Basilisk C

    “Basilisk C” is the extension of the C programming language used to write code in Basilisk. The goal of this extension is to provide a simple set of extra C-like constructs useful for writing discretisation schemes on Cartesian grids.

    Part I covers the basic concepts which are necessary to setup simple simulations using pre-defined solvers.

    Part II gives further details and is necessary if you want to setup more complex simulations and/or write your own discretisation schemes.

    The description of the language below assumes a basic knowledge of C (e.g. the first four chapters of The C programming language).

    Part I: Basic concepts

    Fields and stencils

    Field constructs are used to store quantities discretised spatially. They can be seen as a generalisation of C arrays. Three types of fields can be defined: scalar, vector and tensor.

    Declaration, allocation and deallocation

    A new field is declared as an automatic variable like this:

    scalar a[];

    Alternatively, explicit allocation and deallocation can be done like this:

    scalar a = new scalar;
    delete ({a});

    where {a} is a list (with a single element in this example).


    Field values are manipulated using iterators, for example:

      a[] = 1.;

    where foreach() iterates over all the stencils defining the discretised field.

    Iterators also define several variables (implicitly) such as:

    double x, y, z; // coordinates of the center of the stencil
    double Delta;   // size of the stencil cell


    Stencils are used to access field values and their local neighbours. By default Basilisk guarantees consistent field values in a 3x3 neighbourhood (in 2D). This can be represented like this

    3x3 stencil

    3x3 stencil

    Neighbouring values are accessed using the indexing scheme pictured on the figure. For example, computing an approximation of the Laplacian

    \displaystyle b=\nabla^2 a

    could be written

    scalar a[], b[];
      b[] = (a[1,0] + a[0,1] + a[-1,0] + a[0,-1] - 4.*a[])/sq(Delta);

    where a[] is a shortcut for a[0,0].

    Vectors and tensors

    Vector and tensor fields are used in a similar way. Vector fields are a collection of D scalar fields (where D is the dimension of the spatial discretisation) and tensor fields are a collection of D vector fields. Each of the components of the vector or tensor fields are accessed using the x, y or z field of the corresponding structure. For example:

    vector v[];
    tensor t = new tensor;
    foreach() {
      v.x[] = 1.;
      t.x.x[] = (v.x[1,0] - v.x[-1,0])/Delta;
      t.y.x[] = (v.y[1,0] - v.y[-1,0])/Delta;
    delete ({t});

    Boundary conditions

    Stencils located close enough to the boundaries of the domain will extend beyond it. The stencil values outside the domain (often called ghost values) need to be initialised. These values can be set in order to provide the discrete equivalents of various boundary conditions.

    The default boundary condition is symmetry and takes into account whether the fields are scalars, vectors or tensors. If we consider a boundary, a scalar field a and a vector field v, symmetry can be expressed on the boundary as:

    \displaystyle \partial_n a=0 \displaystyle \partial_n v_t=0 \displaystyle v_n=0

    with n and t the normal and tangential directions to the boundary, respectively.

    Boundary conditions can be changed for each scalar field using the following syntax:

    a[top] = a[];

    where a[top] is the ghost value of the scalar field a immediately outside the top (respectively bottom, right, left) boundary. In this example we have set a symmetry condition on scalar field a on the top boundary (i.e. the default boundary condition). This corresponds to a Neumann condition (i.e. a condition on the normal derivative of field a). To set a Dirichlet condition instead (i.e. a condition on the value of the function on the boundary), one could use for example:

    a[left] = 2.*ab - a[];

    where ab is the Dirichlet value on the (left) boundary.

    The library also provides functions for common boundary conditions. For example the expression for the Dirichlet condition above could also be written

    a[left] = dirichlet(ab);

    and the Neumann condition

    \displaystyle \partial_na=a_n

    would be

    a[left] = neumann(an);

    (the equivalent discrete expression is left as an exercise).

    Note also that using these pre-defined expressions is necessary to obtain automatic homogeneous boundary conditions, which is important if scalar a is the solution of a Poisson problem.

