Porting NovaProva

This chapter is intended as a resource for developers wanting to undertake a port of NovaProva to another platform.

Level of Difficulty

The NovaProva library contains significant levels of platform dependency, so porting it is a non-trivial task. To undertake a port you will need to have a working knowledge of details of the following components of the target platform.

  • the assembly language
  • the C ABI (i.e. function calling conventions and the like)
  • some details of the C runtime library (e.g. where process arguments are stashed)
  • some details of the kernel ABI (e.g. the shape of the stack frame used to deliver signals to user processes).

Many of these details are not documented; you will have to discover them by reading the system source, or for closed source systems applying reverse engineering techniques. Some of these details do not form part of the system ABI and may be subject to unexpected change.

As a rough guide, porting NovaProva to a new platform is more complex than porting any C library (except perhaps media codecs) and less complex than porting Valgrind or the Linux kernel.

Executable File Format

NovaProva uses the BFD library from the GNU binutils package to handle details of the executable file format (e.g. ELF on modern Linux systems). NovaProva uses only the abstract (i.e. format-independant) part of the BFD API, and only for a stricly limited set of tasks (such as discovering segment boundaries and types). Hopefully this will require little porting to other executable file formats (e.g. COFF or Mach objects).

Debugging Information

NovaProva depends deeply on the DWARF debugging format. There is a considerable body of code which parses DWARF and depends on DWARF formats and semantics. If your platform does not use DWARF natively, or cannot be convinced to by the use of compiler flags such as -gdwarf2, then porting NovaProva will be very much harder and you should contact the mailing list for advice.


Valgrind is an advanced memory debugging tool (actually, it’s a program simulator which happens debug memory as a side effect). NovaProva is designed to make use of Valgrind’s powerful bug discovery features. If your platform doesn’t support Valgrind you’re going to get much less value out of NovaProva than if you had Valgrind, and NovaProva is going to be missing a great many test failure cases that you really want to be caught.

For this reason, NovaProva will fail to build without Valgrind.

Platform Specific Code

NovaProva is written to isolate the platform dependent code to a small set of files with a well-defined interface. Partly this is good program practice to set the scene for future ports (we shall see how well this succeeded when the first new port is done). But partly it is due to current necessity, as NovaProva is sufficiently sensitive to platform details that 32 bit and 64 bit x86 Linux platforms need different code.

Code Layout

The platform specific code is contained in the C++ namespace np::spiegel::platform and is implemented in .cxx files in the directory np/spiegel/platform/. This follows the usual NovaProva convention where namespaces and directories have exactly the same shape.

Generally there will be two platform specific files, one containing code which depends on the OS alone (e.g. linux.cxx) and the other containing code which depends on the combination of the OS the machine architecture (e.g. linux_x86.cxx).

Build Infrastructure

The configure.ac script decides which platform specific source files are built. It can also add compiler flags, so you can use #ifdef if you really feel the need.

Your first step is to add detection of your platform to configure.ac. Find the code that begins

case "$target_os" in

and add a new case for your platform operating system.

At this point you need to set the $os variable to the short name of the platform operating system, e.g. x86. This is going to be used to choose a filename $os.cxx, so the name must be short and contain no spaces or / characters. Ideally it will be entirely lowercase, to match the NovaProva conventions.

Optionally, you can append to the $platform_CFLAGS variable if there are some compiler flags (e.g. -DGNU_SOURCE) that should be set for that platform only. These flags are applied to every C++ file not just the platform specific one.

Your next step is to find the code that begins

case "$target_cpu" in

and add a new case for your platform hardware architecture.

At this point you need to set three variables.

  • $arch is the short name of the platform hardware architecture, e.g. x86. This is going to be used to construct a filename ${os}_${arch}.cxx and to add a compile flag -D_NP_$arch so it must contain only alphanumerics and the underscore character. Ideally it will be entirely lowercase, to match the NovaProva conventions.
  • $addrsize is a decimal literal indicating the size of a platform virtual address in bytes, e.g. 4 for 32-bit platforms.
  • $maxaddr is a C unsigned integer literal indicating the maximum value of a virtual address, e.g. 0xffffffffUL on 32-bit platforms.

Optionally, you can also append to the $platform_CFLAGS variable here.

Finally you should ensure that the following two C++ source files exist.

  • np/spiegel/platform/${os}.cxx
  • np/spiegel/platform/${os}_${arch}.cxx

Platform Specific Functions

Your next step is to add your implementations of the platform specific functions to one of those two platform specific files. Generally you should add a function to the most general of the two files in which it can be implemented without using #ifdef. For example, the function get_argv() works identically on all Linux platforms so it’s implemented in linux.cxx, whereas install_intercept() varies widely between 32-bit x86 and 64-bit x86 so it’s implemented twice in linux_x86.cxx and linux_x86_64.cxx.

