How to Write Portable C Without Complicating Your Build

Suppose you’re writing a non-GUI C application intended to run on a number of operating systems: Linux, the various BSDs, macOS, classical unix, and perhaps even something as exotic as Windows. It might sound like a rather complicated problem. These operating systems have slightly different interfaces (or very different in one case), and they run different variants of the standard unix tools — a problem for portable builds.

With some up-front attention to detail, this is actually not terribly difficult. Unix-like systems are probably the least diverse and least buggy they’ve ever been. Writing portable code is really just a matter of coding to the standards and ignoring extensions unless absolutely necessary. Knowing what’s standard and what’s extension is the tricky part, but I’ll explain how to find this information.

You might be tempted to reach for an overly complicated solution such as GNU Autoconf. Sure, it creates a configure script with the familiar, conventional interface. This has real value. But do you really need to run a single-threaded gauntlet of hundreds of feature/bug tests for things that sometimes worked incorrectly in some weird unix variant back in the 1990s? On a machine with many cores (parallel build, -j), this may very well be the slowest part of the whole build process.

For example, the configure script for Emacs checks that the compiler supplies stdlib.h, string.h, and getenv — things that were standardized nearly 30 years ago. It also checks for a slew of POSIX functions that have been standard since 2001.

There’s a much easier solution: Document that the application requires, say, C99 and POSIX.1-2001. It’s the responsibility of the person building the application to supply these implementations, so there’s no reason to waste time testing for it.

How to code to the standards

Suppose there’s some function you want to use, but you’re not sure if it’s standard or an extension. Or maybe you don’t know what standard it comes from. Luckily the man pages document this stuff very well, especially on Linux. Check the friendly “CONFORMING TO” section. For example, look at getenv(3). Here’s what that section has to say:

    getenv(): SVr4, POSIX.1-2001, 4.3BSD, C89, C99.

    secure_getenv() is a GNU extension.

This says this function comes from the original C standard. It’s always available on anything that claims to be a C implementation. The man page also documents secure_getenv(), which is a GNU extension: to be avoided in anything intended to be portable.

What about sleep(3)?


This function isn’t part of standard C, but it’s available on any system claiming to implement POSIX.1-2001 (the POSIX standard from 2001). If the program needs to run on an operating system not implementing this POSIX standard (i.e. Windows), you’ll need to call an alternative function, probably inside a different #if .. #endif branch. More on this in a moment.

If you’re coding to POSIX, you must define the _POSIX_C_SOURCE feature test macro to the standard you intend to use prior to any system header includes:

A POSIX-conforming application should ensure that the feature test macro _POSIX_C_SOURCE is defined before inclusion of any header.

For example, to properly access POSIX.1-2001 functions in your application, define _POSIX_C_SOURCE to 200112L. With this defined, it’s safe to assume access to all of C and everything from that standard of POSIX. You can do this at the top of your sources, but I personally like the tidiness of a global config.h that gets included before everything.

How to create a portable build

So you’ve written clean, portable C to the standards. How do you build this application? The natural choice is make. It’s available everywhere and it’s part of POSIX.

Again, the tricky part is teasing apart the standard from the extension. I’m a long-time sinner in this regard, having far too often written Makefiles that depend on GNU Make extensions. This is a real pain when building programs on systems without the GNU utilities. I’ve been making amends (and finding some bugs as a result).

No implementation makes the division clear in its documentation, and especially don’t bother looking at the GNU Make manual. Your best resource is the standard itself. If you’re already familiar with make, coding to the standard is largely a matter of unlearning the various extensions you know.

Outside of some hacks, this means you don’t get conditionals (if, else, etc.). With some practice, both with sticking to portable code and writing portable Makefiles, you’ll find that you don’t really need them. Following the macro conventions will cover most situations. For example:

You don’t need to do anything weird with the assignments. The user invoking make can override them easily. For example, here’s part of a Makefile:

CC     = c99
CFLAGS = -Wall -Wextra -Os

But the user wants to use clang, and their system needs to explicitly link -lsocket (e.g. Solaris). The user can override the macro definitions on the command line:

$ make CC=clang LDLIBS=-lsocket

The same rules apply to the programs you invoke from the Makefile. Read the standards documents and ignore your system’s man pages as to avoid accidentally using an extension. It’s especially valuable to learn the Bourne shell language and avoid any accidental bashisms in your Makefiles and scripts. The dash shell is good for testing your scripts.

