I have a very large c++ project and I'm trying to decrease build times. I've been religious about forward declaring and only including files which are used. However I have many preprocessor defines which are setup in the project files (ie not in cpp or header files) so that I can keep them all in a central location for my different build configurations. Is it possible that this could increase build times? Would moving the preprocessor defines to a header file so they will only be included where needed speedup the build time?

It seems like the build time would be faster if the preprocessor didn't need to scan and replace the defines for files that don't use any of them, but I'm not sure if it's worth the effort.

  • have you profiled the difference?
    – user40980
    Jun 20, 2013 at 0:05
  • 1
    in project file you mean like the -D option? Jun 20, 2013 at 0:37
  • @ratchet freak: Yes -D option for the compiler is what I mean.
    – RaWz
    Jun 20, 2013 at 1:30
  • @michaelT: I have not profiled the difference. I wanted to get the opinions of others to determine if it was worth the effort.
    – RaWz
    Jun 20, 2013 at 1:32

2 Answers 2


Unused macros that are specified on the command line of the compiler (through -D options) should not have any measurable impact on build times. The parsing of command line arguments is insignificant compared to the time it takes to compile even a smallish source file and the compiler can't skip the preprocessing step anyway because there will invariably be some #include-s to process and some macros to expand.

  • I've never looked into the internals of a preprocessor, but I imagine that it would first concatenate the includes and then string replace any defines. Although the time it takes to replace the defines might be insignificant compared to the compile time when the preprocessor has to do that for thousands of files that it doesn't need to, I would think that in some cases, depending on the LOC, it could have a significant impact. However, if there will always be at least one define that needs to be replaced the you make a good point that the define replacement step cannot be skipped.
    – RaWz
    Jun 20, 2013 at 12:45
  • @RaWz: C and C++ (including the preprocessor stuff) are defined in such a way that it is possible to compile a source file in a single pass, meaning that every line of the file gets read only once. There is no need to perform #include expansion and macro substitution in multiple passes. Jun 20, 2013 at 13:05

My experience with build time is pretty simple: it's about linear with number of translation units. So if you want to reduce it, either paste some sources together, or do "unity compile". the latter means you #include groups of .cpp files, and compile that instead of the originals. Certainly it means static symbols get shared. For variables it's not that hard to detect, for functions might be trickier.

A source that may be just 100 LOC, or a few thousands at most normally picks up 100k to 1M LOC in included headers. What explains the figures.

Other things to explore are obviously precompiled headers and parallel builds. With PCH rules change significantly, fight to not include stuff and stick to forwards can be dropped.

I doubt the #defines themselves would cause any measurable impact.

Certainly all depends much on what compiler you use.

  • The application is compiled for multiple platforms and compiled using gcc, mingw, and vs2008.
    – RaWz
    Jun 20, 2013 at 1:38
  • I never heard of combining cpp files using #include, that's an interesting technique. I think using precompiled headers is a good idea.
    – RaWz
    Jun 20, 2013 at 1:58
  • "it's about linear with number of translation units." - for a suffiently small number of translation units, this might be true, but when the number of units exceeds several hundred, link times tend to increase in a nonlinear fashion for every C++ compiler I know. Recommended read: Large-Scale C++ Software Design
    – Doc Brown
    Oct 11, 2023 at 5:51

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