Josef “Jeff” Sipek

bool bitfield:1

This is the first of hopefully many posts related to interesting pieces of code I’ve stumbled across in the dovecot repository.

Back in 1999, C99 added the bool type. This is old news. The thing I’ve never seen before is what amounts to:

struct foo {
	bool	a:1;
	bool	b:1;

Sure, I’ve seen bitfields before—just never with booleans. Since this is C, the obvious thing happens here. The compiler packs the two bool bits into a single byte. In other words, sizeof(struct foo) is 1 (instead of 2 had we not used bitfields).

The compiler emits pretty compact code as well. For example, suppose we have this simple function:

void set(struct foo *x)
	x->b = true;

We compile it and disassemble:

$ gcc -c -O2 -Wall -m64 test.c
$ dis -F set test.o
disassembly for test.o

    set:     80 0f 02           orb    $0x2,(%rdi)
    set+0x3: c3                 ret

Had we used non-bitfield booleans, the resulting code would be:

    set:     c6 47 01 01        movb   $0x1,0x1(%rdi)
    set+0x4: c3                 ret

There’s not much of a difference in these simple examples, but in more complicated structures with many boolean flags the structure size difference may be significant.

Of course, the usual caveats about bitfields apply (e.g., the machine’s endian matters).

GNU inline vs. C99 inline

Recently, I’ve been looking at inline functions in C. However instead of just the usual static inlines, I’ve been looking at all the variants. This used to be a pretty straightforward GNU C extension and then C99 introduced the inline keyword officially. Sadly, for whatever reason decided that the semantics would be just different enough to confuse me and everyone else.

GCC documentation has the following to say:

GCC implements three different semantics of declaring a function inline. One is available with -std=gnu89 or -fgnu89-inline or when gnu_inline attribute is present on all inline declarations, another when -std=c99, -std=c11, -std=gnu99 or -std=gnu11 (without -fgnu89-inline), and the third is used when compiling C++.

Dang! Ok, I don’t really care about C++, so there are only two ways inline can behave.

Before diving into the two different behaviors, there are two cases to consider: the use of an inline function, and the inline function itself. The good news is that the use of an inline function behaves the same in both C90 and C99. Where the behavior changes is how the compiler deals with the inline function itself.

After reading the GCC documentation and skimming the C99 standard, I have put it all into the following table. It lists the different ways of using the inline keyword and for each use whether or not a symbol is produced in C90 (with inline extension) and in C99.

Emit (C90) Emit (C99)
inline always never
static inline maybe maybe
extern inline never always

(“always” means that a global symbol is always produced regardless of if all the uses of it are inlined. “maybe” means that a local symbol will be produced if and only if some uses cannot be inlined. “never” means that no symbols are produced and any non-inlined uses will be dealt with via relocations to an external symbol.)

Note that C99 “switched” the meaning of inline and extern inline. The good news is, static inline is totally unaffected (and generally the most useful).

For whatever reason, I cannot ever remember this difference. My hope is that this post will help me in the future.

Trying it Out

We can verify this experimentally. We can compile the following C file with -std=gnu89 and -std=gnu99 and compare what symbols the compiler produces:

static inline void si(int x)

extern inline void ei(int x)

inline void i(int x)

And here’s what nm has to say about them:

00000000 T i

00000000 T ei

This is an extremely simple example where the “never” and “maybe” cases all skip generating a symbol. In a more involved program that has inline functions that use features of C that prevent inlining (e.g., VLAs) we would see either relocations to external symbols or local symbols.

Practical and Portable x86 Recompilation

About a month ago, I stumbled across this fascinating blog post. I finally got around to sharing it here on my blahg.

Practical and Portable x86 Recompilation

Generating Random Data

Over the years, there have been occasions when I needed to generate random data to feed into whatever system. At times, simply using /dev/random or /dev/urandom was sufficient. At other times, I needed to generate random data at a rate that exceeded what I could get out of /dev/random. This morning, I read Chris’s blog entry about his need for generating lots of random data. I decided that I should write my favorite approach so that others can benefit.

The approach is very simple. There are two phases. First, we set up our own random pool. Second we use the random pool. I am going to use an example throughout the rest of this post. Suppose that we want to make repeated 128 kB writes to a block device and we want the data to be random so that the device can’t do anything clever (e.g., compress or dedup). Say that during this benchmark we want to write out 64 GB total. (In other words, we will issue 524288 writes.)

Setup Phase

During the setup phase, we create a pool of random data. The easiest way is to just read /dev/urandom. Here, we want to read enough data so that the pool is large enough. For our 128kB write example, we’d want at least 1 MB. (I’ll explain the sizing later. I would probably go with something like 8 MB because unless I’m on some sort of limited system, the extra 7 MB of RAM won’t be missed.)

