Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Compiler-checked contracts

 btrc: compile6 : compiler-validated contracts

Contract programming is not a new concept. It’s a clean way to design narrow contracts, by spelling explicitly its conditions, and checking them actively at contract’s interface. In essence, it’s translated into a bunch of assert() at the entrance and exit of a function. It’s a fairly good formal design, although one associated with a runtime penalty.

We left the previous episode with an ability to express function preconditions and make them checked by the compiler, but no good way to transport the outcome of these checks into the function body. We’ll pick up from there.

The proposed solution is to re-express these invariants in the function as assert(), as they should have been anyway if EXPECT() was absent. It works, but it also means that downstream EXPECT() can only be validated when assert() are enabled, aka. in debug builds.

Let’s try to improve this situation, and keep EXPECT() active while compiling in release mode, aka with assert() disabled.
What is needed is an assert() that still achieves its outcome on Value Range Analysis while disabled. Such a thing exists, and is generally called an assume().


assume() is not part of the language, but most compilers offer some kind of hook to build one. Unfortunately, they all differ.

On gcc, assume() can be created using __builtin_unreachable() :

#define assume(cond) do { if (!(cond)) __builtin_unreachable(); } while (0)

clang provides __builtin_assume(). icc and Visual provide ___assume(). etc.
You get the idea.

An important point here is that, in contrast with all techniques seen so far, assume() actually reduces compiler’s effectiveness at catching bug. It’s an explicit “trust me, I’ll tell you what to know” situation, and it’s easy to get it wrong.

One way to mitigate this negative impact is to make sure assume() are converted into assert() within debug builds, so that there is at least a chance that wrong assumptions get caught during tests.

assume() however have additional restrictions compared to assert(). assert() merely need to produce no side-effect, and offer a tractable runtime cost, though even this last point is negotiable. But assume() must be transformed into pure compiler hints, leaving no trace in the generated binary (beyond the assumption’s impact). In particular, the test itself should not be present in the generated binary.
This reduces eligible tests to simple conditions only, such as (i>=0) or (ptr != NULL). A counter example would be (is_this_graph_acyclic(*graph)). “complex” conditions will not provide any useful hint to the compiler, and on top of that, may also leave a runtime trace into the generated binary, resulting in a reduction of performance.

Note : I haven’t found a way to ensure this property on gcc : if assume() is served a complex condition, it will happily generate additional asm code, without issuing any warning.
Fortunately, clang is way better at this game, and will correctly flag bad assume() conditions, which would generate additional code in gcc.
As a consequence, it’s preferable to have clang available and check the code with it from time to time to ensure all assume() conditions are correct.

In our case, assume() main objective is not really performance : it is to forward conditions already checked by EXPECT() within function’s body, so that they can be re-used to automatically comply with downstream EXPECT() conditions, even when assert() are disabled, aka during release compilation.

So here we are : every time a condition is required by EXPECT() and cannot be deducted from the local code, express it using assume() rather than assert(). This will make it possible to keep EXPECT() active irrespective of the debug nature of the build.
Note that, if any condition is too complex for assume(), we are back to square one, and need to rely on assert() only (hence debug builds only).

Being able to keep EXPECT() active in release builds is nice, but not terrific. At this stage, we still need to write all these assume() in the code, and we cannot take advantage of pre-conditions already expressed at the entrance of the function.

Worse, since pre-conditions are expressed on one side, in the *.h header where function prototype is published, while the corresponding assume() are expressed in the function body, within *.c unit file, that’s 2 separate places, and it’s easy to lose sync, when one side changes the conditions.

Expressing conditions in one place

What we need is to express preconditions in a single source of truth. This place should preferably be close to the prototype declaration, since it can also serve as function documentation. Then the same conditions will be used in the function body, becoming assumptions.

The solution is simple : define a macro to transport the conditions in multiple places.
Here is an example.
The conditions are transferred from the header, close to prototype declaration, into the function body, using a uniquely named macro. It guarantees that conditions are kept in sync.
In the example, note how the knowledge of minus2() preconditions, now considered satisfied within function body, makes it possible to automatically comply with the preconditions of invoked minus1(), without adding any assert() or assume().

In this example, the condition is trivial (i>=2), using a single argument. Using a macro to synchronize such a trivial condition may seem overkill. However, synchronization is important in its own right. Besides, more complex functions, featuring multiple conditions on multiple arguments, will be served by a design pattern which can be just reproduced mindlessly, whatever the complexity of the preconditions : assume(function_preconditions());.

There is still a variable element, related to the number of arguments and their order.
To deal with that variance, argument names could be baked directly into the preconditions macro. Unfortunately, this would only work within a function. But since the macro transporting preconditions is itself invoked within a macro, it wouldn’t expand correctly.

Another downside is that we just lost a bit of clarity in the warning message : conditions themselves used to be part of the warning message, now only the macro name is, which transmits less information.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way around this issue.

To preserve clarity of the warning message, it may be tempting to keep the previous format, with conditions expressed directly in the masking function macro, whenever such conditions are not required afterwards in the body. However, it creates a special cases, with some functions which replicate conditions in their body, and those that don’t.

Transmitting preconditions compliance into function body makes it easier to comply with a chain of preconditions. A consequence of which, it makes it more tractable to use compile-time pre-conditions onto a larger scope of the code base.

Post conditions

Yet we are not completely done, because the need to check preconditions implies that all contributors of any parameter are part of the game. Function’s return values themselves are contributors.

