MPS Configuration

author Richard Brooksby
date 1997-02-19
index terms pair: configuration; design
revision //
status incomplete design
tag design.mps.config


.intro: This document describes how the Memory Pool System source code is configured so that it can target different architectures, operating systems, build environments, varieties, and products.

.readership: Any MPS developer; anyone porting the MPS to a new platform.


.req.import: The MPS must be simple to include in third-party projects.

.req.arch: Allow architecture specific configurations of the MPS, so that we can vary the MPS according to the target architecture.

.req.os: Allow operating system specific configurations of the MPS, so that we can vary the MPS according to the target OS.

.req.builder: Allow build environment specific configurations of the MPS, so that we can vary the MPS according to the compiler, etc.

.req.var: Allow configurations with different amounts of instrumentation (assertions, metering, etc.).

.req.impact: The configuration system should have a minimal effect on maintainability of the implementation.

.req.port: The system should be easy to port across platforms.

.req.maint: Maintenance of the configuration and build system should not consume much developer time.

Retired requirements Allow product specific configurations of the MPS, so that we can build variants of the MPS for use in different products. This requirement has been retired on 2012-09-03 as part of work on the variety-reform branch. Client-specific customisation of the MPS will be handled in source control, while the MPS source remains generic, to reduce costs and increase reliability. See [RB_2012-09-13].


.def.platform: A platform is a combination of an architecture (.def.arch), an operating system (.def.os), and a builder (.def.builder). The set of supported platforms is maintained in the Platforms section of "Building the Memory Pool System".

.def.arch: An architecture is processor type with associated calling conventions and other binary interface stuff these days often called the ABI. Most importantly for the MPS it determines the layout of the register file, thread context, and thread stack.

.def.os: An operating system is the interface to external resources. Most importantly for the MPS it determines the low level interface to virtual memory (if any) and threading.

.def.builder: A builder is the tools (C compiler, etc.) used to make the target ( The MPS minimises use of compiler-specific extensions, but this is handy for suppressing warnings, inlining hints, etc.

.def.var: A variety determines things like the amount of debugging, internal consistency checking, annotation, etc. In modern IDEs this called a "build configuration" and the usual default is to have two: "debug" and "release". The MPS predates this convention, but the concept is the same. A product is the intended product into which the MPS will fit, e.g. ScriptWorks, Dylan, etc. We no longer maintain this concept as a dimension of configuration since has been retired. The target is the result of the build.

.def.option: An option is a feature of the MPS that is not selected via the platform and variety. See .opt.


.import.source: The MPS can be simply included in client products as source code. Since version 1.110 we made it possible to simply include the file mps.c in a client's build process, without requiring a separate build of the MPS or linking a library. This is described section 2.3.1, "Compiling for production" of the MPS manual.

.no-gen: No generated code or external tools are required. On most platforms the only tool is the C compiler. On 64-bit Windows we require the assembler since Microsoft withdrew in-line assembler from their C compiler.

.no-spaghetti: Several of the MPS team have worked on some extremely messy code bases which used a great number of #ifdef statements. These quickly became very expensive to maintain and develop. The general rule in the MPS is "no #ifdefs". Instead, platform-specific code is kept in separate source files and selected by carefully controlled #ifdefs, such as in mps.c.

.min-dep: Dependency on a particular configuration should be minimized and localized when developing code. This is enshrined in the general rules for implementation [ref?] that are enforced by MPS development procedures including code review and inspection.

The build system

Abstract build function The MPS implementation assumes only a simple "build function" that takes a set of sources, possibly in several languages, compiles them with a set of predefined preprocessor symbols, and links the result with a set of libraries to form the target:

target := build(<defs>, <srcs>, <libs>)

.build.sep: Separate compilation and linkage can be seen as a memoization of this function, and is not strictly necessary for the build. Indeed, since version 1.110 we found that modern compilers are quite happy to compile the whole MPS in one go .import.source. A consequence of this approach is that it should always be possible to build a complete target with a single UNIX command line calling the compiler driver (usually "cc" or "gcc"), for example:

cc -o main -DCONFIG_VAR_COOL foo.c bar.c baz.s -lz

.build.defs: The "defs" are the set of preprocessor macros which are to be predefined when compiling the module sources:

CONFIG_VAR_<variety-code> The variety codes are as follows: HOT

Intended for release in products. Optimised, reduced internal checking, especially on the critical path [RB_2012-09-07]. COOL

Intended for use during development. Moderately thorough internal consistency checking. Reduced optimisation to allow for single-stepping.