    For vector fields, boundary conditions are defined in a coordinate system local to the boundary where the x and y components are replaced by the normal n and tangential t components i.e. imposing no-flux of a vector v through the top and left boundary, together with a no-slip boundary condition would be written

    v.n[top] = dirichlet(0);
    v.t[top] = dirichlet(0);
    v.n[left] = dirichlet(0);
    v.t[left] = dirichlet(0);

    In three dimensions, there is one normal direction n and two tangential directions t and r, the +z and -z boundaries are called front and back. Taking the left (-x) or right (+x) boundary as an example, we have the correspondence

    u.n -> u.x
    u.t -> u.y
    u.r -> u.z

    The relations for the other boundaries (top/bottom, front/back) are obtained by rotation of the indices.

    Periodic boundaries

    Periodic boundary conditions can be imposed on the right/left, top/bottom and front/back boundaries using for example

    int main()
      periodic (right); 

    All existing fields and all the fields allocated after the call will be periodic in the right/left direction.


    Numerical simulations often need to perform actions (outputs for example) at given time intervals. Because the timestep used to integrate the numerical scheme can vary, for example due to stability requirements, it is generally not trivial to ensure that specific time intervals will be respected. To solve this problem Basilisk C provides events.

    The overall syntax of events is similar to that of for loops in C. For example:

    event name (t = 1; t <= 5; t += 1) {

    where name is the user-defined name of the event, t = 1 specifies the starting time, t <= 5 is the condition which must be verified for the event to carry on and t += 1 is the iteration operator. The event can happen either at specified times t or at a specified number of timesteps i.

    Beyond this similarity with for loops, the syntax for events is more flexible. The order of the initialisation, condition and iteration statements can change and/or some of the statements can be omitted. For example, these are all valid events:

    event name (t = 1; t += 1; t <= 5) {
      // same as previously
    event example1 (t = 2) {
      // executes once at t = 2
    event example2 (i++) {
      // executes at every timestep
    event example3 (t = 1; t *= 2) {
      // executes at t = 1,2,4,8,16,...

    In addition, lists can be used to set specific times/timesteps:

    event example4 (t = {1.2, 3, 7.6}) {

    and the special end keyword can be used for events which should happen after completion of the simulation:

    event example5 (t = end) {

    It is also possible to stop a simulation based on the return value from an event. For example:

    event stop (i += 10) {
      if (my_stopping_condition())
        return 1; // any value different from zero will stop the simulation
      // the default is to return zero
    event finalize (t = end) {
      // this will happen after the simulation has completed due to 
      // the "stop" event above

    Part II: More advanced concepts


    It is often useful to perform the same operation on several fields. Basilisk C provides a simple extension which allows iterations over lists of fields.

    Declaration and allocation

    An automatic list (of scalars) can be declared and allocated like this:

    scalar * list = {a,b,c,d};

    Automatic type casting

    Lists can combine elements of different types (e.g. scalar fields and vector fields). In this case the type of the resulting list is always that of the element with the lowest dimension. For example, these are valid list declarations:

    scalar a[];
    vector v[];
    tensor t[];
    scalar * list1 = {a,v,t};
    vector * list2 = {v,t};

    however trying

    vector * list3 = {a,v,t};
    tensor * list4 = {v,t};

    will give a compilation error.

    Explicit type casting

    In a similar way it is sometimes useful to be able to explictly cast lists of different types. For example a list of vector fields can be cast into a list of scalar fields using:

    vector * l1 = {a,b,c};
    scalar * l2 = (scalar *) l1;

    Explicit type casting is only allowed from a type of higher dimension down to a type of lower dimension (i.e. tensors to vectors and vectors to scalars).

    List iterators

    To iterate over all the elements of a list use

    scalar * list = {a,b,c,d};
    for (scalar s in list)
      dosomething (s);

    It is also possible to iterate over two lists (of the same length) simultaneously using e.g.:

    scalar * l1 = ...;
    vector * l2 = ...;
    scalar s; vector v;
    for (s,v in l1,l2)
      dosomething (s, v);

    Finally note that it is much more efficient to do:

      for (scalar s in list)
        s[] = ...;

    rather than

    for (scalar s in list)
        s[] = ...;

    because fields values for each scalar are usually stored close to one another (this is similar to ordering loops properly when accessing multidimensional arrays in C or Fortran).

    Face and vertex fields

    Discretisation schemes often rely on special arrangements of discretisation variables relative to the underlying grid (this is sometimes called variable staggering). Basilisk provides support for the three most common types of staggering: centered (the default), face and vertex staggering.

