C++ Portability Issues

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The C++ Super-FAQ covers many frequently asked C++ questions.

Header Portability Issues


Don’t directly #include <fcntl.h> - instead #include "safefcntl.h".

The main reason for this is that when using certain compilers on certain versions of Solaris, fcntl.h does #define open open64. Sadly this breaks C++ code which has methods called open (as we do). There’s a cunning workaround for this problem in common/safefcntl.h.

Also, safefcntl.h ensures the O_BINARY is defined (to 0 if not required) so calls to open() and creat() can specify O_BINARY unconditionally for the benefit of platforms which discriminate between text and binary files.


Don’t directly #include <windows.h> - instead #include "safewindows.h" which reduces the bloat of header files included and prevents some of the more egregious namespace pollution. It also defines any constants we need which might be missing in older versions of the mingw headers.


Don’t directly #include <winsock2.h> - instead #include "safewinsock2.h". This ensure that safewindows.h is included before <winsock2.h> to avoid winsock2.h including windows.h without our namespace pollution reducing workarounds.


Don’t directly #include <sys/select.h> - instead #include "safesysselect.h" which supports older UNIX platforms which predate POSIX 1003.1-2001 and works around a problem on Solaris.


Don’t directly #include <sys/socket.h> - instead #include "safesyssocket.h" which supports older UNIX platforms which predate POSIX 1003.1-2001 and works on Windows too.


Don’t directly #include <sys/stat.h> - instead #include "safesysstat.h" which under MSVC enables stat to work on files > 2GB, defines the missing POSIX macros S_ISDIR and S_ISREG, pulls in <direct.h> for mkdir() (which is provided by sys/stat.h under UNIX) and provides a compatibility wrapper for mkdir() which takes 2 arguments (so code using mkdir can always just pass two arguments).


To get WEXITSTATUS or WIFEXITED defined, #include "safesyswait.h". Note that this won’t provide waitpid(), etc on Microsoft Windows, since these functions are only really useful to use when fork() is available.


Don’t directly #include <unistd.h> - instead #include "safeunistd.h" – MSVC doesn’t even HAVE unistd.h!

The various “safe” headers are maintained in xapian-core/common, but also used by Omega. Currently bootstrap sorts out setting up a copy of this subdirectory via a secondary git checkout.

Warning-Free Compilation

Compiling without warnings on every platform is our goal, though it’s not always possible to achieve. For example, some GCC 3.x compilers produce the occasional bogus warning (e.g. warning that a variable may be used uninitialised, despite it being initialised at the point of declaration!)

You should consider configure-ing with:

./configure CXXFLAGS=-Werror

when doing development work on Xapian. This promotes warnings to errors, which should ensure you at least don’t introduce new warnings for the compiler you’re using.

If you configure with --enable-maintainer-mode, and are using GCC 4.1 or newer, this is done for you automatically. This is intended to be an aid rather than a form of automated punishment - it’s all too easy to miss a new warning as once a file is compiled, you don’t see it unless you modify that file or one of its dependencies.

With Intel’s C++ compiler, --enable-maintainer-mode also enables -Werror. If you know the equivalent of -Werror for other compilers, please add a note here, or tell us so that we can add a note.

Miscellaneous Portability Issues

Make sure that the last line of any source file ends with a linefeed character since it’s undefined behaviour if it doesn’t (most compilers accept it, though at least GCC gives a warning).

Makefile Portability

We don’t want to force those building Xapian from the source distribution to have to use GNU make. Requiring GNU make for “make dist” isn’t such a problem but it’s probably better to use portable constructs everywhere to avoid problems when people move or copy code between targets. If you do make use of non-portable constructs where it’s OK, add a comment noting the special circumstances which justify doing so.

Here’s an incomplete list of things to avoid:

  • Don’t use “$(RM)” - it’s defined by GNU make, but using it actually harms portability as other makes don’t define it. Use plain “rm” instead.

  • Don’t use “%” pattern rules - these are GNU make specific. Use an implicit rule (e.g. “.c.o:”) if you can. Otherwise, write out each version explicitly.

  • Don’t use “$<” except in implicit rules. This is an annoying restriction, as using “$<” makes it much easier to make VPATH builds work. But it’s only portable in implicit rules. Tips for rewriting - if it’s a source file, write it as:


    If it’s a generated object file or similar, just write the name as is. The tricky case is a generated file which isn’t in git but is shipped in the distribution tarball, as such a file could be in either the source or build tree. Use this trick to make sure it’s found whichever directory it’s in:

    `test -f foo.ext || echo '$(srcdir)/'`foo.ext
  • Don’t use “exit 0” to make a rule fail. Use “false” instead. BSD make doesn’t like “exit 0” in a rule.

  • Don’t use make conditionals. Automake offers conditionals which may be of use, and these are implemented to work with any make. See the automake manual for details, and a few caveats.

