Cruising with the snavigator

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Gerrit photo

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original in en Gerrit Renker

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Gerrit didn't like any computers at all until he tried C and Linux.

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This article presents the snavigator, a powerful code analysis, cross-referencing and re-engineering tool which is indispensable for tackling the complexity of maintaining larger pieces of software and packages in an effective manner.

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An old proverb says that a book should not be judged by its cover. A similar thing happens with open source code. However, open source does not equal open documentation, and the reading process becomes increasingly difficult the more and the longer the source files are. I recently had to program with a piece of software which had half a html page of documentation, in contrast to over 348,000 lines of Java open source code spread over more than 2060 files (see figure). In light of such dimensions, electronic orienteering, reverse engineering and analysis tools become indispensable, such as the Red Hat source code navigator presented in this article.
The tool automates many of the tasks one would normally do using (c)tags, grep, search and replace, but much more accurately and more conveniently, wrapped in an easy to use graphical interface. See screenshots below.

Installing under debian

Under debian you can get the whole lot via the one-liner
apt-get install sourcenav sourcenav-doc 
This at the same time takes care of the documentation as well. The source navigator then resides in /usr/lib/sourcenav/, you can call the main program via /usr/lib/sourcenav/bin/snavigator (see tip about symlinks below). Documentation can be found in /usr/share/doc/sourcenav/html/.

Installation from source

The URL for the homepage of source navigator is, actual downloads are from here ( Obtain the latest tarball sourcenav-xx.xx.tar.gz. While downloading, try to do something else meanwhile - the sources amount to 55 Megabytes. This does have a positive background, the whole package is largely self-sufficient. Although it makes wide use of other libraries such as Tcl/Tk, Tix and Berkeley DB, the correct versions of these packages are all included. To avoid clashes with other versions of Tcl/Tk etc on your system, it is a good idea to place the installation into a separate directory, e.g. /opt/sourcenav. The instructions further suggest using a separate build directory, this works as follows. After unzipping, in the directory which contains the unpacked sources issue the following commands:
mkdir snbuild; cd snbuild 
../sourcenav-*/configure --prefix=/opt/sourcenav 
make                               ## takes a while ...
make install                       ## might have to become root first
The --prefix option is there to specify the installation directory. While configure runs, one already gets an idea about the many languages that snavigator can handle. It is also possible to add in further parsers for languages of your choice or making. Once the installation is finished via make install, the snavigator is ready to work and can be invoked as /opt/sourcenav/bin/snavigator. Instead of extending the PATH shell environment I suggest to use a symlink, e.g. to /usr/local/bin, instead.
ln -s /opt/sourcenav/bin/snavigator    /usr/local/bin
The main executable is a shell script which needs to know its directory. Thus it gets confused if called via a symlink. This can be remedied by changing the following lines in /opt/sourcenav/bin/snavigator; instead of
snbindir=`dirname $0
prog=`readlink -f $0`
snbindir=`dirname $prog`
The -f option to readlink(1) creates a canonical pathname representation, this means it even works if the file is accessed via a very long chain of nested symlinks. 

Using snavigator

The first time snavigator is invoked, it asks for directories containing source files, as the following screenshot shows. Languages which are supported include, but are not limited to, Java, C, C++, Tcl, Fortran, COBOL, and assembly programs. Once given the details of source code locations, it independently builds a project database which includes referencing information, class hierarchies, file inter-dependencies ... and much more. Depending on the size of your project, it takes a short while to build. Once done, the database can be queried and additional information be asked about the code. The following just highlights some of the features, to give you an idea. An illustrated user guide, as well as a reference manual, is included in the html directory of the installation.

Project management

Part of the suite is an editor with syntax highlighting, this can also be used for pretty-printing files. The following screenshot depicts the main editor window. It is almost like a development environment, comes with such things as a debugging facility, project build commands, version control and the like.

In particular, the big green arrows on the menu work just as in a web browser. The project editor allows one to control the database information, e.g. if a file has just been updated; to add or delete files from the list and other management tasks. All files are treated as one big project. So if changes are committed to, you can update the database information via Refresh Project or Reparse Project.
When in the editor window, highlight something, e.g. the name of a function such that the highlighted region appears in yellow. Then right-click with the mouse - there is a choice to find either (a) the declaration of what you just have highlighted (e.g. a header file) or (b) the implementation of the highlighted symbol (e.g. a .cpp file), plus a few more useful options.

browse files

Symbol browser

This is the first window that opens up after populating the project database. Usually it contains filenames, but it can also display class methods, function symbols and the like. When a filename is clicked upon, the editor will be opened with that file.

The grep window

This does what the name says, it provides a convenient gui for grepping through all involved source code files. Matching entries are highlighted and hyper-linked, the source code can thus be browsed as if it were a bunch of web pages. As the screenshot shows, the respective file and location can be selected and by simply clicking that entry you have the editor opened at the right position. (This particular search term gives positive results in many Java files :)

Xref window

Here we have a cross-reference list of all the symbols, in particular one can see which methods read (r), write (w), ... on which data and see the relationships among symbols, depicted in a hierarchical manner. The entries are clickable. xref

Class window

This interface aggregates all useful information one wishes to know about classes in an object-oriented language. In particular, super- and subclasses are shown, as well as attribute and method names along with their parameters. For a change, the window below shows a C++ ClientSocket class which inherits from Socket and has quite a few methods. Again, by clicking any of the entries you can open an editor window at the appropriate position.

Other alternatives

cscope is an interactive, console-screen based C source code browser (it can do C++, too). It has some of the functionality of snavigator, a screenshot is here. In fact, it is much older and has been used in many and very big projects. Its homepage is But you need not even go there - it is built into vim and can be used in much the way (g)vim is used in combination with tags. Simply type in
:help cscope
in your vim session to check the available options. There are a few derivatives of cscope. Freescope is a cscope clone which has some added functionality such as symbol completion. There is now also a KDE GUI frontend to cscope called kscope, it can be found on


For anyone involved in at least partly re-engineering or integrating source code, snavigator is a very useful and powerful tool. I once had an older Qt application which unfortunately did not work with the current version of the Qt library. By looking at the error messages and cruising a little with the snavigator, I had soon found out that only the parameter list of one function needed to be changed. Using the click-and-locate functionality, it was possible to bring the entire software package up to date in just a few minutes.