Cpp tag generation using GNU Global tool

Apr 24, 2021

GNU Global is a source code tagging system that works the same way across diverse environments. It is similar to ctags or etags, but is different from them at the point of independence of any editor.

— As quoted from GNU Global official tutorial

In this post we record the simplified and customized steps for a large Cpp project. To know about GNU Global tool and its complete documentation please refer to the official tutorial. A link to this tutorial is provided in the references section below.

Basic usage

For a small project it is easy to build the gtags database. Just go into the project directory and execute gtags command.

cd CPP_PROJ1/src/

It generates three database files as shown below.

ls G*
  • GTAGS - definition database
  • GRTAGS - reference database
  • GPATH - path name database

Advanced usage

In a large project it is better to fine tune the project files to index for fast and accurate database results.

Select files to index

Select the list of files to index by providing the file paths in a text file to gtags similar to cscope file list.

# Generate list of files to index for gtags/cscope

# find all source files ignore everything else
find $PROJ_SRC_DIR \
    -path "$PROJ_SRC_DIR/CodeCoverage/*" \
    -path "$PROJ_SRC_DIR/StructuredData/*" \
    -path "$PROJ_SRC_DIR/UnitTesting/*" \
    -prune -o -path "$PROJ_SRC_DIR/autom4te.cache/*" \
    -prune -o -path "$PROJ_SRC_DIR/build/*" \
    -prune -o -path "$PROJ_SRC_DIR/build-aux/*" \
    -prune -o -path "$PROJ_SRC_DIR/m4/*" \
    -prune -o -regex '.*/.*\.\(cc\|hh\)$' \
    -print >$PROJ_BUILD_DIR/proj_src_files.txt

# Review and edit the generated project source files as suited.
# Generate GNU Global database files
gtags -f $PROJ_BUILD_DIR/proj_src_files.txt

Separate Gtags DB path

If the source files are on a read-only device, such as CDROM or we just want to keep the gtags database files in another path then we can make the tag files in that path using GTAGSROOT environment variable.

# make db target path

# cd into project src directory as previous

# generate gtags database
gtags -f $PROJ_BUILD_DIR/proj_src_files.txt $PROJ_SRC_DB_DIR

# export GTAGS env variables

Index non-src symbols

When we want to index symbols that are not defined in the project source tree such as the system and third party libraries, headers, macro definitions, then we can specify library directories with GTAGSLIBPATH environment variable.

But this approach requires executing gtags command in each directory in the GTAGSLIBPATH. So a better approach is to create symlinks to system headers and source files in our project directories to make gtags treat them as part of the project source files.

ln -s /usr/src/lib .
ln -s /usr/src/sys .

While this is still not a good solution as it clutters the source tree we may not need this info in real time. Based on my experience we rarely look for system headers and symbols. I will make a note of all the limitations and improvements for GNU Global tool and look for near perfect tool that helps us in understanding Cpp source code.

Incremental updates

To speed up indexing after each modification to source files we can update the GTAGS database using global update command e.g. global -vu.

Force .h files as Cpp files

By default gnu global treats .h files as C source files. This will result in indexing Cpp code incorrectly. To force gnu global to index .h files as Cpp source files set GTAGSFORCECPP environment variable to any value. Then gnu global will treat each file whose suffix is .h as a Cpp source file.

Global command usage

Once the GTAGS database is built we can browse the source code using the global command.

global func1 # locate definition
global -r func2 # locate references
global 'func[1-3]' # locate references using POSIX regex
global -x func2 # references with details
global -xs X # locate symbols which are not defined in GTAGS i.e. #ifdef X
global -xg '#ifdef' # locate lines which the pattern, similar to egrep
global -P Pattern1 # locate path names which have pattern "Pattern1"
global -f DIR2/fileC.c # print the list of tags in the file
global -xl func[1-3] # search only under the current directory

Similar tools


Execute gtags generation steps using shell script, gen_proj_src_files_list.sh.


For more information and examples refer to below links.

Leave a comment