Inspection File Format

This document describes the Component Inspection File Format (Inspect Format).

Files formatted using the Inspect Format are known as Inspect Files, which commonly have a .inspect file extension.


Component Inspection provides components with the ability to expose structured, hierarchical information about their state at runtime.

Components host a mapped Virtual Memory Object (VMO) using the Inspect Format to expose an Inspect Hierarchy containing this internal state.

An Inspect Hierarchy consists of nested Nodes containing typed Properties.


The Inspect Format described in this document has the following goals:

  • Low-overhead mutations to data

The Inspect File Format allows data to be changed in-place. For instance, the overhead of incrementing an integer is ~2 atomic increments.

  • Support a non-static hierarchy

The hierarchy stored in an Inspect File can be modified at runtime. Children can be added or removed from the hierarchy at any time. In this way, the hierarchy can closely represent the hierarchy of objects in the component's working set.

  • Single writer, multiple reader concurrency without explicit synchronization

Readers operating concurrently with the writer map the VMO and attempt to take a snapshot of the data. Writers indicate being in a critical section though a generation counter that requires no explicit synchronization with readers. Readers use the generation counter to determine when a snapshot of the VMO is consistent and may be safely read.

  • Data may remain available after component termination

A reader may maintain a handle to the VMO containing Inspect data even after the writing component terminates.


This section defines common terminology used in this document.

  • Inspect File - A bounded sequence of bytes using the format described in this document.
  • Inspect VMO - An Inspect File stored in a Virtual Memory Object (VMO).
  • Block - A sized section of an Inspect File. Blocks have an Index and an Order.
  • Index - A unique identifier for a particular Block. byte_offset = index * 16
  • Order - The size of a block given as a bit shift from the minimum size. size_in_bytes = 16 << order. Separates blocks into classes by their (power of two) size.
  • Node - A named value in the hierarchy under which other values may be nested. Only Nodes may be parents in the Hierarchy.
  • Property - A named value that contains typed data (e.g. String, Integer, etc).
  • Hierarchy - A tree of Nodes, descending from a single "root" node, that may each contain Properties. An Inspect File contains a single Hierarchy.

This document uses MUST, SHOULD/RECOMMENDED, and MAY keywords as defined in RFC 2119

All bit field diagrams are stored in little-endian ordering.


Inspect files are split into a number of Blocks whose size must be a power of 2.

The minimum block size must be 16 bytes (MIN_BLOCK_SIZE) and the maximum block size must be a multiple of 16 bytes. Implementers are recommended specify a maximum block size less than the size of a page (typically 4096 bytes). In our reference implementation, the maximum block size is 2048 bytes (MAX_BLOCK_SIZE).

All blocks must be aligned on 16-byte boundaries, and addressing within the VMO is in terms of an Index, specifying a 16-byte offsets (offset = index * 16).

We use 28 bits for indexes, so Inspect Files may be at most 4GiB.

A block_header consists of 16 bytes as follows:

Figure: Block header organization

Each block has an order, specifying its size.

If the maximum block size is 2048 bytes, then there are 8 possible block orders (NUM_ORDERS), numbered 0...7, corresponding to blocks of sizes 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, and 2048 bytes respectively.

Each block also has a type, which is used to determine how the rest of the bytes in the block are to be interpreted.

Buddy Allocation

This block layout permits efficient allocation of blocks using buddy allocation. Buddy allocation is the recommended allocation strategy, but it is not a requirement for using the Inspect Format.


All the supported types are defined in //zircon/system/ulib/inspect/include/lib/inspect/cpp/vmo/block.h which fall into categories as follows:

enum value type name category
kFree 0 FREE Internal
kReserved 1 RESERVED Internal
kHeader 2 HEADER Header
kNodeValue 3 NODE_VALUE Value
kIntValue 4 INT_VALUE Value
kUintValue 5 UINT_VALUE Value
kDoubleValue 6 DOUBLE_VALUE Value
kPropertyValue 7 PROPERTY_VALUE Value
kExtent 8 EXTENT Extent
kName 9 NAME Name
kTombstone 10 TOMBSTONE Value
kArrayValue 11 ARRAY_VALUE Value
kLinkValue 12 LINK_VALUE Value
  • Internal - These types are provided for implementing block allocation, and they must be ignored by readers.

