If you’ve been around the block of C and C++ libraries for more than a brief glance, you have inevitably seen a tweakme.h or two. Maybe a configure script with a few dozen command-line flags? Or maybe you’ve been told to pop open ccmake and flip some switches? Have you ever juggled command-line flags in a build script three layers deep just to enable/disable some workaround in some library thats being pulled in as a dependency of a dependency of a dependency?

Don’t worry. I hear you cry. I too have wrestled with such pains.

What’s the Big Idea?

Why do libraries offer these build-time switches? What do they accomplish?

In the majority of situations, I believe that offering compile-time tweaks are an antipattern. I could write a detailed post on why, but that’s not the point I want to focus on.

Instead, I want to focus on the cases where having these dials and switches is hugely beneficial or essential.

For example, suppose I am designing a 2D graphics library and I want to allow consumers to specify what rendering backend they want to use (OpenGL, Vulkan, Metal, OpenCL, DirectX, etc).

Maybe I’m building a cryptography library and I want to allow users to enable/disable hardware-accelerated algorithms. Perhaps I want users to be able to completely disable poor algorithms.

Perhaps I have an experimental implementation/feature and I want the user to be able to opt-in.

The State of Things


If you use CMake regularly, you’re familiar with the -D command-line argument. It lets us define variables that may be used by CMake scripts to tweak the build.

In a CMake script, a snippet like the following may appear:

option(ENABLE_EXPERIMENTAL_WIDGETS "Build with widgets" OFF)

target_compile_options(foo-widgets PUBLIC

and we can toggle this option on or off when we configure with cmake:


When we compile foo-widgets, each compilation will receive a -DFOO_EXPERIMENTAL_WIDGETS preprocessor definition set to 1 or 0 depending on the CMake option ENABLE_EXPERIMENTAL_WIDGETS.

Unfortunately, the PUBLIC options means that everyone will receive ENABLE_EXPERIMENTAL_WIDGETS in their preprocessor definitions, regardless of whether the translation unit makes use of that definition. This can severely harm incremental compilation, as changing the option’s value will invalidate the stored compilation of every TU. Besides this, a large number of library knobs and toggles will explode the size of our command-line into an unreadable mess.

One possible answer (and the often preferred solution) to these problems is to instead scribble the value of the configuration into a generated header:


Now, when a TU wants to consult the value of FOO_EXPERIMENTAL_WIDGETS, they must first #include the generated header.

This has the downside that the library itself isn’t even distributed in its complete form, and it is required that a configuration process be executed prior to the build. Simply compiling a file cannot be done because the expected generated configuration header does not yet exist!

The State of Things: Autotools

Autotools suffers all of the same problems that one finds with CMake, but will do it slower, with a lot more copy-pasting of arcane shell scripts that no one really cares about anymore, and with horrible support for non-Unix systems.

The State of Things: Header-Only Libraries

Header-only libraries, despite looking like a panacea from build woes, do little to improve our state of affairs.

Our option of using a generated header is gone, as there is no configuration process in place that could generate one. We now have two options:

  1. Have our users pass preprocessor definitions, either through local #define before #include-ing our header library, or on the command-line of their compilations. Providing them on the command-line presents all the downsides mentioned earlier, and having them #define macros before their #include directives is an ODR-violating minefield.
  2. Put a header in our library for the user to modify.

With option #2, the header to modify is often given a name like config.h or tweakme.h, to indicate that it contains the knobs, toggles, and switches for the library. I’ll simply call them “tweakme” headers for now.

A large issue with tweakme headers is, of course, the offloading of the configuration process that the header-only library would have onto our users. Now users need to do one of two things: 1) Embed a version of the library with the modified tweakme header, or 2) add a step in their own build+configuration process that will write the modified tweakme header.

Additionally, because the tweakme header needs to be modified in-place, we can no longer use non-local installs of the library. Each consuming project will need to have its own copy that it can scribble into without interfering with the potential tweaks made by other projects on the system.

There is something very compelling about tweakme headers, though: They are a way to configure a library absent any non-standard tools. The configuration is only a matter of settings some preprocessor macros or constants. No external scripting language required!

(This is a hint at a proposed solution.)


I’ve been working on dds for some time, and one question that has always been outstanding is how can I allow library authors to provide knobs, toggles, and switches to their libraries?

