Category: coding

Getting started with a PhysiCell Virtual Appliance

Note: This is part of a series of “how-to” blog posts to help new users and developers of BioFVM and PhysiCell. This guide is for for users in OSX, Linux, or Windows using the VirtualBox virtualization software to run a PhysiCell virtual appliance.

These instructions should get you up and running without needed to install a compiler, makefile capabilities, or any other software (beyond the virtual machine and the PhysiCell virtual appliance). We note that using the PhysiCell source with your own compiler is still the preferred / ideal way to get started, but the virtual appliance option is a fast way to start even if you’re having troubles setting up your development environment.

What’s a Virtual Machine? What’s a Virtual Appliance?

A virtual machine is a full simulated computer (with its own disk space, operating system, etc.) running on another. They are designed to let a user test on a completely different environment, without affecting the host (main) environment. They also allow a very robust way of taking and reproducing the state of a full working environment.

A virtual appliance is just this: a full image of an installed system (and often its saved state) on a virtual machine, which can easily be installed on a new virtual machine. In this tutorial, you will download our PhysiCell virtual appliance and use its pre-configured compiler and other tools.

What you’ll need:

  • VirtualBox: This is a free, cross-platform program to run virtual machines on OSX, Linux, Windows, and other platforms. It is a safe and easy way to install one full operating (a client system) on your main operating system (the host system). For us, this means that we can distribute a fully working Linux environment with a working copy of all the tools you need to compile and run PhysiCell. As of August 1, 2017, this will download Version 5.1.26.
  • PhysiCell Virtual Appliance: This is a single-file distribution of a virtual machine running Alpine Linux, including all key tools needed to compile and run PhysiCell. As of July 31, 2017, this will download PhysiCell 1.2.0 with g++ 6.3.0.
  • A computer with hardware support for virtualization: Your CPU needs to have hardware support for virtualization (almost all of them do now), and it has to be enabled in your BIOS. Consult your computer maker on how to turn this on if you get error messages later.

Main steps:

1) Install VirtualBox.

Double-click / open the VirtualBox download. Go ahead and accept all the default choices. If asked, go ahead and download/install the extensions pack.

2) Import the PhysiCell Virtual Appliance

Go the “File” menu and choose “Import Virtual Appliance”. Browse to find the .ova file you just downloaded.

Click on “Next,” and import with all the default options. That’s it!

3) [Optional] Change settings

You most likely won’t need this step, but you can increase/decrease the amount of RAM used for the virtual machine if you select the PhysiCell VM, click the Settings button (orange gear), and choose “System”:We set the Virtual Machine to have 4 GB of RAM. If you have a machine with lots of RAM (16 GB or more), you may want to set this to 8 GB.

Also, you can choose how many virtual CPUs to give to your VM: 

We selected 4 when we set up the Virtual Appliance, but you should match the number of physical processor cores on your machine. In my case, I have a quad core processor with hyperthreading. This means 4 real cores, 8 virtual cores, so I select 4 here.

4) Start the Virtual Machine and log in

Select the PhysiCell machine, and click the green “start” button. After the virtual machine boots (with the good old LILO boot manager that I’ve missed), you should see this:

Click the "More ..." button, and log in with username: physicell, password: physicell

5) Test the compiler and run your first simulation

Notice that PhysiCell is already there on the desktop in the PhysiCell folder. Right-click, and choose “open terminal here.” You’ll already be in the main PhysiCell root directory. 

Now, let’s compile your first project! Type “make template2D && make” And run your project! Type “./project” and let it go!Go ahead and run either the first few days of the simulation (until about 7200 minutes), then hit <control>-C to cancel out. Or run the whole simulation–that’s fine, too.

6) Look at the results

We bundled a few tools to easily look at results. First, ristretto is a very fast image viewer. Let’s view the SVG files: As a nice tip, you can press the left and right arrows to advance through the SVG images, or hold the right arrow down to advance through quickly.

Now, let’s use ImageMagick to convert the SVG files into JPG file: call “magick mogrify -format jpg snap*.svg”

Next, let’s turn those images into a movie. I generally create moves that are 24 frames pers se, so that 1 second of the movie is 1 hour of simulations time. We’ll use mencoder, with options below given to help get a good quality vs. size tradeoff:

When you’re done, view the movie with mplayer. The options below scale the window to fit within the virtual monitor:

If you want to loop the movie, add “-loop 999” to your command.

