The Common Lisp Cookbook – Scripting. Command line arguments. Executables.

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The Common Lisp Cookbook – Scripting. Command line arguments. Executables.

Using a program from a REPL is fine and well, but if we want to distribute our program easily, we’ll want to build an executable.

Lisp implementations differ in their processes, but they all create self-contained executables, for the architecture they are built on. The final user doesn’t need to install a Lisp implementation, he can run the software right away.

Start-up times are near to zero, specially with SBCL and CCL.

Binaries size are large-ish. They include the whole Lisp including its libraries, the names of all symbols, information about argument lists to functions, the compiler, the debugger, source code location information, and more.

Note that we can similarly build self-contained executables for web apps.

Building a self-contained executable


How to build (self-contained) executables is implementation-specific (see below Buildapp and Rowsell). With SBCL, as says its documentation, it is a matter of:

(sb-ext:save-lisp-and-die #P"path/name-of-executable" :toplevel #'my-app:main-function :executable t)

sb-ext is an SBCL extension to run external processes. See other SBCL extensions (many of them are made implementation-portable in other libraries).

:executable t tells to build an executable instead of an image. We could build an image to save the state of our current Lisp image, to come back working with it later. Specially useful if we made a lot of work that is computing intensive.

If you try to run this in Slime, you’ll get an error about threads running:

Cannot save core with multiple threads running.

Run the command from a simple SBCL repl.

I suppose your project has Quicklisp dependencies. You must then:

That gives:

(load "my-app.asd")
(ql:quickload :my-app)
(sb-ext:save-lisp-and-die #p"my-app-binary" :toplevel #'my-app:main :executable t)

From the command line, or from a Makefile, use --load and --eval:

	sbcl --load my-app.asd \
	     --eval '(ql:quickload :my-app)' \
         --eval "(sb-ext:save-lisp-and-die #p\"my-app\" :toplevel #'my-app:main :executable t)"


Now that we’ve seen the basics, we need a portable method. Since its version 3.1, ASDF allows to do that. It introduces the make command, that reads parameters from the .asd. Add this to your .asd declaration:

:build-operation "program-op" ;; leave as is
:build-pathname "<binary-name>"
:entry-point "<my-package:main-function>"

and call asdf:make :my-package.

So, in a Makefile:

LISP ?= sbcl

    $(LISP) --load my-app.asd \
    	--eval '(ql:quickload :my-app)' \
		--eval '(asdf:make :my-app)' \
		--eval '(quit)'

With Roswell or Buildapp

Roswell, an implementation manager and much more, also has the ros build command, that should work for many implementations.

We can also make our app installable with Roswell by a ros install my-app. See its documentation.

We’ll finish with a word on Buildapp, a battle-tested and still popular “application for SBCL or CCL that configures and saves an executable Common Lisp image”.

Example usage:

buildapp --output myapp \
         --asdf-path . \
         --asdf-tree ~/quicklisp/dists \
         --load-system my-app \
         --entry my-app:main

Many applications use it (for example, pgloader), it is available on Debian: apt install buildapp, but you shouldn’t need it now with asdf:make or Roswell.

For web apps

We can similarly build a self-contained executable for our web-app. It would thus contain a web server and would be able to run on the command line:

$ ./my-web-app
Hunchentoot server is started.
Listening on localhost:9003.

Note that this runs the production webserver, not a development one, so we can run the binary on our VPS right away and access the app from outside.

We have one thing to take care of, it is to find and put the thread of the running web server on the foreground. In our main function, we can do something like this:

(defun main ()
  (start-app :port 9003) ;; our start-app, for example clack:clack-up
  ;; let the webserver run.
  ;; warning: hardcoded "hunchentoot".
  (handler-case (bt:join-thread (find-if (lambda (th)
                                            (search "hunchentoot" (bt:thread-name th)))
    ;; Catch a user's C-c
    (#+sbcl sb-sys:interactive-interrupt
      #+ccl  ccl:interrupt-signal-condition
      #+clisp system::simple-interrupt-condition
      #+ecl ext:interactive-interrupt
      #+allegro excl:interrupt-signal
      () (progn
           (format *error-output* "Aborting.~&")
           (clack:stop *server*)
    (error (c) (format t "Woops, an unknown error occured:~&~a~&" c))))

We used the bordeaux-threads library ((ql:quickload "bordeaux-threads"), alias bt) and uiop, which is part of ASDF so already loaded, in order to exit in a portable way (uiop:quit, with an optional return code, instead of sb-ext:quit).

Size and startup times of executables per implementation

SBCL isn’t the only Lisp implementation. ECL, Embeddable Common Lisp, transpiles Lisp programs to C. That creates a smaller executable.

According to this reddit source, ECL produces indeed the smallest executables of all, an order of magnitude smaller than SBCL, but with a longer startup time.

CCL’s binaries seem to be as fast as SBCL and nearly half the size.

| program size | implementation |  CPU | startup time |
|           28 | /bin/true      |  15% |        .0004 |
|         1005 | ecl            | 115% |        .5093 |
|        48151 | sbcl           |  91% |        .0064 |
|        27054 | ccl            |  93% |        .0060 |
|        10162 | clisp          |  96% |        .0170 |
|         4901 | ecl.big        | 113% |        .8223 |
|        70413 | sbcl.big       |  93% |        .0073 |
|        41713 | ccl.big        |  95% |        .0094 |
|        19948 | clisp.big      |  97% |        .0259 |

Building a smaller binary with SBCL’s core compression

Building with SBCL’s core compression can dramatically reduce your application binary’s size. In our case, we passed from 120MB to 23MB, for a loss of a dozen milliseconds of start-up time, which was still under 50ms!