For a long time, I’ve been planning on a feature to generate configuration headers, just as one would do with CMake, Autotools, etc. Something about it didn’t feel right, though. I want to approach this from an angle where a project is ready-to-build the moment you open the project directory. I didn’t want the project to become reliant on dds generating headers for it.

Dependency Builds?

Whether using generated config headers or using plain command-line preprocessor macros, the issues scale up as a dependency tree grows.

Suppose framework A contains an embedded version of library B (I have disdain for this model, but it has some merits). In order for a consumer of A to tweak the options to B, A’s build system must expose the options of B, which puts a maintenance burden on A and tightly couples the build of A to the build of B.

A “tweakme” header? No: A Tweak-header!

I cannot recall what train of thought led me to this new design. It was the dead of night, lying in bed at 4AM, staring at the ceiling and filled with existential dread.

Then, an epiphany: A way that a library may offer compile-time customizations:

  • without requiring:
    • A configuration process,
    • modifying of an embedded tweakme header,
    • bleeding macro definitions across the entire program,
  • that works with:
    • CMake,
    • Autotools,
    • Meson,
    • build2,
    • dds,
    • header-only libraries,
    • or with any build system,
  • that supports build-time configuration of:
    • preprocessor macros,
    • constants,
    • function definitions,
    • class definitions,
    • type aliases
    • or any language construct,
  • all using only standard language features.

It all revolves around one magic preprocessor token: __has_include

To understand how, let’s consider a library that offers a toggle to enable “audit mode”, wherein the library will heavily check its invariants with assert():

/// File: acme/widgets/frombulate.cpp

#include <acme/widgets/config.h>

void acme::frombulate(std::vector<widget> widgets) {

In this case, ACME_AUDIT_WIDGETS is a 0/1 boolean macro that determines whether the library performs the audits.

Traditionally, the user would control this value by tweaking the macro either on the command line, with an option to the build configuration, or by putting #define before their #include directives. (Of these, only passing it at configure-time works with compiled libraries, and the latter option is horrible and should rarely or never be used).

Introducing the “Tweak-header”

So how can __has_include help us here? As always: All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection.

Instead of offering tweaks through a build system, let’s do something that looks a bit strange in our library’s regular config-header:

/// File: acme/widgets/config.h

// *~*~*~ MAGIC ~*~*~*
#if __has_include(<acme-widgets.tweaks.h>)
  #include <acme-widgets.tweaks.h>


(Maybe you’ve connected the dots already. Let’s pace ourselves, though.)

What’s happening here? What is <acme-widgets.tweaks.h>? In short: It’s a tweak-header: A user-provided header file that contains tweaks specific to the library. A tweak-header is created using a few specific rules:

  • A tweak-header must have a library-specific name, so that we can supply arbitrarily many tweak-headers to arbitrarily many libraries, and they do not collide.
  • The library does not provide the tweak-header, but publicly documents the name(s) it expects for its tweak-header(s).
  • The library user provides a tweak-header and places it at the root of an include-search-dir used by the library when it is compiled. For example, a project may have a data/conf/ directory that is added to the include-search-dirs with -I data/conf/ when the library is compiled.
  • For each tweak-header that a library can expect, there should be a library config header/module that conditionally #includes the tweak-header with a __has_include() check.
  • No one except the library’s config header/module should #include the tweak-header. Anyone that wishes to access the options from the tweak-header must do so by #includeing or importing the library’s config header/module.

Providing a Tweak-header

Suppose I am building an application upon acme-widgets and I want to be able to control whether acme-widgets has audits enabled. Fortunately, the library offers controls through a tweak-header. Here is how we do it:

  1. acme-widgets documents that its only tweak-header is named acme-widgets.tweaks.h.
  2. I create a new directory called conf/ and place a file acme-widgets.tweaks.h within.
  3. When I compile acme-widgets and when I compile my own project, I add the previously created conf/ directory to the include-search-path, such that acme/widgets/config.h will be able to find the tweak-header.

That’s it!

Now, when I want to enable audits in acme-widgets:

/// File: acme-widgets.tweaks.h

And when I recompile acme-widgets and my application, auditing is now enabled. I don’t need to tweak options in any build system, or dig within the sources of acme-widgets to modify their own sources: The change will propagate automatically. Additionally, it will only propagate to files that actually consult acme/widgets/config.h, and incremental compilation will leave everything else alone.

