Skip to content
Branch: master
Find file Copy path
Find file Copy path
4 contributors

Users who have contributed to this file

@sanssecours @markus2330 @iandonnelly @omnidan
299 lines (216 sloc) 9.35 KB


This document describes the design of the C-API and provides hints for binding writers. It is not aimed at plugin writers, since it does not talk about the implementation details of Elektra.

Elektra follows two design principles:

  1. Make it hard to use the API the wrong way, and
  2. aim towards an easy to use API for programmers reading and writing configuration.

Elektra’s data structures are optimized to get, set and lookup values easily and fast.

The idea is, that the KDB API is not only implemented by Elektra. Elektra provides a full blown architecture to really support modern Linux Systems, but comes with some overhead. This document describes the KDB API. It also contains some hints about Elektra-specific conventions.

Data Structures

The Key, KeySet and KDB data structures are defined in kdbprivate.h to remain ABI compatible when one of them is changed. This means, it is not possible to put one of Elektra’s data structures on the stack. You must use the memory management facilities mentioned in the next section.

Memory Management

Elektra manages memory itself. This means, a programmer is not allowed to use free on data, which was not allocated by himself. This avoids situation where the programmer forgets to free data, and makes the API more beginner-friendly. In addition to that, elektraMalloc and free must use the same libc version: elektraMalloc in a library linked against another libc, but freed by the application could lead to hard to find bugs.

Some calls that create data, have an opposite call that frees this data. For example after you call:

KDB * kdbOpen();

you need to use:

int kdbClose(KDB *handle);

to get rid of the resources again. The second function may also shut down connections. Therefore it really must be called at the end of a program.

Key *keyNew(const char *keyName, ...);
int keyDel(Key *key);

KeySet *ksNew(int alloc, ...);
int ksDel(KeySet *ks);

In the above pairs, the first function uses elektraMalloc to reserve the necessary amount of memory. The second function frees the allocated data segment. There are more occurrences of elektraMalloc, but they are invisible to the user of the API and happen implicitly within any of these 3 classes: KDB, Key and KeySet.

Names, values, and comments cannot be handled as easy, because Elektra does not provide a string library. There are 2 ways to access the mentioned attributes. We show these methods here, using the comment attribute as an example. The function

char *keyString(const Key *key);

just returns a string. Your are not allowed to change the returned string. The function

ssize_t keyGetValueSize(const Key *key);

shows how long the string is for the specified key. The returned value also specifies the minimum buffer size that keyGetString will reserve for the copy of the key. The return value can be directly passed to elektraMalloc.

ssize_t keyGetString(const Key *key, char *returnedValue, size_t maxSize);

writes the comment in a buffer maintained by you.

Variable Arguments

The constructors for Key and KeySet take a variable sized list of arguments. They can be used as an alternatives to the various keySet* methods and ksAppendKey. With them you are able to generate any Key or KeySet with a single C-statement. This can be done programmatically by the plugin c.

To just retrieve a key, use

Key *k = keyNew(0);

To obtain a keyset, use

KeySet *k = ksNew(0, KS_END);

The macros va_start and va_end will not be used then. Alternatively pass a list as described in the documentation.


We avoid Off-by-one errors by starting all indizes with 0, as usual in C. The size returned by the *GetSize functions (keyGetValueSize, keyGetCommentSize and keyGetOwnerSize) is exactly the size you need to allocate. So if you add 1 to it, too much space is allocated, but no error will occur.

The same is true for elektraStrLen which also already has the null byte included.

Minimal Set

kdb.h contains a minimal set of functions to fully work with a key database. The functions are implemented in src/libs/elektra in ANSI C.

Value, String or Binary

Sometimes people confuse the terms “value”, “string” and “binary”:

  • Value is just a name which does not specify if data is stored as string or in binary form.

  • A string is a char array, with a terminating '\0'.

  • Binary data is stored in an array of type void, and not terminated by '\0'.

