Gathering system information in Swift with sysctl

In the previous article, I looked at gathering stack traces to record what your own process is doing. In debug analysis, though, information about what a process has done is only half the picture: we often need to know about the environment in which the process ran to understand why the process has behaved a certain way.

In this article, I’ll look at gathering a narrow set of basic information about the host system for the purpose of debug analysis. System information can be obtained through a number of different APIs, each with their own advantages, disadvantages and idiosyncracies but I’ll be focussing on a core function available across OS X and iOS: sysctl. The function itself is cumbersome and full of classic C quirks so I’ll also share a Swift wrapper for sysctl to make it slightly less irksome.


As with the previous article, this article concerns debug analysis. Specifically, analyzing information about what has happened after a problem occurs to try and determine what led to the problem. This time, instead of capturing information about our own actions, I want to look at capturing information about the host system.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at what’s in a typical Mac OS X diagnostic report. We can look at any of the “.diag” files in the “/Library/Logs/DiagnosticReports” folder. A typical dianostic report on my computer contains:

  1. The date
  2. Name and version information for program that was running when the report was created
  3. Specific details about what error or condition triggered the report
  4. A stack trace for the program that was running
  5. The following information about the host computer…
OS Version:     Mac OS X 10.11.3 (Build 15D21)
Architecture:   x86_64
Hardware model:  MacPro4,1
Active cpus:    8

This is the host information I want to gather.

NSProcessInfo and UIDevice

Let’s look and see if we can gather this information from any common Cocoa location.

The Foundation singleton NSProcessInfo.processInfo() has properties operatingSystemVersionString and activeProcessorCount which could give:

OS Version:     Version 10.11.3 (Build 15D21)
Active cpus:    8

the iOS-only singleton UIDevice.currentDevice() also has systemName and model which would let you amend that to:

OS Version:     iPhone OS Version 9.2.1 (Build 13D20)
Hardware model:  iPhone
Active cpus:    2

Unfortunately though, “iPhone” is not a very helpful model description (this ran on my iPhone 6s which has a true model name of “iPhone8,1”).

The “Hardware model”, as listed in common diagnostic reports, is not available through Objective-C/Swift APIs. For this information, we need to look elsewhere.


Cocoa classes don’t really help us get the hardware model. Instead, let’s turn to a C function named uname. Calling uname function fills in a struct named utsname with the following values:

sysname = "Darwin"
nodename = "Matt-Gallaghers-iPhone"
release = "15.0.0"
version = "Darwin Kernel Version 15.0.0: Wed Dec  9 22:19:38 PST 2015; root:xnu-3248.31.3~2/RELEASE_ARM64_S8000"
machine = "iPhone8,1"

We have the full model name. We can combine this with information from NSProcessInfo and we have all the basic information we need, right?

Let’s try the same thing on a “MacPro4,1” running Mac OS X…

sysname = "Darwin"
nodename = "MacPro.local"
release = "15.3.0"
version = "Darwin Kernel Version 15.3.0: Thu Dec 10 18:40:58 PST 2015; root:xnu-3248.30.4~1/RELEASE_X86_64"
machine = "x86_64"

The model name is gone, replaced instead by the CPU family. So we can’t get the “Hardware model” on the Mac using uname.

Looking for the source

Why is uname inconsistent between platforms? What’s happening?

Let’s look at where uname gets its information and see what’s going on. We can view the source code for uname on The machine field is filled in by the following code:

mib[0] = CTL_HW;
mib[1] = HW_MACHINE;
len = sizeof(name->machine);
if (sysctl(mib, 2, &name->machine, &len, NULL, 0) == -1)
   rval = -1;

So uname isn’t the source of the information. The value actually comes from another function named sysctl.

Of course, sysctl isn’t the source either. Following that rabbit hole all the way down gives:

  1. sysctl gets its information from different OID handlers
  2. sysctl_hw_generic handles the information for most of the CTL_HW OIDs, including HW_MACHINE.
  3. PEGetMachineName handles the HW_MACHINE OID.
  4. Depending on CPU, one of the IOPlatformExpert::getMachineName implementations (essentially a driver for the CPU) will return the machine name.

The value is hardcoded into the getMachineName function so this is the true source, although it’s largely irrelevant to us since the sysctl API remains the final layer that we can easily access.

Does this answer why uname is inconsistent between OS X and iOS? Let’s have a look at the output from sysctl on these platforms:

HW_MACHINE x86_64 iPhone8,1
HW_MODEL MacPro4,1 N71mAP
"sysctl" results for selected "CTL_HW" subkeys on iOS and OS X

That “N71mAP” value is the iPhone’s CPU model – not completely the same as “x86_64” for an Intel W3520 but similar. So it looks like the inconsistency is due to HW_MACHINE and HW_MODEL results from sysctl getting swapped around – without access to the source code, I don’t if this is a mistake or a deliberate decision (it looks like an accidental mixup) but in any case, the iOS behavior has remained steady since the iOS platform was released.

