Aurélien Gâteau

Building Qt apps with Travis CI and Docker

written on Saturday, January 19, 2019

I recently configured Travis CI to build Nanonote, my minimalist note-taking application. We use Jenkins a lot at work, and despite the fact that I dislike the tool itself, it has proven invaluable in helping us catch errors early. So I strongly believe in the values of Continuous Integration.

When it comes to CI setup, I believe it is important to keep your distances with the tool you are using by keeping as much setup as possible in tool-agnostic scripts, versioned in your repository, and making the CI server use these scripts.

Ensuring your build scripts are independent of your CI server gives you a few advantages:

  • Your setup is easier to extend and debug, since you can run the build scripts on your machine. This is lighter than running an instance of your CI server on your local machine (nobody takes the time to do that anyway) and more efficient than committing changes in a temporary branch then wait for your CI server to build them to see if you got it right (everybody does that).

  • It keeps the build instructions next to your code, instead of being stored in, say, Jenkins XML file. This ensures that you can add dependencies and adjust the build script in one commit. It also ensures that if your build script evolves, you can still build old branches on the CI server (for example because you have a fix to do on a released version).

  • If your CI server is Jenkins or something similar, you spend less time cursing against the slow web-based UI (yes, I know about Jenkins Pipelines, but those have other problems...).

  • It is easier to switch to another CI server.

With this in mind, here is how I configured Nanonote CI.

Create a Build environment using Docker

The first element is to create a stable build environment. To do this I created a Docker with the necessary build components. Here is its Dockerfile, stored in the ci directory of the repository:

FROM ubuntu:18.04
RUN apt-get update \
    && apt-get install -y -qq --no-install-recommends \
        cmake \
        dpkg-dev \
        file \
        g++ \
        make \
        ninja-build \
        python3 \
        python3-pip \
        python3-setuptools \
        qt5-default \
        qtbase5-dev \
        qttools5-dev \
        rpm \
COPY requirements.txt /tmp
RUN pip3 install -r /tmp/requirements.txt
ENTRYPOINT ["/bin/bash"]

Nothing really complicated here, but there are a few interesting things to point out nevertheless.

It installs dpkg-dev and rpm packages, so that CPack can build .deb and .rpm packages.

It also installs the xvfb package, to be able to run tests which require an X server.

Finally it copies a requirements.txt file and pip install it. This is to install qpropgen dependencies. This requirements.txt is in 3rdparty/qpropgen, which Docker cannot reach (because it only sees files inside the ci directory), so I created a simple ci/build-docker script to build the Docker image:

set -ev
cd $(dirname $0)
cp ../3rdparty/qpropgen/requirements.txt .
docker build -t nanonote:1 .

This gives us a clean build environment, now lets create a build script.

The build script

This script is ci/build-app. Its job is to:

  1. Create a source tarball
  2. Build and run tests from this source tarball
  3. Build .rpm and .deb packages

You may wonder why the script creates a source tarball, since GitHub automatically generates them when one creates a tag. There are two reasons for this:

  1. GitHub tarballs do not contain repository submodules, making them useless for Nanonote.
  2. I prefer to rely on my own build script to generate the source tarball as it makes the project less dependant on GitHub facilities, should I decide to move to another git host service.

Reason #1 also explains why the script builds from the source tarball instead of using the git repository source tree: it ensures the tarball is not missing any file necessary to build the app.

I am not going to include the script here, but you can read it on GitHub.

Travis setup

Now that we have a build script and a build environment, we can make Travis uses them. Here is Nanonote .travis.yml file. As you can see, it is just a few lines:

dist: xenial
language: minimal
- docker
- ci/build-docker
- docker run -v $PWD:/root/nanonote nanonote:1 /root/nanonote/ci/build-app

Not much to say here:

  • We tell Travis to use an Ubuntu Xenial (16.04) distribution and Docker.
  • The "install" step builds the Docker image.
  • The "script" step mounts the source tree inside the Docker image and runs the build script.

Travis runs this on all branches pushed to GitHub. I configured GitHub to refuse pushes to the master branch if the commits have not been validated by Travis. This rule applies to all project contributors, including me. Since there is not (for now?) a large community of contributors to the project, I don't open pull requests: I just push commits to the dev branch, once Travis has checked them, I merge dev into master.


When it's time to create a release, I just do what Travis does: rebuild the Docker image then run the build script inside it.

Since the source tree is mounted inside the Docker image, I get the source and binary packages in the dist directory of the repository, so I can test them and publish them.

Travis has a publication system to automatically attach build artefacts to GitHub releases when building from a tag, but I prefer to build them myself because that gives me the opportunity to test the build artefacts before tagging and it prevents me from becoming too dependent on Travis service.


That's it for this description of Nanonote CI setup. It's still young so I might refine it, but it is already useful. I am probably going to create similar setups for my other C++ Qt projects.

I hope it helped you as well.

This post was tagged ci, docker, nanonote, pko, qt and travis-ci