BoringSSL API Conventions

This document describes conventions for BoringSSL APIs. The style guide also includes guidelines, but this document is targeted at both API consumers and developers.


All supported public APIs are documented in the public header files, found in include/openssl. The API documentation is also available online.

Some headers lack documention comments. These are functions and structures from OpenSSL's legacy ASN.1, X.509, and PEM implementation. If possible, avoid using them. These are left largely unmodified from upstream and are retained only for compatibility with existing OpenSSL consumers.

Forward declarations

Do not write typedef struct foo_st FOO or try otherwise to define BoringSSL's types. Including openssl/base.h (or openssl/ossl_typ.h for consumers who wish to be OpenSSL-compatible) will forward-declare each type without importing the rest of the library or invasive macros.


Most functions in BoringSSL may fail, either due to allocation failures or input errors. Functions which return an int typically return one on success and zero on failure. Functions which return a pointer typically return NULL on failure. However, due to legacy constraints, some functions are more complex. Consult the API documentation before using a function.

On error, most functions also push errors on the error queue, an errno-like mechanism. See the documentation for err.h for more details.

As with errno, callers must test the function's return value, not the error queue to determine whether an operation failed. Some codepaths may not interact with the error queue, and the error queue may have state from a previous failed operation.

When ignoring a failed operation, it is recommended to call ERR_clear_error to avoid the state interacting with future operations. Failing to do so should not affect the actual behavior of any functions, but may result in errors from both operations being mixed in error logging. We hope to improve this situation in the future.

Where possible, avoid conditioning on specific reason codes and limit usage to logging. The reason codes are very specific and may change over time.

Memory allocation

BoringSSL allocates memory via OPENSSL_malloc, found in mem.h. Use OPENSSL_free, found in the same header file, to release it. BoringSSL functions will fail gracefully on allocation error, but it is recommended to use a malloc implementation that aborts on failure.

Object initialization and cleanup

BoringSSL defines a number of structs for use in its APIs. It is a C library, so the caller is responsible for ensuring these structs are properly initialized and released. Consult the documentation for a module for the proper use of its types. Some general conventions are listed below.

Heap-allocated types

Some types, such as RSA, are heap-allocated. All instances will be allocated and returned from BoringSSL's APIs. It is an error to instantiate a heap- allocated type on the stack or embedded within another object.

Heap-allocated types may have functioned named like RSA_new which allocates a fresh blank RSA. Other functions may also return newly-allocated instances. For example, RSA_parse_public_key is documented to return a newly-allocated RSA object.

Heap-allocated objects must be released by the corresponding free function, named like RSA_free. Like C's free and C++'s delete, all free functions internally check for NULL. Consumers are not required to check for NULL before calling.

A heap-allocated type may be reference-counted. In this case, a function named like RSA_up_ref will be available to take an additional reference count. The free function must be called to decrement the reference count. It will only release resources when the final reference is released. For OpenSSL compatibility, these functions return int, but callers may assume they always successfully return one because reference counts use saturating arithmetic.

C++ consumers are recommended to use bssl::UniquePtr to manage heap-allocated objects. bssl::UniquePtr<T>, like other types, is forward-declared in openssl/base.h. Code that needs access to the free functions, such as code which destroys a bssl::UniquePtr, must include the corresponding module's header. (This matches std::unique_ptr's relationship with forward declarations.)

Stack-allocated types

Other types in BoringSSL are stack-allocated, such as EVP_MD_CTX. These types may be allocated on the stack or embedded within another object. However, they must still be initialized before use.

Every stack-allocated object in BoringSSL has a zero state, analogous to initializing a pointer to NULL. In this state, the object may not be completely initialized, but it is safe to call cleanup functions. Entering the zero state cannot fail. (It is usually memset(0).)

The function to enter the zero state is named like EVP_MD_CTX_init or CBB_zero and will always return void. To release resources associated with the type, call the cleanup function, named like EVP_MD_CTX_cleanup. The cleanup function must be called on all codepaths, regardless of success or failure. For example:

uint8_t md[EVP_MAX_MD_SIZE];
unsigned md_len;
EVP_MD_CTX_init(&ctx);  /* Enter the zero state. */
int ok = EVP_DigestInit_ex(&ctx, EVP_sha256(), NULL) &&
         EVP_DigestUpdate(&ctx, "hello ", 6) &&
         EVP_DigestUpdate(&ctx, "world", 5) &&
         EVP_DigestFinal_ex(&ctx, md, &md_len);
EVP_MD_CTX_cleanup(&ctx);  /* Release |ctx|. */

Note that EVP_MD_CTX_cleanup is called whether or not the EVP_Digest* operations succeeded. More complex C functions may use the goto err pattern:

  int ret = 0;
  EVP_MD_CTX ctx;

  if (!some_other_operation()) {
    goto err;

  uint8_t md[EVP_MAX_MD_SIZE];
  unsigned md_len;
  if (!EVP_DigestInit_ex(&ctx, EVP_sha256(), NULL) ||
      !EVP_DigestUpdate(&ctx, "hello ", 6) ||
      !EVP_DigestUpdate(&ctx, "world", 5) ||
      !EVP_DigestFinal_ex(&ctx, md, &md_len) {
    goto err;

  ret = 1;

  return ret;

Note that, because ctx is set to the zero state before any failures, EVP_MD_CTX_cleanup is safe to call even if the first operation fails before EVP_DigestInit_ex. However, it would be illegal to move the EVP_MD_CTX_init below the some_other_operation call.

As a rule of thumb, enter the zero state of stack-allocated structs in the same place they are declared.

C++ consumers are recommended to use the wrappers named like bssl::ScopedEVP_MD_CTX, defined in the corresponding module's header. These wrappers are automatically initialized to the zero state and are automatically cleaned up.

Data-only types

A few types, such as SHA_CTX, are data-only types and do not require cleanup. These are usually for low-level cryptographic operations. These types may be used freely without special cleanup conventions.

Thread safety

BoringSSL is internally aware of the platform threading library and calls into it as needed. Consult the API documentation for the threading guarantees of particular objects. In general, stateless reference-counted objects like RSA or EVP_PKEY which represent keys may typically be used from multiple threads simultaneously, provided no thread mutates the key.