C++ in spacemacs

Two new emacs packages, ‘lsp-mode’ and ‘dap-mode’, have brought the power of Microsoft’s Language Server Protocol and Debug Adapter Protocol to emacs.

This is a guide to getting lsp-mode and dap-mode working in spacemacs for C++.

Spacemacs’ C++ layer supports multiple backends for lsp-mode. We’ll be using clangd, a language server built on clang.

The distro I use in this post is Ubuntu 20.04.


I wrote this after figuring out how to configure everything, so it’s highly likely I’ve forgotten something or missed a step. Please let me know if this doesn’t work for you.


clang tools

We will be installing our clang tools from the Ubuntu nightly repos provided by llvm.

Add the gpg key and repository config to apt:

$ wget -O - https://apt.llvm.org/llvm-snapshot.gpg.key | sudo apt-key add -
$ sudo add-apt-repository "deb http://apt.llvm.org/focal/ llvm-toolchain-focal main"
$ sudo apt update

Install the clang tools

$ sudo apt install -y clang-format clang-tidy clang clangd libclang-dev liblldb-11-dev lldb


dap-mode leverages the vscode debug adapters which are written in javascript. As such we need to install node

$ sudo apt install nodejs


lsp-mode will run clangd and communicate with it in order to get information about your C++ code.

You need to tell clangd where to find compile_commands.json, the compilation database which describes how your code is compiled, where to find includes etc.

You probably want to do this on a per-project basis, so that different projects with different settings don’t interfere with eachother.

In order to do this you need to add configuration for lsp-clients-clangd-args to your project’s .dir-locals.el

((c++-mode . ((lsp-clients-clangd-args . ("--compile-commands-dir=build"

Here you can see that I’ve added a number of configuration arguments for clangd, the most important being --compile-commands-dir, here specified as a subdirectory build, which is relative to the source tree’s root dir.

The other options I’ve specified are performance related:

--pch-storage=<value> - Storing PCHs in memory increases memory usages, but may improve performance
--background-index    - Index project code in the background and persist index on disk.
-j=<uint>             - Number of async workers used by clangd. Background index also uses this many workers.


In order to communicate with gdb and/or lldb, we need to install the vscode debug adapter for gdb and lldb.

M-x dap-gdb-lldb-setup

spacemacs layers

Now we need to configure the lsp, dap and c-c++ layers in our spacemacs config.

  (lsp :variables
       lsp-restart 'auto-restart) ; if the server exits, just restart it without prompting
  (dap :variables
       dap-enable-ui-controls nil ; don't display the mouse buttons 
       dap-auto-configure-features '(sessions locals breakpoints expressions tooltip)) ; use the auto-configure layout, but no mouse buttons
  (c-c++ :variables
         c-c++-backend 'lsp-clangd)

Debugging an app

You can add debug configurations for individual apps to your project’s .dir-locals-el file

Here is an example:

((c++-mode . ((dap-debug-template-configurations . (
                                                    :type "gdb"
                                                    :target "/home/user/src/build/app/my_app"

With that added to your .dir-locals.el you can reload your project so that debug-template is added to dap-mode, and then start debugging:

`SPC d b a`: adds a breakpoint at the current source line
`SPC d d d`: opens a list of debug-templates, select `my_app` and it should start
Written on June 29, 2020