An online notebook by Bryn Keller

Mac OS X C++ Development (part 2)

As I wrote in my previous post, I recently started working on a Mac. This is a collection of my notes on the problems and surprises I ran into. Maybe it will be useful for you, too.


In addition to many of the command line tools you may be familiar with from C++ development on Linux, Mac OS X has specialized tools for working with binaries.


The otool utility displays information from binary headers. It works with Mach headers (which are the main thing, on Macs) but also works with other “universal” formats as well. There are many options, but the main one that’s been helpful to me so far has been otool -L <lib>, which tells you the dependencies of the archive, which are essential debugging information for dynamic linking problems. Another useful one is otool -D <lib>, which tells you the install names embedded in a given library.


This tool allows you to change the install names for a binary. Simple, but important.

By now you must be wondering what install names are.

Install Names

Let us begin with man dyld. There is no dyld command. Nevertheless, it is the dynamic linker for Mac OS X. The man page tells us many interesting things, perhaps chief among which is how dynamic libraries are located at run-time.

When you link an application to a dynamic library, the path to that library is encoded in the application binary. Well, actually, when you build, the library is interrogated to find out where it is supposed to be installed, and that path gets encoded in the application binary. These paths where things are supposed to be installed are known as install names on Mac OS X. Every .dylib has (at least) one. You can use otool -D to find the install name of a .dylib file.

In most cases, the install name will have an absolute path, like this:

> $ otool -D /usr/lib/libiconv.dylib

So if you link with /usr/lib/libiconv.dylib, your application will look for /usr/lib/libiconv.2.dylib when it launches. If the .dylib isn’t where it’s expected, the app crashes.

Relative paths

Sometimes a library will have a relative path as its install name. When this happens, dyld will search for a library with that name on several search paths. It’s similar to LD_LIBRARY_PATH in some ways. There are environment variables you can set to control where it searches. There are several, and you should consult man dyld if you want the gory details. One thing that is important to know is that one of these variables, DYLD_FALLBACK_LIBRARY_PATH, has the default value $(HOME)/lib:/usr/local/lib:/lib:/usr/lib. Occasionally you may see advice on the web that recommends symbolic linking a library into your $(HOME)/lib without any further explanation. DYLD_FALLBACK_LIBRARY_PATH is why.


If you want to distribute an application that relies on libraries that are not necessarily in known standard places, it is a good idea to use @rpath as part of your install name. This directs dyld to look in a path that is relative to the application binary (or in the case of a library that is dynamically linked to another library, the path is relative to the calling library), rather than looking in the places it normally would. This would allow you to bundle a set of libraries along with your application, and have them be found regardless of where you install the application. There are several other options, such as @executable_path and @loader_path, but @rpath seems to be the right choice in most cases. Again, man dyld has all the details.

An Example: Dionysus

I wanted to build Dionysus, a library for working with persistent homology. I wanted to build the Python bindings.

Linker Errors

After I managed to get through the compile phase, I ran into linker problems, with unresolved symbol errors similar to the ones I mentioned in part 1. However, in this case, changing the compiler didn’t fix the problem. I was getting linking errors trying to link with Boost, which I had already reinstalled on my system from source, using gcc:

export HOMEBREW_CC=gcc-5
export HOMEBREW_CXX=g++-5
brew reinstall --build-from-source boost
brew reinstall --build-from-source boost --with-python3

That wasn’t enough though. I still got linker errors. Googling suggested maybe the problem was that Boost.Python (which Dionysus uses for its Python binding) was linked to a different version of Python than the one I was targeting. This turned out to be a red herring, however. As far as I can tell, Boost.Python doesn’t actually link to Python at all (though it has to be compiled with support for Python 3 if you want that, so there’s certainly a connection, just not a linking one).

The problem actually was that Dionysus wanted the C++ 11 version of Boost, and the default Homebrew version doesn’t have that support. For this, you need:

brew reinstall --build-from-source boost --with-c++11
brew reinstall --build-from-source boost-python --with-c++11

Build-time linking errors resolved, I thought I was home free.

Dynamic Linking Errors

At last, I had built the library. I fired up python2.7, imported the library. It worked! Then I created an instance of one of the classes, and got this:

TypeError: __init__() should return None, not 'NoneType'

After a lot of googling, it turned out that the most likely cause for this was that the Dionysus binding had wound up linked to the wrong Python library. I carefully checked the CMakeCache.txt file and eliminated any occurrences of the wrong Python library, or the wrong Boost library. Still no luck.

A look at otool -L output for the library showed something funny:

> $ otool -L lib_dionysus.dylib                                                
	/Users/me/src/Dionysus/build/bindings/python/lib_dionysus.dylib (compatibility version 0.0.0, current version 0.0.0)
	libpython2.7.dylib (compatibility version 2.7.0, current version 2.7.0)
	/usr/local/opt/boost-python/lib/libboost_python-mt.dylib (compatibility version 0.0.0, current version 0.0.0)
	/usr/local/opt/mpfr/lib/libmpfr.4.dylib (compatibility version 6.0.0, current version 6.3.0)
	/usr/local/opt/gmp/lib/libgmp.10.dylib (compatibility version 14.0.0, current version 14.0.0)

Do you notice that all the entries are absolute paths except for the libpython2.7 one? A quick look at the Anaconda libpython2.7.dylib I linked against shows why:

> $ otool -D /Users/me/anaconda2/lib/libpython2.7.dylib

So Anaconda’s version of Python instructed the linker to find libpython2.7.dylib by going through the normal dyld process - checking DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH, then DYLD_FALLBACK_LIBRARY_PATH, and so on. Since /usr/lib is on DYLD_FALLBACK_LIBRARY_PATH by default, and the system libpython2.7.dylib is in that directory, Dionysus was getting linked with that one, not with the one that was already in memory in the current process. This led to the strange error I saw.

I was able to use install_name_tool to change the binary to point to the right libpython2.7:

> $ install_name_tool lib_dionysus.dylib -change libpython2.7.dylib /Users/me/anaconda2/lib/libpython2.7.dylib

After this, everything was fine.

Further reading

In addition to man dyld, these are useful: