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Chapter 3 - Build system

Build Modes§

Zig provides four build modes, with debug being the default as it produces the shortest compile times.

Runtime Safety Optimizations
Debug Yes No
ReleaseSafe Yes Yes, Speed
ReleaseSmall No Yes, Size
ReleaseFast No Yes, Speed

These may be enabled in zig run and zig test with the arguments -O ReleaseSafe, -O ReleaseSmall and -O ReleaseFast.

Users are recommended to develop their software with runtime safety enabled, despite its small speed disadvantage.

Outputting an Executable§

The commands zig build-exe, zig build-lib, and zig build-obj can be used to output executables, libraries and objects, respectively. These commands take in a source file and arguments.

Some common arguments: - -fsingle-threaded, which asserts the binary is single-threaded. This will turn thread safety measures such as mutexes into no-ops. - -fstrip, which removes debug info from the binary. - --dynamic, which is used in conjunction with zig build-lib to output a dynamic/shared library.

Let's create a tiny hello world. Save this as tiny-hello.zig, and run zig build-exe .\tiny-hello.zig -O ReleaseSmall -fstrip -fsingle-threaded. Currently for x86_64-windows, this produces a 2.5KiB executable.

const std = @import("std");

pub fn main() void {
        "Hello World!",
    ) catch unreachable;

Cross compilation§

By default, Zig will compile for your combination of CPU and OS. This can be overridden by -target. Let's compile our tiny hello world to a 64 bit arm linux platform.

zig build-exe .\tiny-hello.zig -O ReleaseSmall -fstrip -fsingle-threaded -target aarch64-linux

QEMU or similar may be used to conveniently test executables made for foreign platforms.

Some CPU architectures that you can cross-compile for: - x86_64 - arm - aarch64 - i386 - riscv64 - wasm32

Some operating systems you can cross-compile for: - linux - macos - windows - freebsd - netbsd - dragonfly - UEFI

Many other targets are available for compilation, but aren't as well tested as of now. See Zig's support table for more information; the list of well tested targets is slowly expanding.

As Zig compiles for your specific CPU by default, these binaries may not run on other computers with slightly different CPU architectures. It may be useful to instead specify a specific baseline CPU model for greater compatibility. Note: choosing an older CPU architecture will bring greater compatibility, but means you also miss out on newer CPU instructions; there is an efficiency/speed versus compatibility trade-off here.

Let's compile a binary for a sandybridge CPU (Intel x86_64, circa 2011), so we can be reasonably sure that someone with an x86_64 CPU can run our binary. Here we can use native in place of our CPU or OS, to use our system's.

zig build-exe .\tiny-hello.zig -target x86_64-native -mcpu sandybridge

Details on what architectures, OSes, CPUs and ABIs (details on ABIs in the next chapter) are available can be found by running zig targets. Note: the output is long, and you may want to pipe it to a file, e.g. zig targets > targets.json.

Zig Build§

The zig build command allows users to compile based on a build.zig file. zig init-exe and zig init-lib can be used to give you a baseline project.

Let's use zig init-exe inside a new folder. This is what you will find.

├── build.zig
└── src
    └── main.zig
build.zig contains our build script. The build runner will use this pub fn build function as its entry point - this is what is executed when you run zig build.

const Builder = @import("std").build.Builder;

pub fn build(b: *Builder) void {
    // Standard target options allows the person running `zig build` to choose
    // what target to build for. Here we do not override the defaults, which
    // means any target is allowed, and the default is native. Other options
    // for restricting supported target set are available.
    const target = b.standardTargetOptions(.{});

    // Standard optimization options allow the person running `zig build` to select
    // between Debug, ReleaseSafe, ReleaseFast, and ReleaseSmall. Here we do not
    // set a preferred release mode, allowing the user to decide how to optimize.
    const optimize = b.standardOptimizeOption(.{});

    const exe = b.addExecutable(.{
        .name = "init-exe",
        .root_source_file = .{ .path = "src/main.zig" },
        .target = target,
        .optimize = optimize,

    // This declares intent for the executable to be installed into the
    // standard location when the user invokes the "install" step (the default
    // step when running `zig build`).

    const run_cmd = exe.run();

    const run_step = b.step("run", "Run the app");

main.zig contains our executable's entry point.

const std = @import("std");

pub fn main() anyerror!void {
    std.log.info("All your codebase are belong to us.", .{});

Upon using the zig build command, the executable will appear in the install path. Here we have not specified an install path, so the executable will be saved in ./zig-out/bin.


Zig's std.Build type contains the information used by the build runner. This includes information such as:

  • the build target
  • the release mode
  • locations of libraries
  • the install path
  • build steps


The std.build.CompileStep type contains information required to build a library, executable, object, or test.

Let's make use of our Builder and create a CompileStep using Builder.addExecutable, which takes in a name and a path to the root of the source.

const Builder = @import("std").build.Builder;

pub fn build(b: *Builder) void {
    const exe = b.addExecutable(.{
        .name = "init-exe",
        .root_source_file = .{ .path = "src/main.zig" },


The Zig build system has the concept of modules, which are other source files written in Zig. Let's make use of a module.

