Libbpf Vs. BCC for BPF Development

If you’re into Linux development, you’ve probably heard BPF mentioned over the last few years. BPF stands for Berkeley Packet Filter, and the technology has a large number of use cases. BPF apps can get deep access into an operating system and enable you to perform tasks such as high-performance load balancing, DDoS mitigation and more simply and easily.

Libbpf and BCC-Tools are both sets of tools to help with BPF development. However, both of these have their own strengths and weaknesses. In this guide, you will learn in detail about the two tool collections and understand when to use them.

What is BCC?

BCC stands for BPF Compiler Collection and is one of the oldest ways to develop BPF applications. It helps you embed your BPF code into your user-space program in the form of a plain string. When the user-space program is executed by the kernel, BCC invokes its embedded Clang/LLVM, pulls in system-wide kernel headers and compiles the program on the spot.

Since BCC compiles BPF programs on the host machine, it ensures that the memory layout of your BPF program expects is exactly the same as that of the target host.

BPF programs are designed to be injected directly into a kernel, so BCC tools seem to be the perfect solution for developing BPF applications. However, they have proven to be bulky in the modern context due to their heavy reliance on the Clang/LLVM combination, which is resource-intensive. This has led to the need for a better, more modern solution to developing BPF apps.

What is Libbpf?

Libbppf is one of the hottest new BPF tools on the market. It is usually coupled with BPF CO-RE (which stands for compile once, run everywhere). BPF CO-RE enables you to generate binaries that run on multiple kernel versions.

The idea behind Libbpf is to make BPF development as similar to other forms of development as possible. With BPF CO-RE, Libbpf does this by compiling BPF programs into small binaries that can be spread to multiple deployment hosts. Libbpf does the setup work like loading and verifying programs, creating maps, attaching to hooks, etc., which enables developers to focus on more critical tasks at hand, such as program performance and correctness.

Libbpf aims to eliminate the overheads associated with BPF app development and deployment by reducing the dependency on system-wide kernel headers as well as Clang/LLVM libraries for compilation on runtime.

Libbpf Vs. BCC: Key Takeaways

Now that you understand how each of these tools works, let’s compare some key benchmarks to learn when to use them.

Dependency Management

BCC relies on kernel header packages that need to be installed on the target host machines. While it is not a problem in most cases, it can get difficult to set up and maintain if you are working on multiple machines.

Libbpf, on the other hand, eliminates this issue by relying on a vmheader file. This file includes multiple kernel types which helps you to remove dependency from system-wide kernel headers.

Compilation Style

For programs written with BCC, compilation occurs at runtime. To facilitate this, such programs require Clang/LLVM be present on the host machine. This adds to the code footprint of your programs.

Furthermore, the Clang/LLVM libraries are resource-intensive. Complete libraries need to be available and run at compile time, even for small programs. This can upset a perfectly balanced BPF workload on the host machine.

On the other hand, Libbpf enables you to generate binaries that are compiled once and can be run anywhere. You do not need any system-wide dependencies to be present on the target machine for running such apps. Hence, it reduces the overall application size as well as resource consumption on runtime.

Error Detection

For apps developed with BCC tools, errors are detected only at runtime since that is when the programs are compiled. This leads to a rather sluggish development experience compared to apps developed using Libbpf. Since Libbpf enables compilation while developing, finding and fixing bugs is easier.

Final Thoughts

In this guide, we walked you through what Libbpf and BCC tools are and compared them based on some important aspects of application development and delivery.

All in all, Libbpf appears to best BCC tools in most aspects. BCC tools offer fast prototyping and experimentation possibilities, but when it comes to production deployments, BCC tools turn out to be a rather expensive choice compared to Libbpf.

You can learn more about why BCC became the popular alternative and how it was eventually replaced by Libbpf here. Even if you currently use BCC tools for your apps, you can easily migrate to Libbpf by following a few simple steps. And, in most cases, it is better to opt for Libbpf than BCC tools for a better development experience and application performance.

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