CMake FetchContent vs. ExternalProject

Making multiple software projects work together is usually better done by the build system:

instead of Git submodule.

Meson subproject and CMake ExternalProject keep project namespaces separate. Meson subproject and CMake FetchContent download and configure all projects at configure time. CMake FetchContent comingles the CMake project namespaces. FetchContent can be easier to use than ExternalProject if you control both software projects' CMake scripts. If you don’t control the “child” project, it may be better to use ExternalProject instead of FetchContent.

For these examples, suppose we have a top-level project “parent” and a “child” project containing a library that is desired in parent. Suppose the child project can be built standalone (by itself) but also may be used directly from other CMake projects.

child: standalone~/bar~/bar/build~/bar
child: CMake ExternalProject~/foo/build/child-prefix/src/child~/foo/build/child-prefix/src/child-build~/foo/build/child-prefix/src/child
child: CMake FetchContent~/foo~/foo/build~/foo/build/_deps/child-src


FetchContent populates content from the other project at configure time. FetchContent populates the “child” project with default values from the “parent” project. Varibles set in the “child” project generally do not affect the “parent” project unless specifically used from the “parent” project.

From “parent” project CMakeLists.txt:

cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.14)
project(parent Fortran)

  GIT_REPOSITORY https://github.invalid/username/child.git
  GIT_TAG develop   # it's much better to use a specific Git revision or Git tag for reproducibility


# your program
add_executable(myprog main.f90)
target_link_libraries(myprog mylib)  # mylib is from "child"
make “child” code configure, populating variables and targets as if it were part of “parent” CMake project.

suppose “child” project CMakeLists.txt contains:

project(child Fortran)

add_library(mylib mylib.f90)
target_include_libraries(mylib INTERFACE ${CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR}/include)
set_target_properties(mylib PROPERTIES

The child project CMAKE_BINARY_DIR and CMAKE_SOURCE_DIR will be those of parent project. That is, if the parent project is in ~/foo and the build directory is ~/foo/build, then the child project in ~/childcode called by FetchContent will also have CMAKE_SOURCE_DIR of ~/foo and CMAKE_BINARY_DIR of ~/foo/build. So be careful in the child project when using such variables that may be defined by parent projects. This is why projects that aren’t specifically designed to work together may be better joined by ExternalProject. A typical technique within the child project that can operate standalone is to refer to CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR instead of CMAKE_SOURCE_DIR as the latter will break when used from FetchContent.

IMPORTANT: When using if() clauses to determine execution of FetchContent, ensure that the FetchContent stanzas are executed each time CMake is run. Otherwise, the FetchContent targets may fail to be available or may have missing target properties on CMake rebuild.


ExternalProject populates content from the other project at build time. This means the other project’s libraries are not visible until the parent project is built. Since ExternalProject does not combine the project namespaces, ExternalProject may be necessary if you don’t control the other projects.

ExternalProject will not download, configure or build without the add_dependencies() statement. Upon cmake --build of the parent project, ExternalProject downloads, configures and builds.

From “parent” project CMakeLists.txt:

project(parent Fortran)


  GIT_TAG develop  # it's much better to use a specific Git revision or Git tag for reproducability
  INSTALL_COMMAND ""  # this disables the install step for the external project

ExternalProject_Get_Property(child_proj BINARY_DIR)

file(MAKE_DIRECTORY ${BINARY_DIR}/include)  # avoid race condition

add_library(timestwo STATIC IMPORTED GLOBAL)
set_target_properties(timestwo PROPERTIES

add_executable(test_timestwo test_timestwo.f90)  # your program
add_dependencies(test_timestwo child_proj)  # externalproject won't download without this
target_link_libraries(test_timestwo timestwo)
make ExternalProject always update and build first
necessary for Ninja to not complain about missing targets. Note how we can’t use BINARY_DIR since it’s populated by ExternalProject_Get_Property()

The imported library ext is used in the “parent” project just like any other library.

“child” project CMakeLists.txt includes:

project(child Fortran)

add_library(timestwo STATIC timestwo.f90)
set_target_properties(timestwo PROPERTIES

Configure “child” Fortran_MODULE_DIRECTORY so that it’s not necessary for “parent” to introspect “child” directory structure.

Live examples


Since the ExternalProject is built by itself and generally is unaware of the consuming “parent”, this does NOT work to detect use as an ExternalProject:

project(child ...)

# "is_fetched" is:
# * ExternalProject: false--does not detect
# * FetchContent: true


Note that the PARENT_DIRECTORY property is NOT useful for detecting if the “child” is being used as an ExternalProject.

  • target_link_directories() is generally NOT preferred because library name collisions can occur, particularly with system libraries.