Build system

Building software for embedded devices is a complex process. Projects often have custom toolchains, target different hardware platforms, and require additional configuration and post-processing of artifacts.

As a modern embedded framework, Pigweed’s goal is to collect these embedded use cases into a powerful and flexible build system, then extend it with support for modern software development practices.

See Pigweed’s Python build for information about Python build automation with Pigweed.

What’s in a build system?

A quality build system provides a variety of features beyond compiling code. Throughout our experience with embedded development, we’ve found several build features to be especially useful, and designed Pigweed’s build system with them in mind.

Simple toolchain configuration

Embedded projects often use custom build toolchains for their specific hardware. Configuring these should be a simple process, both in their initial setup and later adjustments.

Multi-target builds

Virtually every consumer product has firmware that targets different boards or MCUs during development. While building for a single board is simple enough, the complexity of supporting different targets ranges from changing compiler flags to swapping out entire libraries of firmware and drivers. This is often done by running multiple builds, configuring each one accordingly. In Pigweed, we’ve designed our build system with first-class multi-target support in mind, allowing any number of target configurations to be built simultaneously.

Multi-language support

Embedded projects are typically written in C, C++, and assembly. However, it is possible to have firmware written in other languages, such as Rust. Additionally, projects may have host-side tooling written in a wide variety of languages. Having all of these build together proves to be a large time saver.

Custom scripting

Embedded projects often require post-processing of build artifacts; these may include:

  • Extracting ELF sections into a different container

  • Injecting metadata into firmware images

  • Image signing

  • Creating databases of symbols for debugging

  • Extracting string tokens into a database (for example, with pw_tokenizer)

These are run as steps during a build, facilitated by the build system.


Python is a favorite scripting language of many development teams, and here at Pigweed, we’re no exception. Much of Pigweed’s host-side tooling is written in Python. While Python works great for local development, problems can arise when scripts need to be packaged and distributed for vendors or factory teams. Having proper support for packaging Python within a build system allows teams to focus on writing code instead of worrying about distribution.

Size reporting

On embedded devices, memory is everything. Most projects have some sort of custom tooling to determine how much flash and RAM space their firmware uses. Being able to run size reports as part of a build ensures that they are always up-to-date and allows space usage to be tracked over time.

See also


An oft-neglected part of software development, documentation is invaluable for future maintainers of a project. As such, Pigweed has integrated documentation which builds alongside its code and combines with other build features, such as size reports, to provide high quality, up-to-date references for developers.

See also

Unit testing

Unit tests are essential to ensure that the functionality of code remains consistent as changes are made to avoid accidental regressions. Running unit tests as part of a build keeps developers constantly aware of the impact of their changes.

Host-side unit tests

Though Pigweed targets embedded devices, a lot of its code can be run and tested on a host desktop by swapping out backends to host platform libraries. This is highly beneficial during development, as it allows tests to consistently run without having to go through the process of flashing a device.

Device-side unit tests

As useful as host-side tests are, they are not sufficient for developing actual firmware, and it is critical to run tests on the actual hardware. Pigweed has invested into creating a test framework and build integration for running tests across physical devices as part of a build.

Bonus: pw watch

In web development, it is common to have a file system watcher listening for source file changes and triggering a build for quick iteration. When combined with a fast incremental build system, this becomes a powerful feature, allowing things such as unit tests and size reports to re-run whenever any dependent code is modified.

While initially seen as somewhat of a gimmick, Pigweed’s watcher has become a staple of Pigweed development, with most Pigweed users having it permanently running in a terminal window.

See also

Pigweed’s build systems

Pigweed can be used either as a monolith or à la carte, slotting into an existing project. To this end, Pigweed supports multiple build systems, allowing Pigweed-based projects to choose the most suitable one for them.

Of the supported build systems, GN is the most full-featured, followed by CMake, and finally Bazel.


A well-known name in C/C++ development, CMake is widely used by all kinds of projects, including embedded devices. Pigweed’s CMake support is provided primarily for projects that have an existing CMake build and wish to integrate Pigweed modules.


The open source version of Google’s internal build system. Bazel has been growing in popularity within the open source world, as well as being adopted by various proprietary projects. Its modular structure makes it a great fit for à la carte usage.


A perhaps unfamiliar name, GN (Generate Ninja) is a meta-build system that outputs Ninja build files, originally designed for use in Chromium. Pigweed first experimented with GN after hearing about it from another team, and we quickly came to appreciate its speed and simplicity. GN has become Pigweed’s primary build system; it is used for all upstream development and strongly recommended for Pigweed-based projects where possible.

