Compile-Time Configuration For Zig Libraries

Feb 05, 2024

If you're writing a Zig library, you might find yourself wishing to expose a compile-time configuration option to application developers. One of the reasons you might want to do this for performance reasons, preferring to do something at compile-time versus runtime. Consider this example using my PostgreSQL library:

var result = try pool.query("select id, name from users where power > $1", .{9000});
defer result.deinit();

while (try result.next()) |row| {
  const id = row.get(i32, 0);
  const name = row.get([]u8, 1);
  // ...

When I wrote the library, I was unsure what level of runtime check I should add to row.get. My instinct was to add none. As the developer, you know that column 0 is an integer not null and column 1 is a text not null. Is it really worth adding an additional type and nullability check? But I wasn't sure if that was the right assumption to make.

One option would be to have two different get methods, one safe and one not. But that's a more confusing API and isn't always straightforward to implement without duplication (not all checks can be done at the top of the function as a guard clause). Another option would be to use std.debug.assert, whose behavior is controlled by Zig's optimization flag (e.g. ReleaseFast). But this is a blunt tool affecting all code. I myself want to run some code in RelaseSafe, but not have these specific PostgreSQL checks.

Zig offers two solutions. The first is to use global declarations in the root source file. The "root source file" is the program's main entry point (where the pub main() void function is located). By convention this is the application's "main.zig", but a developer can use any file name. The point is that it's controlled by the application developer, but can be accessed by a library developer using @import("root"). In our library code, we could do:

const root = @import("root");

const assert_ = if (@hasDecl(root, "pg_assert")) root.pg_assert else true;
pub fn assert(ok: bool) void {
  if (comptime assert_) {
  } else {

Having our own assert function based on our own comptime configuration allows the application to run the whole of the application ReleaseSafe while excluding our library's assertion. To do so, the application developer merely needs to add the following to their main.zig:

pub const pg_assert = false;

Zig's standard library uses this approach in a few places. For example, you might have done something like this to change the standard library's log level:

pub const std_options = struct {
  pub const log_level = .debug;

There's a second option available through Zig's build system. As a library developer, the code is almost the same. Rather than importing "root", we import "config":

const config = @import("config");
const assert_ = if (@hasDecl(config, "assert")) config.pg_assert else true;
// ...

Application developers must define the options in their build.zig:

const pg = b.dependency("pg", dep_opts).module("pg");
const options = b.addOptions();
options.addOption(bool, "assert", true);
pg.addOptions("config", options);
// add the pg module to their program as they normally would

I believe the build-approach is newer and might be intended as the way forward. It is better scoped, i.e. it doesn't rely on library using distinct variable names like "pg_assert", and setting compile-time flags in the build script feels more cohesive than a bunch of globals in the root source file. Whichever approach you take, remember that compile-time configuration is less flexible for application developers since they now have to provide configuration at compile-time that, maybe in some cases, they rather do at runtime. So try to use this sparingly, if at all.