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How to contribute to CFEngine

Thanks for considering contributing to CFEngine! We take pull-requests on GitHub and we have a public bug-tracker. Discussion is taking place on the dev-cfengine and help-cfengine mailing lists. You'll find us chatting on Freenode's IRC channels #cfengine and #cfengine-dev.

Normally, bug fixes have a higher chance of getting accepted than new features, but we certainly welcome feature contributions. If you have an idea for a new feature, it might be a good idea to open up a feature ticket in our bug-tracker and send a message to dev-cfengine mailing list, before actually contributing the code, in order to get discussion going.

Merged features and larger changes will be released in the first minor release (i.e. x.y.0). Please note that such pull requests should be ready for merging (i.e. adjusted for any feedback) at least two months before the scheduled release date in order to make it to the first minor release.

Pull Requests


When submitting your pull request, please make sure you:

  • Follow our Coding Style.

  • Address only one issue/feature. Smaller pull requests are generally better.

  • Add tests. C functions should have unit tests. Promise types, attributes, and functions should have acceptance tests.

  • Pay attention to review comments and CI results. We have code analysis and tests which run when you submit your PR. You may have to make some changes.

  • Check that you don't have any merge conflicts. (Rebase on master or target branch).

  • Tidy up the commit log by squashing commits. Each commit should be a valid change and make sense on its own. Usually a Pull Request will only have one commit.

  • Add a ChangeLog Entry to the commit.

  • Add a configure option if appropriate: ./configure --disable-big-feature or ./configure --without-libfoo.

Multi-repo pull requests

CFEngine is built from several different repositories. Sometimes a change is needed in multiple repositories. When possible, try to make changes compatible with the master version of the other repositories. While our Jenkins Pipeline can handle multiple Pull Requests, Travis does not. If you are making a breaking change in one repository which has to be merged together with another pull request, make this very clear. Put this in the pull request description (first comment);

Merge together:

If the change is needed for a bigger feature, make that feature a separate pull request. The bigger PR will likely take some time to get reviewed, and discussed, while smaller changes can be merged quickly.

Coding Style

Our coding style is loosely based on Allman-4 and the Google C++ Style Guide. Keep in mind that these are guidelines, there will always be some situations where exceptions are appropriate.

Formatting / Whitespace

  • Feel free to use clang-format to format new code you submit. (Our configuration is in .clang-format).
  • 4 spaces per indentation, no tabs.
  • Fold new code at 78 columns.
    • Do not break string literals. Prefer having strings on a single line, in order to improve search-ability(grep). If they do not fit on a single line, try breaking on punctuation. You can surpass the 78 column limit if necessary.
  • Use single spaces around operators, but not before semicolon:
    int a = 2 + 3;
    int b = 2 * (a - 2);
    if (a > b)
  • Place pointer star to the right, next to the name it belongs to:
    int *a;
    char *b, *c;
    const char *const d;
  • Curly brackets on separate lines.
    • Except in a do-while loop, to avoid confusion with a while loop:
          // ...
      } while (condition);
    • Except at the end of a struct type definition:
      typedef struct _Name
          // ...
      } Name;
  • Type casts should be separated with one space from the variable:
    (struct sockaddr *) &myaddr

Readability / Maintainability

Keep in mind that code should be readable by non C experts. If you are a Guru, try to restrain yourself, only do magic when absolutely necessary.

  • Avoid code duplication. Make a variable or a function instead of copy-pasting the same patterns.
    • Helper functions which are only used in the same file should be declared static.
    • If you want to test the static functions, you can #include the .c file in the unit test.
  • Avoid abbreviations.
  • Welcome to "modern" C (C99).
    • Declare variables where they are needed, not at the beginning of a function / block.
    • Declare index inside for loop:
      for (int i = 0; i < n; ++i)
  • Conditionals:
    • Don't include assignments inside expressions. Put them on the line before.
      • Unless they avoid great repetition.
    • Always use curly braces:
      if (ready)
    • A conditional with an empty body should have curly braces, and a comment:
      while (ready)
          // Log message already printed above
  • Variable names:
    • Describe what the variable is.
    • Are English words with underscores: string_index
    • Boolean variable names should make an if/while sensible: if (more_data) / while (more_data)
  • Function names:
    • Are CamelCase (with first letter capital).
    • Describe what the function does.
  • Namespaces:
    • Don't exist in C.
    • But we can pretend, using underscores in function names:
      • StrList_BinarySearch()
  • Structs:
    • Names are CamelCase (with first letter capital).
    • Use the common typedef pattern:
      typedef struct _Point
          float x;
          float y;
      } Point;
      Don't add a trailing _t or similar for typedefs.
    • Structs and functions which modify them are similar to classes and methods in other languages.
      • Method names should start with the struct name.
      • The first parameter should be the "self" pointer:
        void SeqAppend(Seq *seq, void *item);
  • Document using Doxygen (within reason), preferably in the .c files, not the header files.