.var.rash: RASH

No internal checking at all. Slight performance improvement over at the cost of early detection of memory management bugs. We do not advise use of this variety, as memory management bugs tend to be extremely expensive to deal with. If no CONFIG_VAR is present, HOT is assumed in config.h.

.build.srcs: The "srcs" are the set of sources that must be compiled in order to build the target. The set of sources may vary depending on the configuration. For example, different sets of sources may be required to build different architectures.


This is a dependency between the makefile (or whatever) and the module configuration in config.h.

.build.libs: The "libs" are the set of libraries to which the compiled sources must be linked in order to build the target. For example, when building a test program, it might include the ANSI C library and an operating system interface library.

File Structure

.file.dir: The MPS source code is arranged in a single directory called "code" containing all the sources for the whole family of targets.

.file.base: The names of sources must be unique in the first eight characters in order to conform to FAT filesystem naming restrictions. (Do not scoff -- this has been an important requirement as recently as 2012!)

.file.ext: The extension may be up to three characters and directly indicates the source language.

.file.platform: Platform-specific files include the platform code in their name. See .mod.impls.

Modules and naming

.mod.unique: Each module has an identifier which is unique within the MPS.

.mod.impls: Each module has one or more implementations which may be in any language supported by the relevant build environment.

.mod.primary: The primary implementation of a module is written in target-independent ANSI C in a source file with the same name as the module. Where there are platform-specific implementations and an inferior portable ANSI C fallback implementation, "an" is used in place of the platform code.

.mod.secondary: The names of other implementations should begin with the same prefix (the module id or a shortened version of it) and be suffixed with on or more target parameter codes (defined below). In particular, the names of assembly language sources must include the target parameter code for the relevant architecture.

.mod.example: For example, the stack scanner is defined in ss.h (which is platform-independent). It has some platform-independent C in ss.c and, for example, ssw3i6mv.c is specific to Windows on the x64 architecture built with Microsoft Visual C.

Build system rationale

.build.rat: This simple design makes it possible to build the MPS using many different tools. Microsoft Visual C and other graphical development tools do not support much in the way of generated sources, staged building, or other such stuff. The Visual C and Xcode "project" files correspond closely to a closure of the build function ( The simplicity of the build function has also made it easy to set up builds using NMAKE (DOS), MPW (Macintosh), and to get the MPS up and running on other platforms such as FreeBSD and Linux in very little time. The cost of maintaining the build systems on these various platforms is also reduced to a minimum, allowing the MPS developers to concentrate on primary development. The source code is kept simple and straightforward. When looking at MPS sources you can tell exactly what is going to be generated with very little context. The sources are not munged beyond the standard ANSI C preprocessor.

.build.port: The portability requirement (.req.port) implies that the build system must use only standard tools that will be available on all conceivable target platforms. Experience of development environments on the Macintosh (Metrowerks Codewarrior) and Windows NT (Visual C++) indicates that we cannot assume much sophistication in the use of file structure by development environments. The best that we can hope for is the ability to combine a fixed list of source files, libraries, and predefined preprocessor symbols into a single target.

.build.maint: The maintainability requirement (.req.maint) implies that we don't spend time trying to develop a set of tools to support anything more complicated than the simple build function described above. The effort in constructing and maintaining a portable system of this kind is considerable. Such efforts failed in the Electronic Publishing division of Harlequin.

Warnings and errors A consequence of .import.source is that the MPS needs to compile in the context of the client's build system, with whatever compilation and warning options the client has enabled in that system, and this might include options causing warnings to be treated as errors. Accordingly, the MPS should compile without warnings when enabling the compiler options most likely to be employed by clients.

.warning.impl: In order to ensure that the MPS meets the requirement in, during development and testing of the MPS we compile with a large selection of warning options for each supported compiler, and with warnings treated as errors so that developers do not get into the habit of ignoring warning messages. These are enabled in the compiler makefile fragments for each compiler, for example ll.gmk for Clang/LLVM.

.warning.benefit: The implementation in .warning.impl also helps us keep the code free of subtle compiler issues that break memory managers, and free of constructs which might be accidentally mis-interpreted by other developers.

.warning.silence: When code needs to be modified, for example by adding a cast, to silence a warning that has been analyzed and turned out to be harmless, it is best practice to introduce a macro that expresses the intention, and cross-reference this paragraph from the macro's comment. If the macro is general-purpose then misc.h is a good place to put it.