If you are using a build system that builds its dependencies as part of the main build (which dds does by default), you don’t even need to worry about building the library and application separately. Just rebuild.

Tweaking Libraries for the Modern C++ Era

Preprocessor macros are so 1988. We can do better for library customization, yeah?

/// File: acme/widgets/frombulate.cpp

#include <acme/widgets/config.h>

void acme::frombulate(std::vector<widget> widgets) {
  if (acme::widgets::config::do_audit()) {

In the above, acme::widgets::config::do_audit is a function that determines whether we want to audit the widgets. This seems weird, right? Why not use conditional compilation instead? And how would someone “customize” this? How do we “conditionally” provide a function definition?

It’s not entirely clear how we offer a tweak like this, but it’s actually surprisingly easy:

/// File: acme/widgets/config.h
namespace acme::widgets::config {
  namespace defaults {
    constexpr bool do_audit() noexcept {
      return false;

  using namespace defaults;

// Pull the tweaks:
#if __has_include(<acme-widgets.tweaks.hpp>)
  #include <acme-widgets.tweaks.hpp>

In this case, the “default definition” of acme::widgets::config::do_audit() simply returns false unconditionally. When we perform qualified name lookup, we will actually find acme::widgets::config::defaults::do_audit().

If I am writing an application and want to customize whether we audit widgets, I simply provide the tweak-header:

/// File: acme-widgets.tweaks.hpp

namespace acme::widgets::config {
  constexpr bool do_audit() noexcept {
    return true;

Now, when anyone (including acme-widgets) performs name lookup on acme::widgets::config::do_audit(), the definition from the tweak-header will be “preferred” to the definition that was pulled in via using namespace defaults;

(Note: You can’t use an inline namespace to contain your defaults, since that behaves slightly differently with regards to name lookup. You must use a regular namespace and pull the defaults in via using namespace.)

Getting Fancy

We’ve injected a tweak to enable widget audits via a function. But why use a function? We could just as well have used a namespace-scope constant.

Well, there’s a significant advantage over using simple 0/1 boolean macros. A function can vary its return value!

/// File: acme-widgets.tweaks.hpp

#include <cstdlib>
#include <string_view>

namespace acme::widgets::config {
  inline bool do_audit() noexcept {
    auto ev = std::getenv("AUDIT_ACME_WIDGETS");
    return ev && std::string_view(ev) != "0";

With the above customization, now we can enable/disable the assert() at runtime!

Getting Fancier

What if we want to go further?

/// File: acme-widgets.tweaks.hpp

namespace my_app { extern bool audit_acme_widgets; }

namespace acme::widgets::config {
  inline bool do_audit() noexcept {
    return my_app::audit_acme_widgets;

Now our own application can dynamically enable/disable the assert() within the library. We didn’t need to insert any special hooks or modify the library’s sources: We just provided a custom tweak to the library in a way that it officially supports.

Try doing that with a ./configure script!

Of course, its entirely up to the library to decide whether the above is allowed or not. It could instead intend acme::widgets::config::do_audit to be a constexpr bool, and that’s entirely fine: It’s simply up to acme-widgets to document these tweaks.

Getting Fanciest

Suppose I am building a library that might be threadsafe, but a downstream user may want to disable synchronization primitives if they know that they are creating a single-threaded application. Here’s a simple way that might be done:

/// File: acme/gadgets/config.hpp

#include <mutex>

namespace acme::gadgets::config {
  namespace defaults {
    using lock_type = std::mutex;
  using namespace defaults;

// Pull the tweaks:
#if __has_include(<acme-gadgets.tweaks.hpp>)
  #include <acme-gadgets.tweaks.hpp>

And a user can simply replace the lock type with a no-op lock:

/// File: acme-gadgets.tweaks.hpp

namespace acme::gadgets::config {
  struct lock_type {
    void lock() {}
    void unlock() {}

and now anyone who references acme::gadgets::config::lock_type would receive a no-op lock instead of a std::mutex.

A Word on Modules

What does a tweak-header look like in a C++ Modules world? Surprisingly, near exactly the same. The only difference is how we pull in the library configuration. Whereas we previously wrote:

#include <acme/widgets/config.h>

we now write:

import <acme/widgets/config.h>;

and that’s all there is to it!

