Malinka, an Emacs C/C++ project configuration package

Introducing malinka, a C/C++ project configuration package for Emacs. Malinka can be used to configure projects in C or C++ and provide correnc input to other packages like rtags and flycheck so that a modern code navigation and editing experience can be achieved.

Working with C/C++ code in Emacs can sometimes become a really frustrating undertaking. Using ctags, gtags or Cedet does not always provide the best results that one would desire from a modern editor when navigating C/C++ code.

In an earlier post I had written of a way to force Semantic to parse all files under a particular source tree so that it could know about all the tags of a project. While it worked most of the times, it is a crude way to deal with the problem. Not to mention it’s terrible lisp code. Since then I dealt a little bit more with elisp and emacs configuration and came to the conclusion that there are better ways of dealing with the problem.

Introducing Malinka

Enter Malinka, a C/C++ project configuration package for Emacs. It’s a kind of a meta-package combining the power of a few other packages to create a modern Emacs development experience for C/C++ programmers.

The main functionality that malinka provides is a way to configure C/C++ projects and through that configuration empower rtags and optionally other packages like flycheck with correct input at the correct time so that a modern C/C++ code editing and especially navigation experience is achieved.


In order to be able to use Malinka you need to have a few basic things setup in your .emacs.d. As long as you have dealt with the first prerequisite you don’t have to worry about the rest. It’s just a matter of M-x el-get-install RET malinka RET if you are using el-get or M-x package-instal RET malinka RET if you are using melpa. Those commands would pull and build all other bullet points but I am mentioning them here for documentation purposes

  • el-get or melpa: el-get is a modern way to manage your emacs packages. The easiest way to install malinka is by using el-get to pull and build all dependencies. Alternatively you can use package-instal having the melpa package repositories configured in your package archives.
  • rtags: rtags is a dependency that el-get would get and build for you manually. It’s a package based on a server and client model. The rtags daemon is called rdm and uses clang to parse and maintain all tags of a malinka project and inotify to reparse any files that have been edited. The rtags client is called rc and is the method by which we communicate with the daemon. If desired you can start the daemon manually by invoking something like
    rdm > /dev/null 2>&1 &

    But there is no need to worry about that since as long as the rtags package is installed malinka will assert that rdm is running and if not it will attempt to start it.

  • projectile: projectile is a generic project creation and management library for Emacs. It contains a lot of very useful functionality to detect and manage projects mainly using VCS. In order to not reinvent the wheel some of projectile’s functionality is used by malinka.
  • flycheck: (optional) Flycheck is an optional dependency, but one that can integrate very nicely. Using flycheck and clang’s syntax checker malinka can provide correct input data to flycheck depending on the currently visited buffer. As a result the syntax checker can show all warnings being aware of the different compilation parameters of each buffer.


After you have installed malinka using el-get or any other method, you need to set it up so that it becomes aware of your C/C++ projects. The setup step is basically about letting clang know the compile commands of your project.

The suggested method from rtags itself is to symlink the rtags wrapper script to your compiler. It is indeed the most hassle-free method but with malinka we are going to be trying a different approach. The malinka approach is far from perfect and as can be seen in the future work section there are some plans to improve it.

Simple project setup

The way to let it know about a particular project is by using (malinka-define-project). As a very minimal example picture the setup of Refu C library, an old project of mine.

(require 'malinka)

 :name "Refulib"
:compiler-flags '("-Wall" "-g")
:include-dirs '("/home/lefteris/w/Refulib/include")
:root-directory "~/w/Refulib")

(malinka-define-project) can accept more arguments than seen in this example so we should look at all of them one by one. (For a full and up to date list always do check the source code too!):

  • name: The name of the project. Should be the same name as the root directory of the project.
  • cpp-defines: The macros definitions to be passed to the C preprocessor.
  • include-dirs: The include directories of the project where the compiler should search for headers.
  • compiler-flags: Other flags to pass to the compiler.
  • root-directory: The full path to the root directory of the project. If not specified then projectile is used to try and find the root judging by the current’s buffer location and the malinka project name.
  • compiler-executable: The full path to the compiler executable. Defaults to /usr/bin/gcc.

The difficulty in this approach is that we need to manually copy all of the compiler options in the malinka project definition. In the future work section one can see suggested improvements to this.

Setup of multiple versions of a project

Some teams have their workflow organized in a way so that different versions of the code is kept under different directories. The reason for such a setup is only if the product you are working on is complex and comprised of multiple repositories. Then it makes sense to have 2 different versions of all repos checked out so that one can work on both at the same time easily. For example:

+ version 1.20 +
|              |
|              project_foo +
|              |           |
|              |           sources
|              |           ...
|              lib_foo     +
|              |           |
|              |           sources
|              ...      
+ version 1.60 +
|              |
|              project_foo +
|              |           |
|              |           sources
|              |           ...
|              lib_foo     +
|              |           |
|              |           sources
|              ...      

In such a case the setup that you would keep for either project_foo or lib_foo would not specify a root directory but utilize the same-name-check parameter of (malinka-define-project)

 :name "project_foo"
 :cpp-defines '("SOMETHING_IS_DEFINEd")
 :compiler-flags '("-Wall" "-g")
 :include-dirs '("/path/to/include")
 :same-name-check nil)

Having the same-name-check parameter set to nil along with the absence of a root-directory allows for such a multiple versions of the same project setup to work. We will see how in the next section.


The first time you want to use malinka in a project you have to configure that project for your system. The way to achieve this is by calling M-x malinka-project-configure from any buffer belonging to the project you need to configure. Once this is done a json file containing the clang compilation database for this project will be created. The name of the file is compile_commands.json. I suggest you add it to the ignores of your version control system.

Note that you do not really need to be in a buffer belonging to the project in order to call M-x malinka-project-configure. It will prompt you with a choice of project names that it knows about. If malinka notices that the current buffer belongs to a known project it will be provided as the default choice. So it’s generally good practise to be in a buffer belonging to the project you want to configure.

In the case of a project with multiple versions as shown here, there is an extra selection that the user is prompted for when invoking M-x malinka-project-configure after having selected the project name. Malinka will prompt you for the root directory of the project so that you can choose which version/checkout you need configured.

After that is done and after rtags have indexed all of the project (it can take some time for large codebases) you can use all of the rtags commands in order to jump around and navigate in the C/C++ source code of your project.

Using rtags with malinka

For all the possible commands and in order to be up to date I suggest directly checking the rtags documentation and their source code to see what is possible. As a simple example and to give you a taste of the power of rtags take a look at the default keybindings of their API.

(defun rtags-enable-standard-keybindings (&optional map prefix)
  (unless map
    (setq map c-mode-base-map))
  (unless prefix
    (setq prefix "\C-xr"))
    (define-key map (concat prefix ".") (function rtags-find-symbol-at-point))
    (define-key map (concat prefix ",") (function rtags-find-references-at-point))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "v") (function rtags-find-virtuals-at-point))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "V") (function rtags-print-enum-value-at-point))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "/") (function rtags-find-all-references-at-point))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "Y") (function rtags-cycle-overlays-on-screen))
    (define-key map (concat prefix ">") (function rtags-find-symbol))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "<") (function rtags-find-references))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "[") (function rtags-location-stack-back))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "]") (function rtags-location-stack-forward))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "D") (function rtags-diagnostics))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "G") (function rtags-guess-function-at-point))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "p") (function rtags-set-current-project))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "P") (function rtags-print-dependencies))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "e") (function rtags-reparse-file))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "E") (function rtags-preprocess-file))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "R") (function rtags-rename-symbol))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "U") (function rtags-print-cursorinfo))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "O") (function rtags-goto-offset))
    (define-key map (concat prefix ";") (function rtags-find-file))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "F") (function rtags-fixit))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "x") (function rtags-fix-fixit-at-point))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "B") (function rtags-show-rtags-buffer))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "I") (function rtags-imenu))
    (define-key map (concat prefix "T") (function rtags-taglist))))

I will let it as an exercise to the user to experiment with most of those. But the main strength of malinka is that it empowers rtags with the correct input data so that (rtags-find-symbol-at-point) and (rtags-find-references-at-point) work properly.

Go to any source file of your project and no matter how complicated the definition of a tag is, no matter how far away in the include chain it lies, your cursor will always correctly jump to it.

After that if you want to jump back to the previous tags and follow the tag jumping backwards you would call (rtags-location-stack-back). And vice versa if you need to go forward again you would call (rtags-location-stack-forward).

I suggest binding all those to convenient keys since you will be using them quite often 🙂

Malinka API

At the moment these are the functions one can use to interact with a project that has been registered with malinka:

  • M-x malinka-project-configure: As seen here this is the command to configure a project that has been defined with (malinka-define-project). Configuring means creating the clang compilation database and registering it with the rtags daemon.
  • M-x malinka-project-add-file: Allows adding a file to the project after configuration and indexes it with the rtags daemon.
  • M-x malinka-project-add-include-dir: Allows adding an include directory to the project’s compile commands and updates the rtags daemon.
  • M-x malinka-project-add-cpp-define: Allows adding a macro definition to the project’s compile commands and updates the rtags daemon.

Future Work / Conclusions

Malinka is a first approach of mine to create an Emacs package whose sole purpose is to manage C/C++ projects using the most modern related packages available to Emacs as of this moment. There is definitely room for improvement.

The main improvement that can be implemented is some form of Makefile or build command parsing so that cpp-defines, include directories and generally all compiler parameters are automatically acquired by malinka and passed directly to rtags. With such a feature, any compiler parameters given at (malinka-define-project) would simply be appended to what has already been parsed.

Finally I am no emacs lisp expert and I am always looking to learn. As a result any contributions to malinka are more than welcome, be it in the form of issue-reporting or pull requests/patches.

That’s all! Until next time.

3 thoughts on “Malinka, an Emacs C/C++ project configuration package”

  1. Hello,
    thanks for the work you invested into this tool. I am having a problem when installing the package. The error message I see is this one
    Linking CXX executable ../bin/rc
    error: install_name_tool: more than one input file specified (Support/Aquamacs and /Users/sascha/Library/Application)
    Usage: install_name_tool [-change old new] … [-rpath old new] … [-add_rpath new] … [-delete_rpath old] … [-id name] input
    make[2]: *** [bin/rc] Error 1
    make[1]: *** [src/CMakeFiles/rc.dir/all] Error 2
    make[1]: *** Waiting for unfinished jobs….

    I am on Mac Mavericks. Could you provide me with some help?

  2. Hello,

    Malinka uses rtags, so its recipe requires you to build rtags. The Rtags repository can be found here.
    From the error message it seems as if the linking phase of building rtags fails for some reason specific to Mac OS X. I tried to check their issues page but could not find something related. I don’t have Mac OS X to actually test this so maybe you can open an issue with them at their issue page?

  3. Thanks for the quick answer. It appears that the linker had problems with blanks in the path. I got it to work.

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