tzimmermann dot org
Dec 15, 2017 • 10 min read

Porting picotm to Mac OS, Windows and FreeBSD

I spent the previous weeks on porting picotm from Linux to a number of other operating systems. Ports to Mac OS X, Windows and FreeBSD will be available in picotm’s next release. in this blog post we go through them one by one and look at the major points and pitfalls.

In it’s current release, picotm, the system-level transaction manager, only runs on Linux systems. Supporting more operating systems was high on my TODO list for quite a while. During the previous weeks I finally got to work on ports to Mac OS, Windows and FreeBSD.

Picotm provides transactional semantics (i.e., automatic locking and error handling) for a large set of low-level functionality, such as

All this functionality is implemented as a set of shared libraries, built on top of a single core library that manages all transactions in the application. It’s all C code.

The goal for each new port is to get the core transaction manager running on the new system and then get (most of) the actual functionality working.


The first port was from Linux to FreeBSD. In terms of systems programming, FreeBSD is very similar to Linux. It has the same or similar tools and compilers. It’s a POSIX-compatible system and supports most of the same programming interfaces that Linux uses. For interfaces that are missing, there’s usually a replacement with equivalent functionality.

Getting FreeBSD was really easy. The FreeBSD project even provides a complete pre-configured disk image for virtual machines.

The first thing to port was the build system. Picotm uses GNU autotools, which are designed for portability among Unix systems. Many people love to hate the autotools, but they are actually quite good. I resolved an additional dependency on the realpath tool by changing the affected build scripts to work without any additional tool, so this change benefits the original Linux build scripts as well.

Next after the build system was the core transaction manager. This library is written in C11 with dependencies on the operating system’s mutexes, condition variables and time sources. FreeBSD comes with a recent version of clang, which provides a good C11 compiler. As a POSIX system, FreeBSD provides all of the required mutex, condition variables and time interfaces. So no problems here.

One major difficulty in porting picotm is the difference in supported interfaces on each operating system. If a system provides a specific interface, picotm tries to offer a transactional variant. If an interface is not available, picotm does to not offer it. For example, on Linux the GNU libc provides the non-standard function rawmemchr() for searching a character within a memory buffer. Therefore picotm provides rawmemchr_tx(), a transactional variant. The C standard library on FreeBSD does not provide rawmemchr(), so picotm doesn’t provide rawmemchr_tx().

Supporting system-specific interfaces is easy with the GNU autotools. With autoconf, the macro AC_CHECK_DECL adds a test for the declaration of a specific function or macro in a specific header file. In the source code one can test for the result and change the program’s behaviour accordingly.

For example, the package configuration scripts contain the following test for rawmemchr().

                         [Define to one of you have rawmemchr.])],
              [@%:@include <string.h>])

This test searches for a declaration of rawmemchr() in the header file <string.h>. If it find the declaration, it defines the C pre-processor token PICOTM_LIBC_HAVE_RAWMEMCHR to 1.

In the picotm source code, we can do a test and only provide a transactional implementation if PICOTM_LIBC_HAVE_RAWMEMCHR is defined to 1.

rawmemchar_tx(const void*s, int c)
    /* transactional variant of rawmemchr() */

This works fairly well and I use this scheme for all supported system interfaces of the C standard and math libraries, and the POSIX thread library. It’s not complicated, just very tedious to do this for the several hundred interfaces that are supported by picotm.

I had to add a few minor changes throughout picotm’s source code to turn non-portable C code into portable one, and that’s it! After this, the test cases succeeded on FreeBSD and I consider it supported.

Mac OS

The next system to support was Mac OS X. Like Linux and FreeBSD, it’s a Unix system and mostly compatible with the POSIX standard.

Because Mac OS only runs on Apply hardware, I bought an old Mac mini on Ebay. Setting up the system for the first time was a bit frustrating. The problem was that it’s a model from 2007 and has long been discontinued. The final version of Mac OS X that run on the device is 10.6.8, with development tools being out of date and compilers not supporting C11.

Thanks to the excellent work of the MacPorts project, a lot of the current Unix software is available on Mac OS X. So I was able to install recent releases of gcc and build tools even on this old Mac mini.