A Small Real-World Example

A prime example of a library that ships with several compile-time options is SQLite. (For example, SQLite changes its thread-safety guarantees based on the value of the SQLITE_THREADSAFE preprocessor macro, which must be defined when compiling SQLite.) Rather than expecting the user to pass the macro on the command line, the SQLite config-header might contain an incantation to pull a tweak-header:

#if __has_include(<sqlite.tweaks.h>)
  #include <sqlite.tweaks.h>

A library/application that contains an embedded copy of SQLite can tweak the behavior of SQLite by providing their own sqlite.tweaks.h in their source tree rather than setting preprocessor definitions in their build system.

Interaction with Package Management and Build Systems

Because they necessarily affect the ABI of the generated code, the contents of any particular tweak-header must be equivalent across the entire build. If a library is compiled with some given tweak-header content, then that library may only be consumed by other projects that have the same tweak-header.

The idea of compile-time options isn’t novel, and tools already take them into consideration.

Conan and Conan’s options

Conan’s “options” feature allows a package to declare build-time parameters that can be set by consumers. When Conan pulls packages, it uses the option choices provided as part of a dependency statement when it generates a binary package ID (which also considers the compiler, language version, operating system, and debug/release mode; the binary package ID effectively represents the ID of the package’s ABI). Options are entirely arbitrarily defined by a package, and it is up to the package’s recipe to convert the given option choices into build-system settings or generated tweakme headers. Changing a choice to any particular option as part of a dependency statement will cause Conan to rebuild the library (or download a cached binary) to match the new ABI of the given choices.

If a library uses tweak-headers to configure itself, and wishes to work with Conan, then its recipe would need to convert some set of option choices into a generated tweak-header.


vcpkg (as far as I am aware) does not expose a method to tweak compile-time options of dependencies, and instead recommends overlaying custom portfiles to tweak the build of individual packages. vcpkg supports ABI variance in the form of triples, but they do not apply individual tweaks to individual packages, instead encoding more abstract properties of the target platform.

Build Systems

Tweak-headers are completely portable and will work for any build system or package manager, but it is necessary that changing a tweak-header will necessitate a rebuild of the library to which it corresponds.


For header-only libraries, this is a non-issue, since the library is recompiled immediately every time it is used, the library will instantly see any changes to its tweak-headers.

Tweak-headers will also work when these libraries are pulled by Conan/vcpkg/etc, of course.

Dependency-Aware Builds

For dds and any build system that builds dependencies automatically, including CMake projects in which dependencies are included via add_subdirectory(), tweak-headers will “just-work”, since file-level dependency tracking will see updates to the tweak-headers as regular updates to compilation inputs.

Vendored Builds of Third-Party Code

If you and/or your organization maintain from-source builds of a set of external code, tweak-headers offer a pleasant alternative to wrangling a dozen different competing build systems. Your hand-written tweak-headers will need to be embedded in the distribution of your vendored dependencies.

Everything Else

For any build that relies on stable, immovable, never-changing external binaries, tweak-headers will not work on those binaries. This isn’t unique to tweak-headers, though. Using someone else’s binaries that you have no control over means that you cannot vary that package’s ABI at all, regardless of technique.

(Please don’t do this.)

Limitations and Downsides

Surely there must be downsides to this approach?

At the moment, I consider two primary drawbacks:

  1. Adoption: No one is using this yet. Tweak-headers will only work if the library has explicitly added support for tweak-headers (or if you inject code into the sources at build-time). Of course, missing adoption is going to be true with any novel design. Fortunately, adopting tweak-headers is extremely easy and can be provided as an alternative to existing library tweaking and configuration options without breaking backwards compatibility.
  2. Dependency tracking: This is a rarely-encountered but known-issue with how build systems currently implement inter-file dependency tracking, but it is exacerbated by __has_include() in cases where its result could change between compilations. I won’t go into details here, but it basically means this: Adding a tweak-header as part of a build that wasn’t previously present on the filesystem will require that all cached dependency tracking information in the project be completely reset. This is an unfortunate edge-case and will require tweaks to compilers to fix properly.

Perhaps new issues may arise as use cases are explored, but for the foreseeable future I will be exposing all of my build-time switches through tweak-headers rather than configure-time options.