C++ - precompiled headers chaining

Similarly to Microsoft Visual Studio compiler, gcc and Clang compilers support precompiled headers, too. Let’s look at creating and using of a precompiled header in clang compiler, particularly at chaining of precompiled headers (building a precompiled header using another precompiled header compiled earlier).

Building a precompiled header

Creating some included file

Firstly, we prepare the file inc_stl.h which represents something:

  • we would normally include in the code using the #include directive
  • we want to use in a precompiled header (because it is e.g. included more times or the compilation of it takes long)

This file includes a lot of stuff (standard C++ libraries, including STL) so that it takes longer to compile (so we can compare compilation times more conveniently). Of course, normally you would include only one item directly instead of such package, e.g. <iostream>, and use such one item in a precompiled header.

Creating prefix header file

The prefix header is a header file that is compiled into the precompiled header. It contains inclusion of all the needed header files (the files we want to optimize the compilation for) - in our case only the inc_stl.h. We name this prefix header pch_stl.h.


The prefix header can be compiled to the precompiled header using this command:

clang++ -std=c++11 -x c++-header pch_stl.h -o out/pch_stl.h.pch

So, we compile pch_stl.h (which includes inc_stl.h) into pch_stl.h.pch and it takes 1.3 seconds:

Building a precompiled header

Using the precompiled header

Creating a program file

The program project_using_stl wants to use inc_stl.h without the need to recompile it every time the program source code is being compiled.

So, the precompiled header (which has the inc_stl.h already compiled) can be used - we build the project using this command:

clang++ -std=c++11 -include out/pch_stl.h project_using_stl.cpp -o out/project_using_stl

The precompiled header is included in the build process and the compilation of the project takes only 0.3 seconds:

Using the precompiled header

For comparison, building of the project without the precompiled header took 1.3 seconds - this command has been used:

clang++ -std=c++11 project_using_stl.cpp -o out/project_using_stl

Building a chained precompiled header using another precompiled header

What if we want to create a precompiled header which contains something more in addition to the headers we already built into a precompiled header?

We will compile the prefix header pch_stl_and_boost.h which contains:

  • inc_stl.h which we already have built as a precompiled header pch_stl.h.pch
  • inc_boost.h which represents some new additional things we want to compile into a precompiled header (some things from boost are there which take long to compile)

Similarly to building of the program file, we can use a precompiled header while building another precompiled header - using this command:

clang++ -std=c++11 -include out/pch_stl.h -x c++-header pch_stl_and_boost.h -o out/pch_stl_and_boost.h.pch

It produces pch_stl_and_boost.h.pch and takes 7.0 seconds:

Building a precompiled header using another precompiled header

However, when not using the precompiled header (so compiling the C++ libraries in addition to boost), it takes 8.3 seconds - this command has been used:

clang++ -std=c++11 -x c++-header pch_stl_and_boost.h -o out/pch_stl_and_boost.h.pch

Using the chained precompiled header

We can use such precompiled header (including both C++ libraries and boost) to build this project.

Use this command:

clang++ -std=c++11 -include out/pch_stl_and_boost.h project_using_stl_and_boost.cpp -o out/project_using_stl_and_boost

Using the chained precompiled header

It takes only 0.7 seconds. For comparison:

  • this command builds it without precompiled header - it takes 6.5 seconds
  • this command builds it with the first precompiled header (containing C++ libraries, without boost) - it takes 5.7 seconds.


The most important thing is that you can use a precompiled header while building another precompiled header. This allows creating of some hierarchy of code from things that rarely change to things that change more often and rebuilding only the code (and precompiled headers) that have been changed while using the alredy built precompiled headers that did not change.

Maybe you wonder why precompiled header compilation took 1.3 and compiling project using the precompiled header took 0.3, while compiling project without precompiled header took 1.3 (so not 1.6 as the sum of precompiled header and project alone). This is because the precompiled header has to contain all the information from the header files - no code can be left out. Contrary to this, the inclusion of the header in the program file can be optimized, since most of the code included in the headers is often not used. Only the code that is needed has to be compiled into the resulting file and maybe the compiler delays some operations while including the header until really needed.

All files and actions described in this post are available in the repository experiments-cpp-precompiled-headers-chaining. The header files produce a message while compiling so you can observe what is being built and what not.

See also:

Written on August 11, 2015