RFC-0097: FIDL Toolchain

RFC-0097: FIDL Toolchain
  • FIDL

Description of a canonical FIDL toolchain.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2021-04-27
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2021-05-26


We describe the requirements which a FIDL toolchain needs to meet, and provide direction for how this problem may be decomposed.

While a specific implementation plan is beyond the scope of this RFC, it is expected for the tools (e.g. fidlc, fidlgen_go, banjo), and build rules in the Fuchsia Source Tree (e.g. fidl_library.gni) to evolve to meet the requirements listed here.

Furthermore, FIDL toolchains living outside of the Fuchsia Source Tree should align to the requirements listed here. (This RFC has no authority beyond Fuchsia, and we therefore cannot mandate compliance, but can certainly strongly recommend it.)


Before we start, let's define a few terms. A simplified view of the FIDL toolchain can be summarized as follows:

Simplified toolchain

The FIDL language is embodied by fidlc, which represents the frontend compiler (or frontend for short). This is where all language validation occurs.

The frontend generates an Intermediate Representation (dubbed JSON IR) for each FIDL library compiled. Despite its name, the intermediate representation does not necessarily need to be represented as a JSON file.

From there, one or multiple backends processes the JSON IR in order to generate outputs. Note that from the perspective of the FIDL toolchain, any consumer of the JSON IR is a backend.

Most commonly, the generated output is code in a target language (say C++, or Rust) which makes it possible to manipulate types, interact with protocols, open services, and use constants. This class of backends is called FIDL bindings1, and the code they generate should follow the bindings specification. We often use a shorthand fidlgen (or fidlgen_<suffix>, e.g. fidlgen_rust or fidlgen_dart) to refer to backends generating FIDL bindings. We refer to domain objects as the set of classes and types in the target language used to represent the FIDL types. As an example, the FIDL enum fuchsia.fonts/Slant will have a corresponding domain object in C++ (as an enum class) or in Go (as a type Slant uint32).

There are a wide variety of other backends, each with their own needs and idiosyncrasies. For instance: fidldoc produces FIDL documentation, such as the fuchsia.fonts page; fidl_api_summarize produces an API summary of a FIDL library; fidlcat uses the JSON IR in order to provide run-time introspection. From the perspective of the FIDL toolchain, the fidlcat tool is a backend even though this is a very small part of what this tool actually does.


FIDL has been growing up. The expressibility of its toolchain has been tested. It has not been able to meet new requirements adequately. A new expanded toolchain is needed.

We first describe a number of these new requirements, then follow with approaches to support all of them.

Whole program view

Today, the FIDL toolchain assumes that a backend operates on a per-library basis, and therefore only needs the JSON IR of this library to operate.

Increasingly, backends require access to more than a single JSON IR to achieve their needs.

For instance, fidldoc needs the JSON IR of all the libraries being documented at once in order to generate global indexes. fidlcat is in the same boat, needing a view of all libraries to function. The measure-tape needs the JSON IR of the libraries transitively reachable through the target type for which a measuring tape is generated.

Percolating metadata

Some backends require special metadata about the library in order to operate. Often this metadata needs to be calculated iteratively starting from the leaves of the library dependency tree (the "base libraries"), with the metadata percolating to the root (the library being compiled).

For instance, [fidlgen_rust] would like to know whether a type may ever contain a floating point number to determine which traits can be safely derived. A struct which does not contain any floating point number could have an Eq, a strict union where none of the variants contain any floating point number could have an Eq, but a flexible table which currently has no floating point fields cannot have an Eq because providing one would violate the source compatibility rules.

Another example comes from fidlgen_cpp which produces non-owning domain objects. These domain objects can be copied safely if their inline portion is a value, i.e. not a resource. Here again, calculating this metadata we call "inline resourceness" requires iteratively calculating this value from the leaves to the root.

Recently, in discussing a new backend generating ABI fingerprints for libraries, there was back-and-forth about where the functionality should exist. The current thinking is to host this functionality in the fidlc compiler for practical reasons, but that answer is unsatisfactory.

What we are observing is that features requiring metadata percolation are either put on hold, worked around (often hackily), or turned into new compiler features, typically forcing a generalization prematurely (e.g. the ABI fingerprints discussed above).

Furthermore, since the Fuchsia FIDL team has the ability to change the compiler easily, we have an advantage over third-parties in this regard. As a result, we can say that the state of the tooling hurts our open-source principle which seeks to have all backends on a level-playing field.