Even though Mac OS X is a POSIX system, it is more different from Linux than FreeBSD, and required another set of changes and fixes.

For example, C11 provides static assertions that are evaluated at compile time. Doing something like

static_assert(sizeof(int) == 4, "Values of type 'int' are not 4 bytes wide.");

tests if the size of an integer is 4 bytes. If the assertion evaluates to false, the compiler stops the build.

The C standard library of the Mac OS’s SDK (i.e., Xcode 3.6) does not support static compile-time assertions. In this and other cases of missing functions, I reimplemented the minimum functionality within picotm. The system’s implementation is prefered, but picotm can fall back to it’s internal code if necessary. For the missing static_assert() macro, there’s now a macro of the same name which looks like this.

#define __PICOTM_LIBC_STATIC_ASSERT(expr, stmt)                          \
    (__extension__({                                                     \
        int assertion_holds[1-(2*!(expr))] __attribute__((__unused__));  \

#ifndef static_assert
#define static_assert   __PICOTM_LIBC_STATIC_ASSERT

Note that the actual implementation is in __PICOTM_LIBC_STATIC_ASSERT. The code only defines static_assert if it’s not already defined by the system.

A similar problem happend with Pthread barriers. A barrier is a data structure for synchronizing the execution of multiple threads. It waits to be acquired by a specific number of threads until the acquiring threads can pass. In picotm, it’s used to synchronize the threads of each test case.

The implementation of a barrier is a combination of a mutex and a condition variable. All of them; mutices, condition variables and barriers; are provided by POSIX threads, but barriers are optional. While the implementation of a barrier is trivial, it’s missing at least on this old version of the Mac OS SDK. I had to implement the POSIX barrier interface within picotm, using the system’s POSIX mutices and condition variables.

Finally there was one major problem with time and clock interfaces. The POSIX standard defines the function clock_gettime(), which retrieves a time stamp from one of the system clocks. This interface is missing on Mac OS. I didn’t write a portable implementation within picotm, but instead changed the function that acquired the time stamp in the first place. On Mac OS X, it reads time stamps from non-portable interfaces, on all other systems it reads time stamps using clock_gettime.

Because of the use of system-dependent interfaces for reading time stamps, I had extend the error-handling interface as well. The Mac OS kernel returns low-level error codes in the type kern_return_t. If a time stamp could not be acquired from the system, this error code is now reported to the transaction’s error recovery phase, so that applications can act upon it.

With these changes and some additional minor fixes, the test cases completed successfully on Mac OS. Another system supported!


Windows is not Unix, so any Unix-specific interface is not natively supported. Fortunately, there is Cygwin a POSIX interface implemented on top of the Windows API.

This means that the Windows port does currently not support Windows’ native interfaces. For example, it’s not possible to perform a transaction write operation to a file using WriteFile_tx(). But using Cygwin, it is possible to achieve the same result with write_tx().

With Cygwin and all the previous fixes for FreeeBSD and Mac OS, the port itself was straight-forward. I only had to fix a few minor issues and the test cases completed successfully within a few hours of work. I’m happy to have Windows support on the feature list.

A few issues remain though. I would be interested in supporting Windows’ native interfaces, but it’s a lot of work. At this point it doesn’t make sense for me to spend time on this unless there is real demand for these interfaces.

The other issue is with dynamic linking support. Picotm comes as package of multiple libraries that depend on each other. Linking a DLL requires all its dependencies (i.e., other DLLs) to be already installed. This makes linking picotm libraries as DLLs complicated. It’s not hard to fix, but the result is rather ugly and therefore left-out; and dynamic linking on Windows is disabled for now. Statically linking against picotm’s libraries is no problem.

Next Steps

The current ports lay the ground work for supporting even more operating systems. Coming from FreeBSD and Mac OS, possible next targets are other Unix operating systems, such as Android and OpenBSD.

A very interesting target is FreeRTOS, an operating system for low-power, single-board computers and the IoT. Running code transactionally has the potential of significantly increasing the reliability of these devices.

Then there are the more obscure targets, such as FreeDOS or AmigaOS. And of course, maybe one day I can port picotm to opsys, my own little operating-system project.


In this blog post, we’ve looked at the different ports that are supported by the next release of picotm.

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Post by: Thomas Zimmermann

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