Your SBCL must be built with core compression, see the documentation:

Is it the case ?

(find :sb-core-compression *features*)

Yes, it is the case with this SBCL installed from Debian.


In SBCL, we would give an argument to save-lisp-and-die, where :compression

may be an integer from -1 to 9, corresponding to zlib compression levels, or t (which is equivalent to the default compression level, -1).

We experienced a 1MB difference between levels -1 and 9.


However, we prefer to do this with ASDF (or rather, UIOP). Add this in your .asd:

(defmethod asdf:perform ((o asdf:image-op) (c asdf:system))
  (uiop:dump-image (asdf:output-file o c) :executable t :compression t))

With Deploy

Also, the Deploy library can be used to build a fully standalone application. It will use compression if available.

Deploy is specifically geared towards applications with foreign library dependencies. It collects all the foreign shared libraries of dependencies, such as in the bin subdirectory.

And voilà !

Parsing command line arguments

SBCL stores the command line arguments into sb-ext:*posix-argv*.

But that variable name differs from implementations, so we want a way to handle the differences for us.

We have uiop:command-line-arguments, shipped in ASDF and included in nearly all implementations.

That’s good, but we also want to parse the arguments.

A quick look at the awesome-cl#scripting list and we’ll do that with the unix-opts library.

(ql:quickload "unix-opts")

We can call it with its opts alias (nickname).

As often work happens in two phases:

Declaring arguments

We define the arguments with opts:define-opts:

    (:name :help
           :description "print this help text"
           :short #\h
           :long "help")
    (:name :nb
           :description "here we want a number argument"
           :short #\n
           :long "nb"
           :arg-parser #'parse-integer) ;; <- takes an argument
    (:name :info
           :description "info"
           :short #\i
           :long "info"))

Here parse-integer is a built-in CL function.

Example output on the command line (auto-generated help text):

$ my-app -h
my-app. Usage:

Available options:
  -h, --help               print this help text
  -n, --nb ARG             here we want a number argument
  -i, --info               info


We parse and get the arguments with opts:get-opts, which returns two values: the list of valid options and the remaining free arguments. We then must use multiple-value-bind to assign both into variables:

  (multiple-value-bind (options free-args)
      ;; There is no error handling yet.

We can test this by giving a list of strings to get-opts:

(multiple-value-bind (options free-args)
                   (opts:get-opts '("hello" "-h" "-n" "1"))
                 (format t "Options: ~a~&" options)
                 (format t "free args: ~a~&" free-args))
Options: (HELP T NB-RESULTS 1)
free args: (hello)

If we put an unknown option, we get into the debugger. We’ll see error handling in a moment.

So options is a property list. We use getf and setf with plists, so that’s how we do our logic. Below we print the help with opts:describe and then exit (in a portable way).

  (multiple-value-bind (options free-args)

    (if (getf options :help)
           :prefix "You're in my-app. Usage:"
           :args "[keywords]") ;; to replace "ARG" in "--nb ARG"
          (opts:exit))) ;; <= optional return status.
    (if (getf options :nb)

For a full example, see its official example and cl-torrents’ tutorial.

The example in the unix-opts repository suggests a macro to do slightly better. Now to error handling.

Handling malformed or missing arguments

There are 4 situations that unix-opts doesn’t handle, but signals conditions for us to take care of:

So, we must create simple functions to handle those conditions, and surround the parsing of the options with an handler-bind:

  (multiple-value-bind (options free-args)
      (handler-bind ((opts:unknown-option #'unknown-option) ;; the condition / our function
                     (opts:missing-arg #'missing-arg)
                     (opts:arg-parser-failed #'arg-parser-failed)
    ;; use "options" and "free-args"

Here we suppose we want one function to handle each case, but it could be a simple one. They take the condition as argument.

(defun handle-arg-parser-condition (condition)
  (format t "Problem while parsing option ~s: ~a .~%" (opts:option condition) ;; reader to get the option from the condition.
  (opts:describe) ;; print help
  (opts:exit)) ;; portable exit

For more about condition handling, see error and condition handling.

Catching a C-c termination signal

Let’s build a simple binary, run it, try a C-c and read the stacktrace:

$ ./my-app
debugger invoked on a SB-SYS:INTERACTIVE-INTERRUPT in thread   <== condition name
#<THREAD "main thread" RUNNING {1003156A03}>:
  Interactive interrupt at #x7FFFF6C6C170.

Type HELP for debugger help, or (SB-EXT:EXIT) to exit from SBCL.

restarts (invokable by number or by possibly-abbreviated name):
  0: [CONTINUE     ] Return from SB-UNIX:SIGINT.               <== it was a SIGINT indeed
  1: [RETRY-REQUEST] Retry the same request.

The signaled condition is named after our implementation: sb-sys:interactive-interrupt. We just have to surround our application code with a handler-case:

    (run-my-app free-args)
  (sb-sys:interactive-interrupt () (progn
                                     (format *error-output* "Abort.~&")

This code only for SBCL though. We know about trivial-signal, but we were not satisfied with our test yet. So we can use something like this:

    (run-my-app free-args)
  (#+sbcl sb-sys:interactive-interrupt
   #+ccl  ccl:interrupt-signal-condition
   #+clisp system::simple-interrupt-condition
   #+ecl ext:interactive-interrupt
   #+allegro excl:interrupt-signal

here #+ includes the line at compile time depending on the implementation. There’s also #-. What #+ does is to look for symbols in the *features* list. We can also combine symbols with and, or and not.

Continuous delivery of executables

We can make a Continuous Integration system (Travis CI, Gitlab CI,…) build binaries for us at every commit, or at every tag pushed or at whichever other policy.

See Continuous Integration.


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