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Software Design

Principles of Arm Mbed software:

  • Consistent.
  • Intuitive.
  • Simple.
  • Reliable.


Please refer to the Mbed style guide.


The Arm Mbed OS codebase is organized into conceptual submodules to limit the scope and complexity of individual contributions. These modules are contained in the Mbed OS codebase as a single Git repo. We suggest this model for external libraries.

  • Modules should be logically grouped in the OS tree. Avoid generic words; be intentional with naming.

  • Prefix each source file with the module name followed by an underscore. This prevents conflicts with other similarly named files in different modules such as nanostack/thread.c and drivers/Thread.cpp; not all toolchains are able to support object files with the same name.

  • Always include header files using the module directory in the path. For example: #include “lwip/lwip-interface.h”, #include “drivers/Ticker.h”. Limit the include path to the module directory. This allows moving the module in the future.

  • As an entry point for the module (from the user space), we suggest a single header file. For example: mbed.h, rtos.h.

  • Header files should limit external includes to avoid indirectly exposing unrelated APIs. Header files should not expand namespaces.

  • In C++ modules, the API should be contained in a namespace that matches the module’s name. For example: mbed::Ticker, rtos::Thread, netsocket::Socket.

  • Define the internal class types in each C++ module inside an anonymous namespace. In C++, you cannot have different definitions of the same class name in different source files, even if they are not externally visible. In practice, a name collision often doesn't cause a problem; however, it can cause a build failure when link time optimization (LTO) is enabled, or a runtime failure if templates are instantiated using the internal classes.

  • In C modules, every nonstatic function and type should be prefixed with the module’s name followed by an underscore. For example: mbed_critical_section_enter(), lwip_gethostbyname(host).

  • A module contained in the Mbed OS codebase may be mirrored in a separate repo. The source repo should be clearly identified and linked to from the module's README.

  • Special directories should follow consistent naming convention.


  1. Please refer to the Mbed contribution guide.

  2. Each pull request should serve a single purpose.

  3. The code must compile every commit.

  4. Commit message should be prefixed with the submodule name and a colon:

    lwip: Fixed buffer overrun in rx loop
    The rx loop did not properly wait for rx semaphore to release
    causing the buffer to overrun
  5. Patches must land on master before being backported to one or more release branches.

  6. Feature development may happen in a separate branch, and brought to master when complete.

  7. The master branch and release branches must never be rewritten.

  8. For incoming sources, the only acceptable licenses are:

    • MIT.
    • Apache.
    • Permissive Binary License.

API design

A general module can be split into two APIs, the frontend (or user API) and the backend (or porting layer). The user API describes the programmer interface that the library implements. For Mbed OS, the user-facing API should adopt a C++ class-based interface, while the porting layer should adopt a C-compatible interface.

API design - user API

  • Each module should provide an object-oriented C++ user API.
  • The current standard is strictly C++03 (for portability).
  • State should be contained in relevant C++ classes.
  • Think twice before adopting language features that don't exist in the codebase:
    • Think C with the good parts of C++.
    • Don't make users learn new things.
    • Exceptions and RTTI are disabled.
    • Avoid the STL due to unknown effect on system resources.
  • Prefer C language features over C++ language features:
    • Use different function names over ambiguous overloads.
    • Do use uint8_t read_8(void), uint16_t read_16(void), uint32_t read_32(void).
    • Do use void write_8(uint8_t), void write_16(uint16_t), void write_32(uint32_t).
    • Limit templates to types and array-sizes.
  • Use pointers and references based on the following rules. Use appropriate documentation where ownership may be ambiguous:
    • Use a copy or immutable reference to pass types with value semantics.
    • Use a pointer to borrow ownership of dynamic polymorphic classes.
    • Use a pointer to transfer ownership of dynamic polymorphic classes. Clearly document transferred ownership.
    • Use pointers over references:
      • More familiar to C users.
    • Ownership is syntactically clear.
  • Organize classes into two types:
    • Types with value semantics such as SocketAddress and Callback.
    • User-friendly alternatives to builtin-types.
      • Cannot be extended (suffer from object slicing).
    • Pass by value, no memory management needed (handled on stack).
    • If possible, pass by const-reference to reduce copying.
    • Must be cheap to copy.
    • Should be small (<= 16 bytes). This does not include indirectly referenced memory.
    • Dynamic polymorphic classes such as Ticker and EthernetInterface:
      • Participate in class hierarchy.
      • Can be abstracted by interfaces.
      • Extendable - should have virtual table. Must contain virtual destructor if overloadable.
      • Passed by pointer; memory management should be left up to user.
      • Should declare copy constructor and copy assignment operator as private. If copying is really needed, we suggest a virtual clone member function, to avoid issues with slicing and indicate that the clone is a nontrivial operation.
      • If a class contains a very large memory region (> 64 bytes), prefer dynamically allocating the region; it prevents stack overflows if the user instantiates the class on the stack.
  • A class should have one responsibility. For example: UDPSocket vs TCPSocket, Ticker vs Timer.
  • Use inheritance for an “is a” relationship. For example: UDPSocket and Socket.
    • Prefer abstract base classes over template-based polymorphism to avoid code size increase.
    • Prefer composing abstract interfaces in C++ code over preprocessor-based conditional compilation and other forms of indirect dispatch.
  • Do not declare objects in global scope (applications should allocate global objects). Objects declared in global scope rarely get garbage-collected by compilers during link time. This can cause significant bloat in the size of an application.
  • Use get/set functions with private member variables to hide internal state from the user.
  • Avoid operations that can fail if you can't signal an error. Class constructors should not fail.
  • Nonrecoverable errors (such as OOM and mutex lock in interrupt) should not return to users.
  • Recoverable errors (such as UDP packet loss) should be propagated to the user via error code.
  • Handle deprecation with care. We do not remove deprecated APIs until the next major OS revision. Reasons for deprecation include:
    • Design pattern traps that cause developers to write incorrect code.
    • Code that is functionally incorrect.
    • Code that is not safe (synchronization) or that results in undefined behavior.