Safety / Correctness

  • Minimize use of global variables.
  • Use pure functions when possible:
    • Functions with no / few side effects are easier to reuse.
    • Use const parameters to show that they are not altered.
  • Functions which expect their arguments to be non-NULL should assert this at the top:
    size_t SeqLength(const Seq *seq)
        assert(seq != NULL);
        return seq->length;
    • Not necessary all the time, avoid duplication. A wrapper like this doesn't need the asserts:
      bool SaveXmlDocAsFile(xmlDocPtr doc, const char *file, const Attributes *a, NewLineMode new_line_mode)
          return SaveAsFile(&SaveXmlCallback, doc, file, a, new_line_mode);
      It's more appropriate to put the asserts close to the code which dereferences the pointers.
  • Variable initialization:
    • Don't initialize variables unless they need an initial value. Unnecessary initialization silences important compiler warnings.
    • Put the declaration and initialization in the same statement (line).
      time_t now = time(NULL);
  • Constants:
    • Constify what can be const.
    • A pointer to an immutable string:
      const char *string;
    • An immutable pointer to a mutable string:
      char *const string;
    • An immutable pointer to an immutable string:
      const char *const string;
    • The const keyword applies to the left, unless it is the first, then it applies to the right.
  • Types:
    • Assign and compare using the correct "type" literal:
      float temperature = 0.0;
      int dollars = 10;
      char string_terminator = '\0';
      char *name = NULL;
      if (name == NULL && dollars <= 0 && temperature <= -10.0)
          // :(
  • Conditions:
    • Use explicit comparisons:
    if (data != NULL)
    • Have the literal (constant) to the right side, so it reads well:
    if (age >= 33)
    • NEVER compare to true: if (data == true) (true is 1)
  • Error handling:
    • Functions which can fail should return error code (int) or success/failure (bool).
      • Compiler can enforce checking of return value, output of function can be in an output parameter (pointer).
      • Functions which have valid positive return values can use negative numbers for errors.
    • true(bool) and 0(int) should signify success.
    • Only return an error code (int) when there are multiple different return values for different errors. If a function can only return 0 (success) or -1 (error) use bool instead.
  • Destroy functions should accept NULL pointers (similar to free()).
  • Don't use static variables that change, since they are not thread-safe.
  • Sizes of stack-allocated buffers should be deduced using sizeof(). Never hard-code the size (like CF_BUFSIZE).
  • Avoid using type casts, unless absolutely necessary.
    • Usually a compiler warning is better satisfied with correct code rather than using a type cast.

String formatting

Type Format string
char * %s
int %d
unsigned int %du
long %l
unsigned long %lu
size_t %zu
ssize_t %zd
intmax_t %jd
uintmax_t %ju

See man 3 printf for a more complete table. For other integer types without a format, cast signed types to intmax_t and unsigned types to uintmax_t.

Logging Conventions

CFEngine outputs messages about what its doing using the Log() function. It takes a LogLevel enum mapping closely to syslog priorities. Please try to do the following when writing output messages.

Log levels

  • LOG_LEVEL_CRIT: For critical errors, where process cannot / should not continue running, exit immediately.
  • LOG_LEVEL_ERR: Promise failed or other errors that are definitely considered bad / not normal.
  • LOG_LEVEL_WARNING: Something unusual happened that the user should investigate. Should be severe enough to warrant investigating further, but not as severe as a definitive error/bug.
  • LOG_LEVEL_NOTICE: Important information (not errors) that must not be missed by the user. For example cf-agent uses it in files promises when change tracking is enabled and the file changes.
  • LOG_LEVEL_INFO: Useful high level information about what the process is doing. Examples:
    • Changes performed to the system, for example when a promise has been repaired.
    • Server denies access to client based on access_rules.
  • LOG_LEVEL_VERBOSE: Log human readable progress info useful to users (i.e. sysadmins). Also errors that are unimportant or expected in certain cases.
  • LOG_LEVEL_DEBUG: Log anything else (for example various progress info). Try to avoid "Entering function Foo()", but rather use for "While copying, got reply '%s' from server".

