Extending ASPECT through signals

Extending ASPECT through signals#

Not all things you may want to do fit neatly into the list of plugins of the previous sections. Rather, there are cases where you may want to change things that are more of the one-off kind and that require code that is at a lower level and requires more knowledge about ASPECT’s internal workings. For such changes, we still want to stick with the general principle outlined at the beginning of Extending and contributing to ASPECT: You should be able to make all of your changes and extensions in your own files, without having to modify ASPECT’s own sources.

To support this, ASPECT uses a “signals” mechanism. Signals are, in essence, objects that represent events, for example the fact that the solver has finished a time step. The core of ASPECT defines a number of such signals, and triggers them at the appropriate points. The idea of signals is now that you can connect to them: you can tell the signal that it should call a particular function every time the signal is triggered. The functions that are connected to a signal are called “slots” in common diction. One, several, or no slots may be connected to each signal.

There are two kinds of signals that ASPECT provides:

  • Signals that are triggered at startup of the program: These are, in essence, signals that live in some kind of global scope. Examples are signals that declare additional parameters for use in input files, or that read the values of these parameters from a ParameterHandler object. These signals are static member variables of the structure that contains them and consequently exist only once for the entire program.

  • Signals that reference specific events that happen inside a simulator object. These are regular member variables of the structure that contains them, and because each simulator object has such a structure, the signals exist once per simulator object. (Which in practice is only once per program, of course.)

For both of these kinds, a user-written plugin file can (but does not need) to register functions that connect functions in this file (i.e., slots) to their respective signals.

In the first case, code that registers slots with global signals would look like this:

// A function that will be called at the time when parameters are declared.
// It receives the dimension in which ASPECT will be run as the first argument,
// and the ParameterHandler object that holds the runtime parameter
// declarations as second argument.
void declare_parameters(const unsigned int dim,
                        ParameterHandler &prm)
  prm.declare_entry("My parameter", ...);

// The same for parsing parameters. 'my_parameter' is a parameter
// that stores something we want to read from the input file
// and use in other functions in this file (which we don't show here).
// For simplicity, we assume that it is an integer.
// The function also receives a first argument that contains all
// of the other (already parsed) arguments of the simulation, in
// case what you want to do here wants to refer to other parameters.
int my_parameter;

template <int dim>
void parse_parameters(const Parameters<dim> &parameters,
                      ParameterHandler &prm)
  my_parameter = prm.get_integer ("My parameter");

// Now have a function that connects slots (i.e., the two functions
// above) to the static signals. Do this for both the 2d and 3d
// case for generality.
void parameter_connector ()
  SimulatorSignals<2>::declare_additional_parameters.connect (&declare_parameters);
  SimulatorSignals<3>::declare_additional_parameters.connect (&declare_parameters);

  SimulatorSignals<2>::parse_additional_parameters.connect (&parse_parameters<2>);
  SimulatorSignals<3>::parse_additional_parameters.connect (&parse_parameters<3>);

// Finally register the connector function above to make sure it gets run
// whenever we load a user plugin that is mentioned among the additional
// shared libraries in the input file:

The second kind of signal can be connected to once a simulator object has been created. As above, one needs to define the slots, define a connector function, and register the connector function. The following gives an example:

// A function that is called at the end of creating the current constraints
// on degrees of freedom (i.e., the constraints that describe, for example,
// hanging nodes, boundary conditions, etc).
template <int dim>
void post_constraints_creation (const SimulatorAccess<dim> &simulator_access,
                                ConstraintMatrix &current_constraints)
  ...; // do whatever you want to do here

// A function that is called from the simulator object and that can connect
// a slot (such as the function above) to any of the signals declared in the
// structure passed as argument:
template <int dim>
void signal_connector (SimulatorSignals<dim> &signals)
  signals.post_constraints_creation.connect (&post_constraints_creation<dim>);

// Finally register the connector function so that it is called whenever
// a simulator object has been set up. For technical reasons, we need to
// register both 2d and 3d versions of this function:

As mentioned above, each signal may be connected to zero, one, or many slots. Consequently, you could have multiple plugins each of which connect to the same slot, or the connector function above may just connect multiple slots (i.e., functions in your program) to the same signal.

So what could one do in a place like this? One option would be to just monitor what is going on, e.g., in code like this that simply outputs into the statistics file (see Visualizing statistical data):

template <int dim>
void post_constraints_creation (const SimulatorAccess<dim> &simulator_access,
                                ConstraintMatrix &current_constraints)
    .add_value ("number of constraints",

This will produce, for every time step (because this is how often the signal is called) an entry in a new column in the statistics file that records the number of constraints. On the other hand, it is equally possible to also modify the constraints object at this point. An application would be if you wanted to run a simulation where you prescribe the velocity in a part of the domain, e.g., for a subducting slab (see Prescribed internal velocity constraints).

Signals exist for various waypoints in a simulation and you can consequently monitor and change what is happening inside a simulation by connecting your own functions to these signals. It would be pointless to list here what signals actually exist – simply refer to the documentation of the SimulatorSignals class for a complete list of signals you can connect to.

As a final note, it is generally true that writing functions that can connect to signals require significantly more internal knowledge of the workings of ASPECT than writing plugins through the mechanisms outlined above. It also allows to affect the course of a simulation by working on the internal data structures of ASPECT in ways that are not available to the largely passive and reactive plugins discussed in previous sections. With this obviously also comes the potential for trouble. On the other hand, it also allows to do things with ASPECT that were not initially intended by the authors, and that would be hard or impossible to implement through plugins. An example would be to couple different codes by exchanging details of the internal data structures, or even update the solution vectors using information received from another code.


Chances are that if you think about using the signal mechanism, there is not yet a signal that is triggered at exactly the point where you need it. Consequently, you will be tempted to just put your code into the place where it fits inside ASPECT where it fits best. This is poor practice: it prevents you from upgrading to a newer version of ASPECT at a later time because this would overwrite the code you inserted. Rather, a more productive approach would be to either define a new signal that is triggered where you need it, and connect a function (slot) in your own plugin file to this signal using the mechanisms outlined above. Then send the code that defines and triggers the signal to the developers of ASPECT to make sure that it is also included in the next release. Alternatively, you can also simply ask on the forum for someone to add such a signal in the place where you want it. Either way, adding signals is something that is easy to do, and we would much rather add signals than have people who modify the ASPECT source files for their own needs and are then stuck on a particular version.