The GN build

This section describes Pigweed’s GN build structure, how it is used upstream, build conventions, and recommendations for Pigweed-based projects. While containing some details about how GN works in general, this section is not intended to be a guide on how to use GN. To learn more about the tool itself, refer to the official GN reference.


A quick note on terminology: the word “target” is overloaded within GN (and Pigweed)—it can refer to either a GN build target, such as a source_set or executable, or to an output platform (e.g. a specific board, device, or system).

To avoid confusing the two, we refer to the former as “GN targets” and the latter as “Pigweed targets”.

Entrypoint: .gn

The entrypoint to a GN build is the .gn file, which defines a project’s root directory (henceforth //).

.gn must point to the location of a file for the project. In Pigweed upstream, this is its only purpose.

Downstream projects may additionally use .gn to set global overrides for Pigweed’s build arguments, which apply across all Pigweed targets. For example, a project could configure the protobuf libraries that it uses. This is done by defining a default_args scope containing the overrides.

# The location of the BUILDCONFIG file.
buildconfig = "//"

# Build arguments set across all Pigweed targets.
default_args = {
  dir_pw_third_party_nanopb = "//third_party/nanopb-0.4.2"


The file configures the GN build by defining any desired global variables/options. It can be located anywhere in the build tree, but is conventionally placed at the root. .gn points GN to this file. is evaluated before any other GN files, and variables defined within it are placed into GN’s global scope, becoming available in every file without requiring imports.

The options configured in this file differ from those in .gn in two ways:

  1. is evaluated for every GN toolchain (and Pigweed target), whereas .gn is only evaluated once. This allows to set different options for each Pigweed target.

  2. In .gn, only GN build arguments can be overridden. allows defining arbitrary variables.

Generally, it is preferable to expose configuration options through build args instead of globals in (something Pigweed’s build previously did), as they are more flexible, greppable, and easier to manage. However, it may make sense to define project-specific constants in

Pigweed’s upstream does not define any variables; it just sets Pigweed’s default toolchain, which GN requires.

Top-level GN targets: //

The root file defines all of the libraries, images, tests, and binaries built by a Pigweed project. This file is evaluated immediately after, with the active toolchain (which is the default toolchain at the start of a build).

// is responsible for enumerating each of the Pigweed targets built by a project. This is done by instantiating a version of each of the project’s GN target groups with each Pigweed target’s toolchain. For example, in upstream, all of Pigweed’s GN targets are contained within the pigweed_default group. This group is instantiated multiple times, with different Pigweed target toolchains.

These groups include the following:

  • host – builds pigweed_default with Clang or GCC, depending on the platform

  • host_clang – builds pigweed_default for the host with Clang

  • host_gcc – builds pigweed_default for the host with GCC

  • stm32f429i – builds pigweed_default for STM32F429i Discovery board

  • docs – builds the Pigweed documentation and size reports

Pigweed projects are recommended to follow this pattern, creating a top-level group for each of their Pigweed targets that builds a common GN target with the appropriate toolchain.

It is important that no dependencies are listed under the default toolchain within //, as it does not configure any build parameters, and therefore should not evaluate any other GN files. The pattern that Pigweed uses to achieve this is to wrap all dependencies within a condition checking the toolchain.

group("my_application_images") {
  deps = []  # Empty in the default toolchain.

  if (current_toolchain != default_toolchain) {
    # This is only evaluated by Pigweed target toolchains, which configure
    # all of the required options to build Pigweed code.
    deps += [ "//images:evt" ]

# The images group is instantiated for each of the project's Pigweed targets.
group("my_pigweed_target") {
  deps = [ ":my_application_images(//toolchains:my_pigweed_target)" ]


Pigweed’s default toolchain is never used, so it is set to a dummy toolchain which doesn’t define any tools. // contains conditions which check that the current toolchain is not the default before declaring any GN target dependencies to prevent the default toolchain from evaluating any other BUILD files. All GN targets added to the build must be placed under one of these conditional scopes.

“default” group

The root file can define a special group named default. If present, Ninja will build this group when invoked without arguments.


Defining a default group makes using pw watch simple!

Optimization levels

Pigweed’s // defines the pw_default_optimization_level build arg, which specifies the optimization level to use for the default groups (host, stm32f429i, etc.). The supported values for pw_default_optimization_level are:

  • debug – create debugging-friendly binaries (-Og)

  • size_optimized – optimize for size (-Os)

  • speed_optimized – optimized for speed, without increasing code size (-O2)

Pigweed defines versions of its groups in // for each optimization level. Rather than relying on pw_default_optimization_level, you may directly build a group at the desired optimization level: <group>_<optimization>. Examples include host_clang_debug, host_gcc_size_optimized, and stm32f429i_speed_optimized.