From a new folder, run the following commands.

zig init-exe
mkdir libs
cd libs
git clone https://github.com/Sobeston/table-helper.git

Your directory structure should be as follows.

├── build.zig
├── libs
│   └── table-helper
│       ├── example-test.zig
│       ├── README.md
│       ├── table-helper.zig
│       └── zig.mod
└── src
    └── main.zig

To your newly made build.zig, add the following lines.

    const table_helper = b.addModule("table-helper", .{
        .source_file = .{ .path = "libs/table-helper/table-helper.zig" }
    exe.addModule("table-helper", table_helper);

Now when run via zig build, @import inside your main.zig will work with the string "table-helper". This means that main has the table-helper package. Packages (type std.build.Pkg) also have a field for dependencies of type ?[]const Pkg, which is defaulted to null. This allows you to have packages which rely on other packages.

Place the following inside your main.zig and run zig build run.

const std = @import("std");
const Table = @import("table-helper").Table;

pub fn main() !void {
    try std.io.getStdOut().writer().print("{}\n", .{
        Table(&[_][]const u8{ "Version", "Date" }){
            .data = &[_][2][]const u8{
                .{ "0.7.1", "2020-12-13" },
                .{ "0.7.0", "2020-11-08" },
                .{ "0.6.0", "2020-04-13" },
                .{ "0.5.0", "2019-09-30" },

This should print this table to your console.

Version Date       
------- ---------- 
0.7.1   2020-12-13 
0.7.0   2020-11-08 
0.6.0   2020-04-13 
0.5.0   2019-09-30 

Zig does not yet have an official package manager. Some unofficial experimental package managers however do exist, namely gyro and zigmod. The table-helper package is designed to support both of them.

Some good places to find packages include: astrolabe.pm, zpm, awesome-zig, and the zig tag on GitHub.

Build steps§

Build steps are a way of providing tasks for the build runner to execute. Let's create a build step, and make it the default. When you run zig build this will output Hello!.

const std = @import("std");

pub fn build(b: *std.build.Builder) void {
    const step = b.step("task", "do something");
    step.makeFn = myTask;
    b.default_step = step;

fn myTask(self: *std.build.Step, progress: *std.Progress.Node) !void {
    std.debug.print("Hello!\n", .{});
    _ = progress;
    _ = self;

We called b.installArtifact(exe) earlier - this adds a build step which tells the builder to build the executable.

Generating Documentation§

The Zig compiler comes with automatic documentation generation. This can be invoked by adding -femit-docs to your zig build-{exe, lib, obj} or zig run command. This documentation is saved into ./docs, as a small static website.

Zig's documentation generation makes use of doc comments which are similar to comments, using /// instead of //, and preceding globals.

Here we will save this as x.zig and build documentation for it with zig build-lib -femit-docs x.zig -target native-windows. There are some things to take away here: - Only things that are public with a doc comment will appear - Blank doc comments may be used - Doc comments can make use of subset of markdown - Things will only appear inside generated documentation if the compiler analyses them; you may need to force analysis to happen to get things to appear.

const std = @import("std");
const w = std.os.windows;

///**Opens a process**, giving you a handle to it. 
pub extern "kernel32" fn OpenProcess(
    ///[The desired process access rights](https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/win32/procthread/process-security-and-access-rights)
    dwDesiredAccess: w.DWORD,
    bInheritHandle: w.BOOL,
    dwProcessId: w.DWORD,
) callconv(w.WINAPI) ?w.HANDLE;

///spreadsheet position
pub const Pos = struct{
    x: u32,
    y: u32,

pub const message = "hello!";

//used to force analysis, as these things aren't otherwise referenced.
comptime {
    _ = OpenProcess;
    _ = Pos;
    _ = message;

//Alternate method to force analysis of everything automatically, but only in a test build:
test "Force analysis" {
    comptime {

When using a build.zig this may be invoked by setting the emit_docs field to .emit on a CompileStep. We can create a build step to generate docs as follows and invoke it with $ zig build docs.

const std = @import("std");

pub fn build(b: *std.build.Builder) void {
    const mode = b.standardReleaseOptions();

    const lib = b.addStaticLibrary("x", "src/x.zig");

    const tests = b.addTest("src/x.zig");

    const test_step = b.step("test", "Run library tests");

    //Build step to generate docs:
    const docs = b.addTest("src/x.zig");
    docs.emit_docs = .emit;

    const docs_step = b.step("docs", "Generate docs");

This generation is experimental, and often fails with complex examples. This is used by the standard library documentation.

When merging error sets, the left-most error set's documentation strings take priority over the right. In this case, the doc comment for C.PathNotFound is the doc comment provided in A.

const A = error{

    /// A doc comment
const B = error{

    /// B doc comment

const C = A || B;

End of Chapter 3§

This chapter is incomplete. In the future it will contain advanced usage of zig build.

Feedback and PRs are welcome.