is more than what NetBeans offers. Common configure parameters are hierarchically organised in a tree where they can be set with handy UI controls:

Configuring the Compiler

Once the compiler has been set, the project built correctly:

Running make


I've been using both environments for a couple of months, switching between one and the other without experiencing any major issue, even working on different platforms, alternating the use of OS X and Linux

According to my experience, I think both IDEs offer a solid working environment featuring a nice integration of the GNU Build System into the UI. On the usability side, I think NetBeans' UI is cleaner, more intuitive and easier to use. I think this is true in general, and it's one of the reasons I usually stick with NetBeans for Java SE and Java EE development.

On the other hand, Eclipse CDT offers much finer control over the build system. As we have seen, the build settings lets you tweak many configure parameters from a handy UI and they can be saved in configurations.

The Eclipse CDT project settings supposedly let you specify alternate paths for the GNU Build System tools:

Configuring the Build System Paths

This feature would be very handy, since it's not uncommon to install updated versions of the tools in an alternate location. Unfortunately, I was unable to have it working properly when the alternate versions are not on the user path (which is when I'd use this customisation in the first place). Even though the correct version is invoked by Eclipse, the "wrong" version (the one in the path) when a tool invokes another one (as in the case of autoreconf). Which seems reasonable, since the GNU Build System are shell scripts. In fact, when I first saw this dialog, I wondered how it could work in my case, in which I've got a local autoconf and automake installation in my home directory.

Considering the IDE as a whole, I still prefer NetBeans to Eclipse CDT. C/C++ support is integrated and the UI is easier and intuitive. Eclipse CDT is certainly more configurable and offers features which NetBeans lacks, such as support for configure.ac and Makefile.am files which NetBeans treats as plain text files. Despite these gaps, though, I believe NetBeans wins on the UI usability side.

Code Formatting

Another of my major concerns with NetBeans for C/C++ was the lack of proper, configurable code formatting tools. For a while I even tried using GNU indent to fill this gap but the workflow was disruptive and prone to error since indent support for C++ is still experimental. Fortunately, this gap has been filled and now you can instruct NetBeans to format your C/C++ code using the most commonly used coding styles, such as:
  • Apache.
  • BSD (ANSI and OpenSolaris).
  • GNU.
  • K&R.
  • Linux Kernel.
  • MySQL.
  • NetBeans.
  • Whitesmiths.

NetBeans Code Formatter

The list of supported styles is in fact longer than what Eclipse CDT currently offers:
  • BSD/Allman.
  • GNU.
  • K&R.
  • Linux.
  • Whitesmiths.

Eclipse Code Formatter

On the other hand, if you need to create a customised style from scratch, Eclipse CDT is still superior as far as customisation options are concerned.

Both code formatters work pretty well and I found only few quirks. Both IDEs offer good tools and I think that nowadays they're equally usable.

Tool Collection Management

NetBeans manages the tool collections of a platform in a clean way, separating the configuration of a tool collection from the configuration of a project. This way, you can change define a new tool collection, or choose another between the available ones in your system, and use it to build a project as a simple drop-in replacement of the original. This is especially handy not only in the case you're testing the build with different tool chains, but also in the case you're building the same project on different platforms.

In the following pictures, you can see the definition of the two tool collections which are available by default on OS X (1.8): clang and gcc.

CLang Tool Collection

GNU Tool Collection

The project I've been working on had to build on both OS X and Linux. When using NetBeans, I can just open the project on either platform and choose the appropriate tool collection. In fact, each time I switched from OS X to Linux, NetBeans detected an invalid tool (CLang++ was not available) and offered to reconfigure the project.

In the following picture you can see how a project can be configured to use a tool collection. Once the tool collection is chosen, NetBeans will automatically reconfigure the project.

Project Configuration

When using Eclipse CDT, on the other hand, the C++ compiler is selected using (or removing altogether) the CXX flag. There's no automatic or easy way to reconfigure the project as NetBeans does and while it's certainly technically easy to change the compiler variable, it's a usability problem. On the usability side, NetBeans clearly wins.


An IDE is a very important tool in the life of a programmer, and choosing an IDE is a very delicate process which may have huge impact on your performance. On the one hand, I often try different IDEs to choose the best one for a specific use case. On the other hand, becoming proficient on an IDE is a process which requires time and, depending on the situation (project scheduling is a tyrant), I feel it's better for me to stick with a well known IDE and be (very) productive from the beginning, rather than switching to a brand new one because it offers features than the former lacks.

If you are already a NetBeans or Eclipse user, stick with it. Most of the times you'll be fine and will not need anything else. Maybe you'll find a solid reason to switch to another IDE, and when that time comes, the best thing is try more than one and decide yourself.

That's what I did. I'm a long time NetBeans user and started the project with it. I found some minor issues and used those problems as an opportunity to investigate other IDEs, such as Eclipse CDT. While working on NetBeans is familiar and comfortable to me, I recognise I was very willing to check out the latest Eclipse CDT (Kepler at the time of writing) and see whether I should reconsider my IDE choice.

At the end I decided to stay with NetBeans because of its usability features, especially the tool collection management, even though Eclipse CDT offers a much finer control over the build system configuration: but being able to easily switch OS and/or tool collection as NetBeans does was the deal-breaker for me.