    Example of centered, face and vertex staggering

    Example of centered, face and vertex staggering

    How to implement such staggering is largely a matter of convention. For example, one could just allocate standard fields in Basilisk and take as convention that the corresponding variables are staggered. While this would work in simple cases, some operations performed by Basilisk (such as interpolation and boundary conditions) need to know that these fields are staggered. Basilisk C introduces two special keywords for this purpose: face and vertex. For example, the fields in the example above would be declared

    scalar p[];
    face vector u[];
    vertex scalar omega[];

    Boundary conditions and stencils

    Boundary conditions and stencils are necessarily different when considering cell-centered and staggered variables.

    For vertex fields, Basilisk does not apply any boundary conditions. All the vertex values need to be defined using foreach_vertex().

    For face fields stencil values in the picture below are consistent.

    Stencils for face and vertex fields

    Stencils for face and vertex fields


    For some problems for which the aspect ratio (vertical/horizontal) is small – like the ocean or the atmosphere – it might be useful to use a custom vertical coordinate. To use this extension, one must define

    #define LAYERS 1

    in the header. The number of layers is set by the variable nl (by default nl = 1 ). You can then declare layered variables via

    scalar h =  new scalar[nl];
    vector u = new vector[nl];
    face vector hu = new face vector[nl];

    Such layered variables correspond to nl stacked 1D or 2D fields. You need to cleanup these fields at the end of the execution because they are not automatic variables:

    event cleanup (t = end, last)
      delete ((scalar *){h, u, hu});

    This layered module comes with an iterator foreach_layer() which must be included within a global field iterator (e.g. foreach() etc.)

        a[] = 1.;

    Within a foreach() iterator, you can also access a specific layer with the last index in the bracket as shown below for layer 10 on a 2D grid.

      a[0,0,10] = 1.;

    Field attributes

    Scalar field can have associated “attributes” which behave very much like “members” of C structures. To add a new attribute (to all scalar fields) use something like

    attribute {
      int myattribute;

    You can then access this attribute using

    scalar s[];
    s.myattribute = 2;

    Of course you are not limited to int, you can use any declaration which would be legal in a C structure, provided the new name does not conflict with the names of existing attributes.

    If the attribute is not set explicitly, it defaults to “zero”.

    Pre-defined attributes

    Point function calls

    Using the Point variable, It is possible to make stencil accesses and use automatic point variables outside iterators. For example,

    double distance_to_origin (Point point) {
      return sqrt(sq(x) + sq(y) + sq(z));


    double sum_right_neighbors_2D (Point point, scalar s) {
      double a = 0;
      for (int i = -1; i < 2; i++) 
         a += s[1,i];
      return a;	

    Note that the variable of type Point must be named point.

    Note that the syntax

    Point point = locate (...);
    is deprecated and will be removed in the future. See foreach_point() and foreach_region() for (better) alternatives.

    More field iterators

    We have already seen the basic field iterator foreach(). While many numerical schemes can be implemented using only this iterator, more efficient and elegant implementations can often be designed using other iterators provided by Basilisk.


    As an example, consider the code required to compute

    \displaystyle g=\nabla a

    Using a centered scheme, this could be written:

    scalar a[];
    vector g[];
    foreach() {
      g.x[] = (a[1,0] - a[-1,0])/(2.*Delta);
      g.y[] = (a[0,1] - a[0,-1])/(2.*Delta);

    It is clear that computing g.y is almost identical to computing g.x, all that is required is a permutation of the indices. Most multi-dimensional schemes involve similar permutations. Writing these permutations manually, as we did above, is error-prone and leads to code duplication. While this may be acceptable for the simple example above, this can become very heavy for more complicated schemes. To avoid this Basilisk provides the foreach_dimension() iterator which can be used like this:

        g.x[] = (a[1,0] - a[-1,0])/(2.*Delta);

    At compilation, the code block associated with foreach_dimension() (a single line in this example) will be automatically duplicated for each dimension of the problem with the appropriate coordinate permutations: .x will become .y, .y will become .x (or .z in 3D) etc… and the field indices will be rotated correspondingly.

    Any variable or function identifier ending with _x, _y and _z will also be rotated.

    The right, left, top, bottom, front and back direction indicators will also be rotated.


    The foreach() operator can be seen as iterating over the cells of the grid. When writing flux-based schemes it is often useful to consider iterations over the faces of each cell (because fluxes are by definition associated with cell faces).

