Building Cross-plattform Applications (for real!)

I have been writing many posts about the Qt library, without making a proper introduction.
Qt is a cross-plattform C++ framework, that provides support for a lot of things such as UI, multi-threading, Graphics, etc. Since C++ itself does not have so many libraries built in as you would find on other libraries, it is a good idea to use something like this. There are other frameworks specific things such as graphics (for instance GTK+), but I don’t know of any as complete as Qt. The .NET framework is quite complete, but unlike Qt it is not cross-platform, neither it has a permissive GPL/LGPL license, so if you care about these two things it is clearly *not* an option.

Having said this, I am quite happy with the Qt libraries in the long run, even things are not as easy as they would seem.

The Windows and Linux environment are different enough, even if you stick to C++ and Qt.
In my Linux environment, I use g++ make (the default compiler), and let the system (aka package manager) to decide what is the most appropriated version. It actually takes care of all the environmental variables and I do not have to worry too much about setting a build environment, whether I use Qt creator (the “native” Qt IDE) or just the command line.
On the other hand, Windows has got a couple of options regarding compilers:

  • there is the mingGW compiler, which people use for portability (but I don’t particularly like it since you need to setup a whole set of tools, that are not native on Windows)
  • there is the native Microsoft Visual Studio toolchain, which is by excellence, a “Windows compiler”
  • there is the Qt creator “jom” compiler, which allows using multi core, but somehow I am a bit reluctant in using it, because I don’t see anybody using it outside Qt creator.

The thoughts and “suspicions” above, are nothing else but that: thoughts and suspicions. Since I have been programming in Windows for quite a while using Microsoft Visual Studio and I am quite happy about it, I just decided to use it in my Windows projects.

If you want to stick to basic configurations, the differences between Windows and Linux projects may be small, but as soon as you start to complicate them a bit it is not so simple anymore. Recently I decided to link my application statically, in order to ease deployment in a complete “user-proof” scenario. These required rebuilding Qt statically, in both OS.
After successfully compiling Qt, I tried to build my project on Linux using Qt creator and it “worked as a charm”. I did not have to change any of the environment variables, but only have to point to which version of Qt I wanted to use inside Qt creator. There were only a few things that I had to keep in mind:

  • My application uses a plugin, so I had to also link it statically (creating a .la)
  • There were some minor changes in the qmake project files, *both* of the plugin and the application, in order to compile them statically.
  • It is better to clean/rebuild the projects, so that we don’t run into the risk of having files *left* from a previous dynamic linking. From my experience, “make clean” is not so tidy, so I would recommend going inside the directories and remove the .obj, or any other intermediate files by hand…

This is the only change that I had to make in the project file of my designer plugin

dynamic linking:

CONFIG += debug_and_release

static linking:

CONFIG += release staticlib

(with static linking, there is generally no point on debugging, so I am generating only a release build)

Then I could compile my application, and link against the static versions of Qt and of this plugin, by slightly modifying the project file:

dynamic linking:

CONFIG += debug_and_release

static linking:

CONFIG += release static

And that was about it: I got a binary file with 26.9 MB, that I can take with me to any Ubuntu system 🙂

Now the Windows part was a bit more painful. First I could not get the Qt Creator to work, since it did not correctly pick up the VC+ settings, and complained about the static version of Qt not having been built with the same compiler I was trying to use. To speed up things, I decided to compile the application on the command line, more specifically inside the Visual studio shell, which is the same place where I compiled Qt.

I had some persistent linking errors regarding a DLL linkage with my plugin. I read somewhere that by default in Windows, qmake will attempt a dll linkage unless its explictly told otherwise; thus I added this flag to the DEFINES of my project files:

DEFINES += QT_NODLL

In Linux I did not run into such a problem. In any case, it did not solve the linking errors. After researching a bit more, I found out that to call a plugin statically, you have to invoke a specific macro on the “main” of the application, *and* include QtPlugin. Another thing that was not necessary in Linux…

#include <QtPlugin>;

Q_IMPORT_PLUGIN(catchinputctrl)

And, finally the plugin has to be *explicitly* added to the project file, in this way:

QTPLUGIN += catchinputctrl

I still had linking errors, this time regarding *not* finding the plugin library; the directive that I had in Linux did not worked, and I messed around a bit with the “-L” and “-l” options in LIBS but without success, so I ended up copying the .lib file to my project directory (a quick fix). After that, I could generate the binary, but not without some linking warnings:

Creating library ..\release\faocas.lib and object ..\release\faocas.exp
frmcatch.obj : warning LNK4217: locally defined symbol ??0CatchInputCtrl@@QAE@PA
VQWidget@@@Z (public: __thiscall CatchInputCtrl::CatchInputCtrl(class QWidget *)
) imported in function "public: void __thiscall Ui_FrmCatch::setupUi(class QWidg
et *)" (?setupUi@Ui_FrmCatch@@QAEXPAVQWidget@@@Z)
frmoperation.obj : warning LNK4049: locally defined symbol ??0CatchInputCtrl@@QA
E@PAVQWidget@@@Z (public: __thiscall CatchInputCtrl::CatchInputCtrl(class QWidge
t *)) imported
frmtrip.obj : warning LNK4049: locally defined symbol ??0CatchInputCtrl@@QAE@PAV
QWidget@@@Z (public: __thiscall CatchInputCtrl::CatchInputCtrl(class QWidget *))
imported
frmcatch.obj : warning LNK4217: locally defined symbol ??1CatchInputCtrl@@UAE@XZ
(public: virtual __thiscall CatchInputCtrl::~CatchInputCtrl(void)) imported in
function "public: virtual void * __thiscall CatchInputCtrl::`scalar deleting des
tructor'(unsigned int)" (??_GCatchInputCtrl@@UAEPAXI@Z)
frmoperation.obj : warning LNK4049: locally defined symbol ??1CatchInputCtrl@@UA
E@XZ (public: virtual __thiscall CatchInputCtrl::~CatchInputCtrl(void)) imported

frmtrip.obj : warning LNK4049: locally defined symbol ??1CatchInputCtrl@@UAE@XZ
(public: virtual __thiscall CatchInputCtrl::~CatchInputCtrl(void)) imported
mt.exe -nologo -manifest "release\faocas.intermediate.manifest" -outputr

The output dir contained my executable, as well as a exports library file and a copy of the lib. These are unnecessary, and I can happily copy my 12.2MB binary around, without having to ship anything else.

Some questions that remain in my mind:

  • Why are the binaries generated by Windows and Linux so different in size? (one almost *doubles* the size of the other)
  • Why is the static and dynamic linking in Windows so different?
  • Why is the static linking in Windows so different from the one in Linux, and why is this so undocumented? (does anybody use it at all??)
Static linked app in Windows

Static linked app in Windows

Static linked app in Linux

Static linked app in Linux

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Static Linking?

From time to time, I have this moments when I cannot deploy my application properly and decide that I want to link it statically (then I generally give up, because it requires me to link the Qt libraries statically…). But is it really better to prefer static over dynamic linking?

As in so many other cases, it depends on what you want to do. I read that in terms of performance, there are trade-offs in both approaches, so in the end it really does not matter so much. From my point of view, the biggest advantage of static linking is the fact that you can ship one single file with your application, removing the risk of “broken” dependencies. That is, in terms of deployment, quite an advantage!

On the other hand, if everybody would link statically, we would literally have “thousands” of libraries “repeated” inside our system, packed inside “huge” binaries. It does not make much sense, does it?

Dynamic libraries are also “cool”, because we can (till a certain extent) replace them by newer (improved) versions, without having to recompile our application. That is like a huge benefit, in terms of “bug fixing” of third party libraries.

After removing the performance issue, my verdict would be:

  • For myself, I would like to minimize resource consumption by using as much as possible, shared libraries (dynamic linking).
  • For “bullet proof” systems, where users are not experienced in installing software, and are likely to “mess up” the system by removing parts of it, I would consider providing them statically compiled versions of the software, instead. The software will likely be “bigger “(although there are tools to minimize this, such as UPX), and a bit more “hungry” of resources, but this is also the only way to prevent the DLL hell.

Finally, it is important to mention that the type of linking may be conditioned by licensing issues.  For instance due to the “nature” of the license, GPL libraries would “contaminate” any software statically linked with them.