What I Learned: Clang Tools

Jun 10, 2020 11:28 · 761 words · 4 minute read whatilearned

I have recently pivoted professionally and became a C++ developer. Due to that change, I wanted to revisit my tooling landscape that I use for everyday development. In particular, I want to share how I keep my code quality up without any manual effort and at zero dynamic cost by using static code analysis.

Static Code Analysis/Linting

To perform a static code analysis means to search for programming errors and issues before any code is executed (like in a unit test). It’s the first measure that the computer itself can take to improve code quality. The best thing is: static code analysis can run automatically once set up with your IDE and therefore provide checks and guidance with no additional effort on the programmer’s side.


There are various static code analyzing tools for all kinds of programming languages, but I’m going to focus on clang-tidy here. It’s part of the LLVM toolchain and a standalone tool that you can use by just executing

clangtidy main.cpp

However, since manual checks are inconvenient and can be forgotten, it is recommended to integrate clang-tidy into your IDE. I’m using vim as my IDE and make use of a plugin called ALE. This plugin just makes sure to run any analyzing tools of my choice asynchronously in the background while I’m coding and I’m sure there is similar functionality in other IDEs as well. ALE automatically checks code on open and save actions but can be configured more precisely.

As part of the LLVM toolchain, clang-tidy needs a compilation database to work properly. This is a small JSON file that specifies which file is going to be compiled with what compiler command, to identify the C++ standard used, the directories included, etc. Only with that information, reliable linting is possible. For CMake projects, the creation of such a compile_commands.json file is straightforward, by setting the CMake variable CMAKE_CREATE_COMPILATION_DATABASE to ON. The file will be created in the build directory and I usually symlink it into the project root, since all clang tools search for it in the working directory and its parent directories.


It is possible to set up CMake to run clang-tidy during the build process with CMake 3.7.2 or later. Just set the variable CMAKE_CXX_CLANG_TIDY to "clang-tidy;-checks=*".


Let’s assume this very basic definition of a C++ class:

class Base {
  Base(const Base &other);

Let’s execute clang-tidy in the terminal here. I enabled all checks for this example, which normally will return a lot of output when executed on a bigger source code file:

$ clang-tidy --checks="*" main.cpp
2 warnings generated.
/Users/senpo/src/test/main.cpp:1:7: warning: class 'Base' defines a non-default destructor and a copy constructor but does not define a copy assignment operator, a move constructor or a move assignment operator [hicpp-special-member-functions]
class Base {

clang-tidy is warning us that we are violating the Rule of Three, which tells us if a class has a user-defined copy constructor, copy assignment operator or destructor, all three of them shall be implemented. The rule of five extends this statement for the move constructor and the move assignment operator. This issue will probably not raise a compilation or runtime error, but as best practice can avoid exhausting bug searches in the future. So even after compilation and unit-testing, this kind of issue would have remained undetected without linting!

This is great and we can improve our code from here. With IDE integration, you even get these messages directly while writing the code, without running clang-tidy manually:

clang tools in vim

Code Formatting

Besides linting, clang also offers a tool to properly format source code files, named clang-format. By running it on a file, it will output a formatted version of that source code file. To directly change the content of the file, the -i flag can be used. Let’s look at this example:


int main(){

    std::cout << "Hello, "
      << "World!" << std::endl;
      0; }

That’s a badly formatted code. Let’s see what clang-format suggests:

$ clang-format main.cpp
#include <iostream>

int main() {

  std::cout << "Hello, " << "World!" << std::endl;
  return 0;

Various coding styles can be set via the –style flag, including own definitions that are usually stored in a .clang-format file in the project root. For example, have a look at the GNU Radio clang-format file.

As with linting, this tool can be directly integrated into your IDE, for instance, to format with a hotkey or to format before each save. This will make sure you always stay compliant with your coding guidelines without any effort from your side!