    Implementing an iteration over cell faces using only the foreach() operator is not easy, even for a one-dimensional problem, due to boundary conditions. Things also become more complex when considering multi-dimensional and adaptive grids. The foreach_face() field iterator solves these problems by providing a consistent traversal of cell faces in all cases.

    For example, computing the components of \nabla a normal to each face can be written:

    scalar a[];
    face vector g[];
      g.x[] = (a[] - a[-1,0])/Delta;

    Note that a face is defined by convention as separating a cell from its left neighbour (hence a[-1,0] and not a[1,0], see the Face and vertex fields section above). Note also that the duplication/permutation performed by foreach_dimension() is implicitly included in foreach_face().

    In some cases, it can be necessary to apply different operations to each component of a face vector field. For example let’s assume we need to initialise a face vector field with the components (y,x). This could be done using

    face vector u[];
      u.x[] = y;
      u.y[] = x;

    Note that the coordinates x and y correspond to the center of the face.


    When initialising vertex fields, it is necessary to traverse each vertex of the grid. For example, computing vorticity using the components of velocity defined on faces could be written

    face vector u[];
    vertex scalar omega[];
      omega[] = (u.y[] - u.y[-1,0] - u.x[] + u.x[0,-1])/Delta;

    Consistently with the other iterators, the x and y declared implicitly within foreach_vertex() loops are the coordinates of the vertex.


    It is sometimes useful to be able to traverse only the cells which are touching a given boundary, for example to compute surface fluxes and other diagnostics. While using a combination of foreach() and conditions on cell coordinates would be possible, it would also be inefficient and could be difficult when using adaptive meshes. For this reason, Basilisk provides the foreach_boundary() iterator which can be used like this for example:

    scalar a[];
    double mu = 1., flux = 0.;
    foreach_boundary (top)
      flux += sq(Delta)*mu*(a[ghost] - a[])/Delta;

    where top indicates which boundary we want to traverse (the keywords are the same as used for boundary conditions) and ghost is the index of the corresponding ghost cell: for this example a[ghost] == a[0,1].

    This example computes the (diffusive) flux of a through the top boundary. Note that for this to work in parallel you would also need to add a reduction clause on flux in foreach_boundary().

    foreach_boundary() iterates over the cells which are touching a given boundary but the coordinates x,y,z correspond not the center of the cells but the coordinates of a given boundary.


    This iterator is local to a cell, so it must be included within a global field iterator (e.g. foreach() etc.). It will iterate over all the cells belonging to the local stencil i.e. the 5x5 stencil by default (in 2D). This can optionally be reduced to a 3x3 stencil (i.e. only the nearest neighbors) using the syntax foreach_neighbor(1).


    This iterator will only traverse the cell containing the “point” with the given coordinates. For example

    int main() {
      init_grid (N);
      scalar s[];
      foreach_point (0.4, 0.6)
        s[] = sqrt(sq(x) + sq(y)); 

    is a valid (MPI) Basilisk program, where the scalar field s is only initialized in a single cell.


    This is similar to foreach_point() but will traverse the cells containing all the points sampled within a rectangular region. For example

    coord p;
    coord box[2] = {{0, 0}, {1, 2}};
    coord n = {10, 20};
    foreach_region (p, box, n) {

    will sample 10 x 20 points (with coordinates given by p) regularly distributed within [0:1] x [0:2].

    Event inheritance

    In contrast with C functions, multiple events can share the same name. This is used to implement inheritance of existing events and allows to modify and extend the functionality of existing solvers.

    When two (or more) events have the same name, the order of execution of this group is modified. The following rules are applied:

    • all events in the group are executed “together”,
    • the first event in the group (in order of appearance in the source files), sets the point where the group is executed,
    • within a group, the order of execution is the inverse of the order of appearance in the source files.

    Although this may seem complicated, these rules work well in practice and lead to a reasonably simple inheritance mechanism.

    A trace of the order of execution of events can be obtained using the compilation option:

    % qcc -events ...

    The resulting code will then output (on standard error) a trace looking like:

    events (i = 4, t = 0.00191154)
      logfile                   rising.c:131
      set_dtmax                 src/navier-stokes/centered.h:163
      stability                 src/tension.h:59
      stability                 src/vof.h:44
      stability                 src/navier-stokes/centered.h:165
      vof                       src/vof.h:174
      vof                       src/navier-stokes/centered.h:175
      tracer_advection          src/navier-stokes/centered.h:176

    There are two event groups in this example: stability and vof. They correspond to extensions of the initial solver /src/navier-stokes/centered.h: adding the stability conditions for surface tension (at line 59 of /src/tension.h) and for VOF (at line 44 of /src/vof.h) and plugging in VOF advection (at line 174 of /src/vof.h) at the correct location (line 175 of /src/navier-stokes/centered.h).