.impl: The two implementation files config.h and mpstd.h can be seen as preprocessor programs which "accept" build parameters and "emit" configuration parameters (.fig.impl). The build parameters are defined either by the builder (in the case of target detection) or by the build function (in the case of selecting the variety).


Build parameters Source file Configuration parameters
_WIN32 mpstd.h MPS_OS_W3, etc.

.impl.dep: No source code, other than the directives in config.h and mpstd.h, should depend on any build parameters. That is, identifiers beginning "CONFIG_" should only appear in impl.h.config. Code may depend on configuration parameters in certain, limited ways, as defined below (.conf).

Target platform detection

.pf: The target platform is "detected" by the preprocessor directives in mpstd.h.

.pf.form: This file consists of sets of directives of the form:

#elif <conjunction of builder predefinitions>
#define MPS_PF_<platform code>
#define MPS_PF_STRING "<platform code>"
#define MPS_OS_<operating system code>
#define MPS_ARCH_<architecture code>
#define MPS_BUILD_<builder code>
#define MPS_T_WORD     <word type>
#define MPS_T_ULONGEST <longest unsigned integer type>
#define MPS_WORD_WIDTH <word width in bits>
#define MPS_WORD_SHIFT <log to the base 2 of word width>
#define MPS_PF_ALIGN   <minimum alignment>

.pf.detect: The conjunction of builder predefinitions is a constant expression which detects the target platform. It is a logical AND of expressions which look for preprocessor symbols defined by the build environment to indicate the target. These must be accompanied by a reference to the build tool documentation from which the symbols came. For example:

/* "Predefined Macros" from "Visual Studio 2010" on MSDN
 * <>. */

#elif defined(_MSC_VER) && defined(_WIN32) && defined(_M_IX86) The declarations of the platform, operating system, architecture, and builder codes define preprocessor macros corresponding to the target detected (.pf.detect). For example:

#define MPS_PF_W3I3MV
#define MPS_OS_W3
#define MPS_ARCH_I3
#define MPS_BUILD_MV

.pf.word: The declaration of MPS_T_WORD defines the unsigned integral type which corresponds, on the detected target, to the machine word. It is used to defined the MPS Word type (design.mps.type.word). For example:

#define MPS_T_WORD      unsigned long

We avoid using typedef here because mpstd.h could potentially be included in assembly language source code.

.pf.word-width: The declaration of MPS_WORD_WIDTH defines the number of bits in the type defined by MPS_T_WORD (.pf.word) on the target. For example:

#define MPS_WORD_WIDTH  32

.pf.word-shift: The declaration of MPS_WORD_SHIFT defines the log to the base 2 of MPS_WORD_WIDTH. For example:

#define MPS_WORD_SHIFT  5 The declaration of MPS_PF_ALIGN defines the minimum alignment which must be used for a memory block to permit any normal processor memory access. In other words, it is the maximum alignment required by the processor for normal memory access. For example:

#define MPS_PF_ALIGN    4

.pf.ulongest: The declaration of MPS_T_ULONGEST defines the longest available unsigned integer type on the platform. This is usually just unsigned long but under Microsoft C on 64-bit Windows unsigned long is just 32-bits (curse them!) For example:

#define MPS_T_ULONGEST      unsigned __int64 The declaration of MPS_PF_STRING defines a string that is used to identify the target platform in version.c. For example:

#define MPS_PF_STRING   "w3i6mv"

Target varieties

.var: The target variety is handled by preprocessor directives in impl.h.config.

.var.form: The file contains sets of directives of the form:

#if defined(CONFIG_VAR_COOL)

.var.detect: The configured variety is one of the variety preprocessor definitions passed to the build function (.build.defs), for example, CONFIG_VAR_COOL. These are decoupled in order to keep the number of supported varieties small, controlling each feature (for example, assertions) by a single preprocessor definition, and maintaining flexibility about which features are enabled in each variety.

.var.symbols: The directives should define whatever symbols are necessary to control features. These symbols parameterize other parts of the code, such as the declaration of assertions, etc. The symbols should all begin with the prefix CONFIG_.

Source code configuration

.conf: This section describes how the configuration may affect the source code of the MPS.

.conf.limit: The form of dependency allowed is carefully limited to ensure that code remains maintainable and portable (.req.impact).

.conf.min: The dependency of code on configuration parameters should be kept to a minimum in order to keep the system maintainable (.req.impact).

Configuration Parameters

.conf.params: The compilation of a module is parameterized by:


Abstract and Concrete Module Interfaces

.abs.caller: Basic principle: the caller musn't be affected by configuration of a module. This reduces complexity and dependency of configuration. All callers use the same abstract interface. Caller code does not change.

.abs.interface: Abstract interface includes:

  • method definitions (logical function prototypes which may be macro methods)
  • names of types
  • names of constants
  • names of structures and fields which form part of the interface, and possibly their types, depending on the protocol defined
  • the protocols

.abs.rule: The abstract interface to a module may not be altered by a configuration parameter. However, the concrete interface may vary.

For example, this isn't allowed, because there is a change in the interface:

#if defined(PROT_FOO)
void ProtSpong(Foo foo, Bar bar);
int ProtSpong(Bar bar, Foo foo);

This example shows how:

void ProtSync(Space space);
/* more decls. */
#else /* PROTECTION not */
#define ProtSync(space) NOOP
/* more decls. */
#endif /* PROTECTION */


#if defined(PROT_FOO)
typedef struct ProtStruct {
  int foo;
} ProtStruct;
#define ProtSpong(prot)  X((prot)->foo)
#elif defined(PROT_BAR)
typedef struct ProtStruct {
  float bar;
} ProtStruct;
#define ProtSpong(prot)  Y((prot)->bar)
#error "No PROT_* configured."

Configuration parameters may not be used to vary implementations in C files. For example, this sort of thing:

int map(void *base, size_t size)
#if defined(MPS_OS_W3)
  VirtualAlloc(foo, bar, base, size);
#elif defined(MPS_OS_SU)
  mmap(base, size, frob);
#error "No implementation of map."

This violates .no-spaghetti.

Configuration options

.opt: Options select features of the MPS that are not selected by the platform and the variety. The features selected by options are not supported or documented in the public interface. This is to keep the complexity of the MPS manageable: at present the number of supported configuration is platforms × varieties (at time of writing, 9 × 3 = 27). Each supported option would double (or worse) the number of supported configurations.

.opt.ansi: CONFIG_PF_ANSI tells mps.c to exclude the sources for the auto-detected platform, and use the generic ("ANSI") platform instead.

.opt.thread: CONFIG_THREAD_SINGLE causes the MPS to be built for single-threaded execution only, where locks are not needed and so the generic ("ANSI") lock module lockan.c can be used instead of the platform-specific lock module.

.opt.poll: CONFIG_POLL_NONE causes the MPS to be built without support for polling. This means that garbage collections will only happen if requested explicitly via mps_arena_collect() or mps_arena_step(), but it also means that protection is not needed, and so shield operations can be replaced with no-ops in mpm.h.

.opt.signal.suspend: CONFIG_PTHREADEXT_SIGSUSPEND names the signal used to suspend a thread, on platforms using the POSIX thread extensions module. See design.pthreadext.impl.signals.

.opt.signal.resume: CONFIG_PTHREADEXT_SIGRESUME names the signal used to resume a thread, on platforms using the POSIX thread extensions module. See design.pthreadext.impl.signals.

To document

  • What about constants in config.h?
  • Update files to refer to this design document.
  • Explain the role of mps.c
  • Reference to build.txt
  • Procedures for adding an architecture, etc.
  • Reduce duplication in this document (especially after Configuration Parameters which looks like it's been pasted in from elsewhere.)


[RB_2012-09-07]"The critical path through the MPS"; Richard Brooksby; Ravenbrook Limited; 2012-09-07; <>.
[RB_2012-09-13]"The Configura CET custom mainline"; Richard Brooksby; Ravenbrook Limited; 2013-09-13; <>.

Document History

  • 1997-02-19 RB Initial draft based on discussions of configuration at meeting.general.1997-02-05.
  • 1997-02-20? RB Various improvements and clarifications to the draft discussed between RB and NB at meeting.general.1997-02-19.
  • 2002-06-07 RB Converted from MMInfo database design document.
  • 2012-09-03 RB Updated for variety-reform branch, to remove untrue things, though the document could do with a rewrite.
  • 2013-05-11 RB Converted to reStructuredText. Clarified various sections, brought some up-to-date, and removed obsolete junk.
  • 2013-05-24 GDR Updated variety section to match the current style. It's not true any more that some choice must be made for each feature (for example, we now default to the hot variety if none is selected).
  • 2013-06-06 GDR Removed reference to obsolete DIAG variety.
  • 2021-01-10 GDR Added section on warnings and errors.