Upstream GN target groups

In upstream, Pigweed splits its top-level GN targets into a few logical groups, which are described below. In order to build a GN target, it must be listed in one of the groups in this file.


This group defines the application images built in Pigweed. It lists all of the common images built across all Pigweed targets, such as modules’ example executables. Each Pigweed target can additionally provide its own specific images through the pw_TARGET_APPLICATIONS build arg, which is included by this group.


This group defines host-side tooling binaries built for Pigweed.


This group lists the main libraries for all of Pigweed’s modules.


All modules’ unit tests are collected here, so that they can all be run at once.


This group defines everything built in a Pigweed build invocation by collecting the above groups and conditionally depending on them based on the active Pigweed target’s configuration. Generally, new dependencies should not be added here; instead, use one of the groups listed above.

The pigweed_default group is instantiated for each upstream Pigweed target’s toolchain.

Pigweed target instantiations

These groups wrap pigweed_default with a specific target toolchain. They are named after the Pigweed target, e.g. host_clang, stm32f429i, etc.

Other BUILD files: //**/

The rest of the files in the tree define libraries, configs, and build args for each of the modules in a Pigweed project.

Project configuration: //build_overrides/pigweed.gni

Each Pigweed project must contain a Pigweed configuration file at a known location in the GN build tree. Currently, this file only contains a single build argument, which must be set to the GN build path to the root of the Pigweed repository within the project.

Module variables

As Pigweed is intended to be a subcomponent of a larger project, it cannot assume where it or its modules is located. Therefore, Pigweed’s upstream files do not use absolute paths; instead, variables are defined pointing to each of Pigweed’s modules, set relative to a project-specific dir_pigweed.

To depend on Pigweed modules from GN code, import Pigweed’s overrides file and reference these module variables.

# This must be imported before .gni files from any other Pigweed modules. To
# prevent gn format from reordering this import, it must be separated by a
# blank line from other imports.


GN target type wrappers

To facilitate injecting global configuration options, Pigweed defines wrappers around builtin GN target types such as source_set and executable. These are defined within $dir_pw_build/target_types.gni.


To take advantage of Pigweed’s flexible target configuration system, use pw_* target types (e.g. pw_source_set) in your files instead of GN builtins.

Pigweed targets

To build for a specific hardware platform, builds define Pigweed targets. These are essentially GN toolchains which set special arguments telling Pigweed how to build. For information on Pigweed’s target system, refer to Targets.

The dummy toolchain

Pigweed’s sets the project’s default toolchain to a “dummy” toolchain which does not specify any compilers or override any build arguments. Downstream projects are recommended to do the same, following the steps described in Top-level GN targets: // to configure builds for each of their Pigweed targets.

Why use a dummy?

To support some of its advanced (and useful!) build features, Pigweed requires the ability to generate new toolchains on the fly. This requires having knowledge of the full configuration of the current toolchain (which is easy if it’s all defined within a scope), something which is impractical to achieve using the default toolchain.

Additionally, there are some cases where GN treats default and non-default toolchains differently. By not using the default toolchain, we avoid having to deal with these inconsistencies.

It is possible to build Pigweed using only the default toolchain, but it requires a more complicated setup to get everything working and should be avoided unless necessary (for example, when integrating with a large existing GN-based project).

Upstream development examples

If developing for upstream Pigweed, some common build use cases are described below.

Building a custom executable/app image

  1. Define your executable GN target using the pw_executable template.

    # //foo/
    pw_executable("foo") {
      sources = [ "" ]
      deps = [ ":libfoo" ]
  2. In the root file, add the executable’s GN target to the apps group.

    # //
    group("apps") {
      deps = [
        # ...
        "//foo",  # Shorthand for //foo:foo
  3. Run the ninja build to compile your executable. The apps group is built by default, so there’s no need to provide a target. The executable will be compiled for every supported Pigweed target.

    ninja -C out

    Alternatively, build your executable by itself by specifying its path to Ninja. When building a GN target manually, the Pigweed target for which it is built must be specified on the Ninja command line.

    For example, to build for the Pigweed target host_gcc_debug:

    ninja -C out host_gcc_debug/obj/foo/bin/foo


    The path passed to Ninja is a filesystem path within the out directory, rather than a GN path. This path can be found by running gn outputs.

  4. Retrieve your compiled binary from the out directory. It is located at the path


    where pw_target is the Pigweed target for which the binary was built, gn_path is the GN path to the file defining the executable, and executable is the executable’s GN target name (potentially with an extension). Note that the executable is located within a bin subdirectory in the module (or test for unit tests defined with pw_test).

    For example, the foo executable defined above and compiled for the Pigweed target stm32f429i_disc1_debug is found at: