Greetings, dear readers!  Today I want to talk about solution configurations and project configurations.  These are important concepts that are essential to understand if you’re trying to do complex coordination of builds using VS, esp. if you're using the DTE or devenv /build at the command line.  However, this is a tricky subject which even a lot of people within the Developer Division don’t fully understand.  Also be sure to see the documentation page for project & solution configurations

 

Let’s start with projects.  Projects can have an arbitrary set of configurations.  Think of a configuration as a knob that tells Visual Studio how to build a project.  The classic configurations are “Debug” and “Release”.  For most users, there is no need to go beyond these.  However, you might want to define your own project configuration if you want additional ways to build your project (say, with additional diagnostics built in) that don’t exactly map to what you want in a debug build or in your final release build.

 

You can create (or delete) project configurations in a dialog called the Configuration Manager.  You can reach this via Build.Configuration Manager menu item.  To add a new project configuration, find row for the project and find the “Configuration” column.  Click on the dropdown and click on “<New…>” (this dialog will never win any usability awards).  This lets you create a new project configuration.  You specify three pieces of information.  First, the name.  Second, you can optionally specify another configuration to copy settings from (for example, if you’re making a configuration that’s just like your Debug configuration but only differs in a few settings, pick Debug to copy from).  Third, you can create a solution configuration that corresponds to it (more about that later).

 

Understand that a project configuration is a parallel bucket of settings.  If you create a new project configuration that copies from the Debug project configuration, you are doing a copy, but any changes you make later to the Debug project configuration won’t be reflected in your copy.  (The same principle applies to solution configurations.)

 

Now, what’s a solution configuration?  Think of a solution configuration as a bucket of arbitrary project configurations.  Solution configurations don’t have to have the same name as project configurations.  A solution configuration is essentially a list of all your projects where you pick which projects should be included and which configurations should be built.

 

Let’s try an example.  Create a new C# Windows Application project.  Now click on Build.Configuration Manager again to return to the Configuration Manager dialog.  What you are looking at is the list of projects and configurations for the solution’s “Debug” configuration.  There is only one project in the list.  The configuration for this project that we’re building is “Debug”, and the platform is “.NET”.  The “Build” checkbox is checked.

 

If you uncheck the “Build” checkbox, it means that the “Debug” solution configuration shouldn’t build your C# winapp project.  So when you do Build.Build Solution, nothing will be built.  This is useless for a single-project solution, but can be useful if you have a lot of projects and there are scenarios where you only want to build a few.  In that case you can create a new solution configuration to do this.

 

How do you create a new solution configuration?  At the top of the Configuration Manager dialog there’s a dropdown with a list of solution configurations.  Click this dropdown and pick “<New…>”.  Then you can create a new solution configuration.  It’s just like creating a new project configuration except that instead of being asked if you want to create a new solution configuration, you’re now asked if you want to create new project configurations to mirror the new solution configuration.  (To get rid of either a solution or project configuration, click on <Edit…> in the appropriate dropdown.)

 

Let’s go back to the Configuration Manager dialog for the C# winapp we created.  We’ve discussed the “Build” checkbox, but what about the Configuration and Platform columns?  These are very important.  The two of these put together make a true project configuration.  For example, if you have Debug and .NET selected, your project configuration is “Debug|.NET”.  This is a very important point.  When you reference a project configuration via the DTE or via the command line (devenv /build), you need to refer to project configurations using the combined form.  Note that the platform can be different, e.g. in VC++ if you are targeting Win64.  You can then have Debug|Win32 and Debug|Win64, and these represent totally different project configurations.

 

If you’re back at the Configuration Manager dialog with our little C# app, you should see the “Debug” solution configuration selected in the dropdown at the top.  If I go down to my project and go to the “Configuration” row, the dropdown says “Debug”.  Just for fun, change it to “Release”.  If you hit OK, then every time you build the “Debug” solution configuration, you’ll be building the “Release” configuration of your project!  This is kind of a silly example, but a practical application would be if you want to enable a special diagnostic build (e.g. heavy assertions) in one of your projects but not others.  For a given solution configuration, you can pick arbitrary configurations for your projects.

 

In different parts of the VS IDE, you will sometimes interact with solution configurations and sometimes with project configurations.  On the main IDE toolbar, there’s a dropdown that controls your active solution configuration.  This is what solution configuration gets build if you do Build.Build Solution.

 

Project configurations come into play when editing project settings.  For example, if you right-click on a project in the solution explorer & bring up the project’s properties (or if you just pick Project.Properties in the main menu) you’ll see a property sheet with the project configuration settings (expressed via its two halves, the basic configuration plus the platform).  Once again, I want to remind you that when referring to a project configuration via DTE or devenv /build, you need to refer to the whole thing, e.g. “Debug|.NET” or “Release|Win32”.

 

One other note.  You might be wondering if you can have a solution configuration with multiple instances of the same project.  You cannot.  However, you can approximate this using the Batch Build dialog (Build.Batch Build in the main menu), which I might cover in a future blog entry.

 

That’s all for now! -Chris