I would like to know more!
At work I have to compile a large code base from scratch fairly often. One of the components it has is a 3D graphics library. It takes around 2 minutes 15 seconds to compile using an 8 core i7. After a while I got bored with this and converted the system to use a unity build. In all simplicity what that means is that if you have a target consisting of files foo.cpp, bar.cpp, baz.cpp etc you create a cpp file with the following contents:
Then you would tell the build system to build that instead of the individual files. With this method the compile time dropped down to 1m 50s which does not seem like that much of a gain but the compilation used only one CPU core. The remaining 7 are free for other work. If the project had 8 targets of roughly the same size, building them incrementally would take 18 minutes. With unity builds they would take the exact same 1m 50s assuming perfect parallelisation, which happens fairly often in practice.
Wait, what? How is this even?
The main reason that C++ compiles slowly has to do with headers. Merely including a few headers in the standard library brings in tens or hundreds of thousands of lines of code that must be parsed, verified, converted to an AST and codegenerated in every translation unit. This is extremely wasteful especially given that most of that work is not used but is instead thrown away.
With an Unity build every #include is processed only once regardless of how many times it is used in the component source files.
Basically this amounts to a caching problem, which is one of the two really hard problems in computer science in addition to naming things and off by one errors.
Why is this not used by everybody then?
There are several downsides and problems. You can't take any old codebase and compile it as a unity build. The first blocker is that things inside source files leak into other ones since they are all textually included one after the other.. For example if you have two files and each of them declares a static function with the same name, it will lead to name clashes and a compilation failure. Similarly things like using namespace std declarations leak from one file to another causing havoc.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that every recompilation takes the same time. An incremental rebuild where one file has changed takes a few seconds or so whereas a unity builds takes the full 1m 50s every time. This is a major roadblock to iterative development and the main reason unity builds are not widely used.
A possible workflow with Meson
For simplicity let's assume that we have a project that builds and works with unity builds. Meson has an automatic unity build file generator that can be enabled by setting the value of the unity build option.
This solves the basic build problem but not the incremental one. However usually you'd develop only one target (be it a library, executable or module) and want to build only that one incrementally and everything else as a unity build. This can be done by editing the build definition of the target in question and adding an override option:
executable(..., override_options : ['unity=false'])
Once you are done you can remove the override from the build file to return everything back to normal.
How does this tie in with C++ modules?
Directly? Not in any way really. However one of the stated advantages of modules has always been faster build times. There are a few module implementations but there is very little public data on how they behave with real world codebases. During a CppCon presentation on modules Google's Chandler Carruth mentioned that in Google's code base modules resulted in 30% build time reduction.
It was not mentioned whether Google uses unity builds internally but they almost certainly don't (based on things such as this bug report on Bazel). If we assume that theirs is the fastest existing "classical" C++ build mechanism, which it probably is, the conclusion is that it is an order of magnitude slower than a unity build on the same source files. A similar performance gap would probably not be tolerated in any other part of the C++ ecosystem.
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