Libvirt: adoption of GLib library to replace GNULIB & home grown code

Posted: January 30th, 2020 | Filed under: Coding Tips, Fedora, libvirt, Virt Tools | Tags: | No Comments »

Since the project’s creation about 14 years ago, libvirt has grown enormously. In that time there has been a lot of code refactoring, but these were always fairly evolutionary changes; there has been little revolutionary change of the overall system architecture or some core technical decisions made early on. This blog post is one of a series examining recent technical decisions that can be considered more revolutionary to libvirt. This was the topic of a talk given at KVM Forum 2019 in Lyon.

Portability and API abstractions

Libvirt traditionally targeted the POSIX standard API but there are a number of difficulties with this. Much of POSIX is optional so can not be assumed to exist on every platform. Plenty of platforms are non-compliant with the spec, or have different behaviour in scenarios where the spec allowed for multiple interpretations. To deal with this libvirt used the GNULIB project which is a  copylib that attempt to fix POSIX non-compliance issues. It is very effective at this, but portability is only one of the problems with using POSIX APIs directly. It is a very low level API, so simple tasks like listening on a TCP socket require many complex API calls. Other APIs have poor designs by modern standards which make it easy for developers to introduce bugs. The malloc APIs are a particular case in point. As a result libvirt has created many higher level abstractions around the POSIX APIs. Looking at other modern programming languages though, such higher level abstractions are already a standard offering. This allows developers to focus on solving their application’s domain specific problems. Libvirt maintainers by contrast have spent a lot of time developing abstractions unrelated to virtualization such as object / class systems, DBus client APIs, hash tables / bitmaps, sockets / RPC systems, and much more. This is not a good use of limited resources in the long term.

Adoption of GLib

These problems are common to many applications / libraries that are written in C and thus there are a number of libraries that attempt to provide a high level “standard library”. The GLib library is one such effort from the GNOME project developers that has long been appealing. Some of libvirt’s internal APIs are inspired by those present in GLib, and it has been used by QEMU for a long time too. What prevented libvirt from using GLib in the past was the desire to catch, report and handle OOM errors. With the switch to aborting on OOM, the only blocker to use of GLib was eliminated.

The decision was thus made for libvirt to adopt the GLib library in the latter part of 2019. From the POV of application developers nothing will change in libvirt. The usage of GLib is purely internal, and so doesn’t leak into public API exposed from libvirt.so, which is remains compatible with what came before. In the case of QEMU/KVM hosts at least, there is also no change in what must be installed on hosts, since GLib was already a dependency of QEMU for many years. This will ultimately be a net win, as using GLib will eliminate other code in libvirt, reducing the installation footprint on aggregate between libvirt and QEMU.

With a large codebase such as libvirt’s, adopting GLib is a not as quick as flicking a switch. Some key pieces of libvirt functionality have been ported to use GLib APIs completely, while in other cases the work is going to be an incremental ongoing effort over a long time. This offers plenty of opportunities for new contributors to jump in and make useful changes which are fairly easily understood & straightforward to implement.

Removal of GNULIB

One of the anticipated benefits of using GLib was that it would be able to obsolete a lot of the portability work that GNULIB does. The GNULIB project is strongly entangled with autotools as a build system, so is a blocker to the adoption of a different build system in libvirt. There has thus been an ongoing effort to eliminate GNULIB modules from libvirt code. In many cases, GLib does indeed provide a direct replacement for the functionality needed. One of the surprises though, is that a very large portion of GNULIB was completely redundant given libvirt’s stated set of OS platform build targets. There is no need to consider portability to a wide variety of old buggy UNIX variants (Solaris, HPUX, AIX, and so on) for libvirt. After a final big push over the last few weeks, a patch series has been posted which completes the removal of GNULIB from libvirt, which will merge in the 6.1.0 release.

The work has been tested across all the platforms covered by libvirt CI, which means RHEL-7, 8, Fedora 30, 31, rawhide, Ubuntu 16.04, 18.04, Debian 9, 10, sid, FreeBSD 11, 12, macOS 10.14 with XCode 10.3 and XCode 11.3, and MinGW64. There are certainly libvirt users on platforms not covered by CI. Those using other modern Linux distros should not see problems if using GLibC, as the combination of RHEL, Debian & Ubuntu testing should expose any latent bugs. The more likely places to see regressions will be if people are using libvirt on other *BSDs, or older Linux distros. Usage of alternative C library implementations on Linux is also an unknown, since there is no CI coverage for this. Support for older Linux distros is explicitly not a goal for libvirt and the project will willingly break old platforms. Support for other modern non-Linux OS, however, is potentially interesting. What is stopping such platforms being considered explicitly by libvirt is lack of any contributors willing to help provide a CI setup and deal with fixing portability problems. IOW, libvirt is willing to entertain the idea of supporting additional modern OS platforms if contributors want to work with the project to make it happen. The same applies to Linux distros using a non-GLibC impl.

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