Code Generation

Fips makes it easy to generate C/C++ source code by running Python scripts during the build process. Special care has been taken to make code generation flexible so that it is useful for many different scenarios. For instance here are a few examples how the Oryol 3D engine uses code generation:

  • generate code for serializable message protocols (similar to Google protobuf)
  • embed image files into header files and generate a sprite sheet library
  • GLSL shader editing with IDE error integration (see this blog post and video)

Using Code Generation

The fips_generate cmake macro is used to tell fips how to generate C/C++ source code:

fips_generate(FROM input_file
              [TYPE generator_type]
              [SOURCE out_source_file]
              [HEADER out_header_file]
              [ARGS args_as_yaml_string])


  • FROM: Defines an input data file which is handed to the Python generator script as argument, the input file can be anything, for instance JSON, YAML, XML or GLSL. It is up to the generator script to make sense of the input file.
  • TYPE: Defines the generator that should be used for code generation, this resolves to a Python module which is imported and run at build time
  • SOURCE: The filename of the generated source code file
  • HEADER: The filename of the generated header code file
  • ARGS: An optional YAML formatted string defining additional arguments to the python generator script.

Let's go through a few examples:

The most usual form to call fips_generate() is to provide only a FROM and TYPE argument:

fips_generate(FROM IOProtocol.yml TYPE MessageProtocol)

This means that the input file IOProtocol.yml is converted by the generator MessageProtocol into the output files and IOProtocol.h.

If both the SOURCE and HEADER args are not provided, fips will automatically generate one .cc source and one .h header file with the same base name as the FROM file.

To generate output files with different file extensions (or filenames), provide them explicitely with the SOURCE and HEADER args, e.g.:

fips_generate(FROM IOProtocol.yml
              TYPE MessageProtocol
              SOURCE IOProtocol.cpp
              HEADER IOProtocol.hh)

Providing only one of SOURCE or HEADER means that the generator should only generate either a source file or a header file, but not both. This only works if the generator script knows that it should only write one source or one header file.

The following example generates only a source file, but no header:

fips_generate(FROM MyFile.xml TYPE MySourceGenerator SOURCE

Likewise, this example only generates a header, but no source:

fips_generate(FROM MyFile.xml TYPE MyHeaderGenerator HEADER MyFile.h)

If the TYPE argument is omitted, the FROM argument must be a Python file in the project source tree which is directly called to create the output source files:


In this case, the Python script in the current source code location will be called to generate the files and spritesheet.h.

It is possible to provide additional arguments to the generator script in a YAML-formatted string:

              TYPE BgfxShaderEmbedded 
              HEADER fs_metaballs.bin.h 
              ARGS "{ type: fs, bla: blub }")

Writing Generators

A generator is a Python script which is called to generate C/C++ files.

Fips doesn't come with its own generators, instead it looks in the fips-generators directory in the current project and imported projects for generator scripts.

Let's check what generators Oryol has to offer:

> cd oryol/fips-generators
> ls *.py

A generator script must contain a Python function called 'generate()', which can have the following forms (with or without args):

# this is called if fips_generate() didn't have an ARGS argument:
def generate(input, out_src, out_hdr) :

# this is called if fips_generate() was called with ARGS:
def generate(input, out_src, out_hdr, args) :


  • input: is the absolute path to the input file (provided with the FROM cmake argument of fips_generate())
  • out_src: is the absolute path to the output source file, or None (provided with the SOURCE cmake argument to fips_generate())
  • out_hdr: is the absolute path to the output header file, or None (provided with the HEADER cmake argument to fips_generate())
  • args: if present, this is a dictionary of key/value pairs defined in the ARGS cmake argument to fips_generate()

File Dirty Check

Generator scripts should not overwrite the target files if nothing has changed in the source file, otherwise they would trigger unnecessary recompiles higher up the source code dependency chain.

fips provides a simple helper function to perform 2 types of dirty checks:

  • check the file modification timestamps of input files against the modification timestamps of the generated source code files
  • check a generator version embedded in the first few lines of generated files

The second generator version check seems unusual, but this is very useful when the generator scripts themselves are updated. For every change in a generator script that influences the generated source code, the generator's version number should be incremented. On the next build, all files generated by this generator script will be written because the generator version number doesn't match.

