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Building Your Own Plugin Framework: Part 5

Source Code Walkthrough

Okay, there is a lot of source code. This subject is complicated and I didn't want to give just a couple of snippets of sample code and half-baked libraries. I put a lot of effort in organizing the code in a reusable form. I divided the code to multiple libraries and directories according to their function and their dependencies on other libraries. There is one core library, two game-specific libraries, the game itself (the executable), and four different plugins (three dynamic libraries and one static library). In addition, there are two third-party libraries -- APR and boost. Finally there are the build system(s) for the various platforms.

Directory Structure

There are three top-level directories: include, lib, and projects. include and lib contain the external libraries and projects include the code I wrote. Inside include and lib are subdirectories for darwin86, linux32, and win32, that contain the platform-specific header files (in include) and static libraries. Actually, the only real library is APR because I use only header files from Boost that don't require building and they are identical on all platforms. So Boost resides directly under include and not in platform specific subdirectory.

Source Code

All the source code is in subdirectories under "projects":

  • plugin_framework. This is the core library that contains the portability layer (DynamicLibrary, Directory and Path), the plugin API definitions (plugin.h) and all the support and helper objects. You will need this library for your plugin-based systems. You may wish to put the OS portability classes in a separate library or replace them with your OS abstraction layer. I put them in the same library to make it self contained (see caveat below in the external libraries section).

  • utils. This is a silly little library that contains two functions: calcDistance and findClosest. The reason it is a library is because it is used by the Hero which is part of the main executable and by some of the plugin objects, so it needs to be linked to multiple binaries. You can safely ignore it.

  • object_model. This is where all the game-specific dual C/C++ objects reside, along with ActorFactory, the object model wrappers and the ActorBaseTemplate classes used by the hybrid plugins. If you want to use this plugin framework for your own projects, then this library gives you a blueprint of all the stuff you need to implement. It is important to note that you can pick and choose. If you don't care about C compatibility because you build the main system and all the plugins, then you can just get rid of all the C stuff. If on the other hand you care about C but you don't want to provide nice hybrid C/C++ API to plugin developers, you can just ignore the ActorBaseTemplate and the object model wrappers. Read the article again (especially Parts 3 and 4) with the code nearby and you will know what to do.

    The plugin libraries are straightforward. c_plugin is the C plugin (MellowMonster), cpp_plugin is the direct C++ plugin (KillerBunny and StationarySatan), static_plugin is the statically linked plugin (FidgetyPhantom) and wrapper_plugin is the hybrid C/C++ plugin (GnarlyGolem and PsychicPiranea. In most situations, wrapper_plugin is the right choice. It is easy to write plugins if you invest in writing the base template and object model wrappers. The plugin related overhead is practically zero.

  • great_game. This is the game itself. It contains the Hero and BattleManager and of course the main() function. It gives you a good feel for how to bootstrap the whole process and what is involved in integrating the PluginManager with an application.

This article series covers the code well and explains the reasons for design decisions and trade offs. I tried to maintain a clean and consistent style. The plugin_framework and the object_model libraries, which are the heart of the system, are pretty close to industrial-strength level (maybe with a little more error handling and documentation). The rest of the code demonstrates the entire system in action. The only part that I didn't demonstrate convincingly is the invokeService() call. All the mechanisms are in place though. I invoke my author privileges and assign it as the dread exercise to the reader to implement a couple of services in the DummyInvokeService() function in great_game.cpp

External Libraries

The game and the framework use two external libraries: APR and boost. The Apache Portable Runtime (APR) is a C library. I use its portable basic types (all the apr_xxx_t thingies) and some (very little) of its OS abstraction capabilities. I implemented most of the portable OS layer (DynamicLibrary, Directory, and Path) directly as alternative implementations on top native Windows and POSIX APIs. Boost is used mostly for its shared_ptr and scoped_ptr templates. This is very small ROI (return on investment) for burdening oneself with external dependencies, especially in the context of a cross-platform portable system. This is true. I considered removing all the dependencies and implement what little I needed from APR directly, have my own portable basic types header, and grab a smart pointer template instead of dragging Boost. I decided to leave them in to show that this is indeed a serious system that can cater to different needs and integrate with external libraries. I paid a price for it as you will hear soon enough.

Building the Sample Game and Its Plugins

I put a lot of effort into this part because going cross-platform can increase the complexity of a system by an order of magnitude. If you don't use proper tools and processes you can spend a lot of time chasing platform-specific issues.

  • Windows. I provide a Visual Studio 2005 solution file in the root directory. This is preferred development environment for 99.99% of Windows developers. Visual Studio Express is free for all, so there is no cost. Some people think that cross-platform development means a single build system. I'm not one of them. I had my share of bad experiences with cygwin and MinGW. It's nice when it works and it's terrible when it doesn't. It is definitely a chore to keep multiple build systems in sync. Maybe in a future article I'll explore this issue further.