7) Get familiar with other tools

Use nano (useage: nano <filename>) to quickly change files at the command line. Hit <control>-O to save your results. Hit <control>-X to exit.  <control>-W will search within the file.

Use nedit (useage: nedit <filename> &) to open up one more text files in a graphical editor. This is a good way to edit multiple files at once.

Sometimes, you need to run commands at elevated (admin or root) privileges. Use sudo. Here’s an example, searching the Alpine Linux package manager apk for clang:

physicell:~$ sudo apk search gcc
[sudo] password for physicell:  
physicell:~$ sudo apk search clang
clang-analyzer-4.0.0-r0
clang-libs-4.0.0-r0
clang-dev-4.0.0-r0
clang-static-4.0.0-r0
emscripten-fastcomp-1.37.10-r0
clang-doc-4.0.0-r0
clang-4.0.0-r0
physicell:~/Desktop/PhysiCell$ 

If you want to install clang/llvm (as an alternative compiler):

physicell:~$ sudo apk add gcc
[sudo] password for physicell:  
physicell:~$ sudo apk search clang
clang-analyzer-4.0.0-r0
clang-libs-4.0.0-r0
clang-dev-4.0.0-r0
clang-static-4.0.0-r0
emscripten-fastcomp-1.37.10-r0
clang-doc-4.0.0-r0
clang-4.0.0-r0
physicell:~/Desktop/PhysiCell$ 

Notice that it asks for a password: use the password for root (which is physicell).

8) [Optional] Configure a shared folder

Coming soon.

Why both with zipped source, then?

Given that we can get a whole development environment by just downloading and importing a virtual appliance, why
bother with all the setup of a native development environment, like this tutorial (Windows) or this tutorial (Mac)?

One word: performance. In my testing, I still have not found the performance running inside a
virtual machine to match compiling and running directly on your system. So, the Virtual Appliance is a great
option to get up and running quickly while trying things out, but I still recommend setting up natively with
one of the tutorials I linked in the preceding paragraphs.

What’s next?

In the coming weeks, we’ll post further tutorials on using PhysiCell. In the meantime, have a look at the
PhysiCell project website, and these links as well:

  1. BioFVM on MathCancer.org: http://BioFVM.MathCancer.org
  2. BioFVM on SourceForge: http://BioFVM.sf.net
  3. BioFVM Method Paper in BioInformatics: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/bioinformatics/btv730
  4. PhysiCell on MathCancer.org: http://PhysiCell.MathCancer.org
  5. PhysiCell on Sourceforge: http://PhysiCell.sf.net
  6. PhysiCell Method Paper (preprint): https://doi.org/10.1101/088773
  7. PhysiCell tutorials: [click here]

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MathCancer C++ Style and Practices Guide

As PhysiCell, BioFVM, and other open source projects start to gain new users and contributors, it’s time to lay out a coding style. We have three goals here:

  1. Consistency: It’s easier to understand and contribute to the code if it’s written in a consistent way.
  2. Readability: We want the code to be as readable as possible.
  3. Reducing errors: We want to avoid coding styles that are more prone to errors. (e.g., code that can be broken by introducing whitespace).

So, here is the guide (revised June 2017). I expect to revise this guide from time to time.

Place braces on separate lines in functions and classes.

I find it much easier to read a class if the braces are on separate lines, with good use of whitespace. Remember: whitespace costs almost nothing, but reading and understanding (and time!) are expensive.

DON’T

class Cell{
public:
 double some_variable; 
 bool some_extra_variable;

 Cell(); };

class Phenotype{
public:
 double some_variable; 
 bool some_extra_variable;

 Phenotype();
};

DO:

class Cell
{
 public:
     double some_variable; 
     bool some_extra_variable;

     Cell(); 
};

class Phenotype
{
 public:
     double some_variable; 
     bool some_extra_variable;

     Phenotype();
};

Enclose all logic in braces, even when optional.