Please keep in mind that some components like cf-serverd handle very large sets of data / connections and logs can become spammy. In some cases it might be appropriate to create error / warning summaries instead of outputting a log message every time an event occurs.

Logging Guidelines

  • Do not decorate with symbols or indentation in messages and do not terminate the message with punctuation. Let Log() enforce the common formatting rules.

  • When quoting strings, use single quotes, e.g. "Some stuff '%s' happened in '%s'.

  • Keep in mind context, e.g. write "While copying, insufficient permissions" rather than "Insufficient permissions".

  • Use output sparingly, and use levels appropriately. Verbose logging tends to get very verbose.

  • Use platform-independent GetErrorStr() for strerror(errno). Write for example Log(LOG_LEVEL_ERR, "Failed to open ... (fopen: %s)", GetErrorStr());

  • Normally, try to keep each message to one line of output, produced by one call to Log().

  • Normally, do not circumvent Log() by writing to stdout or stderr.

Code Overview

The CFEngine codebase can be usefully thought of as a few separate components: utilities (libutils), parsing (libpromises), evaluation (libpromises), actuation (mostly in cf-agent), network (libcfnet).

Over the past year, the structure of the codebase has undergone some change. The goal of the restructuring is to isolate separate components with explicit dependencies, and provide better unit test coverage.

For a general introduction to the tools, please read the man pages/documentation.


These are replacement functions in cases where autoconf cannot find a function it expected to find on the platform. CFEngine takes an approach of relying on the platform (typically POSIX) as much as possible, rather than creating its own system abstraction layer.


Contains generally useful datastructures or utilities. The key point about libutils is that it is free of dependencies (except libcompat), so it does not know about any CFEngine structures or global state found in libpromises. Some examples of often used files (not meant to be an exhaustive list):

  • sequence.h: Collection of ordered elements (Loosely based on glib GSequence).
  • map.h: General purpose map (hash table).
  • set.h: General purpose set, a wrapper of Map.
  • writer.h: Stream writer abstraction over strings and FILEs.
  • string_lib.h: General purpose string utilities.
  • logging.h: Log functions, use Log() instead of printf.
  • ip_address.h: IP address parsing.
  • file_lib.h: General purpose file utilities.
  • misc_lib.h: Really general utilities.


Contains the networking layer for CFEngine. (At the time of writing, a bit of a moving target). All of this was in libpromises previously. Ideally it would be completely separate, without depending on libpromises, but we're not there yet.


This is the remainder of the old src directory, that which has not been categorized. The roadmap for the project remains to leave libpromises as a component for evaluation.

  • cf3.defs.h: Contains structure definitions used widely.
  • generic_agent.h: Common code for all agent binaries.
  • parser.h: Parse a policy file.
  • syntax.h: Syntax utilities and type checking.
  • mod_???.c: Syntax definitions for all promise types (actuation modules).
  • eval_context.h: Header for EvalContext, keeper of evaluation state.
  • expand.c: Evaluates promises.
  • policy.h: Policy document object model, essentially the AST output of the parsing stage.
  • evalfunction.c: Where all the built-in functions are implemented.
  • locks.h: Manages various persistent locks, kept in a local database.
  • sysinfo.c: Detects hard classes from the environment (OS, IP, etc.)

Things which should be moved out of libpromises:

  • crypto.h: Crypto utilities for some reason still tied to evaluation state.
  • files_???: File utilities we haven't been able to decouple from evaluation.

Things you should not use in libpromises

  • cf3.extern.h: Remaining global variables.
  • prototypes3.h: The original singular header file.
  • item_lib.h: Item is a special purpose list that has been abused for unintended purposes.
  • assoc.h: An lval-rval pair, deprecated in favor of EvalContext symbol table.
  • scope.h: Old symbol table, this will move into EvalContext.


See the documentation for an introduction to cf-agent and the other components. Since cf-agent is (arguably) the most important component here is a more technical description of how it works, both during first time setup (bootstrap) and regular operation. Note that most of the binaries evaluate policy so there are many similarities to cf-agent.

