A few years back I was working on a pair of gnuradio blocks. The first one would produce a “report” that we stored in a pmt dictionary. The second block would read in the “report” and do some processing based on the contents.

I’m a big fan of data validation, so I wanted to ensure that the received pmt had the exact structure that we were expecting. I started to write a function to check that the pmt was a dictionary, had all of the correct keys, and all of the values had the correct types. This proved to be extremely difficult. The pmt interface can be inconsistent and non-intuitive. As I was banging my head against the wall in frustration, I turned to a co-worker and said something like “This isn’t that hard - I could do something better.” A few minutes later, it dawned on me - GNURadio is an open source project - I really could do something better.

I sent a message on the GNURadio message boards and found out that a new version of pmts was already in the works using flatbuffers. One of my biggest complaints about the original pmts was the user interface. I wanted to introduce modern c++ concepts into the design to make them easier and safer to use. An an example:

// Old pmt list creation (non uniform)
pmt_t p1 = pmt_integer(1);
pmt_t p2 = pmt_integer(2);
pmt_t p3 = pmt_integer(3);

pmt_t p_list = pmt_list3(p1, p2, p3);

// New pmt list creation using initializer lists
pmt p_list_new{std::vector<pmt>{1,2,3}};


For maps, it is also much easier

// Old pmt map iteration (assume dict var defined earlier)
// Items is a list of pairs
auto items = pmt::dict_items(dict);
auto length = pmt::length(items);
for (size_t i = 0; i < length; i++) {
// Get the key and value
auto ref = pmt::vector_ref(items, i);
auto key = pmt::car(ref);
auto value = pmt::cdr(ref);
std::cout << key << ": " << value << std::endl;
}

// New pmt map
// Interpret the pmt as a map and iterate over the keys/values
for (auto& [k, v]: std::get<pmt::map_t>(dict)) {
std::cout << key << ": " << value << std::endl;
}


### If it’s worth writing, it’s worth rewriting

When I took on the pmt redeisng, a proposed new pmt interface using flatbuffers was largely written. I went about creating a more friendly developer interface. In order to not mess with the existing code, I wrote wrapper classes that contained all of the modern c++ features. When all was said and done we ended up with some code that resembled Frankenstein. To achieve dynamic types we were using flatbuffers, polymorphic types, templates, and std::variants. To make matters worse, we did some benchmarking and found that although the new pmts were faster in some important cases, they were significantly slower in the case of serializing vectors of contiguous data - which is a really important case. I did some digging and found that throughout our many wrappers and dynamic types we copied the data twice when serializing vectors. This was a fundamental design flaw that was not easily fixable.

I went about redesigning the pmt classes to remove layers of wrappers which greatly simplied the design. It took a lot of effort, but we were able to get rid of the extra vector memcpy without changing the user interface at all. I ran all of the old benchmarks and we were better on every one.

Then I made the mistake of creating new benchmarks, starting out with one that measured object construction time. It turns out that in most cases, the new pmt class was significantly slower than the old pmt class. Digging into it, I discovered that the “problem” was the flatbuffers. flatbuffers allow us to store arbitrary structures of data efficiently. However, the way we were using it involved storing a very small amount of data in many flatbuffers instead of a larger amount of data in a single flatbuffer…back to the drawing board.

The c++17 standard introduced std::variant which is typesafe union of types. This looked like the best way to solve the construction problem. flatbuffers have a few tables with pointers that need to be instantiated every time in addition to the data. An std::variant only requires the data and an index that specifies which type is being stored. Switching to the std::variant also simplified the code greatly. For the flatbuffers, I had to write my own wrapper classes that acted like std::vector and std::map but also allows us to manipulate the underlying flatbuffer. Using the std::variant, those wrappers were no longer needed.

I think it’s time to write more benchmarks, but from what I have seen so far, it looks like we have succeeded at creating a more user friendly interface that is at least as fast (and in some cases significantly faster) than the previous pmt implementation.

### Are we there yet?

I believe that the primary functionality of the pmt is there, so I’m not planning on having to rewrite it again (hopefully). There are a few key improvements that will add more value to the library.

#### Custom memory allocators

The std::map and std::vector classes allow for the user to set a custom memory allocator. We could for example use a memory pool or allocate the vector in CUDA unified memory.

#### Struct Conversion

A common task is to convert to and from a struct and a pmt. For example, in a spectrum survey application, I may have a structure defined that defines information about a detected signal such as center frequency and bandwidth. Once a signal is detected, we want to send the information to another block as a pmt. It is annoying and error prone to write the code on the send and receive side for pulling the data in and out of a struct.

There is a new c++ library called refl-cpp that allows us to query information about structures at compile-time. The goal is to allow to the developer to use functions like:

auto struct_pmt = struct_to_pmt(my_struct);
auto struct_out = pmt_to_struct<struct_type>(struct_pmt);


#### Data Validation

This whole journey started because I wanted to validate incoming data. Although, I think the task is much simpler now, I still think it could be easier and I think that refl-cpp can again help us out here. We can write a validation function that works like:

bool valid = validate_struct<struct_type>(struct_pmt);
// if valid -> then we know we can call pmt_to_struct without issue