Code Coverage Profiling

Design document
Revision v1
Status proposed
Review create new issue

We would like to add optional coverage profiling to existing OCaml projects in the context of XenServer and XenAPI. This article presents how we do it.

Binaries instrumented for coverage profiling in the XenServer project need to run in an environment where several services act together as they provide operating-system-level services. This makes it a little harder than profiling code that can be profiled and executed in isolation.


To build binaries with coverage profiling, do:

make coverage

Binaries will log coverage data to /tmp/bisect*.out from which a coverage report can be generated in coverage/:

bisect-ppx-report -I _build -html coverage /tmp/bisect*.out

Profiling Framework Bisect-PPX

The open-source BisectPPX instrumentation framework uses extension points (PPX) in the OCaml compiler to instrument code during compilation. Instrumented code for a binary is then compiled as usual and logs during execution data to in-memory data structures. Before an instrumented binary terminates, it writes the logged data to a file. This data can then be analysed with the bisect-ppx-report tool, to produce a summary of annotated code that highlights what part of a codebase was executed.

BisectPPX has several desirable properties:

  • a robust code base that is well tested
  • it is easy to integrate into the compilation pipeline (see below)
  • is specific to the OCaml language; an expression-oriented language like OCaml doesn’t fit the traditional statement coverage well
  • it is actively maintained
  • is generates useful reports for interactive and non-interactive use that help to improve code coverage

Coverage Analysis

Red parts indicate code that wasn’t executed whereas green parts were. Hovering over a dark green spot reveals how often that point was executed.

The individual steps of instrumenting code with BisectPPX are greatly abstracted by OCamlfind (OCaml’s library manager) and OCamlbuild (OCaml’s compilation manager):

# write code

# build it with instrumentation from bisect_ppx
ocamlbuild -use-ocamlfind -pkg bisect_ppx -pkg unix example.native

# execute it - generates files ./bisect*.out

# generate report
bisect-ppx-report -I _build -html coverage bisect000*

# view coverage/index.html

 - 'binding' points: 2/2 (100.00%)
 - 'sequence' points: 10/10 (100.00%)
 - 'match/function' points: 5/8 (62.50%)
 - total: 17/20 (85.00%)

The fourth step generates a HTML report in coverage/. All it takes is to declare to OCamlbuild that a module depends on bisect_ppx and it will be instrumented during compilation. Behind the scenes ocamlfind makes sure that the compiler uses a preprocessing step that instruments the code.

Signal Handling

During execution the code instrumentation leads to the collection of data. This code registers a function with at_exit that writes the data to bisect*.out when exit is called. A binary can terminate without calling exit and in that case the file would not be written. It is therefore important to make sure that exit is called. If this does not happen naturally, for example in the context of a daemon that is terminated by receiving the TERM signal, a signal handler must be installed:

let stop signal =
  printf "caught signal %d\n" signal;
  exit 0

Sys.set_signal Sys.sigterm (Sys.Signal_handle stop)

Where Data is Written

By default, BisectPPX writes data in a binary’s current working directory as bisectXXXX.out. It doesn’t overwrite existing files and files from several runs can be combined during analysis. However, this name and the location can be inconvenient when multiple programs share a directory.

BisectPPX’s default can be overridden with the BISECT_FILE environment variable. This can happen on the command line:

BISECT_FILE=/tmp/example ./example.native

In the context of XenServer we could do this in startup scripts. However, we added a bit of code

val Coverage.init: string -> unit

that sets the environment variable from inside the program. The files are written to a temporary directory (respecting $TMP or using /tmp) and uses the string-typed argument to include it in the name. To be effective, this function must be called before the programs exits. For clarity it is called at the begin of program execution.

Instrumenting an Oasis Project

While instrumentation is easy on the level of a small file or project it is challenging in a bigger project. We decided to focus on projects that are build with the Oasis build and packaging manager. These have a well-defined structure and compilation process that is controlled by a central _oasis file. This file describes for each library and binary its dependencies at a package level. From this, Oasis generates a configure script and compilation rules for the OCamlbuild system. Oasis is designed that the generated files can be shipped without requiring Oasis itself being available.

Goals for instrumentation are:

  • what files are instrumented should be obvious and easy to manage
  • instrumentation must be optional, yet easy to activate
  • avoid methods that require to keep several files in sync like multiple _oasis files
  • avoid separate Git branches for instrumented and non-instrumented code

In the ideal case, we could introduce a configuration switch ./configure --enable-coverage that would prepare compilation for coverage instrumentation. While Oasis supports the creation of such switches, they cannot be used to control build dependencies like compiling a file with or without package bisec_ppx. We have chosen a different method:

A Makefile target coverage augments the _tags file to include the rules in file _tags.coverage that cause files to be instrumented:

make coverage # prepare
make          # build

leads to the execution of this code during preparation:

coverage: _tags _tags.coverage 
  test ! -f _tags.orig && mv _tags _tags.orig || true
  cat _tags.coverage _tags.orig > _tags

The file _tags.coverage contains two simple OCamlbuild rules that could be tweaked to instrument only some files:

<**/*.ml{,i,y}>: pkg_bisect_ppx
<**/*.native>:   pkg_bisect_ppx

When make coverage is not called, these rules are not active and hence, code is not instrumented for coverage. We believe that this solution to control instrumentation meets the goals from above. In particular, what files are instrumented and when is controlled by very few lines of declarative code that lives in the main repository of a project.

Project Layout

The crucial files in an Oasis-controlled project that is set up for coverage analysis are:

./_oasis                      - make "profiling" a build depdency
./_tags.coverage              - what files get instrumented
./profiling/       - support file, sets env var
./Makefile                    - target 'coverage'

The _oasis file bundles the files under profiling/ into an internal library which executables then depend on:

	# Support files for profiling 
	Library profiling
		CompiledObject:     best
		Path:               profiling
		Install:            false
		Findlibname:        profiling
		Modules:            Coverage

	Executable set_domain_uuid
		CompiledObject:     best
		Path:               tools
		ByteOpt:            -warn-error +a-3
		NativeOpt:          -warn-error +a-3
		Install:            false
			profiling			# <-- here

The Makefile target coverage primes the project for a profiling build:

	# make coverage - prepares for building with coverage analysis

	coverage: _tags _tags.coverage 
		test ! -f _tags.orig && mv _tags _tags.orig || true
		cat _tags.coverage _tags.orig > _tags