C Modules

We do write complex software, and like everyone doing so, we need a way to structure our source code. Our choice was to go modular. A module is a singleton that defines a feature or a set of related feature and exposes some APIs in order for other modules to access these features. Everything else, including the details of the implementation, is private. Examples of modules are the RPC layer, the threading library, the query engine of a database, the authentication engine, … Then, we can compose the various daemons of our application by including the corresponding modules and their dependencies.

Most modules maintain an internal state and as a consequence they have to be initialized and deinitialized at some point in the lifetime of the program. An internal rule at Intersec is to name the constructor {module}_initialize() and the destructor {module}_shutdown(). Once defined, these functions have to be called and this is where everything become complicated when your program has tens of modules with complex dependencies between them.

The automated approach

A first approach can be to have everything done automatically. For this, we do rely on non-standard C features. For example, with GCC those functions can be made to be called automatically. With GCC, we can use the attributes constructor and destructor to have those functions called at the initialization and the termination of the program:

This approach ensures the constructor/destructor is called once and only once during the execution of the program. However, it also have some drawbacks. The main one being the fact we have no real control on the execution order of the constructors/destructors of the various modules. As a consequence, if a module A uses module B in its constructor, we cannot guarantee that B will have already been initialized when the constructor of A is called.

Another drawback is that this approach relies on the fact the linker won’t evict the module at link time. By default, the linker works with a granularity of the compilation unit: if no function of a compilation unit is explicitly called by the program or by other functions explicitly called by the program, then it is entirely evicted at link time. So if a module has a constructor that has side effects and is referenced by no other module (for example a watchdog module could be in that situation), it may be silently evicted at link time, leaving your program without some features. This can be worked around using some special link options (--whole-archive) but this has drawbacks too since you may generate bigger binaries containing code you really don’t need… and calling the initializer of module you don’t care about.

Ooh, and by the way, this approach cannot work if your module requires some parameters to be provided.

The manual approach

So, if we cannot use magics to initialize our modules, let’s do this by hand. Instead of creating static functions with attributes, the {module}_initialize and {module}_shutdown become part of the API of the module. As a consequence, they must be explicitly called at some point. Let consider an example program that has two modules, one that handles the interaction with the user, one for the administration:

Simple program with two independent modules

Simple program with two independent modules

For that program, we would have functions like the following one to handle the intialization/deinitialization of the program:

The modules are independent, so the initialization/deinitialization order is unimportant. However, let’s consider that the user module depends on the authentication module:

Program with top level modules requiring internal ones.

Program with top level modules requiring internal ones.

In that new setup, we do have a dependence from user on authentication. As a consequence, we must make sure that authentication is loading before user and unloaded after user. This produces the following initialization code:

This may looks simple, three modules to load in the right order, but let’s suppose you have tens of modules to load that way, this starts to become a big mess. Moreover, the fact my_program has to know about the internal dependences of user and admin, the two modules it exposes, breaks the “private implementation” rule: the fact user depends on authentication is a detail of implementation of the user module. As a consequence, instead of letting my_program load authentication, this should be done directly by user. This can be done by calling the constructor/destructor of authentication directly in user‘s ones:

This looks much better. But in practice there are modules that are actually needed by several other modules. Let’s improve our example by supposing that both user and admin use a common database module that handle the persistency and the access to the data:

Program with a module needed by several other modules.

Program with a module needed by several other modules.

If we use the exact same approach as before, then the database_initialize() function will be called twice: once by user_initialize(), once by admin_initialize(). In order to fix this, we must add some guards within the module: the initialization must only happen the first time database_initialize() is called and shut down the very last time database_shutdown() is called. This is nothing more than applying a reference counting approach to our modules:

That’s it. We do have a pattern for properly and safely initializing/shutting done modules. This requires 10 lines of boilerplate code per module (including the declaration of the {module}_initialize() and {module}_shutdown() in the header file). The average size of a module is between a few hundred and a few thousands of lines of code. 10 lines is an acceptable overhead.

The declarative approach

So we are quite happy with our manual approach. With just a few coding conventions we can build a modular application with good properties. However, coding conventions are often not constraining enough to guarantee this will work everywhere.

Moreover, our modules actually need more than just a constructor and a destructor. Modules often respond to events such as the installation of a new configuration, the reception of a termination request, … As a consequence, the program has to propagate this kind of events to all interested modules. Unfortunately, we cannot easily rely on modules to propagate those kind of messages to their dependences: in case a module is the dependence of several other modules, it would receive the message multiple times. While we could solve this kind of issue using a simple refcounting for the constructor and destructor, this won’t work for the message handlers: messages can be received multiple times by the program and each module must receive once and only once each instance of the message.

As a consequence, the program has to call the handler of the various modules by hand, breaking the “private implementation” rule:

As a consequence, we built a library to reinforce the sturcture of a module. That library mostly maintains a module registry. That registry is an oriented graph of modules, each edge represents a dependence from a module to another. Additionally a state is associated to each module. That state indicates if the module has been initialized and handle the refcounting so that the module is shut down if it’s not needed anymore.

The library defines a standard way to declare and define a module. The initializer and shutdown methods don’t have to be public anymore, only the module has to:

The definitition of the module is done in a declarative fashion:

In this code, there only 3 lines of boilerplate per module (most of the logic being moved to the library)

With this approach our my_program will looks like:

The MODULE_BEGIN macro actually hides the use of an __attribute__((constructor)) attribute that registers the module against the module-handling library. The library itself is written in a such a way that modules can be registered before the actual initialization of the library. The module initialization method receives a pointer to a parameter that can be specified in the program using MODULE_PROVIDE(module_name, value).

In order to be able to respond to events, the library defines the notion of methods. A method is an object that can be implemented by modules. Calling that method will call the implementations from all interested modules in the right order. Each method specifies if it should traverse the graph of modules by calling the implementation of the dependence before or after the implementation of the module.

As a consequence, my_program doesn’t even have to send the method of the modules it manually manages (user and admin), all the loaded module that implement the on_term method will receive that method when my_program_on_term is called. In addition to avoiding the leak of each module’s internals, this approach avoids forgetting to add the call for one specific module in the program.


Having modules done that way makes writing daemons simple. In our codebase, the main() function of a daemon looks like:

We pass pointers to the modules and the daemon library (which is not a module) load them when everything is ready to be started. We do write less administrative code with a improved maintainability, and not too much hidden magic.