  • Header - This type allows readers to detect Inspect Files and reason about snapshot consistency. This block must exist at index 0.

  • Value - These types appear directly in the hierarchy. Values must have a Name and a parent (which must be a NODE_VALUE).

  • Extent - This type stores long binary data that may not fit in a single block.

  • Name - This type stores binary data that fits in a single block, and it is typically used to store the name of values.

Each type interprets the payload differently, as follows:


Figure: Free block

A FREE block is available for allocation. Importantly, the zero-valued block (16 bytes of \0) is interpreted as a FREE block of order 0, so buffers may simply be zeroed to free all blocks.

Writer implementations may use the unused bits from 8..63 of FREE blocks for any purpose. Writer implementation must set all other unused bits to 0.

It is recommended that writers use the location specified above to store the index of the next free block of the same order. Using this field, free blocks may create singly linked lists of free blocks of each size for fast allocation. The end of the list is reached when NextFreeBlock points to a location that is either not FREE or not of the same order (commonly the Header block at index 0).


Figure: Reserved block

RESERVED blocks are simply available to be changed to a different type. It is an optional transitional state between the allocation of a block and setting its type that is useful for correctness checking of implementations (to ensure that blocks that are about to be used are not treated as free).

Figure: Header block

There must be one HEADER block at the beginning of the file. It consists of a Magic Number ("INSP"), a Version (currently 0), and the Generation Count for concurrency control. The first byte of the header must not be a valid ASCII character.

See the next section for how concurrency control must be implemented using the generation count.


Figure: general value block

Values all start with the same prefix, consisting of the index of the parent for the value and the index of the name associated with the value.

The payload is interpreted differently depending on the type of value, as below.


Figure: Node and Tombstone blocks

Nodes are anchor points for further nesting, and the ParentID field of values must only refer to blocks of type NODE_VALUE.

NODE_VALUE blocks support optional reference counting and tombstoning to permit efficient implementations as follows:

The Refcount field may contain the number of values referencing a given NODE_VALUE as their parent. On deletion, the NODE_VALUE becomes a new special type called TOMBSTONE. TOMBSTONEs are deleted only when their Refcount is 0.

This allows for writer implementations that do not need to explicitly keep track of children for Nodes, and it prevents the following scenario:

// "b" has a parent "a"
Index | Value
0     | HEADER
1     | NODE "a", parent 0
2     | NODE "b", parent 1

/* delete "a", allocate "c" as a child of "b" which reuses index 1 */

// "b"'s parent is now suddenly "c", introducing a cycle!
Index | Value
0     | HEADER
1     | NODE "c", parent 2
2     | NODE "b", parent 1


Figure: Numeric type block

Numeric VALUE blocks all contain the 64-bit numeric type inlined into the second 8 bytes of the block.


Figure: Property value block

General PROPERTY_VALUE blocks reference arbitrary byte data across one or more linked EXTENT blocks.

PROPERTY_VALUE blocks contain the index of the first EXTENT block holding the binary data, and they contain the total length of the data in bytes across all extents.

The format flags specify how the byte data should be interpreted, as follows:

Enum Value Meaning
kUtf8 0 The byte data may be interpreted as a UTF-8 string.
kBinary 1 The byte data is arbitrary binary data and may not be printable.


Figure: Extent block

EXTENT blocks contain an arbitrary byte data payload and the index of the next EXTENT in the chain. The byte data for a property is retrieved by reading each EXTENT in order until Total Length bytes are read.


Figure: Name block

NAME blocks give objects and values a human-readable identifier. They consist of a UTF-8 payload that fits entirely within the given block.


Figure: Array block

ARRAY_VALUE blocks contain an array of specifically 64-bit numeric values. The Stored Value Type field is interpreted exactly like the Type field, but may only indicate INT_VALUE, UINT_VALUE, or DOUBLE_VALUE.

