Tip 67: Document your code with Doxygen

13 February 12. [link] PDF version

level: Your list of functions is getting longer
purpose: make it harder to be lazy

Part of a series of tips on POSIX and C. Start from the tip intro page, or get 21st Century C, the book based on this series.

You need documentation. You know this, and you know that you need to keep it current when the code changes. Yet, somehow, documentation is so often the first thing to fall by the wayside. It is so very easy to say it runs; I'll document it later.

So you need to make writing the documentation as easy as physically possible. The immediate implication is that you have the documentation for the code in the same file as the code, as close as possible to the code being documented. The immediate implication of this is that you're going to need a means of extracting the documentation from the code file.

I'll present two means of doing this: Doxygen and CWEB.

Doxygen is a simpler system with simpler goals. It works best for attaching a description to each function, struct, or other such block. This is the case of documenting an interface for users who will never care to look at the code itself. The description will be in a comment block right on top of the function, struct, &c., so it is easy to write the documentation comment, then write the function to live up to the promises you just made.

CWEB is based on Donald Knuth's WEB program, which implemented what Knuth calls literate programming. The intent here is to take that write the documentation first advice to the extreme, and allow you to write a free-form description of your code, with code interspersed here and there to formalize the description for the computer. I'll show you some CWEB next time.

The syntax for Doxygen is simple enough, and a few bullet points will have you well on your way to using it:

To run it, you will need a configuration file, and there are a lot of options to configure. Doxygen has a clever trick for handling this: run

doxygen -g

and it will write a configuration file for you. You can then open it and edit as needed; it is of course very well documented. After that, run doxygen by itself to generate the outputs, including HTML, PDF, XML, or manual pages, as per your specification.

The narrative

Your documentation should contain at least two parts: the technical documentation describing the function-by-function details, and a narrative explaining to users what the package is about and how to get their bearings.

Start with a comment block with the header \mainpage. This can be anywhere in your code. You could put it close to the code itself, or the narrative may make sense as an separate file consisting entirely of Doxygen comment blocks, maybe named documentation.h. If you are producing HTML output, this will be the index.html of your web site--the first page readers should see. From there, add as many pages as you'd like. Subsequent pages have a header of the form

/** \page onewordtag The title of your page

Back on the main page (or any other, including function documentation), add \ref onewordtag to produce a link to the page you wrote. You can tag and name the mainpage as well, if need be.

An example

Here goes. This program gets a lot done, and the documentation via Doxygen looks good. Read the documentation to see what it does and how to run it.

/** \file */
#include <stdio.h>
#include <curl/curl.h>
#include <libxml2/libxml/xpath.h>

/** \mainpage 
  The front page of the Grey Lady's web site is as gaudy as can be, including several
  headlines and sections trying to get your attention, various formatting schemes,
  and even photographs--in <em>color</em>.

 This program reads in the NYT headlines RSS feed, and writes a simple list in plain
 HTML. You can then click through to the headline that modestly grabs your attention.

 For notes on compilation, see the \ref compilation page.

/** \page compilation Compiling the program

Save the following code to \c makefile.

Notice that cURL has a program, \c curl-config, that behaves like \c pkg-config,
but is cURL-specific. I do not know why they did this.

CFLAGS =-g -Wall -std=gnu99 -O3  `curl-config --cflags` 
LDLIBS=`curl-config --libs ` -lxml2

Having saved your makefile, if you name this here code file to \c headlines.c, then
use <tt>make headlines</tt> to compile. 

Of course, you have to have the development packages for libcurl and libxml2 installed
for this to work.  

//These have in-line Doxygen documentation. The < points to the prior text 
//being documented.
char *rss_url = "http://feeds.nytimes.com/nyt/rss/HomePage"; /**< The URL for an NYT RSS. */
char *rssfile = "nytimes_feeds.rss";        /**< A local file to write the RSS to. */
char *outfile = "now.html";                 /**< The output file to open in your browser. */

/** Check an assertion; print a message to stderr and exit if the assertion fails. */
#define stopifnot(assertion, ...) if (!(assertion)){fprintf(stderr, __VA_ARGS__); exit(1);}

/** Print a list of headlines to the outfile, which is overwritten without apology. 
  \param urls The list of urls. This should have been tested for non-NULLness
  \param titles The list of titles, also pre-tested to be non-NULL. If the length of
      the \c urls list or the \c titles list is \c NULL, this will crash.
void print_to_html(xmlXPathObjectPtr urls, xmlXPathObjectPtr titles){
    FILE *f = fopen(outfile, "w");
    for (int i=0; i< titles->nodesetval->nodeNr; i++)
        fprintf(f, "<a href=\"%s\">%s</a><br>\n"
                 , xmlNodeGetContent(urls->nodesetval->nodeTab[i])
                 , xmlNodeGetContent(titles->nodesetval->nodeTab[i]));

/** Parse an RSS feed on the hard drive. This will parse the XML, then find all nodes
  matching the XPath for the title elements and all nodes matching the XPath for the links.
  Then, it will write those to the outfile.

  \param infile The RSS file in.
void parse(char *infile){
    xmlDocPtr doc = xmlParseFile(infile);
    stopifnot(doc, "Error: unable to parse file \"%s\"\n", infile);

    xmlXPathContextPtr context = xmlXPathNewContext(doc);
    stopifnot(context, "Error: unable to create new XPath context\n");

	const xmlChar *titlepath= (xmlChar*)"//item/title";
	const xmlChar *linkpath= (xmlChar*)"//item/link";
    xmlXPathObjectPtr titles = xmlXPathEvalExpression(titlepath, context);
    xmlXPathObjectPtr urls = xmlXPathEvalExpression(linkpath, context);
    stopifnot(titles && urls, "either the Xpath '//item/title' or '//item/link' failed.");

    print_to_html(urls, titles);


/** Use cURL's easy interface to download the current RSS feed.

\param url The URL of the NY Times RSS feed. It may be that any of the ones listed at 
            \url http://www.nytimes.com/services/xml/rss/nyt/ will work.
\param outfile The headline file to write to your hard drive. I'll first save the
        RSS feed to this location, then overwrite it with the short list of links.

 \return 1==OK, 0==failure.
int get_rss(char *url, char *outfile){
    FILE *feedfile = fopen(outfile, "w");
    if (!feedfile) return -1;

    CURL *curl = curl_easy_init();
    if(!curl) return -1;
    curl_easy_setopt(curl, CURLOPT_URL, url);
    curl_easy_setopt(curl, CURLOPT_WRITEDATA, feedfile);
    CURLcode res = curl_easy_perform(curl);
    if (!res) return -1;

    return 0;
int main(void) {
    stopifnot(get_rss(rss_url, outfile), "failed to download %s to %s.\n", rss_url, rssfile);

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