Per target language and per library backend selection

With the FIDL language used to describe the Kernel API, and the Driver SDK in the works to follow, FIDL has become increasingly ubiquitous.

Today however, there is a conflation in the toolchain between "the FIDL language" and "the backend" appropriate to process a specific library. When a target needs Rust code for the library fuchsia.fonts, we invoke fidlgen_rust.

This approach is too simple, and fails to describe that certain libraries need specialized backends. For instance, library zx; is processed by kazoo. This per-target-per-library fidlgen selection has further ramifications. Take the enum zx/clock, it is our intent for kazoo to one day generate the currently hand-written zx_clock_t typedef, along with the various #define materializing the members of the enum. Should the fuchsia.fonts library rely on zx/clock, this in turn means that fidlgen_cpp needs to know the API contract such that it can generate bindings code properly bridging2 its code generation and kazoo's.

Single library per platform

Today, we are not opinionated about multiple definitions of FIDL libraries having the same name. It is possible, though not advised, to define multiple libraries fuchsia.confusing in various places of the source tree, and use all these different libraries independently.

It would be more sensible to leverage the platform identifier concept, which in the Fuchsia Source Tree defaults to fuchsia. We can then guarantee and enforce that no two definitions of a similarly named library ever exist.

With this restriction in mind, we refer to a platform as the set of FIDL libraries sharing the same platform identifier.

No late validation

Today, backends are not allowed to be selective about the FIDL libraries they may or may not succeed on. It is expected that backends process any valid JSON IR. This restriction has meant that we refrain from doing any late validation in backends. It would be conceivable to add validation in a backend to identify as of yet unimplemented FIDL features; another example validation would be checking the validity of doc comments in fidldoc and rejecting to generate reference documents. (In both examples, graceful degradation is what is expected.)

Allowing late validation invites an unpleasant kind of breakage-at-a-distance (e.g. https://fxbug.dev/42144169): in a world where FIDL libraries are provided as SDK artifacts, and integrated into downstream repositories, the developer running the backend is likely different from the FIDL library author. As a result, providing warnings or errors to the developer using a FIDL library when the ability to correct things lies with the FIDL library author is at best frustrating, and at worst a gating factor to using the FIDL library.

The policy to disallow late validation has therefore maintained a healthy pressure on the fidlc compiler to "validate all the things", and on backends to "support all the things". This has largely avoided such breakage-at-a-distance failures, at the cost of a position ('no validation in backends') that lacks nuance.

Limit access to source

Without thinking much about the long term consequences, we gradually allowed the JSON IR to copy part of the FIDL source it came from. For instance as more complex expressions have been added, we exposed resolved values to allow backends to emit constants, while also retaining the expression itself (the text) in the IR. While having the expression text is useful to generate meaningful comments in the generated code, it opens the door to reducing privacy of SDK publishers -- those who publish FIDL artifacts -- since they cannot readily choose to provide source or not.

It is easy to imagine a future where this path leads to more of the FIDL source ending up in the IR, which is not a desirable outcome: this is both duplicative, and can lead to a potential breach of privacy boundaries.

Instead, we aim to design the FIDL toolchain to include no more source than is necessary. For the rare backends that do need source access (e.g. fidl-lsp), we rely on references to spans. See details in the design section.

Scaling compilation

For simplicity reasons, the fidlc compiler was initially designed to operate on sources only, i.e. .fidl files. When libraries have dependencies, compilation of the library requires compilation of all of its dependencies, transitively.

For instance, when compiling the fuchsia.fonts library, we must also compile the fuchsia.mem and fuchsia.intl libraries, and such transitively. This means that today's compilation is wholly inefficient. Core libraries such as fuchsia.mem are recompiled numerous times. This architectural inefficiency has never been an issue: there are just over 64K LoC of FIDL source in the SDK today, and with relatively shallow transitive dependencies, this inefficiency is not acutely felt.

However, when thinking about our "ideal" FIDL toolchain, we wish to align with standard practices in compiler design. It is traditional for a compiler to take in inputs such as source files, and produce outputs, such as x86 assembly. As code bases grow, there is an additional requirement on compilers to be able to provide some sort of partitioning of the work, such that small updates to the inputs do not require a re-compilation of the whole codebase.

Consider for instance the javac compiler: if you change the condition of a for loop in some file SomeCode.java, it would be unexpected to have to recompile thousands of files to be able to run the program again. Instead, you re-compile just that single file, and can re-use all other pre-compiled sources (as .class files).

In order to successfully partition the work, a standard approach is to define a compilation unit (e.g. a library for FIDL), and produce an intermediary result (e.g. JSON IR), such that the inputs of the compilation process are both sources and intermediate results of direct dependencies. This makes it possible to limit total compilation time (assuming infinite parallelism) to the dependency chain which is the longest to compile. This also simplifies build rules, a topic du jour.


We split the design in three parts:

  1. First, guiding principles to inform design choices, and anchor the approach and path taken;
  2. Description of a canonical FIDL toolchain as an example of how to decompose building FIDL to account for all requirements described;
  3. Lastly, some specific cleanups which the Fuchsia FIDL team will make to align the core tooling with this RFC's guidance.

Guiding principles

The IR should readily accommodate common backends

While complex backends should be possible (e.g. whole program view), the IR must be designed such that common backends can be built by only processing the single IR for the library being processed.

Experience has shown that most backends are somewhat simple. Catering to simple use cases (as opposed to expert use cases) ensures that we go the extra mile to simplify the IR where possible, and in so doing, put our best foot forward to ensure a thriving backend ecosystem.

To exemplify this principle, consider the "type shape" calculation done in fidlc. It would be conceivable to instead move this to a dedicated percolating backend. However, this would force all backends generating target code – the main use case – to rely both on the IR and this "type shape" backend.

The IR should be minimal

Striving for minimality is an important countermeasure to readily accommodating common backends, as it would be easy – or tempting – to "include all the things" and consider the work done.

To exemplify this principle, consider the current anti-pattern of calculating a "declaration order" in fidlc. Only a few backends rely on this order (C-family, and even less everyday), and it puts undue complexity in the compiler. It also muddies the water as to why such an order is needed, and has often caused confusion. This is also inflexible since backends ought to evolve independently from the core compiler – this has been a hindrance to progress on supporting recursive types for instance.

The IR must not contain source

The IR should not contain any more source than is strictly necessary to readily accommodate common backends (e.g. names). The IR may provide source span references where appropriate. A source span reference is a triplet:

(filename, start position, end position)

Where a position is a tuple (line number, character number).

Backends should not rely on access to source to operate. When backends must have access to source to operate (e.g. fidl-lsp), they must clearly state this requirement and gracefully fail should access to source not be available.

In choosing this decomposition, we are explicitly choosing to provide SDK publishers – those who publish FIDL artifacts – the choice to include source FIDL or not. Currently, this choice is not completely theirs since parts of the source ends up in the IR.

Beyond names, a notable part of the source which is present in the IR are documentation comments. These comments are by specification meant to be part of the API, i.e. FIDL library authors explicitly opt-into making these comments public. Furthermore, most backends use these documentation comments (e.g. to emit comments in generated code), thus falling under the readily accommodating common backends principle. These documentation comments do not appear in the comment as raw source, but rather are preprocessed a bit (leading indentation, ///, and whitespace left trimmed). As briefly explored, we intend to further process doc comments in the future.

Backends are treated equally

The FIDL language, its implementation as the fidlc compiler, and the definition of the intermediate representation should be designed to allow an inclusive backends ecosystem, where all backends, whether built as part of the Fuchsia project or not, are on an equal footing.

In choosing this dividing line, we are explicitly making a choice to avoid expediency for short term needs of the Fuchsia FIDL team owned backend, instead focusing on the long term viability of the FIDL ecosystem.

Backends are not fallible

A backend must succeed when processing valid IR. Backends may fail if they encounter issues in their environment (such as filesystem access error) or if IR is invalid. If a backend cannot process IR that conforms to the IR schema, it must not fail with an error.

In choosing this dividing line, we are explicitly forcing all validation to occur in the frontend, i.e. validation must be elevated to being a FIDL language restriction. This is important for two reasons:

  1. A corollary of this rule is that given a valid IR, all backends compatible with this IR can be used. This means that as an SDK publisher, ensuring successful compilation of FIDL libraries guarantees the use of these libraries for all consumers who use a version of the FIDL toolchain compatible with the one used by the publisher.
  2. From a language design standpoint, this very strict requirement is a beneficial forcing function to keep language design in check with the needs of backends. For instance, a careful backend owner requiring validation for some reason would raise this issue (fidl-dev@fuchsia.dev or through an RFC) to the Fuchsia FIDL team for possible inclusion in the language specification. This could lead to improvements to the language, which all would benefit from, or a possible rework of the backend to better align with the FIDL toolchain principles.

To exemplify this principle, consider trait derivation in Rust: the Eq trait cannot be derived for types containing floating point numbers. It would be tempting to add an attribute @for_rust_has_floats to types in FIDL containing floating point numbers (float32 or float64), and then leverage this attribute in fidlgen_rust to both conditionally emit the Eq trait, and verify that the attribute is properly used (in a similar fashion to the value-resource distinction). But this temptation goes against the principle, as it implies fidlgen_rust is fallible. Validating a niche attribute like this in fidlc is not desirable either, since it leads to FIDL being complicated by a myriad of target language specific concerns.3

Canonical FIDL toolchain

A canonical FIDL toolchain is centered around the library decomposition, and will have two kinds of build nodes.

Percolating build nodes

A percolating node is provided sources of the library and object files of direct dependencies of the library to the tool, and generates an end result and target object files.

A percolating node

As an example, most fidlgen backends follow this pattern today: their sources are JSON IR, and their end result is generated code. They do not have dependent object files (DOF) nor do these tools produce target object files (TOF).

Another example is the planned ABI fingerprinting tool which needs to calculate structural properties of types. This tool will consume JSON IR (source), and will generate both an ABI summary (end result), and an accompanying target object file (TOF). When operating on a library which has dependencies, it will consume the TOF of those libraries, i.e. its DOF, along with the JSON IR to generate the next end result. It may well be that the end result and TOF differ only in their format, for one is meant to be read by humans, and the other parsed by tools.

Whole view build nodes

A whole view node is provided sources, including all transitively reachable dependent libraries to the tool being invoked, and generates an end result.

A whole view node

As an example, the measure-tape requires the IR of all transitively reachable libraries required to define the type being compiled, and would naturally be expressed as a whole view node. Today, the fidlc node operates as a whole view node since it needs access to all sources to operate (see scaling compilation for details). Both fidlcat and fidldoc need a whole view with a dependency on the whole fuchsia platform being compiled.

While it is true that a whole view node is less efficient than a percolating node, we may not want to restructure all tools to operate in a percolating way, choosing instead to push some complexity into the build system.

In the Fuchsia Source Tree build, we produce an all_fidl_json.txt file. With clearer requirements about whole view nodes in mind, we can better structure this aggregate. For instance, by organizing this aggregate by platform, recording for each library its sources, JSON IR, and direct dependencies, we can easily leverage this aggregate to rapidly produce the inputs needed for whole view tools. This aggregate would also be leveraged by developer tools such as fidl-lsp or fidlbolt.

Tool selection

Tool selection in a given build node should depend on the target (e.g. "generate low level c++ code"), as well as the library being compiled (e.g. "library zx"). We define the total function taking a tuple (target gen, library) and returning a tool (e.g. kazoo or fidlgen_cpp) to be a global configuration of the toolchain.

For instance, in the Fuchsia Source Tree we would expect the configuration:

(*, library zx) → kazoo
(low_level_cpp, not library zx) → fidlgen_llcpp
(high_level_cpp, not library zx) → fidlgen_hlcpp
(rust, not library zx) → fidlgen_rust
(docs, *) → fidldoc

With the unified C++ bindings, this configuration would change to:

(*, library zx) → kazoo
(cpp, not library zx) → fidlgen_cpp
(rust, not library zx) → fidlgen_rust
(docs, *) → fidldoc

Impact on incremental compilation

When looking at incremental compilation, i.e. the pursuit of doing the least amount of work in response to source changes by combining existing compiled artifacts with newly compiled artifacts, both kinds of nodes described here fare quite differently.

In general, a node in a compilation graph needs to be invoked when one or more of its sources (also called its "source set") changes.

Percolating nodes have a much smaller source set than whole view nodes, their source set are direct 'sources' and target object files (TOF). With that said, their percolating behavior (if leveraged) will propagate a source change to a TOF change, which in turn will change the source set of dependent percolating nodes. As an example, imagine that the fidlgen_rust backend is augmented to also produce a TOF fuchsia.some.library.fidlgen_rust.tof. When one library is changed, if its TOF changes as well, then all dependent libraries will also need to change thus resulting in more invocations to the fidlgen_rust backend (and so on so forth).

Compared to percolating nodes, whole view nodes have much wider source sets. There are two broad categories of whole view nodes, the ones depending on all transitive dependencies (think measure-tape) and the ones depending on all libraries in a platform (think fidldoc). As a result, any change will likely result in these nodes requiring to be invoked.