Exactly Count entries of the given Stored Value Type appear in the bytes at offset 16 into the block.

The Display Format field is used to affect how the array should be displayed, and it is interpreted as follows:

Enum Value Description
kFlat 0 Display as an ordered flat array with no additional formatting.
kLinearHistogram 1 Interpret the first two entries as floor and step_size parameters for a linear histogram, as defined below.
kExponentialHistogram 2 Interpret the first three entries as floor, initial_step, and step_multiplier for an exponential histogram, as defined below.

Linear Histogram

The array is a linear histogram that stores its parameters inline and contains both an overflow and underflow bucket.

The first two elements are parameters floor and step_size, respectively (as defined below).

The number of buckets (N) is implicitly Count - 4.

The remaining elements are buckets:

2:     (-inf, floor),
3:     [floor, floor+step_size),
i+3:   [floor + step_size*i, floor + step_size*(i+1)),
N+3:   [floor+step_size*N, +inf)

Exponential Histogram

The array is an exponential histogram that stores its parameters inline and contains both an overflow and underflow bucket.

The first three elements are parameters floor, initial_step, and step_multiplier respectively (as defined below).

The number of buckets (N) is implicitly Count - 5.

The remaining are buckets:

3:     (-inf, floor),
4:     [floor, floor+initial_step),
i+4:   [floor + initial_step * step_multiplier^i, floor + initial_step * step_multiplier^(i+1))
N+4:   [floor + initial_step * step_multiplier^N, +inf)

Figure: Link block

LINK_VALUE blocks allow nodes to support children that are present in a separate Inspect File.

The Content Index specifies another NAME block whose contents are a unique identifier referring to another Inspect File. Readers are expected to obtain a bundle of (Identifier, File) pairs (through either a directory read or another interface) and they may attempt to follow links by splicing the trees together using the stored identifiers.

The Disposition Flags instruct readers on how to splice the trees, as follows:

Enum Value Description
kChildDisposition 0 The hierarchy stored in the linked file should be a child of the LINK_VALUE's parent.
kInlineDisposition 1 The children and properties of the root stored in the linked file should be added to the LINK_VALUE's parent.

For example:

// root.inspect
  int_value = 10
  child = LINK("other.inspect")

// other.inspect
  test = "Hello World"
    value = 0

// kChildDisposition produces:
  int_value = 10
    test = "Hello World"
      value = 0

// kInlineDisposition produces:
  int_value = 10
  test = "Hello World"
    value = 0

In the event of a collision in child names between a Node and values being added by its inline linked child, precedence is reader defined. Most readers, however, would find it useful to have linked values take precedence so they may override the original values.

Concurrency Control

Writers must use a global version counter so that readers can detect in-flight modifications and modifications between reads without communicating with the writer. This supports single-writer multi-reader concurrency.

The strategy is for writers to increment a global generation counter both when they begin and when they end a write operation.

This is a simple strategy with a significant benefit: between incrementing the version number for beginning and ending a write the writer can perform any number of operations on the buffer without regard for atomicity of data updates.

The main drawback is that reads could be delayed indefinitely due to a frequently updating writer, but readers can have mitigations in place in practice.

Reader Algorithm

Readers use the following algorithm to obtain a consistent snapshot of an Inspect VMO:

  1. Spinlock until the version number is even (no concurrent write),
  2. Copy the entire VMO buffer, and
  3. Check that the version number from the buffer is equal to the version number from step 1.

As long as the version numbers match, the client may read their local copy to construct the shared state. If the version numbers do not match, the client may retry the whole process.

Writer Lock Algorithm

Writers lock an Inspect VMO for modification by doing the following:

atomically_increment(generation_counter, acquire_ordering);

This locks the file against concurrent reads by setting the generation to an odd number. Acquire ordering ensures that loads are not reordered before this change.

Writer Unlock Algorithm

Writers unlock an Inspect VMO following modification by doing the following:

atomically_increment(generation_counter, release_ordering);

Unlock the file allowing concurrent reads by setting the generation to a new even number. Release ordering ensures that writes to the file are visible before the generation count update is visible.