Lifecycle of cf-agent

The following outlines the normal execution of a cf-agent run.

  1. Read options and gather these in GenericAgentConfig.
  2. Create an EvalContext and call GenericAgentConfigApply(ctx, config).
  3. Discover environment and set hard classes, apply to EvalContext.
  4. Parse input policy file, get a Policy object.
  5. Run static checks on Policy object.
  6. Evaluate each Bundle in bundlesequence.
  7. Write reports to disk.

Bootstrapping cf-agent

The following outlines the steps taken by agent during a successful bootstrap to a policy server.

  1. Remove all files in inputs directory
  2. Write built-in inputs/
  3. Write policy server address or hostname, as was the argument to --bootstrap option, to policy_server.dat.
  4. If the host was bootstrapped to the machine's own IP address, then it is a policy server, and the file state/am_policy_hub is touched as marker.
  5. cf-agent runs using as input file:
    1. Runs cf-key to generate localhost.{priv,pub} keys inside ppkeys directory.
    2. Fetches policy files from the policy server.
    3. Starts cf-execd
    4. Runs cf-agent -f
  6. Agent finishes.
  7. cf-execd continues to run cf-agent periodically with policy from inputs directory.

ChangeLog Entries

When a new feature or a bugfix is being merged, it is often necessary to be accompanied by a proper entry in the ChangeLog file. Besides manually editing the file, we have an automatic way of generating them before the release, by properly formatting commit messages (see git-commit-template). Keep in mind that changelog entries should be written in a way that is understandable by non- programmers. This means that references to implementation details are not appropriate, leave this for the non-changelog part of the commit message. It is the behavior change which is important. This implies that refactorings that have no visible effect on behavior don't need a changelog entry.

If a changelog entry is needed, your pull request should have at least one commit either with a "Changelog:" line in it (anywhere after the title), or title should start with ticket number from our bug tracker ("CFE-1234"). "Changelog:" line may be one of the following:

  • To write arbitrary message in the ChangeLog: Changelog: <message>
  • To use the commit title line in the ChangeLog: Changelog: Title
  • To use the entire commit message in the ChangeLog: Changelog: Commit

It's worth noting that we strive to have bugtracker tickets for most changes, and they should be mentioned in the ChangeLog entries. In fact if anywhere in the commit message the string CFE-1234 is found (referring to a ticket from ), it will be automatically added to the ChangeLog.


It is extremely important to have automated tests for all code, and normally all new code should be covered by tests, though sometimes it can be hard to mock up the environment.

There are two types of tests in CFEngine. Unit tests are generally preferable to acceptance tests because they are more targeted and take less time to run. Most tests can be run using make check. See Unsafe Tests below.

  • Unit tests. Unit tests are a great way of testing some new module (header file). Ideally, the new functionality is written so that the environment can be easily injected and results readily verified.

  • Acceptance tests. These are tests that run cf-agent on a policy file that contains test and check bundles, i.e. it uses CFEngine to both make a change and check it. See also script tests/acceptance/testall.

Tip: In order to trigger assert() calls in the code, build with --enable-debug (passed to either ./ or ./configure). If you get very large binary sizes you can also pass CFLAGS='-g -O0' to reduce that.

Code Coverage

We strive to always increase code coverage. If you wish to generate code coverage information then you must autogen or configure with --enable-debug and --enable-coverage as well as ensure lcov is installed (typically an lcov package is available in a distribution). We use gcov to instrument and process coverage information. .gcno files are generated at compile-time and will not be regenerated if the source code does not change. So be careful about cleaning those files. .gcda files are like index files which can be used to generate the .gcov files which lcov uses to generate and the HTML report in the coverage-html directory. Many IDEs and editors expect a /coverage/ summary of coverage information. After running make check you can run make coverage and generate this summary for use with other tools. If you wish to only run a few tests which will add to coverage data you can update with make collect-coverage which will only collect coverage data, not compile or run any tests.

For the atom editor, install the package atom-lcov-info.

Unsafe Tests

Note that some acceptance tests are considered to be unsafe because they modify the system they are running on. One example is the tests for the "users" promise type, which does real manipulation of the user database on the system. Due to their potential to do damage to the host system, these tests are not run unless explicitly asked for. Normally, this is something you would want to do in a VM, so you can restore the OS to a pristine state afterwards.

