MSBuild primer for WDK developers

This section introduces some basic MSBuild terminology to WDK developers, who are familiar with Build.exe and NMake.exe. This section shows the construction of simple MSBuild projects.

Nmake concepts relevant to MSBuild

If you have worked with Build.exe and previous versions of the WDK (prior to WDK 8), you are probably familiar with the terminology and concepts that NMake.exe uses.

  • command - invokes a command-line tool.
  • target - describes a named sequence of commands.
  • dependency - describes a targets that depends on other targets.
  • Nmake is invoked on a make file with one or more targets specified. It then runs all dependencies recursively and then the target's commands.
  • Nmake files can include other make files for the robust management of the build structure.
  • Nmake also supports creating named variables that will be substituted for parameters of commands.
  • Nmake also supports automatic variables that are assigned by the Make.exe itself, for example, the name of the current directory or path.
  • A target will never run twice during a single build. Once run, a target is assumed to have completed its work and will not run again, even if a subsequent target in the build depends on it.

MSBuild concepts

  • The main MSBuild file extension for C++ projects is .vcxproj.
  • Commands are now called tasks, and they are not simply invocations of command-line processes. Instead, tasks are units of executable code that MSBuild can use to perform atomic build operations. For a complete list of tasks, see MSBuild Tasks Specific to Visual C++..
  • MSBuild imports the tasks from their Common Language Runtime (CLR) assemblies with the UsingTask element as the following example shows.
    <UsingTask TaskName="TaskName" AssemblyName="AssemblyName" />
  • Targets group tasks together in a particular order and allow the build process to be divided into smaller units.
  • A PropertyGroup allows properties to be defined using a human-friendly format. The following example shows the PropertyGroup format.
  • An Item is an object-oriented variant of Property. While the property format is name/value, the item format is name/object where object has multiple attributes. Items are arrays of objects.
  • Properties are referenced with the format $(project) while Items are referenced with the format @(name).
  • An ItemGroup is a collection of Items.
  • An ItemGroups is typically a list all of the files that are to be compiled. The collection of files is then passed to a task using the @(itemname) notation. See MSBuild Items for more information about using Items.
  • MSBuild has a number of built-in properties that you can also reference in a project file.
  • For more information about MSBuild and build tasks, see MSBuild Concepts and MSBuild Reference.



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