The incremental compilation cost of whole view nodes is a double whammy, these nodes need to be ran more often, and they do more work since they look at more sources. With a bit of work -- someone famously said "a simple matter of programming" -- any backend requiring a whole view can be evolved to operate as a percolating node. A healthy pressure to consider such evolution, which typically comes with much complexity and maintenance burden, is to consider the speed benefit to incremental compilation, and to venture on that path when the cost is unbearable.

Beyond the incremental compilation cost of the toolchain itself, there are also downstream impact to consider. Since most of the toolchain generates source code (e.g. C++, Rust, Dart), it tends to be closer to the root of the overall build graph such that any changes to the output of the toolchain (say a change to a generated C++ header) will have a large impact on downstream compilation (e.g. all code depending directly or transitively on this generated C++ header). Minimizing changes to generated sources should therefore be sought. For instance, canonicalizing the output of generators (by avoiding changes to non-meaningful whitespace characters), or comparing the output to a cached version to avoid overwriting content with the same content thus avoiding a timestamp only change (see GN outputs for example details).

Cleaning legacy tech debt, and avoiding more

Following the principles described here, we will be moving the C bindings and coding table generation out of fidlc. Embedding these two generations in the core compiler was done due to historical build complications.

We also plan to remove the "declaration order" from the IR, instead pushing any special ordering down to specific backends.

As described in scaling compilation, the FIDL compiler fidlc will evolve to partition the work by requiring only outputs from direct dependencies (possibly the JSON IR itself), rather than sources of all transitive dependencies.

Lastly, we will avoid accruing more technical debt and instead focus on aligning our work with the direction described here. As an example, the next backend being considered, ABI fingerprinting, will be a percolating backend rather than being embedded in the core compiler.

Prior art

Compare/contrast this to C++ compilation: a C++ compiler typically takes in one C++ source file and produces one object file. At the final program assembling stage called "linking", the linker combines all object files into one binary. This approach works because when compiling one C++ source file in isolation, the compiler sees function declarations about external functions in other C++ source files that the current file depends on, through the use of headers. Similarly, our current JSON IR provides minimal information about foreign library types, akin to a function declaration.

However, this C++ compilation model fared poorly when deeper optimization is desired: when the compiler can only look at the declaration, it has to be very conservative about the actual behavior of the function (e.g. does it always terminate? does it mutate pointer X? does it retain pointer Y thus letting it escape?). Similarly in FIDL, our code generation backends might be able to generate more concise and better code, if it is able to know more about the referenced foreign types. In the case of resourceness and source compatibility, our requirements led to the effect that the backends cannot generate correct code, unless they know the resourceness of all referenced foreign types.

To address this problem, in C++, various compiler implementations started injecting more and more auxiliary data into the object files. For example, both GCC and Clang developed their own serializable IR format expressing more on the behavior of those C++ functions, and packaged those alongside their assembly. The linker would consume both the assembly and IR, and generate better code (called Link Time Optimization). In FIDL, because various backends might need different knowledge about the foreign types, it can be advantageous to decouple the "auxiliary data" from the "object files", i.e. generate backend-specific sidecars next to the main JSON IR. It is true that resourceness is a common attribute that many backends desire. But in the future, LLCPP for example would ideally want to also know whether a type transitively contains out-of-line objects when generating code to close handles (and similarly for encode and decode); Rust would like to determine whether a type transitively contains floats to derive Eq in more situations (though a compiler guarantee would be required to avoid source-compatibility issues).


This RFC serves as the basis for improved documentation of the FIDL toolchain, and toolchain authors are encouraged to properly document the build rules they provide.


As noted.


No impact to performance, this RFC describes requirements and a problem decomposition which is already achieved, albeit not as cleanly.


Not applicable.

Backwards Compatibility

Not applicable.

Security considerations

No security considerations.

Privacy considerations

Improvement to privacy due to a clearer separation of source from IR.


Standard testing of the toolchain.

Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

As noted in text.

  1. Technically, we call FIDL bindings the code generation tool, the supporting runtime libraries needed to use the generated code, as well as the generated code. 

  2. The C-family fidlgens would not want to generate their own domain objects for zx/clock, instead choosing to #include the headers generated from kazoo. Similarly, the Rust fidlgen would import the zx bindings generated by kazoo, instead of generating their own domain objects based on the zx library definition. 

  3. Currently we cannot justify adding a @has_floats attribute (or has_float modifier) to FIDL because the only use case is in fidlgen_rust, and even there it's not a significant problem. If those things change (e.g. several other backends have an analogous PartialEq/Eq problem), it might be justified.