To run all tests, including the unsafe ones, you either need to be logged in as root or have "sudo" configured to not ask for a password. Then run the following:

$ UNSAFE_TESTS=1 GAINROOT=sudo make check

Again: DO NOT do this on your main computer! Always use a test machine, preferable in a VM.

C Platform Macros

It's important to have portability in a consistent way. In general we use autoconf to test for features (like system headers, defines, specific functions). So try to use the autoconf macros HAVE_DECL_X, HAVE_STRUCT_Y, HAVE_MYFUNCTION etc. See the autoconf manual existing tests section.

It is preferable to write feature-specific ifdefs, instead of OS-specific, but it's not always easy. If necessary use these platform-specific macros in C code:

  • Any Windows system: Use _WIN32. Don't use NT.
  • mingw-based Win32 build: Use __MINGW32__. Don't use MINGW.
  • Cygwin-based Win32 build: Use __CYGWIN__. Don't use CFCYG.
  • OS X: Use __APPLE__. Don't use DARWIN.
  • FreeBSD: Use __FreeBSD__. Don't use FREEBSD.
  • NetBSD: Use __NetBSD__. Don't use NETBSD.
  • OpenBSD: Use __OpenBSD__. Don't use OPENBSD.
  • AIX: Use _AIX. Don't use AIX.
  • Solaris: Use __sun. Don't use SOLARIS.
  • Linux: Use __linux__. Don't use LINUX.
  • HP/UX: Use __hpux (two underscores!). Don't use hpux.

Finally, it's best to avoid polluting the code logic with many ifdefs. Try restricting ifdefs in the header files, or in the beginning of the C files.

Advanced topics

This section is not for new contributors, but rather contains more specific guides which are useful to link to in some circumstances.


How to rebase a branch

By convention upstream refers to the canonical project repositories and origin refers to your fork of the repository.

$ git branch
* ENT-3329
$ git pull --rebase upstream master
 * branch                master     -> FETCH_HEAD
First, rewinding head to replay your work on top of it...
Applying: ENT-3329: Allow hubs to collect from themselves over loopback

Once you have rebased your changes on the latest changes from the upstream branch you need to force push (because history has been re-written) your branch to your fork in order to update the pull request.

$ git push origin master --force

How to rebase and squash commits

This post has a good explanation.

Cherry-picking/backporting commits

Determine the commit to backport, use the first 6 or so characters of the sha1 (to make it unique). E.g. 80f198 for 80f198baeddcd5d1b9556d9a4890b648fe3c12c5

First checkout the branch you are backporting to:
$ git checkout --track upstream/<branch such as 3.10.x>

Next create a branch in which to work and for a PR:

$ git checkout -b backport-some-commit

If you are cherry picking your own commit simply use -x option

$ git cherry-pick -x 80f198

-x adds: `"(cherry picked from commit 80f198baeddcd5d1b9556d9a4890b648fe3c12c5)"``

If you are cherry picking someone elses commit, use the -s option to make your involvement more obvious.

$ git cherry-pick -x -s 80f198

-s --signoff adds: "Signed-off-by: Committer Name <>"

Submit your change as a PR:

$ git push --set-upstream origin backport-some-commit

In the GitHub web UI you will need to create the PR and select the correct branch to submit to. If the cherry pick applied cleanly and you have merge rights, you may merge the change. If significant or risky changes were introduced in order to backport, ask for code review before merging.

Cryptographically signing git commits

Emacs users

There is an Elisp snippet in contrib/cfengine-code-style.el which defines the project's coding style. Please use it when working with source code. The easiest way to do so is to add:

(add-to-list 'load-path "<core checkout directory>/contrib")
(require 'cfengine-code-style)

and run:

ln -s contrib/dir-locals.el .dir-locals.el

Windows atexit()

On Windows the atexit function works but the functions registered there are executed after or concurrently with DLL unloading. If registered functions rely on DLLs such as pthreads to do locking/unlocking deadlock scenarios can occur when exit is called.

In order to make behavior more explicit and predictable we migrated to always using a homegrown atexit system. RegisterCleanupFunction instead of atexit and DoCleanupAndExit instead of exit.

If _Exit or _exit need to be called that is fine as they don't call atexit or cleanup functions.

In some cases such as when exiting a forked process or in executables which don't register cleanup functions, exit() may be used but a comment should be added noting that this issue was considered.

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