Let's have a look at a very simple generator script:

 1 """fips imported code generator for testing"""
 3 Version = 2 
 5 import genutil as util
 7 #-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 8 def generateHeader(hdrPath) :
 9     with open(hdrPath, 'w') as f :
10         f.write("// #version:{}#\n".format(Version))
11         f.write("extern void test_func(void);\n")
13 #-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
14 def generateSource(srcPath) :
15     with open(srcPath, 'w') as f :
16         f.write("// #version:{}#\n".format(Version))
17         f.write("#include <stdio.h>\n")
18         f.write("void test_func() {{\n")
19         f.write('    printf("Hello from test_func!\\n");\n')
20         f.write('}\n')
22 #-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
23 def generate(input, out_src, out_hdr) :
24     if util.isDirty(Version, [input], [out_src, out_hdr]) :
25         generateHeader(out_hdr)
26         generateSource(out_src)

Note the Version = 2 statement in line 3, this is the 'generator version', bumping this number will mark all generated source files as dirty and cause all generated files to be overwritten regardless of their file modification time stamp.

The generator entry point is the generate() function in line 23, the first line of this function checks whether the generator needs to run, first by checking the version stamp, then by checking the file modification times of the input file(s) and output files.

Header and source file are then written by the generateHeader() and generateSource() functions.

Note that both functions write a magic version tag inside a C comment in the first line which looks like #version:2#. The isDirty() helper function will look in the first 4 text lines for this magic tag.

NOTE: it is possible to provide 'None' as version argument to genutil.isDirty(), in this case, no version check will be performed

The generated source files will look like this, first the header:

// #version:2#
extern void test_func(void);

...and the source file:

// #version:2#
#include <stdio.h>
void test_func() {
    printf("Hello from test_func!\n");

The generator in this example doesn't actually use an input file since it generates the target files without any parameterization. This very special case only works with a Python script in the source tree which serves as 'input file' and calls the above generator 'hello_generator':

import hello_generator as gen

def generate(input, out_src, out_hdr) :
    gen.generate(input, out_src, out_hdr)

The final missing piece is the CMakeLists.txt entry:


Under the hood

This is what happens under the hood for code generation:

in './fips gen':

A python file '' is created in the project root directory. This sets up the python module search path to all imported projects so that imported code-generator scripts can be found, and will be called during the build process to load and invoke the code generator scripts.

in fips_generate():

  • absolute filesystem paths for the FROM, SOURCE and HEADER files are derived
  • generate empty SOURCE and HEADER files in the same directory as the FROM file, if they don't exist yet (this is a cmake requirement, all source code files added to a build target must exist)
  • add the FROM, SOURCE and HEADER files to the current build target's file list
  • a YAML file will be populated with the information from all fips_generate() calls at ${CMAKE_BINARY_DIR}/fips_codegen.yml (which is at ./fips-build/[proj-name]/[config-name]/fips_codegen.yml)
  • set a global flag that the current project has code generation

in fips_end_xxx():

  • the global 'project has code generation' flag is set, generate a cmake custom target named ALL_GENERATE which calls the generated '' script with the also generated fips_codegen.yml file as argument
  • add the ALL_GENERATE custom build target as dependency to all build targets with code generation

during builds:

  • ALL_GENERATE custom build target will run before any regular build target which depends on generated code
  • the ALL_GENERATE target runs the the python file '' from the project root directory with the fips_codegen.yml file as argument
  • '' loads the fips_codegen.yml file, and imports and runs code generator python scripts, which will generate the C/C++ source code files as needed