In C/C++, you can omit the curly braces in some cases. For example, this is legal

if( distance > 1.5*cell_radius )
     interaction = false; 
force = 0.0; // is this part of the logic, or a separate statement?
error = false; 

However, this code is ambiguous to interpret. Moreover, small changes to whitespace–or small additions to the logic–could mess things up here. Use braces to make the logic crystal clear:

DON’T

if( distance > 1.5*cell_radius )  
     interaction = false; 
force = 0.0; // is this part of the logic, or a separate statement?
error = false; 

if( condition1 == true )
  do_something1 = true; 
elseif( condition2 == true )
  do_something2 = true;
else
  do_something3 = true; 

DO

if( distance > 1.5*cell_radius )  
{
     interaction = false; 
     force = 0.0;
}
error = false; 

if( condition1 == true )
{ do_something1 = true; }
elseif( condition2 == true )
{ do_something2 = true; }
else
{ do_something3 = true; }

Put braces on separate lines in logic, except for single-line logic.

This style rule relates to the previous point, to improve readability.

DON’T

if( distance > 1.5*cell_radius ){ 
     interaction = false;
     force = 0.0; } 

if( condition1 == true ){ do_something1 = true; }
elseif( condition2 == true ){ 
  do_something2 = true; }
else
{ do_something3 = true; error = true; }

DO

if( distance > 1.5*cell_radius )
{ 
     interaction = false;
     force = 0.0;
} 

if( condition1 == true )
{ do_something1 = true; } // this is fine
elseif( condition2 == true )
{ 
     do_something2 = true; // this is better
}
else
{
     do_something3 = true;
     error = true;
}

See how much easier that code is to read? The logical structure is crystal clear, and adding more to the logic is simple.

End all functions with a return, even if void.

For clarity, definitively state that a function is done by using return.

DON’T

void my_function( Cell& cell )
{
     cell.phenotype.volume.total *= 2.0; 
     cell.phenotype.death.rates[0] = 0.02;
     // Are we done, or did we forget something?
     // is somebody still working here? 
}

DO

void my_function( Cell& cell )
{
     cell.phenotype.volume.total *= 2.0; 
     cell.phenotype.death.rates[0] = 0.02;
     return; 
}

Use tabs to indent the contents of a class or function.

This is to make the code easier to read. (Unfortunately PHP/HTML makes me use five spaces here instead of tabs.)

DON’T

class Secretion
{
 public:
std::vector<double> secretion_rates;
std::vector<double> uptake_rates; 
std::vector<double> saturation_densities; 
};

void my_function( Cell& cell )
{
cell.phenotype.volume.total *= 2.0; 
cell.phenotype.death.rates[0] = 0.02;
return; 
}

DO

class Secretion
{
 public:
     std::vector<double> secretion_rates;
     std::vector<double> uptake_rates; 
     std::vector<double> saturation_densities; 
};

void my_function( Cell& cell )
{
     cell.phenotype.volume.total *= 2.0; 
     cell.phenotype.death.rates[0] = 0.02;
     return; 
}

Use a single space to indent public and other keywords in a class.

This gets us some nice formatting in classes, without needing two tabs everywhere.

DON’T

class Secretion
{
public:
std::vector<double> secretion_rates;
std::vector<double> uptake_rates; 
std::vector<double> saturation_densities; 
}; // not enough whitespace

class Errors
{
     private:
          std::string none_of_your_business
     public:
          std::string error_message;
          int error_code; 
}; // too much whitespace!

DO

class Secretion
{
 private:
 public:
     std::vector<double> secretion_rates;
     std::vector<double> uptake_rates; 
     std::vector<double> saturation_densities; 
}; 

class Errors
{
 private:
     std::string none_of_your_business
 public:
     std::string error_message;
     int error_code; 
};

Avoid arcane operators, when clear logic statements will do.

It can be difficult to decipher code with statements like this:

phenotype.volume.fluid=phenotype.volume.fluid<0?0:phenotype.volume.fluid;

Moreover, C and C++ can treat precedence of ternary operators very differently, so subtle bugs can creep in when using the “fancier” compact operators. Variations in how these operators work across languages are an additional source of error for programmers switching between languages in their daily scientific workflows. Wherever possible (and unless there is a significant performance reason to do so), use clear logical structures that are easy to read even if you only dabble in C/C++. Compiler-time optimizations will most likely eliminate any performance gains from these goofy operators.

DON’T

// if the fluid volume is negative, set it to zero
phenotype.volume.fluid=phenotype.volume.fluid<0.0?0.0:pCell->phenotype.volume.fluid;

DO

if( phenotype.volume.fluid < 0.0 )
{
     phenotype.volume.fluid = 0.0;
}

Here’s the funny thing: the second logic is much clearer, and it took fewer characters, even with extra whitespace for readability!