The remainder of this section will describe the various platform specific functions, their purpose and the requirements placed upon them.

Get Commandline

bool get_argv(int *argcp, char ***argvp)

Returns in *argcp and *argvp the original commandline argument vector for the process, and true on success. Modern C runtime libraries will store the commandline argument vector values passed to main() in global variables in the C library before calling main(). This method retrieves those values so that NovaProva can use them when forking itself to run Valgrind. Because no standard or convention describes these variables, their names are platform specific; it is also possible on some platforms that no such variables might exist and the argument vector might need to be deduced by looking in the kernel aux vector or a filesystem like /proc.

Get Executable Name

char *self_exe()

Returns a newly allocated string representing the absolute pathname of the process’ executable. This is used when NovaProva forks itself to run Valgrind. The Linux code uses a readlink() call on the symlink /proc/self/exe.

List Loaded Libraries

vector<linkobj_t> get_linkobjs()

Returns an STL vector of linkobj_t structures which collectively describe all the objects dynamically linked into the current executable. Typically this means the first linkobj_t describes the program itself and this is followed by one linkobj_t for each dynamically linked library. This information can be extracted with a platform specific call into the runtime linker. For Linux glibc systems that call is dl_iterate_phdr().

Normalise an Address

np::spiegel::addr_t normalise_address(np::spiegel::addr_t addr)

Takes a virtual address and returns a possibly different virtual address which is normalized. Normalized addresses can be used for comparison, i.e. if two normalized addresses are the same they refer to the same C function. This apparently obvious property is not true of function addresses in a dynamically linked object where the function whose address is being taken is linked from another dynamic object; the address used actually points into the Procedure Linkage Table in the calling object.

In order to implement this, the platform specific code needs to know where the various PLTs are linked into the address space. The platform specific function

void add_plt(const np::spiegel::mapping_t &m)

is called from the object handling code to indicate the boundaries of the PLT in each object.

Remap Text

int text_map_writable(addr_t addr, size_t len)

int text_restore(addr_t addr, size_t len)

These functions are used when inserting intercepts to ensure that some code in a .text or similar segment is mapped writable (modern OSes will map all code read-only by default for security reasons). The Linux implementation uses the mprotect() system call and reference counts pages to allow for the case where multiple intercepts are installed in the same page. This code should also work on most platforms that support the mprotect() call.

Get A Stacktrace

vector<np::spiegel::addr_t> get_stacktrace()

Returns a stacktrace as a vector of code addresses (%eip samples in x86) of the calling address, in order from the innermost to the outermost. The current (somewhat disappointing) implementation walks stack frames using the frame pointer, which is somewhat fragile on x86 platforms (where libraries are often shipped built with the -fomit-frame-pointer flag, which breaks this technique). This function is used only to generate error reports that are read by humans, so it really should be implemented in a way which emphasizes accuracy over speed, e.g. using the DWARF2 unwind information to pick apart stack frames accurately.

Detect Debuggers

bool is_running_under_debugger()

Returns true if and only if the current process is running under a debugger such as gdb. This is needed on some architectures to change the way that intercepts are implemented; different instructions need to be inserted to avoid interfering with debugger breakpoints. Also, some features like test timeouts are disabled when running under a debugger if they would do more harm than good. The Linux implementation digs around in the /proc filesystem to discover whether the current process is running under ptrace() and if so compares the commandline of the tracing process against a whitelist.

Describe File Descriptors

vector<string> get_file_descriptors()

Returns an STL vector of STL strings in which the fd-th entry is a human-readable English text description of file descriptor fd, or an empty string if file descriptor fd is closed. This function is called before and after each test is run to discover file descriptor leaks in test code, so the returned descriptions should be consistent between calls. File descriptors used by Valgrind should not be reported. The Linux implementation uses the /proc/self/fd directory.

Install Intercept

int install_intercept(np::spiegel::addr_t addr, intstate_t &state, std::string &err)

int uninstall_intercept(np::spiegel::addr_t addr, intstate_t &state, std::string &err)

These functions are the most difficult but most rewarding part of porting NovaProva. Intercepts are the key technology that drives advanced NovaProva features like mocks, redirects, and failpoints. An intercept is basically a breakpoint inserted into code, similar to what a debugger uses, but instead of waking another process when triggered an intercept calls code in the same process.

These two functions are called to respectively install an intercept at a given address and remove it again. The caller normalizes the address and takes care to only install one intercept at a given address, so for example install_intercept will not be called twice for the same address without a call to uninstall_intercept. The intstate_t type is defined in the header file np/spiegel/platform/common.hxx for all ports (using #ifdef) and contains any state which might be useful for uninstalling the intercept, e.g. the original instructions which were replaced at install time. The install function can assume that no NovaProva intercept is already installed at the given address, but it should take care to handle the case where a debugger like gdb has independently inserted it’s own breakpoint.