See also the glossary for further terminology.

In Elektra char* are used as null-terminated strings, while void* might contain 0-bytes:

const void *keyValue(const Key *key);

does not specify whether the returned value is binary or a string. The function just returns the pointer to the value. When key is a string (check with keyIsString) at least "" will be returned. See section “Return Values” to learn more about common values returned by Elektra’s functions. For binary data a NULL pointer is also possible to distinguish between no data and '\0'.

ssize_t keyGetValueSize(const Key *key);

does not specify whether the key type is binary or string. The function just returns the size which can be passed to elektraMalloc to hold the entire value.

ssize_t keyGetString(const Key *key, char *returnedString, size_t maxSize);

stores the string into a buffer maintained by you.

ssize_t keySetString(Key *key, const char *newString);

sets the null terminated string value for a certain key.

ssize_t keyGetBinary(const Key *key, void *returnedBinary, size_t maxSize);

retrieves binary data which might contain '\0'.

ssize_t keySetBinary(Key *key, const void *newBinary, size_t dataSize);

sets the binary data which might contain '\0'. The length is given by dataSize.

Return Value

Elektra’s function share common error codes. Every function must return -1 on error, if its return type is integer (like int, ssize_t). If the function returns a pointer, 0 (NULL) will indicate an error. This behavior can't be used for functions that return integers, since 0 is a valid size and can also be used to represent the boolean value false.

Elektra uses integers for the length of C strings, reference counting, KeySet length and internal KeySet allocations.

The interface always accepts size_t and internally uses size_t, which is able to store larger numbers than ssize_t.

The real size of C strings and buffers is limited to SSIZE_MAX which must be checked in every function. When a string exceeds that limit -1 or a NULL pointer (see above) must be returned.

The following functions return an internal string:

const char *keyName(const Key *key);
const char *keyBaseName(const Key *key);
const char *keyOwner(const Key *key);
const char *keyComment(const Key *key);

and in the case that keyIsBinary(key)==0:

const void *keyValue(const Key *key);

does so too. If in any of the functions above key is a NULL pointer, then they also return NULL.

If there is no string you will get back "", that is a pointer to the value '\0'. The function to determine the size will return 1 in that case. That means that an empty string – nothing except the NULL terminator – has size 1.

This is not true for keyValue in the case of binary data, because the value '\0' in the first byte is perfectly legal binary data. keyGetValueSize may also return 0 for that reason.

Error Handling

Elektra does not set errno. If a function you call sets errno, make sure to set it back to the old value again.

Additional information about error handling is available here.


All function names begin with their class name, e.g. kdb, ks or key. We use capital letters to separate single words (CamelCase). This leads to short names, but might be not as readable as separating names by other means.

Get and Set are used for getters/and setters. We use Is to ask about a flag or state and Needs to ask about state related to databases. For allocation/deallocation we use C++ styled names (e.g *New, *Del).

Macros and Enums are written in capital letters. Options start with KDB_O, errors with KDB_ERR, namespaces with KEY_NS and key types with KEY_TYPE.

Data structures start with a capital letter for every part of the word:

  • KDB ... Key Data Base Handle
  • KeySet ... Key Set
  • Key ... Key

We use singular for all names.

Function names not belonging to one of the three classes are Elektra specific. They use the prefix elektra*. They will always be Elektra specific and won't be implemented by other KDB implementations.


Wherever possible functions should use the keyword const for parameters. The API uses this keyword for parameters, to show that a function does not modify a Key or a KeySet. We do not use const for return values, except for the following functions:

const char *keyName(const Key *key);
const char *keyBaseName(const Key *key);
const char *keyComment(const Key *key);
const void *keyValue(const Key *key);
const char *keyString(const Key *key);
const Key  *keyGetMeta(const Key *key, const char* metaName);

The reason behind this is, that the above functions – as their name suggest – only retrieve values. The returned value must not be modified directly.

You can’t perform that action at this time.