Makefiles conforming to the standard will, unfortunately, be more verbose than those taking advantage of a particular implementation. If you know how to code Bourne shell — which is not terribly difficult to learn — then you might even consider hand-writing a configure script to generate the Makefile (a la metaprogramming). This gives you a more flexible language with conditionals, and, being generated, redundancy in the Makefile no longer matters.

As someone who frequently dabbles with BSD systems, my life has gotten a lot easier since learning to write portable Makefiles and scripts.

But what about Windows

It’s the elephant in the room and I’ve avoided talking about it so far. If you want to build with Visual Studio’s command line tools — something I do on occasion — build portability goes out the window. Visual Studio has nmake.exe, which nearly conforms to POSIX make. However, without the standard unix utilities and with the completely foreign compiler interface for cl.exe, there’s absolutely no hope of writing a Makefile portable to this situation.

The nice alternative is MinGW(-w64) with MSYS or Cygwin supplying the unix utilities, though it has the problem of linking against msvcrt.dll. Another option is a separate Makefile dedicated to nmake.exe and the Visual Studio toolchain. Good luck defining a correctly working “clean” target with del.exe.

My preferred approach lately is an amalgamation build (as seen in Enchive): Carefully concatenate all the application’s sources into one giant source file. First concatenate all the headers in the right order, followed by all the C files. Use sed to remove and local includes. You can do this all on a unix system with the nice utilities, then point cl.exe at the amalgamation for the Visual Studio build. It’s not very useful for actual development (i.e. you don’t want to edit the amalgamation), but that’s what MinGW-w64 resolves.

What about all those POSIX functions? You’ll need to find Win32 replacements on MSDN. I prefer to do this is by abstracting those operating system calls. For example, compare POSIX sleep(3) and Win32 Sleep().

#if defined(_WIN32)
#include <windows.h>

my_sleep(int s)
    Sleep(s * 1000);  // TODO: handle overflow, maybe

#else /* __unix__ */
#include <unistd.h>

my_sleep(int s)
    sleep(s);  // TODO: fix signal interruption

Then the rest of the program calls my_sleep(). There’s another example in the OpenMP article with pwrite(2) and WriteFile(). This demonstrates that supporting a bunch of different unix-like systems is really easily, but introducing Windows portability adds a disproportionate amount of complexity.

Caveat: paths and filenames

There’s one major complication with filenames for applications portable to Windows. In the unix world, filenames are null-terminated bytestrings. Typically these are Unicode strings encoded as UTF-8, but it’s not necessarily so. The kernel just sees bytestrings. A bytestring doesn’t necessarily have a formal Unicode representation, which can be a problem for languages that want filenames to be Unicode strings (also).

On Windows, filenames are somewhere between UCS-2 and UTF-16, but end up being neither. They’re really null-terminated unsigned 16-bit integer arrays. It’s almost UTF-16 except that Windows allows unpaired surrogates. This means Windows filenames also don’t have a formal Unicode representation, but in a completely different way than unix. Some heroic efforts have gone into working around this issue.

As a result, it’s highly non-trivial to correctly support all possible filenames on both systems in the same program, especially when they’re passed as command line arguments.


The key points are:

  1. Document the standards your application requires and strictly stick to them.
  2. Ignore the vendor documentation if it doesn’t clearly delineate extensions.

This was all a discussion of non-GUI applications, and I didn’t really touch on libraries. Many libraries are simple to access in the build (just add it to LDLIBS), but some libraries — GUIs in particular — are particularly complicated to manage portably and will require a more complex solution (pkg-config, CMake, Autoconf, etc.).

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Chris Wellons