“Using the Pool” Phase

Now that we have the pool, we can use it to generate random buffers. The basic idea is to pick a random offset into the pool and just grab the bytes starting at that location. In our example, we’d pick a random offset between zero and pool size minus 128 kB, and use the 128 kB at that offset.

In pseudo code:

#define BUF_SIZE	(128 * 1024)
#define POOL_SIZE	(1024 * 1024)

static char pool[POOL_SIZE];

char *generate()
	return &pool[rand() % (POOL_SIZE - BUF_SIZE)];

That’s it! You can of course make it more general and let the caller tell you how many bytes they want:

#define POOL_SIZE	(1024 * 1024)

static char pool[POOL_SIZE];

char *generate(size_t len)
	return &pool[rand() % (POOL_SIZE - len)];

It takes a pretty simple argument to show that even a modest sized pool will be able to generate lots of different random buffers. Let’s say we’re dealing with the 128 kB buffer and 1 MB pool case. The pool can return 128 kB starting at offset 0, or offset 1, or offset 2, … or offset 9175043 ($1~MB - 128~kB - 1B$). This means that there are 917504 possible outputs. Recall, that in our example we were planning on writing out 64 GB in total which was 524288 writes.

$\frac{524288}{917504} = 0.571$

In other words, we are planning on using less than 58% of the possible outputs from our 1 MB pool to write out 64 GB of random data! (An 8 MB pool would yield 6.3% usage.)

If the length is variable, the math gets more complicated, but in a way we get even better results (i.e., lower usage) because to generate the same buffer we would need have the same offset and length. If the caller supplies random (pseudo-random or based on some distribution) lengths, we’re very unlikely to get the same buffer out of the pool.


Some of you may have noticed that we traded generating 128 kB (or a user supplied length) of random data for generating a random integer. There are two options there, either you can use a fast pseudo-random number generator (like the Wikipedia article: Mersenne twister), or you can reuse same pool! In other words:

#define POOL_SIZE	(1024 * 1024)

static char pool[POOL_SIZE];
static size_t *ridx = (size_t *) pool;

char *generate(size_t len)
	if ((uintptr_t) ridx == (uintptr_t) &pool[POOL_SIZE])
		ridx = (size_t *) pool;


	return &pool[*ridx % (POOL_SIZE - len)];

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to either make it multi-thread safe, or to make the index passed in similarly to how rand_r takes an argument.

rand_r Considered Harmful

Since we’re on the topic of random number generation, I thought I’d mention what is already rather widely known fact — libc’s rand and rand_r implementations are terrible. At one point, I tried using them with this approach to generate random buffers, but it didn’t take very long before I got repeats! Caveat emptor.

Designated Initializers

Designated initializers are a neat feature in C99 that I’ve used for about 6 years. I can’t fathom why anyone would not use them if C99 is available. (Of course if you have to support pre-C99 compilers, you’re very sad.) In case you’ve never seen them, consider this example that’s perfectly valid C99:

int abc[7] = {
	[1] = 0xabc,
	[2] = 0x12345678,
	[3] = 0x12345678,
	[4] = 0x12345678,
	[5] = 0xdef,

As you may have guessed, indices 1–5 will have the specified value. Indices 0 and 6 will be zero. Cool, eh?

GCC Extensions

Today I learned about a neat GNU extension in GCC to designated initializers. Consider this code snippet:

int abc[7] = {
	[1] = 0xabc,
	[2 ... 5] = 0x12345678,
	[5] = 0xdef,

Mind blowing, isn’t it?

Beware, however… GCC’s -std=c99 will not error out if you use ranges! You need to throw in -pedantic to get a warning.

$ gcc -c -Wall -std=c99 test.c
$ gcc -c -Wall -pedantic -std=c99 test.c
test.c:2:5: warning: ISO C forbids specifying range of elements to initialize [-pedantic]

Useless reinterpret_cast in C++

A few months ago (for whatever reason, I didn’t publish this post earlier), I happened to stumble on some C++ code that I had to modify. While trying to make things work, I happened to get code that essentially was:

uintptr_t x = ...;
uintptr_t y = reinterpret_cast<uintptr_t>(x);

Yes, the cast is useless. The actual code I had was much more complicated and it wasn’t immediately obvious that ‘x’ was already a uintptr_t. Thinking about it now, I would expect GCC to give a warning about a useless cast. What I did not expect was what I got:

foo.cpp:189:3: error: invalid cast from type "uintptr_t {aka long unsigned int}"
    to type "uintptr_t {aka long unsigned int}"

Huh? To me it seems a bit silly that the compiler does not know how to convert from one type to the same type. (For what it’s worth, this is GCC 4.6.2.)

