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5.7 Calling System Functions

Historically, C implementations differed substantially, and many systems lacked a full implementation of ANSI/ISO C89. Nowadays, however, all practical systems have a C89 compiler and GNU C supports almost all of C99 and some of C11. Similarly, most systems implement POSIX.1-2001 libraries and tools, and many have POSIX.1-2008.

Hence, there is little reason to support old C or non-POSIX systems, and you may want to take advantage of standard C and POSIX to write clearer, more portable, or faster code. You should use standard interfaces where possible; but if GNU extensions make your program more maintainable, powerful, or otherwise better, don’t hesitate to use them. In any case, don’t make your own declaration of system functions; that’s a recipe for conflict.

Despite the standards, nearly every library function has some sort of portability issue on some system or another. Here are some examples:


Names with trailing /’s are mishandled on many platforms.


long double may be unimplemented; floating values Infinity and NaN are often mishandled; output for large precisions may be incorrect.


May return int instead of ssize_t.


On Windows, errno is not set on failure.

Gnulib is a big help in this regard. Gnulib provides implementations of standard interfaces on many of the systems that lack them, including portable implementations of enhanced GNU interfaces, thereby making their use portable, and of POSIX-1.2008 interfaces, some of which are missing even on up-to-date GNU systems.

Gnulib also provides many useful non-standard interfaces; for example, C implementations of standard data structures (hash tables, binary trees), error-checking type-safe wrappers for memory allocation functions (xmalloc, xrealloc), and output of error messages.

Gnulib integrates with GNU Autoconf and Automake to remove much of the burden of writing portable code from the programmer: Gnulib makes your configure script automatically determine what features are missing and use the Gnulib code to supply the missing pieces.

The Gnulib and Autoconf manuals have extensive sections on portability: Introduction in Gnulib and see Portable C and C++ in Autoconf. Please consult them for many more details.

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