Unlike debugger breakpoints, intercepts are always inserted at the first byte of an instruction, at the beginning of the function prologue. This can be a useful simplifying assumption; for example on x86 the first instruction in most functions is pushl %ebp whose binary form is the byte 0x55.

The install function will presumably be modifying 1 or more bytes in the instruction stream to contain some kind of breakpoint instruction; it should call text_map_writable() before modifying the bytes to ensure the byte range is mapped writable. Similarly the uninstall function should call text_restore() after restoring the original instruction, to potentially map the bytes read-only again. Both functions should call the Valgrind macro VALGRIND_DISCARD_TRANSLATIONS() after modifying the instruction stream; Valgrind uses a JIT-like mechanism for caching translated native instructions and it is important that this cache not contain stale translations.

Both functions return 0 on success. On error they set err to a human-readable English error string and return -1.

While an intercept is installed, any attempt to execute the code at addr should not execute the original code but instead cause a special function called the trampoline to be called (e.g. via a Unix signal handler). The trampoline has the following responsibilities.

  1. Extract (from registers, the exception frame on the stack, or the calling function’s stack frame) the arguments to the intercepted function, and store them in an instance of a platform-specific class derived from np::spiegel::call_t, which implements the get_arg() and set_arg() methods.

  2. Call the static method intercept_t::dispatch_before() with the intercepted address (typically the faulting PC in the exception stack frame) and a reference to the call_t object.

  3. Handle any of the possible side effects of dispatch_before()

    1. If call_t.skip_ is true, arrange to immediately return call_t.retval_ to the calling function, without executing the intercepted function and without calling dispatch_after().
    2. If the redirect function call_t.redirect_ is non-zero, arrange to call that instead of the intercepted function.
    3. Arrange for the intercepted (or redirect) function to be called with the arguments in the call_t object.
  4. Call the intercepted (or redirect) function.

  5. Store the return value of the intercepted (or redirect) function in call_t.retval_.

  6. Call the static method intercept_t::dispatch_after() with the same arguments as dispatch_before().

  7. Arrange to return call_t.retval_ (which may have been changed as a side effect of calling dispatch_after()) to the calling function.

Currently NovaProva intercepts are not required to be thread-safe. This means that the signal handler and trampoline function can use global state if necessary.

Exception Handling

char *current_exception_type()

Returns a new string describing the C++ type name of the exception currently being handled, or 0 if no exception is being handled.

void cleanup_current_exception()

Frees any storage associated with the exception currently being handled. If this function does nothing, uncaught C++ exceptions reported by NovaProva will also result in a Valgrind memory leak report.

Utility Functions

Some of NovaProva’s utility functions have platform-specific features which need to be considered when porting NovaProva.

POSIX Clocks

The timestamp code in np/util/common.cxx relies on the POSIX clock_gettime() function call, with both the CLOCK_MONOTONIC and CLOCK_REALTIME clocks being used. If your platform does not supply clock_gettime() then you should write a compatible replacement. If your platform does not support a monotonic clock, returning the realtime clock is good enough.

Page Size

The memory mapping routines in np/util/common.cxx use call sysconf(_SC_PAGESIZE) to retrieve the system page size from the kernel. This may require a platform-specific replacement.

Static Library Intercepts

NovaProva also contains a number of functions which are designed to intercept and change behavior of the standard C library, usually to provide more complete and graceful detection of test failures. Some of these functions permanently replace functions in the standard C library with new versions by defining functions of the same signature and relying on link order. Some are runtime intercepts using the NovaProva intercept mechanism. Many of these functions are undocumented or platform-specific, and need to be considered when porting NovaProva.


void __assert(const char *condition, const char *filename, int lineno)

This function is called to handle the failure case in the standard assert() macro. If it’s called, the calling code has decided that an unrecoverable internal error has occurred. Usually it prints a message and terminates the process in such a way that the kernel writes a coredump. NovaProva defines it’s own version of this routine in iassert.c, which fails the running test gracefully (including a stack trace message). The function name and signature are not defined by any standard. Systems based on GNU libc also define two related functions __assert_fail() and __assert_perror_fail().


NovaProva catches messages sent to the system logging facility and allows test cases to assert whether specific messages have or have not been emitted. This is particularly useful for testing server code. This is done via a runtime intercept on the libc syslog() function. On GNU libc based systems, the system syslog.h header sometimes defines syslog() as an inline function that calls the library function __syslog_chk(), so that also needs to be intercepted. Similar issues may exist on other platforms.