Libvirt: use of GCC/Clang extension for automatic cleanup functions

Posted: January 31st, 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 in October 2019.

Automatic memory cleanup

Libvirt has always aimed to be portable across a wide set of operating system platforms and this included portability to different compiler toolchains. In the early days of the project GCC was the most common target, but users did use the Solaris and Microsoft native compilers occasionally. Fast forward to today and the legacy UNIX platforms are much less relevant. Officially libvirt only targets Linux, FreeBSD, macOS and Windows as supported platforms and all of these have GCC or CLang or both available. These compilers are available on any platform that we’re likely to add in the future too. Conceivably people might still want to use Microsoft compilers, but their featureset is so poor compared to GCC/Clang that we long ago discounted them as a toolchain to support.

Thus libvirt in the early part of last year, libvirt made the explicit decision to only support GCC and CLang henceforth. This in turn freed the project to take full advantage of extensions to the C language offered by these compilers.

The extension which motivated this decision was the cleanup attribute. This allows a variable declaration to have a function associated with it that will be automatically invoked when the variable goes out of scope. The most obvious use for these cleanup functions is to release heap memory associated with pointers, and this is exactly what libvirt wanted to do. This is not the only use case though, they are also convenient for other tasks such as closing file descriptors, decrementing reference counts, unlocking mutexes, and so on.

The native C syntax for using this feature is fairly ugly

__attribute__((__cleanup__(free))) char *foo = NULL;

but this can be made more attractive via macros. For example, GLib provides several pretty macros to simplify life g_autofree, g_autoptr and g_auto.

Thus the old libvirt coding pattern of

void dosomething(char *param) {
  char * foo;

  ...some code...

  foo = g_strdup_printf("Some string %s", param);
  if (something() < 0)
     goto cleanup;

  ... some more code... 

cleanup:
  free(foo);
}

Can be replaced by something like

void dosomething(char *param) {
  g_autofree(char *) foo = NLL;

  ...some code...

  foo = g_strdup_printf("Some string %s", param);
  if (something() < 0)
     return;

  ... some more code... 
}

There are still some “gotchas” to be aware of. Care must be taken to ensure any variable declared with automatic cleanup is always initialized, otherwise the cleanup function will touch uninitialized stack data. If a pointer stored in an automatic cleanup variable needs to be returned to the caller of the method, the local variable must be NULLd out. Fortunately GLib provides a convenient helper g_steal_pointer for exactly this purpose.

The previous blog described how many goto jumps were eliminated by aborting on OOM, instead of trying to gracefully cleanup & report it. The remaining goto jumps were primarily for free’ing memory, closing file descriptors, and releasing mutexes, most of which can be eliminated with these cleanup functions.

The result is that the libvirt code can be dramatically simplified, which reduces the maint burden on libvirt contributors, allowing more time to be spent on coding features which matter to users. As an added benefit, in converting code over to use automatic cleanup functions we’ve fixed a number of memory leaks not previously detected, which reinforces the value of using this C extension.

Incidentally after this was introduced in libvirt last year, I suggested that QEMU also adopt use of automatic cleanup functions, since it has also mandated either GCC or CLang as the only supported compilers, and this was accepted.

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