Setting up gcc / OpenMP on OSX (MacPorts edition)

Note: This is the part of a series of “how-to” blog posts to help new users and developers of BioFVM and PhysiCell. This guide is for OSX users. Windows users should use this guide instead. A Linux guide is expected soon.

These instructions should get you up and running with a minimal environment for compiling 64-bit C++ projects with OpenMP (e.g., BioFVM and PhysiCell) using gcc. These instructions were tested with OSX 10.11 (El Capitan), but they should work on any reasonably recent version of OSX.

In the end result, you’ll have a compiler and key makefile capabilities. The entire toolchain is free and open source.

Of course, you can use other compilers and more sophisticated integrated desktop environments, but these instructions will get you a good baseline system with support for 64-bit binaries and OpenMP parallelization.

Note 1: OSX / Xcode appears to have gcc out of the box (you can type “gcc” in a Terminal window), but this really just maps back onto Apple’s build of clang. Alas, this will not support OpenMP for parallelization.

Note 2: This process is somewhat painful because MacPorts compiles everything from source, rather than using pre-compiled binaries. This tutorial uses Homebrew: a newer package manager that uses pre-compiled binaries to dramatically speed up the process. I highly recommend using the Homebrew version of this tutorial.

What you’ll need:

  1. XCode: This includes command line development tools. Evidently, it is required for both Macports and its competitors (e.g., Homebrew). Download the latest version in the App Store. (Search for xcode.) As of January 15, 2016, the App Store will install Version 7.2. Please note that this is a 4.41 GB download!
  2. MacPorts: This is a package manager for OSX, which will let you easily download, build and install many linux utilities. You’ll particularly need it for getting gcc. Download the latest installer (MacPorts-2.3.4-10.11-ElCapitan.pkg) here. As of August 2, 2017, this will download Version 2.4.1.
  3. gcc7 (from MacPorts): This will be an up-to-date 64-bit version of gcc, with support for OpenMP. As of August 2, 2017, this will download Version 7.1.1.

Main steps:

1) Download, install, and prepare XCode

As mentioned above, open the App Store, search for Xcode, and start the download / install. Go ahead and grab a coffee while it’s downloading and installing 4+ GB. Once it has installed, open Xcode, agree to the license, and let it install whatever components it needs.

Now, you need to get the command line tools. Go to the Xcode menu, select “Open Developer Tool”, and choose “More Developer Tools …”. This will open up a site in Safari and prompt you to log in.

Sign on with your AppleID, agree to yet more licensing terms, and then search for “command line tools” for your version of Xcode and OSX. (In my case, this is OSX 10.11 with Xcode 7.2) Click the + next to the correct version, and then the link for the dmg file. (Command_Line_Tools_OS_X_10.11_for_Xcode_7.2.dmg).

Double-click the dmg file. Double-click pkg file it contains. Click “continue”, “OK”, and “agree” as much as it takes to install. Once done, go ahead and exit the installer and close the dmg file.

2) Install Macports

Double-click the MacPorts pkg file you downloaded above. OSX may complain with a message like this:

“MacPorts-2.4.1-10.11-ElCapitan.pkg” can’t be opened because it is from an unidentified developer.

If so, follow the directions here.

Leave all the default choices as they are in the installer. Click OK a bunch of times. The package scripts might take awhile.

Open a terminal window (Open Launchpad, then “Other”, then “Terminal”), and run:

sudo port -v selfupdate

to make sure that everything is up-to-date.

3) Get, install, and prepare gcc

Open a terminal window (see above), and search for gcc, version 7.x or above

port search gcc7

You should see a list of packages, including gcc7.

Then, download, build and install gcc7:

sudo port install gcc7

You should see a list of packages, including gcc7.

This will download, build, and install any dependencies necessary for gcc7, including llvm and many, many other things. This takes even longer than the 4.4 GB download of Xcode. Go get dinner and a coffee. You may well need to let this run overnight. (On my 2012 Macbook Air, it required 16 hours to fully build gcc7 and its dependencies in a prior tutorial. We’ll discuss this point further below.)