  • Mac OS X. On the Mac (and Kubuntu) I used NetBeans 6.0. I can't tell you how impressed I am. It is an amazing C++ development environment. It comes this close ("putting two fingers very close to each other") to Visual Studio. It totally blows Eclipse CDT (C/C++ development tools). The only annoying part (that Visual Studio gets right) is that when you set project properties like preprocessor symbols, compiler flags, etc., you must do it separately for each project even if you have 20 or 200 projects that need the same settings. The other part where NetBeans is a little weak is the debugger. It uses GDB, which is not a stellar C++ debugger (did you ever managed to probe into an std::map in gdb?). The best part about NetBeans 6.0 (and earlier versions too) is that it uses Makefiles as its underlying build system. That means that you can deploy your source code to anyone (as I'm doing here) and they'll be able to do: "./configure; make" and run your application. I still encourage you to get NetBeans 6.0 if you don't develop exclusively on Windows.

  • Linux (Kubuntu 7.10). Punch line: Eventually, I got it working. The story starts with me assuming I can just take my nice NetBeans project from the Mac and it works with a minor tweak or two. Think again. Kubuntu 7.10 comes with NetBeans 5.5.1 installed. I was happy and just tried to browse to my project. Nope. It turns out that only the Java environment is installed. Okay, I tried to update, but the C++ pack wasn't available. Okay, moving on. I tried to download the sources from NetBeans.org and build it, but I was informed that JDK1.6 update 3 is required. I tried to apt-get it and Kubuntu asks me for the installation CD. Now, I'm running in a VM that I installed from an .iso image. I deleted the 4+ GBytes .iso image because I didn't think I'll need it (why can't I update from the web?). I didn't want to download 4+ gigs, so I gave up on NetBeans and I opted to use KDevelop. It is the native KDE development environment, C++ is its strong suite and I knew that it uses automake/autoconf as its underlying build system. I had about 10 projects, but I wanted to check it out and see how easy it is to crank top-notch automake-based solution with multiple sub-projects. Well, I failed. I don't remember all the details, but I failed. I remember that it took a few minutes to locate the Automake manager (a vertical tab on the right-side of the IDE, when all the important tabs are on the left, you can move it to left when you find it). I decided to fall back to command line. It is Linux after all. People can get by without a flashy GUI IDE. I took my NetBeans-generated Makefile-based projects and started configuring and building. I had to "sed s/GNU-MacOSX/GNU-Linux-x86/g -i" a couple of times and a few more serious tweaks like replacing the linker flags (it turns out on the Mac its totally different) and I got pretty far. All the projects compiled and all the plugins linked successfully. Only, the great_game itself wouldn't link due to APR failures (couldn't find pthreads mostly). It didn't make sense pthreads is installed of course. I tried to apt-get just to see if there are some dev libraries missing. Nada. My pre-built APR library (actually two libraries) was built on a different linux distro. I download the APR source and tried to build from source. It built just fine, but I still got the same link errors.

I got really upset and grudgingly bit the bullet. I re-downloaded the Kubuntu-7.10 huge .iso image and mounted it. Things went downhill from here. I installed the JDK 1.6 update 3 through apt-get, and got and installed NetBeans 6.0 C++ pack from NetBeans.org. It created an icon on the desktop and I launched NetBeans. It loaded the Mac project files just fine and I had to make a couple of minor modifications and one more serious one. It turns out I had to add pthreads explicitly to the project, where on the Mac it just worked. So much for a unified build system. Finally all was well, after a few mistrials (I built the plugins into the wrong directory), I got everything working.

The Mac and Linux builds share the same Makefile in each project directory. This shared Makefile includes other files from a sub-directory called nbproject. Some of these files are different for the Mac and Linux. I wanted to ship build systems for both so I created two subdirectories under each project called nbproject.mac and nbproject.linux . This means that if you try to open these projects on the Mac or Linux with NetBeans, you will fail. You need to rename the appropriate sud-directory (based on your platform) to nbproject. This is annoying when you have eight different projects, so I created a little shell script called build.sh in the root directory. You should run it with either 'mac' or 'linux' and it copies the nbproject.mac or nbproject.linux to nbproject in each project and even runs make. You need to do it just once and then you will be able to open the projects in NetBeans.

Building External Libraries

The good news are that you don't have to. I provide pre-built static libraries for APR for all the platforms and the subset of Boost I use is just header files so no need to build it.

There is a little story here too. Cross-platform development is a difficult undertaking, so companies usually start with one platform and when they grow up and mature and the codebase stabilizes, they port to other platforms. Numenta (the company I work for) had a different idea. They decided to go cross-platform from the get-go, but only do Mac and Linux. This is probably the only company EVER to do that. When we launched our research platform, the most common complaint was the absence of a Windows version. I just completed the second phase of the NuPIC plugin framework. This is the ancestor of the plugin framework and all the idioms I present here. I quickly volunteered to take on the Windows port. I was the only developer with significant Windows expertise (all the other guys are UNIX gurus), but mostly I wanted to be able to debug in Visual Studio and forget about gdb. Our codebase was pretty much high-level standard C++. There were quiet a few direct system calls and many UNIX path issues, but nothing too terrible. All was going well, until I got to Boost. At this time we used a few Boost libraries that require building: boost::file_system, boost::regex and boost::serialization. I labored for days, scouring the web and trying strange combination of symbols, but I couldn't build these libraries under VC++ 2005. Eventually I had to write an OS abstraction layer on top of Win32 and POSIX APIs to replace these Boost libraries. The Directory and Path classes of the plugin framework are some of the fruits of this effort.

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