API design - porting layer

  • Each module should provide a C-compatible porting layer.
  • The current standards are strictly C99 (for portability).
  • The porting layer should make no assumptions about how it is consumed.
  • State should be contained in a struct passed by pointer from the user API. Avoid global state.
  • The porting layer should be designed to allow as much variance in the implementation as is reasonable.
  • Simplicity is beautiful.

Thread and IRQ safety

  • User APIs should be thread safe.
  • If a user API is intended to be interrupt safe, this should be clearly documented.
  • If a user API is unable to be thread safe, this should be clearly documented with warning notation. Use a consistent form across all APIs: "warning: not thread safe".
  • A module’s porting layer should be designed for implementations that are not thread safe.
  • If a callback is called in interrupt context, the API responsible should be clearly documented with a warning. Use a consistent form across all APIs: "warning: called from interrupt context"

Experimental APIs

All new APIs are considered experimental APIs and identified with FEATURE_EXPERIMENTAL_API:

  • For simple APIs (only one source file, or one source file and one header file), or when adding an experimental API to a stable library, use the flag as a preprocessor ifdef in the source file:

        // Code
  • For full subsystems or libraries, place them under the directory FEATURE_EXPERIMENTAL_API.

The build system only compiles files under this directory, or using this IFDEF, if the user includes them in the application's configuration.


  • Document all entities in a .h file using doxygen comment blocks.

    Doxygen comment blocks start with /** or /*! and end with */, and you put them above the documented entity.

    For example:

    /** psa_crypto_ipc_s struct used for some of the
     * PSA Crypto APIs that need psa_key_handle_t and psa_algorithm_t arguments.
     * To use the existing infrastructure of the SPM-IPC we provide a struct to
     * pack them together.
    typedef struct psa_crypto_ipc_s {

    Each line of a long comment block also starts with *.

  • Begin each .h file by documenting the file name and providing a short description of the file using the \file and \brief commands:

     * @file <file name>
     * @brief <short file description>

    These are the file names and descriptions that appear on the Files page of the generated documentation.

    Note: Doxygen commands start with a backslash (\) or an at sign (@). You can use the \ and @characters interchangeably in commands; for example, you can use \file or @file.

  • Doxygen enables you to group entities. These groups are called modules in doxygen, and they are listed on the Modules page of the generated documentation.

    To define a module:

    Use the @defgroup command, and provide a short description of the group using the @brief command:

     * ...
     * @defgroup <one-word identifier; not in generated documentation> <group name; appears in the documentation>
     * @brief <short group description>

    For example:

     * @defgroup psa_cryto PSA Crypto APIs
     * @brief PSA cryptography module, which contains Mbed TLS platfom definitions.

    Note: The one-word identifier immediately following the @defgroup command - for instance, psa_cryto in the example above - is not part of the group name in the generated documentation.

    To add a member to a module:

    Use the @ingroup command. You can also group members using the open marker @{ before the group and the closing marker @} after the group.

    Alternatively, use the @addtogroup <label> command inside a documentation block to add an entity to a group.

  • For each function and class in a module, provide a doxygen comment that documents the function and each argument and return value:

    /** Wait until a Mutex becomes available.
     * @param   millisec  timeout value or 0 in case of no time-out. (default: osWaitForever)
     * @return  status code that indicates the execution status of the function.
     osStatus lock(uint32_t millisec=osWaitForever);
  • The doxygen of each class's header file must contain a use example using @code and @endcode.

  • Each API should also provide an @code and @endcode section building upon the class header example.

  • If more specific information is needed about a method, provide this information using the @note command.

  • If a method is deprecated, it must use the @deprecated tag and include a description of what method to replace it with.

  • Each module should provide a README that documents the module:

    • The README should start with a small paragraph describing the module to users with no prior knowledge.
    • The README should contain a code example showing how to use the module.
    • If a module contains a porting layer, the README should include porting instructions.
    • If a module contains tests, the README should provide testing instruction.
  • Extended documentation should be located in the module’s docs directory with appropriate links from the module’s README.


  • Each module should contain a tests directory with tests that cover the module’s functionality.
  • Tests should be organized based on the class being tested; roughly one test file per class.
  • Tests included in the codebase must be compatible with the Mbed OS test framework.
  • To avoid regressions, every bug fix should include an additional test case that identifies the bug and deterministically fails before the bug is fixed.

Full documentation.


Mbed OS provides a powerful configuration system for application development. However, modules should also be concerned with remaining configurable outside of the Mbed build system. Modules should provide well-documented configuration options in a simple header file.

  • Each module should provide a module_lib.json (or similar) with configuration options.
  • Each config option should contain documentation covering its purpose and effect on the system.
  • To help port new targets, each config option should provide a reasonable default (in case the config option is not defined).
  • Config options should not change the behavior of the API.
    • Prefer multiple classes where different functionality is needed in the user API.
  • Targets and applications should be able to override each configuration.
  • The default choice of optimization should be size, on all boards.

Full documentation.

Design process and template

If you are designing a new feature or software module for Mbed OS, you must follow the design process and guidelines that the design process for Mbed OS describes.

A software design document template is available. An example design document is also available for reference.

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