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Wed Feb 17 06:13:23 2016 UTC (3 years, 9 months ago) by dholland
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[[!template id=project

title="Language-neutral interface specifications (research)"

contact="""
[tech-kern](mailto:tech-kern@NetBSD.org)
"""

category="kernel"
difficulty="hard"
duration="3 months"

description="""
Programmatic interfaces in the system (at various levels) are currently specified in C: functions are declared with C prototypes, constants with C preprocessor macros, etc. While this is a reasonable choice for a project written in C, and good enough for most general programming, it falls down on some points, especially for published/supported interfaces. The system call interface is the most prominent such interface, and the one where these issues are most visible; however, other more internal interfaces are also candidates.

Declaring these interfaces in some other form, presumably some kind of interface description language intended for the purpose, and then generating the corresponding C declarations from that form, solves some of these problems. The goal of this project is to investigate the costs and benefits of this scheme, and various possible ways to pursue it sanely, and produce a proof-of-concept implementation for a selected interface that solves a real problem.

Note that as of this writing many candidate internal interfaces do not really exist in practice or are not adequately structured enough to support this treatment.

Problems that have been observed include:

* Using system calls from languages that aren't C. While many compilers and interpreters have runtimes written in C, or C-oriented foreign function interfaces, many do not, and rely on munging system headers in (typically) ad hoc ways to extract necessary declarations. Others cut and paste declarations from system headers and then break silently if anything ever changes.

* Generating test or validation code. For example, there is some rather bodgy code attached to the vnode interface that allows crosschecking the locking behavior observed at runtime against a specification. This code is currently generated from the existing vnode interface specification in vnode_if.src; however, the specification, the generator, and the output code all leave a good deal to be desired. Other interfaces where this kind of validation might be helpful are not handled at all.

* Generating marshalling code. The code for (un)marshalling system call arguments within the kernel is all handwritten; this is laborious and error-prone, especially for the various compat modules. A code generator for this would save a lot of work. Note that there is already an interface specification of sorts in syscalls.master; this would need to be extended or converted to a better description language. Similarly, the code used by puffs and refuse to ship file system operations off to userland is largely or totally handwritten and in a better world would be automatically generated.

* Generating trace or debug code. The code for tracing system calls and decoding the trace results (ktrace and kdump) is partly hand-written and partly generated with some fairly ugly shell scripts. This could be systematized; and also, given a complete specification to work from, a number of things that kdump doesn't capture very well could be improved. (For example, kdump doesn't decode the binary values of flags arguments to most system calls.)

* Add your own here. (If proposing this project for GSOC, your proposal should be specific about what problem you're trying to solve and how the use of an interface definition language will help solve it. Please consult ahead of time to make sure the problem you're trying to solve is considered interesting/worthwhile.)

The project requires: (1) choose a target interface and problem; (2) evaluate existing IDLs (there are many) for suitability; (3) choose one, as roll your own should be only a last resort; (4) prepare a definition for the target interface in your selected IDL; (5) implement the code generator to produce the corresponding C declarations; (6) integrate the code generator and its output into the system (this should require minimal changes); (7) implement the code generator and other material to solve your target problem.

Note that while points 5, 6, and 7 are a reasonably simple matter of programming, parts 1-3 and possibly 4 constitute research -- these parts are as important as the code is, maybe more so, and doing them well is critical to success.

The IDL chosen should if at all possible be suitable for repeating steps 4-7 for additional choices of target interface and problem, as there are a lot of such choices and many of them are probably worth pursuing in the long run.

Some things to be aware of:

* syscalls.master contains a partial specification of the functions in the system call interface. (But not the types or constants.)
* vnode_if.src contains a partial specification of the vnode interface.
* There is no specification, partial or otherwise, of the other parts of the VFS interface, other than the code and the (frequently outdated) section 9 man pages.
* There are very few other interfaces within the kernel that are (as of this writing) structured enough or stable enough to permit using an IDL without regretting it. The bus interface might be one.
* Another possible candidate is to pursue a specification language for handling all the conditional visibility and namespace control material in the userspace header files. This requires a good deal of familiarity with the kinds of requirements imposed by standards and the way these requirements are generally understood and is a both large and extremely detail-oriented.

Note: the purpose of an IDL is not to encode a *parsing* of what are otherwise C-language declarations. The purpose of an IDL is to encode some information about the *semantics* of an interface. Parsing the input is the easy part of the problem. For this reason, proposals that merely suggest replacing C declarations with e.g. equivalent XML or JSON blobs are unlikely to be accepted.

(Also note that XML-based IDLs are unlikely to be accepted by the community as XML is not in general considered suitable as a source language.)
"""
]]

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