Pass by reference where possible.

Passing by reference is a great way to boost performance: we can avoid (1) allocating new temporary memory, (2) copying data into the temporary memory, (3) passing the temporary data to the function, and (4) deallocating the temporary memory once finished.

DON’T

double some_function( Cell cell )
{
     return = cell.phenotype.volume.total + 3.0; 
}
// This copies cell and all its member data!

DO

double some_function( Cell& cell )
{
     return = cell.phenotype.volume.total + 3.0; 
}
// This just accesses the original cell data without recopying it. 

Where possible, pass by reference instead of by pointer.

There is no performance advantage to passing by pointers over passing by reference, but the code is simpler / clearer when you can pass by reference. It makes code easier to write and understand if you can do so. (If nothing else, you save yourself character of typing each time you can replace “->” by “.”!)

DON’T

double some_function( Cell* pCell )
{
     return = pCell->phenotype.volume.total + 3.0; 
}
// Writing and debugging this code can be error-prone.

DO

double some_function( Cell& cell )
{
     return = cell.phenotype.volume.total + 3.0; 
}
// This is much easier to write. 

Be careful with static variables. Be thread safe!

PhysiCell relies heavily on parallelization by OpenMP, and so you should write functions under the assumption that they may be executed many times simultaneously. One easy source of errors is in static variables:

DON’T

double some_function( Cell& cell )
{
     static double four_pi = 12.566370614359172; 
     static double output; 
     output = cell.phenotype.geometry.radius; 
     output *= output; 
     output *= four_pi; 
     return output; 
}
// If two instances of some_function are running, they will both modify 
// the *same copy* of output 

DO

double some_function( Cell& cell )
{
     static double four_pi = 12.566370614359172; 
     double output; 
     output = cell.phenotype.geometry.radius; 
     output *= output; 
     output *= four_pi; 
     return output; 
}
// If two instances of some_function are running, they will both modify 
// the their own copy of output, but still use the more efficient, once-
// allocated copy of four_pi. This one is safe for OpenMP.

Use std:: instead of “using namespace std”

PhysiCell uses the BioFVM and PhysiCell namespaces to avoid potential collision with other codes. Other codes using PhysiCell may use functions that collide with the standard namespace. So, we formally use std:: whenever using functions in the standard namespace.

DON’T

using namespace std; 

cout << "Hi, Mom, I learned to code today!" << endl; 
string my_string = "Cheetos are good, but Doritos are better."; 
cout << my_string << endl; 

vector<double> my_vector;
vector.resize( 3, 0.0 ); 

DO

std::cout << "Hi, Mom, I learned to code today!" << std::endl; 
std::string my_string = "Cheetos are good, but Doritos are better."; 
std::cout << my_string << std::endl; 

std::vector<double> my_vector;
my_vector.resize( 3, 0.0 ); 

Camelcase is ugly. Use underscores.

This is purely an aesthetic distinction, but CamelCaseCodeIsUglyAndDoYouUseDNAorDna?

DON’T

double MyVariable1;
bool ProteinsInExosomes;
int RNAtranscriptionCount;

void MyFunctionDoesSomething( Cell& ImmuneCell );

DO

double my_variable1;
bool proteins_in_exosomes;
int RNA_transcription_count;

void my_function_does_something( Cell& immune_cell );

Use capital letters to declare a class. Use lowercase for instances.

To help in readability and consistency, declare classes with capital letters (but no camelcase), and use lowercase for instances of those classes.

DON’T

class phenotype; 

class cell
{
 public:
     std::vector<double> position; 
     phenotype Phenotype; 
}; 

class ImmuneCell : public cell
{
 public:
     std::vector<double> surface_receptors; 
};

void do_something( cell& MyCell , ImmuneCell& immuneCell ); 

cell Cell;
ImmuneCell MyImmune_cell;

do_something( Cell, MyImmune_cell ); 

DO

class Phenotype;

class Cell
{
 public:
     std::vector<double> position; 
     Phenotype phenotype; 
}; 

class Immune_Cell : public Cell
{
 public:
     std::vector<double> surface_receptors; 
};

void do_something( Cell& my_cell , Immune_Cell& immune_cell ); 

Cell cell;
Immune_Cell my_immune_cell;

do_something( cell, my_immune_cell ); 
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