  • The list of portable utilities is:

    cat cmp cp diff echo egrep expr false grep install-info
    ln ls mkdir mv pwd rm rmdir sed sleep sort tar test touch true

    Note that versions of these (GNU versions in particular) support switches which aren’t portable - notably, “test -r” isn’t portable; neither is “cp -a”. And note that “mkdir -p” isn’t portable - the semantics vary. The autoconf manual has some useful information about writing portable shell code (most of it not specific to autoconf).

  • Don’t use “include” - it’s not present in BSD make (at least some versions have “.include” instead, but that doesn’t really seem to help…) Automake provides a configure-time include, which may provide a replacement for some uses of “include”.

  • It appears that BSD make only supports VPATH for implicit rules (e.g. “.c.o:”) - there’s certainly a restriction there which is not present in GNU make. We used to try to work around this, but now we use AM_MAINTAINER_MODE to disable rules which are only needed by those developing Xapian (these were the rules which caused problems). And we recommend those developing Xapian use GNU make to avoid problems.

  • Rules with multiple targets can cause problems for parallel builds. These rules are really just a shorthand for multiple rules with the same prerequisites and commands, and it is fine to use them in this way. However, a common temptation is to use them when a single invocation of a command generates multiple output files, by adding each of the output files as a target. Eg, if a swig language module generates xapian_wrap.cc and xapian_wrap.h, it is tempting to add a single rule something like:

    # This rule has a problem
    xapian_wrap.cc xapian_wrap.h: xapian.i

    This can result in SWIG_commands being run twice, in parallel. If SWIG_commands generates any temporary files, the two invocations can interfere causing one of them to fail.

    Instead of this rule, one solution is to pick one of the output files as a primary target, and add a dependency for the second output file on the first output file:

    # This rule also has a problem
    xapian_wrap.h: xapian_wrap.cc
    xapian_wrap.cc: xapian.i

    This ensures that make knows that only one invocation of SWIG_commands is necessary, but could result in problems if the invocation of SWIG_commands failed after creating xapian_wrap.cc, but before creating xapian_wrap.h. Instead, we recommend creating an intermediate target:

    # This rule works in most cases
    xapian_wrap.cc xapian_wrap.h: xapian_wrap.stamp
    xapian_wrap.stamp: xapian.i
            touch $@

    Because the intermediate target is only touched after the commands have executed successfully, subsequent builds will always retry the commands if an error occurs. Note that the intermediate target cannot be a “phony” target because this would result in the commands being re-run for every build.

    However, this rule still has a problem - if the xapian_wrap.cc and xapian_wrap.h files are removed, but the xapian_wrap.stamp file is not, the .cc and .h files will not be regenerated. There is no simple solution to this, but the following is a recipe taken from the automake manual which works. For details of why it works, see the section in the automake manual titled “Multiple Outputs”:

    # This rule works even if some of the output files were removed
    xapian_wrap.cc xapian_wrap.h: xapian_wrap.stamp
    ## Recover from the removal of $@.  A full explanation of these rules is in
    ## the automake manual under the heading "Multiple Outputs".
            @if test -f $@; then :; else \
              trap 'rm -rf xapian_wrap.lock xapian_wrap.stamp' 1 2 13 15; \
              if mkdir xapian_wrap.lock 2>/dev/null; then \
                rm -f xapian_wrap.stamp; \
                $(MAKE) $(AM_MAKEFLAGS) xapian_wrap.stamp; \
                rmdir xapian_wrap.lock; \
              else \
                while test -d xapian_wrap.lock; do sleep 1; done; \
                test -f xapian_wrap.stamp; exit $$?; \
              fi; \
    xapian_wrap.stamp: xapian.i
            touch $@
  • This is actually a robustness point, not portability per se. Rules which generate files should be careful not to leave a partial file in place if there’s an error as it will have a timestamp which leads make to believe it’s up-to-date. So this is bad:

    foo.cc: script.pl
            $PERL script.pl > foo.cc

    This is better:

    foo.cc: script.pl
            $PERL script.pl > foo.tmp
            mv foo.tmp foo.cc

    Alternatively, pass the output filename to the script and make sure you delete the output on error or a signal (although this approach can leave a partial file in place if the power fails). All used Makefile.am-s and scripts have been checked (and fixed if required) as of 2003-07-10 (didn’t check xapian-bindings).

  • Another robustness point - if you add a non-file target to a makefile, you should also list it in “.PHONY”. Otherwise your target won’t get remade reliably if someone creates a file with the same name in their tree. For example:

    .PHONY: hello goodbye
          echo hello
          echo goodbye

And lastly a style point - using “@” to suppress echoing of commands being executed removes choice from the user - they may want to see what commands are being executed. And if they don’t want to, many versions of make support the use “make -s” to suppress the echoing of commands.

Using @echo on a message sent to stdout or stderr is acceptable (since it avoids showing the message twice). Otherwise don’t use @ - it makes it harder to track down problems in the makefiles.