    Grid allocation and deallocation

    Hierarchy of grids


    Adaptive grids



    The diagonalize(s) operator replaces the central stencil value of the scalar field s (i.e. s[]) with one and its other values with zero, in all operations within the following C statement. This is typically used to automatically construct Jacobi relaxation operators for multigrid solutions of linear systems.

    Einstein summation

    The einstein_sum() operator can be used to perform automatic Einstein summation on the components of tensors and vectors. See the documentation in einstein_sum.h.

    Dimensional Analysis

    The Basilisk C preprocessor qcc performs sophisticated Dimensional Analysis. Within this framework, the dimensions of numerical constants are given using “standard” C array indexing. For example the following syntax:

    double g = 9.81 [1,-2];

    indicates that the constant 9.81 has dimension [1,-2] (typically the dimension of an acceleration).

    Other useful special functions include show_dimension() and dimensional().

    Note that these extensions are only used symbolically during preprocessing and do not affect in any way the actual compilation or execution of the program.

    See also the Dimensional Analysis Tutorial for detailed explanations.

    Named/optional arguments in function calls

    C++ allows named and optional arguments in function calls, for example:

    void example (float f = 0, double d = 0);
    example (f = 2); // d = 0
    example (d = 4, f = 1.2);

    Unfortunately this is not allowed in C99. Basilisk C includes an extension which provides this functionality.

    Parallel programming

    Basilisk can automatically parallelise field iterations (i.e. foreach() etc…) on systems supporting OpenMP or MPI. If the write operations performed on stencils are purely local (i.e. concurrent accesses by several threads are only possible for read operations), then nothing special needs to be done to parallelise the corresponding field iteration.

    A classical example where this condition is not verified are reduction operations. Consider for example the function:

    double maximum (scalar a) {
      double maxi = - HUGE;
        if (fabs(a[]) > maxi)
          maxi = fabs(a[]);
      return maxi;

    In this example, if the foreach() iteration is performed in parallel, several threads may try to set the maxi variable simultaneously (this is a concurrent write access). If this happens the result returned by the function will be incorrect.

    Similarly, when using MPI parallelism, each process will only hold a local maxi value, whereas a global value is required.

    To cover this common pattern, OpenMP provides reduction operators which can be used in Basilisk like this:

    double maximum (scalar a) {
      double maxi = - 1e100;
      foreach (reduction(max:maxi))
        if (fabs(a[]) > maxi)
          maxi = fabs(a[]);
      return maxi;

    It is also possible to reduce an array by indicating its length. For example, one could count the number of leafs cells at each level by writing:

      int len = grid->maxdepth + 1, cells[len] = {0};
      foreach (reduction(+:cells[:len]))

    Note that Basilisk generalises reduction operators so that they work also with MPI parallelism.

    Beyond reduction operations, care must be taken to avoid concurrent write accesses when writing Basilik code. Consider the following code which makes use of an auxilliary variable to store an intermediate result:

      double norm;
      foreach() {
        norm = sqrt(sq(u.x[]) + sq(u.y[]));
        a[] = norm;
        b[] = norm/2.;

    The code will work fine in serial (or with MPI), however it will fail when using shared-memory parallelism (i.e. OpenMP), because norm will be shared amongst threads and written to concurrently. The solution is simple: just make norm a variable local to the loop body i.e.

      foreach() {
        double norm = sqrt(sq(u.x[]) + sq(u.y[]));
        a[] = norm;
        b[] = norm/2.;

    Each thread then has its own private norm variable and concurrent accesses are avoided. Note that this is also a cleaner/clearer way of writing code, even for the serial version. Generally speaking, variables should be declared/allocated as closely as possible to where they are used.

    By default Basilisk will parallelise all iterators. This can be a problem, for example when writing data to a file. Serial iterations for individual loops can be forced like this:

      foreach (serial)
        printf ("%g %g %g\n", x, y, a[]);

    Tracing and profiling

    The trace keyword is used to indicate that the function immediately following should be instrumented for built-in profiling or profiling with Paraver. For example one could write

    double maximum (scalar a) {