With this knowledge, we can finally get a “Hardware model” value by using sysctl to get the HW_MODEL for OS X and HW_MACHINE for iOS systems.

What else can sysctl do?

For my own purposes, I rarely go much deeper; basic machine and model information is enough to satisfy the diagnostic information needs for which I employ sysctl. However, the HW_MODEL and HW_MACHINE values that I’ve focussed on in this article are only a small fraction of a huge range of values you can get from sysctl.

You can see almost all of these values on OS X by running sysctl -A on the command line. More than 1000 keys and values will be shown.

I say “almost” though because a few keys are not shown. Curiously, there’s a handful of values that are hidden from this list by default, including HW_MODEL and HW_MACHINE. To get the full list of values, you can download the source to the sysctl command line tool and on line 992, change the final 0 argument passed to show_var to 1. Running the result gives a few dozen extra values you can query.

On iOS, there are a couple hundred fewer sysctl values available (806 on my iPhone versus 1098 on my Mac) with many of the missing values omitted from the hardware – CTL_HW – section. While this is annoying, fortunately most of the relevant traits of an iOS system (CPU type, capabilities and clock rate) are locked to the model so it’s not a major catastrophe. In any case, be wary of the fact that sysctl on iOS may return errors (specifically, a POSIX error 2) for many values that are valid on OS X.

Improving sysctl’s interface with a nested set of wrappers

The sysctl function itself is not incredibly complicated but it is a little ugly in Swift:

public func sysctl(name: UnsafeMutablePointer<Int32>, namelen: u_int,
   oldp: UnsafeMutablePointer<Void>, oldlenp: UnsafeMutablePointer<Int>,
   newp: UnsafeMutablePointer<Void>, newlenp: Int) -> Int32

You pass a C array of Int32 which uniquely identifies the value you’re after and you pass a buffer via oldp that’s oldlenp long and the value will be written there (I’m going to completely ignore using sysctl to set values since it’s very rare to do that in an app).

The reason why sysctl feels so cumbersome in Swift is:

  • Creating an array of Int32 and passing that by pointer for the first parameter is a nuisance in Swift
  • You basically need to call sysctl twice: once with oldp equal to nil to get the size required for the result buffer and then a second time with a properly allocated buffer.
  • The result is returned as an untyped buffer of bytes which you then need to interpret correctly.
  • There are a few different ways in which failure can occur and we want to reduce these different ways to idiomatic Swift errors or preconditions.

For these reasons, I use a wrapper around sysctl which has the following interface:

public struct Sysctl {
   public static func dataForKeys(_ keys: [Int32]) throws -> [Int8]

This lets you write let modelAsArrayOfChar = Sysctl.dataForKeys([CTL_HW, HW_MODEL]) to get the hardware model as an array of Int8.

Of course, a [Int8] isn’t particularly useful so I call this function from inside subsequent functions that further refine the process:

public struct Sysctl {
   public static func string(for keys: Int32...) throws -> String

This function lets you pass in the levels as a comma separated list and converts the result to a regular Swift String so we can get the model as a string in a single line: let modelString = try Sysctl.string(for: CTL_HW, HW_MODEL).

An alternative overload lets you use the sysctl names instead of Int32 identifiers:

public struct Sysctl {
   public static func string(for name: String) throws -> String

for which we’d write let modelString = try Sysctl.string(for: "hw.model").

There’s still more that we can do: we can eliminate the try, entirely. Risking fatal errors should always be kept to a minimum but for core sysctl values, the error code path is effectively unreachable (see ‘Effectively unreachable code paths’ in Partial Functions in Swift, Part1) so forcing “no error” with try! is a valid approach for these code values.

This then leads to the final wrapper around these functions, a static struct exposing the core values, without error handling:

public struct Sysctl {
   public static var model: String

For these convenience vars on this Sysctl struct, I’ve taken the opportunity to swap HW_MACHINE and HW_MODEL results on iOS so that its behavior is more in line with OS X. The result is that you can use Sysctl.model to get the “Hardware model” on either OS X or iOS.


The project containing this sysctl wrapper is available on github: mattgallagher/CwlUtils.

The CwlSysctl.swift file is fully self-contained so you can just copy the file, if that’s all you need. Otherwise, the file for the project contains detailed information on cloning the whole repository and adding the framework it produces to your own projects.


The sysctl function is a fundamental kernel/machine information tool on OS X and iOS. There’s more information about network interfaces in SystemConfiguration and there’s more about attached hardware devices in the IOKit registry, but these locations don’t hold all of the same information that sysctl offers (and IOKit isn’t available on iOS anyway).

Despite the fundamental nature of this function, its clumsy interface often leaves it as an API of last resort behind Foundation classes and simpler C functions. I hope I’ve shown that if you’re interested in a description of the host’s “Hardware model”, it should be first choice.