seL4 Manual API Generation

The documentation of the seL4 API in the seL4 manual is automatically generated from comments in libsel4’s source code. This page documents this process.

File Paths

This page will use file paths relative to the root of the seL4 repository. In projects cloned using a repo manifest, this will correspond to the kernel subdirectory of the top-level directory.

Types of API

seL4 has two types of API:

  • System Calls, mostly concerned with message-passing between threads. Some examples are Send and Recv
    • In addition to the message-passing syscalls, there are debugging and benchmarking syscalls which can be enabled with a build flag. These are true syscalls, rather than object invocations.
  • Object Invocations, which are regular message-passing system calls, but whose recipient is effectively the kernel itself, and the message encodes some operation on a Kernel Object. Some examples are TCB_Resume and CNode_Copy.
    • Some kernel objects and object invocations are specific to a particular processor architecture. Some examples are X86_Page_Map, and ARM_VCPU_InjectIrq.

The API documentation in the manual is divided into the following hierarchy:

  • System Calls
    • General System Calls
    • Debugging System Calls
    • Benchmarking System Calls
  • Architecture-Independent Object Methods
  • x86-Specific Object Methods
    • General x86 Object Methods
    • IA32 Object Methods
    • x86_64 Object Methods
  • ARM-Specific Object Methods
    • General ARM Object Methods
    • aarch32 Object Methods
    • aarch64 Object Methods

The process of generating API docs is different between System Calls and Object Invocations, though each process has some parts in common.



Documentation for each seL4 API is written in the form of doxygen comments in C header files. The rest of the seL4 manual is written in LaTeX. To generate API documentation for the manual, we generate LaTeX files from doxygen comments which are then included in the manual.

Rather than using doxygen’s LaTeX output directly, we use doxygen to generate XML files. A custom script then parses the XML and produces the final LaTeX output. This is because we already have an established style for API documentation in our manual, and it was easier to generate LaTeX in this style ourselves from some simple (ie. easy to parse) intermediate format (ie. XML) rather than try to coerce doxygen into generating perfectly-styled LaTeX.

The script that translates doxygen-generated xml into LaTeX is in: manual/tools/

Custom Notation in Doxygen Comments

Some parts of the API documentation reference other parts of the manual. Additionally, there are some custom formatting rules we’d like to apply to the API docs in the manual that aren’t understood by doxygen. To achieve both these goals, we introduce some additional XML tags which we explicitly add to doxygen comments inside @xmlonly … @endxmlonly blocks.

Here’s a description of all the custom tags:

Introduces documentation for a new function. 
The title of the section documenting the function will be NAME. 
Other parts of the manual can refer to this function's documentation with \autoref{sec:LABEL} 
<manual name="NAME" label="LABEL"/>

<!-- Translated to the latex \autoref{sec:SEC} -->
<autoref sec="SEC"/>

<!-- Translated to the latex \ref{sec:SEC} -->
<shortref sec="SEC"/>

<!-- Translated to the latex \errorenumdesc, a custom command defined in manual/parts/api.tex <> -->

<!-- Translated to the latex \obj{NAME}, a custom command defined in manual/manual.tex <> -->
<obj name="NAME"/>

<!-- Translated to the latex \texttt{TEXT} -->
<texttt text="TEXT"/>

Note that these must appear within @xmlonly … @endxmlonly blocks in order to function.

Required Documentation

Each function in the API must have the following documentation:

  • a @xmlonly <manual name="..." label=".../> @endxmlonly tag with the name for use in the manual’s text, and a label for creating references within the manual
  • a @brief description
  • a detailed description
  • a @param description of each argument
  • a @return description of the return value, unless the function is void

Detecting Missing Documentation

If a required part of a function’s documentation is empty, the translation script will insert the LaTeX command \todo, defined in manual/parts/api.tex. It generates the text “TODO” to help readers of the manual identify which parts of the API are undocumented.

Generated LaTeX Files

The LaTeX files generated by the translation script are placed in manual/generated. Doxygen-generated XML files are placed in manual/doxygen-output/xml.

Each API is documented in a separate file. The separation of APIs is implemented using doxygen’s @defgroup directive. Specifically, each API is defined in a separate named group. In the doxygen-generated XML, each group’s documentation is in a separate file. The XML-to-LaTeX script then transforms each relevant XML file into the corresponding LaTeX file.

Doxygen Configuration

The correct behaviour of the manual build system depends on a specific doxygen configuration. A Doxyfile containing this configuration is checked into the kernel repo at manual/Doxyfile

System Calls

A prototype for each system call is declared in libsel4/include/sel4/syscalls.h. Each function is documented with a comment of the form described above.

Object Invocations

Stub Generation

These are more complicated, as the C source code implementing the user-level object invocations functions is generated from some interface descriptions in XML. The following XML files contain object invocation interface descriptions:

There is a script in the sel4 repo for generating C header files from a given interface description: libsel4/tools/ Note that despite its name, the script generates object invocation stubs - not syscall stubs.


Object invocation API documentation is located inline with the interface descriptions in the XML files listed above. The XML language with which the interfaces are described contains tags for documenting functions. For the purpose of validation, the XML schema defining this language is in: libsel4/tools/sel4_idl.dtd. This is a superset of the XML tags used in doxygen comments. The doxygen comment tags described above have the same meaning in the interface description files. Additional tags are used for the description and documentation of object invocation interfaces.

When C code is generated from an interface description file, the documentation inlined in that file is converted into doxygen comments of the form described above.