Lastly, you need to get the exact name of your compiler. In your terminal window, type g++, and then hit tab twice to see a list. On my system, I see this:

Pauls-MBA:~ pmacklin$ g++
g++       g++-mp-7 

Look for the version of g++ with an “mp” in its name. In my case, it’s g++-mp-7. Double-check that you have the right one by checking its version. It should look something like this:

Pauls-MBA:~ pmacklin$ g++-mp-7 --version

g++-mp-7 (MacPorts gcc7 7-20170622_0) 7.1.1 20170622
Copyright (C) 2017 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
This is free software; see the source for copying conditions.  There is NO warranty; not even 

Notice that MacPorts shows up in the information. The correct compiler is g++-mp-7.

PhysiCell Version 1.2.2 and greater use a system variable to record your compiler version, so that you don’t need to modify the CC line in PhysiCell Makefiles. Set the PHYSICELL_CPP variable to record the compiler you just found above. For example, on the bash shell:

export PHYSICELL_CPP=g++-mp-7
echo export PHYSICELL_CPP=g++-mp-7 >> ~/.bash_profile

4) Test your setup

I wrote a sample C++ program that tests OpenMP parallelization (32 threads). If you can compile and run it, it means that everything (including make) is working! :-)

Make a new directory, and enter it

Open Terminal (see above). You should be in your user profile’s root directory. Make a new subdirectory called GCC_test, and enter it.

mkdir GCC_test
cd GCC_test
Grab a sample parallelized program:

Download a Makefile and C++ source file, and save them to the GCC_test directory. Here are the links:

  1. Makefile: [click here]
  2. C++ source: [click here]

Note: The Makefiles in PhysiCell (versions > 1.2.1) can use an environment variable to specify an OpenMP-capable g++ compiler. If you have not yet done so, you should go ahead and set that now, e.g., for the bash shell:

export PHYSICELL_CPP=g++-mp-7
echo export PHYSICELL_CPP=g++-mp-7 >> ~/.bash_profile
Compile and run the test:

Go back to your (still open) command prompt. Compile and run the program:


The output should look something like this:

Allocating 4096 MB of memory ...

Entering main loop ...

Note 1: If the make command gives errors like “**** missing separator”, then you need to replace the white space (e.g., one or more spaces) at the start of the “$(COMPILE_COMMAND)” and “rm -f” lines with a single tab character. 

Note 2: If the compiler gives an error like “fatal error: ‘omp.h’ not found”, you probably used Apple’s build of clang, which does not include OpenMP support. You’ll need to make sure that you set the environment variable PHYSICELL_CPP as above (for PhysiCell 1.2.2 or later), or specify your compiler on the CC line of your makefile (for PhysiCell 1.2.1 or earlier). 

Now, let’s verify that the code is using OpenMP.

Open another Terminal window. While the code is running, run top. Take a look at the performance, particularly CPU usage. While your program is running, you should see CPU usage fairly close to ‘100% user’. (This is a good indication that your code is running the OpenMP parallelization as expected.)

MacPorts and Pain

MacPorts builds all the tools from source. While this ensures that you get very up-to-date binaries, it is very, very slow!

However, all hope is not lost. It turns out that Homebrew will install pre-compiled binaries, so the 16-hour process of installing gcc is reduced to about 5-10 minutes. Check back tomorrow for a follow-up tutorial on how to use Homebrew to set up gcc.

What’s next?

Download a copy of PhysiCell and try out the included examples! Visit BioFVM at

  1. PhysiCell links:
    1. PhysiCell Method Paper at bioRxiv:
    2. PhysiCell on MathCancer:
    3. PhysiCell on SourceForge:
    4. PhysiCell on github:
    5. PhysiCell tutorials: [click here]
  2. BioFVM links:
    1. BioFVM announcement on this blog: [click here]
    2. BioFVM on
    3. BioFVM on SourceForge:
    4. BioFVM Method Paper in BioInformatics:
    5. BioFVM tutorials: [click here]

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4 thoughts on “Setting up gcc / OpenMP on OSX (MacPorts edition)”

  1. *There are some inrseetting points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

  2. Note that MacPorts actually supports and offers precompiled binaries as well, but those are only available if license permits and default variants are used. Additionally, the buildbot for El Capitan has only recently been set up, so El Capitan binaries will appear over the next few weeks.

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