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A networking researcher interested in the challenges of infrastructure at the end of the tail of connectivity

Building iperf3 For Android 11+

Integration builds character

6 minutes read


I’ve been helping out the Seattle Community Network (SCN), with an ongoing project to build a crowdsourced network performance measurement application for Android. While understanding modern network performance, particularly wireless networks, is extremely subtle, “speedtests” offer a crude yet popular way to measure a network’s performance, and are easy for general audiences to interpret.

Unsurprisingly, SCN sought to include a “speedtest” capability in their app! A team of an undergraduate researcher (Zhennan(John) Zhou) and a volunteer high school student (Ashwin Chintalapati) organized by Esther Jang got started on the project, and started integrating iperf3 (C, BSD-3 into the application. Due to its maturity, consistent history of open source activity, and explicit offer of “a library version of the functionality that can be used in other programs,” I thought it was a reasonable choice. After a couple of weeks their efforts stalled though, and I was asked for some input.

This marked the beginning of the journey…

Building in Android Studio

Since libiperf is a c library, we sought to use the Android Native Development Kit (NDK) to re-use the existing code and integrate it directly with our android application. Under the hood the NDK relies on the Java Native Interface (JNI) to define the interface between the application code running in the JVM and c/c++ functions. John wrote a set of wrappers to expose the relevant functions to the main application via the JNI, and an ndk-build script to build the wrappers and link in a pre-built libiperf. This approach worked, but had the unfortunate downside of making it very diffcult to work with libiperf from within Android studio, and reduced our visibility into the behavior of libiperf when we were trying to debug its interaction with the main application. The version of libiperf that worked with the external build was very old (3.1.3 vs. the latest 3.10.1 release), we had to re-build libiperf manually each time we made changes, and didn’t have an easy way to use android logging from within the libiperf code.

Given these shortcomings, I took up the challenge of getting the latest libiperf to work natively with Android Studio’s NDK tooling to build libiperf from source as a part of the overall application build. While at the time of this post both ndk-build and CMake are supported by Android Studio, most of the official tutorials and help documentation are targeted towards the CMake approach, and the NDK guide encourages projects to choose CMake over ndk-build.

Android Studio’s default build tool to compile native libraries is CMake. Android Studio also supports ndk-build due to the large number of existing projects that use the build toolkit. However, if you are creating a new native library, you should use CMake.

Since I was going to make major changes to the build anyway, CMake seemed like the way to go. Iperf 3 uses autotools for its build, and after much trial and error, CMake documentation consulation, Google searching, soul searching, and only a few tears, I was able to adapt SciVision’s autotools as CMake ExternalProject example to build iperf3 from CMake via its own build tooling. By using CMake’s ExternalProject capabilities, we can avoid re-creating the whole existing autotools build in CMake, and make it easy to upgrade the underlying iperf version to keep up with upstream releases.

Importantly though, we’re not just building iperf3 via CMake, we’re building iperf3 via CMake for Android, and this means cross compilation is needed. I found a helpful blog post from 2020 by Anderson Rodrigues. In his post, Rodrigues walks us readers through creating a standalone Android toolchain (fortunately no longer needed since NDKr19), and then running the autotools ./configure step with the correct environment variables for the cross-compilation toolchain. While this gets us to a correctly compiled library, it still doesn’t get us to full integration with Android studio.

Building from Rodrigues' approach and consulting the latest environment variables for autoconf from the Android developer docs, I created the following CMakeLists.txt to translate from the build metadata passed to CMake 3.18.1 (installed via SDK Tools Manager) from Gradle 7.0.2 in Android Studio to the correct configuration environment variables for autotools.

# Sets the minimum version of CMake required to build the native library.
cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 3.16.3)


# Generate toolchain paths manually according to
# This may need to be updated if the NDK changes
message(STATUS "Toolchain build architecture: ${AUTOTOOLS_EXT_BUILD_ARCH}")
    SET(AUTOTOOLS_EXT_TARGET "armv7a-linux-androideabi")
elseif(${CMAKE_ANDROID_ARCH} MATCHES "^arm64$")
    SET(AUTOTOOLS_EXT_TARGET "aarch64-linux-android")
    SET(AUTOTOOLS_EXT_TARGET "i686-linux-android")
elseif(${CMAKE_ANDROID_ARCH} MATCHES "^x86_64$")
    SET(AUTOTOOLS_EXT_TARGET "x86_64-linux-android")
    message(FATAL_ERROR "No target string defined for arch: ${CMAKE_ANDROID_ARCH}")


    message(ERROR "The CMake ABI version does not match the version set by gradle")
    message(ERROR "Update the AUTOTOOLS_EXT_ABI version to match")
    message(FATAL_ERROR "ABI ${AUTOTOOLS_EXT_ABI} does not match target ${CMAKE_C_COMPILER_TARGET}")

# Link libiperf statically but with position independent code support to be embedded in a higher level dynamic library

        BUILD_COMMAND make

# Create a CMake "imported" "interface" library representing the outputs from the autotools process.

# Let CMake know these directories can be created since they are referred below-- they would have
# been eventually created by automake

# Pass the headers and libraries created by automake to dependent targets for linking and/or inclusion.
target_include_directories(iperf INTERFACE ${CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR}/${IPERF_DIRECTORY_NAME}/include)
target_link_libraries(iperf INTERFACE "${CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR}/${IPERF_DIRECTORY_NAME}/lib/libiperf.a")

# Make sure the iperf interface library target triggers the autotools build.
add_dependencies(iperf iperf_autotools)

# Add extra includes based on the current structure of the wrapper codebase.
# This somewhat breaks the API encapsulation.
# TODO(matt9j) Should ultimately not be needed if the API interface were used cleanly
target_include_directories(iperf INTERFACE ${CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR}/${IPERF_DIRECTORY_NAME}/src)
target_include_directories(iperf INTERFACE ${CMAKE_CURRENT_BINARY_DIR}/${IPERF_DIRECTORY_NAME}/src)

This current implementation has the downside of specifying the Android ABI manually, but I’m hoping it will become obsolete as the Android NDK support built into CMake improves with CMake 3.21. For now though this has allowed us to build the library on demand for all platforms supported by Android Studio, including both debug and release versions with symbols to allow integrated debugging in Android Studio! Hopefully it can be useful to you as well, and can save you the few days I spent learning to untangle the Android native build process!


Looking back on this work and the integration struggles we overcame (to be detailed in a future post), I’m quite intrigued by the easy crossplatform builds promised by Golang, and am curious if ethr (Golang, MIT) might have been the better choice. If anyone has experience integrating ethr into a high-level application I would love to hear how it went!

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Currently a grad student at the University of Washington in the ICTD Lab...