Can anyone who knows more about GCC and/or C++ shed some light on this?


I was just looking at the source for Postfix, when I came across this function:

/* mail_conf_read - read global configuration file */

void    mail_conf_read(void)

It turns out that mail_conf_suck reads in the config file, and then mail_params_init does all the dirty work of initializing the internal data structures based on the config.

Anyway, that’s the random thought of the day. I found it marginally amusing.

Edit: the code in question is in src/global/mail_conf.c.

O_PONIES & Other Assorted Wishes

You might have already heard about ext4 “eating” people’s data. That’s simply not true.

While I am far from being a fan of ext4, I feel an obligation to set the record straight. But first, let me give you some references with an approximate timeline. I’m sure I managed to leave out a ton of details.

In mid-January, a bug titled Ext4 data loss showed up in the Ubuntu bug tracker. The complaining users apparently were using data on system crashes when using ext4. (The fact that Ubuntu likes to include every unstable & crappy driver into their kernels doesn’t help at all.) As part of the discussion, Ted Ts’o explained that the problem wasn’t with ext4 but with applications that did not ensure that the data they wrote was actually safe. The people did not like hearing that.

Things went pretty quiet until mid-March. That’s when a slashdot article made it painfully obvious that many of today’s apps are buggy. Some applications (KDE being a whole suite of applications) gotten used to the fact that ext3 was a very common filesystem used by Linux installations. More specifically, they got used to the behavior that ext3’s default mount option (data=ordered) provided. This is really the issue. The application developers assumed that the POSIX interface gave them more guarantees that it did! To make matters worse, the one way to ensure that the contents of a file get to the disk (the fsync system call) is very expensive on ext3. So over the past (almost) decade that ext3 has been around, application developers have been “trained” (think Wikipedia article: Pavlov reflexes) to not use fsync — on ext3, it’s expensive and the likelyhood of you losing data is much lower due to the default mount options. ext4’s fsync implementation, much like other filesystems’ implementations (e.g., XFS) does not suffer from this. (You may have heard about fsync on ext3 being expensive almost a year ago when Firefox was hit by this: Fsyncers and curveballs (the Firefox 3 fsync() problem). Note that in this case, as Ted Ts’o points out, the problem is that Firefox uses the same thread to draw the UI and do IO. That’s plain stupid.)

Over the next few days, Ted Ts’o posted two blog entries about delayed allocation (people seem to like to blame it for dataloss): Delayed allocation and the zero-length file problem, Don’t fear the fsync!.

About the same time, Eric Sandeen wrote a blurb about the state of affairs: fsync, sigh. He points out that XFS has faced the same issue years ago. When the application developers were confronted about their application being broken, they just put fingers in their ears, hummed loudly, yelled “I can’t hear you!” There is a word for that, and here’s the OED definition for it:


The asserting (of anything) to be untrue or untenable; contradiction of a statement or allegation as untrue or invalid; also, the denying of the existence or reality of a thing.

The problem is application developers not wanting to believe that it’s an application problem. Well, it really is! Not only are those apps broken, but they are not portable. AIX, IRIX, or Solaris will not give you the same guarantees as ext3!

(Eric is also trying to fight the common misconception that XFS nulls files: XFS does not null files, and requires no flux, which I assure you is not the case.)

About a week later, on an episode of Free Software Round Table, the problem was discussed a bit. They got most of it right :) (Here’s a 55MB mp3 of the show: 2009-03-21.)

When April 1st came about, the linux-fsdevel mailing list got a patch from yours truly: [PATCH] fs: point out any processes using O_PONIES. (The pony thing…it’s a bit of an inside joke among the Linux filesystem developers.) The idea of having O_PONIES first came up in #linuxfs on OFTC. While I don’t remember who first thought of it (my guess would be Eric), I know for sure that it wasn’t me. At the same time, I couldn’t help it, and considering that the patch took only a minute to make (and compile test), it was well worth it.

Few days later, during the Linux Storage and Filesystem workshop, the whole fsync issue got some discussion time. (See “Rename, fsync, and ponies” at Linux Storage and Filesystem workshop, day 1.) The part that really amused me:

Prior to Ted Ts’o’s session on fsync() and rename(), some joker filled the room with coloring-book pages depicting ponies. These pages reflected the sentiment that Ted has often expressed: application developers are asking too much of the filesystem, so they might as well request a pony while they’re at it.

In the comments for that article you can find Ted Ts’o saying:

Actually, it was Josef ’Jeff’ Sipek who deserves the first mention of application programmers asking for pones, when he posted an April Fools patch submission for the new open flag, O_PONIES — unreasonable file system assumptions desired.

Another file system developer who had worked on two major filesystems (ext4 and XFS) had a t-shirt on that had O_PONIES written on the front. And the joker who distributed the colouring book pages with pictures of ponies was another file system developer working yet another next generation file system.

Application programmers, while they were questioning my competence, judgement, and even my paternity, didn’t quite believe me when I told them that I was the moderate on these issues, but it’s safe to say that most of the file system developers in the room were utterly unsympathetic to the idea that it was a good idea to encourage application programmers to avoid the use of fsync(). About the only one who was also a moderate in the room was Val Aurora (formerly Henson). Both of us recognize that ext3’s data=ordered mode was responsible for people deciding that fsync() was harmful, and I’ve said already that if we had known how badly it would encourage application writers to Do The Wrong Thing, I would have pushed hard not to make data=ordered the default. Unfortunately, memory wasn’t as plentiful in those days, and so the associated page writeback latencies wasn’t nearly as bad ten years ago.

Hrm, I’m not sure how to take it…he makes it sound like I’m an extremist. Jeff — a freedom fighter for sanity of filesystem interfaces! :) As I said, I can’t take credit for the idea of O_PONIES. As I was writing this entry, I mentioned it to Eric and he promptly wrote an entry of his own: Coming clean on O_PONIES. It looks like he isn’t sure that he was the one to invent it! I’ll give him credit for it anyway.

The next day, a group photo of the attendees was taken… You can clearly see Val Aurora wearing an O_PONIES shirt. The idea was Eric’s, and as far as I know, he had his shirt the first day.

Fedora 11 is supposedly going to use ext4 as the default filesystem. When Ars Technica published an article about it (First look: Fedora 11 beta shows promise), some misguided people thinking that that ext4 eats your data left a bunch of comments….*sigh*

Well, there you have it. That’s the summary of events with some of my thoughts interleaved. If you are writing a userspace application that does file IO, do the right thing, fsync the data you care about (or at least fdatasync).

Audacity UI feature

Although I’m filing this under the “rants” category, don’t get fooled. The rant is about UIs in general, with Audacity being the exception.

Here’s what happened…I was going to save the recordings of my radio show to my computer, and I noticed that the first hour recording started about 4 minutes after I took over aether. That meant that I needed to get the previous hour, and cut whatever short portion into a small file and keep it along the 3 1-hour long mp3s.

For audio editing, I tend to use Audacity. It works well, it’s rather intuitive, etc., etc. I did the cut, and I was going to export it as an mp3 (to keep the file format consistent with the other 3 hours of audio, otherwise I’d make it an ogg/vorbis). Audacity let me chose the new file name, the new format, but then when it was about to start the actual encoding, this dialog popped up:

Audacity needs libmp3lame

This is absolutely brilliant! And I mean it; I’m not being sarcastic as I usually am. Normally, one of these scenarios happens…

  • …the application gives you a “I can’t find the encoder” at start (if at all), and disables export to that file format
  • …the application gives you a “I can’t find the encoder” at the start of the encoding process, forcing you to abort the encoding, potentially closing the application, to installed the codec, and redoing whatever you did and trying to re-export
  • …the application gives you a “I can’t find the encoder” at the start of the encoding process, making you look through numerous preferences windows to find the one you care about - if it even exists
  • …the application gives you a “I can’t find the encoder” at the start of the encoding process, making you trying to figure out which environment variable (LD_LIBRARY_PATH, LD_PRELOAD, etc., etc.) will make the linker do the right thing, and make the application find the .so

All are sub-optimal. Asking the user for the path to the .so, while not the newbie-friendliest of things, is really the best thing the application could do. This way, if the .so isn’t installed, the user can install it anywhere - system wide or in one’s $HOME - and then point Audacity to it. If the .so is installed but Audacity couldn’t find it, you can manually point it in the right place.

I use Debian, so installing libmp3lame was a matter of making sure I have the Debian Multimedia source in my sources.list, and then running a quick aptitude install to get it on my disk. If you are using a less privileged distro (or if you don’t have root access to install it system-wide), you’ll have to quite possibly go to the project’s website, and grab a copy there. Audacity’s UI designers haven’t failed you there. A convenient way to go to the website to download the .so is right there.

Overall, seeing this dialog didn’t make me agitated that Audacity wants something I don’t have installed, but instead it made me write this post about something that makes sense, but people fail at doing things like this.

Mercurial 0.9.2

So yesterday, Matt Mackall released Mercurial version 0.9.2 which includes the churn own creation! Mwhahaha! :)

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