For example, one may invoke a function f1() requiring an argument i>0.
The said argument may be provided as a return value of a previous function f2().
f2() might guarantee in its documentation that its return value is necessarily >0, hence is compliant,
but the compiler doesn’t read the documentation. As far as it’s concerned, the return value could be any value the type allows.

The only way to express this situation is to save the return value into an intermediate variable,
and then assert() or assume() it with the expected guarantee,
then pass it to the second function.
This is a bit more verbose than necessary, especially as f2() was already fulfilling the required preconditions. Besides, if f2() guarantees change, the local assumption will no longer be correct.

Guarantees on function’s outcome are also called post-conditions. The whole game is to pass this information to the compiler.

This could be done by bundling the post-conditions into the macro invoking the function.
Unfortunately, that’s a bit hard to achieve with a portable macro, usual woes get in the way : single-evaluation, variable declarations and returning a value are hard to achieve together.

For this particular job, we are better off using an inline function.
See this example on godbolt.
It works almost fine : the guarantees from first function are used to satisfy preconditions of second function. This works without the need to locally re-assess first function’s guarantees.
As an exercise, removing the post-conditions from encapsulating inline function immediately triggers a warning on second invocation, proving it’s effective.

However, we just lost a big property by switching to an inline function : warnings now locate precondition violations into the inline function, instead of the place where the function is invoked with incorrect arguments. Without this information, we just know there is a contract violation, but we don’t know where. This makes fixing it sensibly more difficult.

To circumvent this issue, let’s use a macro again. This time we will combine a macro to express preconditions with an inlined function to express outcome guarantees. Here is an example.
This one gets it right on almost everything : it’s portable, conditions and guarantees are transferred to the compiler, which triggers a warning whenever a condition is not met, indicating the correct position of the problem.

There is just one last little problem : notice how the input parameter v get evaluated twice in the macros. This is fine if v is a variable, but not if it’s a function. Something like f1( f2(v) ) will evaluate f2() twice, which is bad, both for runtime and potentially for correctness, should f2(v) return value be different on second invocation.

It’s a pity because this problem was solved in the first proposal, using only an inline function. It just could not forward the position where a condition was broken. Now we are left with two incomplete proposals.

Let’s try it again, using a special kind of macro.
gcc and by extension clang support a special kind of statement expression, which makes it possible to create a compound statement able to return a value (its last expression). This construction is not portable. In general, I wouldn’t advocate it due to portability restrictions. But in this case, EXPECT() only works on gcc to begin with, so it doesn’t feel too bad to use a gcc specific construction. It simply must be disabled on non-gcc targets.

The new formulation, reproduced below, works perfectly, and now enforces the contract while avoiding the double-evaluation problem, and correctly indicates the position at which a condition is violated, significantly improving diagnosis.

int positive_plus1(int v); 
#define positive_plus1_preconditions(v)   ((v)>=0)     // Let's first define the conditions. Name is long, because conditions must be unique to the function.
#define positive_plus1_postconditions(r)   ((r)>0)     // Convention : r is the return value. Only used once, but published close to the prototype, for documentation.

// Encapsulating macro
// The macro itself can be published in another place of the header,
// to leave complete visibility to the prototype and its conditions.
// This specific type of macro is called a statement-expression,
// a non-portable construction supported by `gcc` (and `clang`)
// It's okay in this case, because `EXPECT()` only works with `gcc` anyway.
// But it will have to be disabled for non-gcc compilers.
#define positive_plus1(iv) ({                                             \
    int const _v = iv;   /* avoid double-evaluation of iv */              \
    int _r;                                                               \
    EXPECT(positive_plus1_preconditions(_v));  /* also used within function body */ \
    _r = positive_plus1(_v);                                              \
    assume(positive_plus1_postconditions(_r)); /* only used here */       \
    _r;   /* last expression is the return value of compound statement */ \


That’s it. This construction gives all the tools necessary to use compiler-checked contracts in a C code base. Such strong checks increase the reliability of the code base, especially during refactoring exercises, by catching at compile time all potential contract breaches, and requiring to deal with them, either through branches or at least explicitly assert() them. This is a big step up from a situations where breaking conditions was plain silent at compilation, and may break during tests if assert() are not forgotten and the test case is able to break the condition.

It can be argued that applying this design pattern makes declaring functions more verbose, and it’s true. The effort though was supposed to be already done in a different way : as part of code documentation, and as part of runtime checks (list of assert() within function body). The difference is that they are expressed upfront, and are known to the compiler, which is more powerful.

Nonetheless, it would be even better if conditions could become part of the function signature, making the notation clearer, better supported, and by extension possibly compatible with automatic documentation or IDE’s context info, simplifying their presentation.
There is currently a C++20 proposal, called attribute contract, which plans to offer something close. Okay, it’s not C, and quite importantly it is a bit different in subtle ways : it’s more focused on runtime checks. There is a specific [[expects axiom: (...)]] notation which seems closer to what is proposed in this article, because it doesn’t silently insert automatic runtime checks. However, as far as I know, it also doesn’t guarantee any compiler check, reducing the contract to a simple assume(). It implies this topic is left free to compiler’s willingness, which may or may not pick it up, most likely resulting in significant behavior differences.

But hopefully, the trick presented in this article is available right now, and doesn’t need to wait for any committee, it can be used immediately on existing code bases.

I hope this article will raise awareness on what compilers already know as part of their complex machinery primarily oriented towards better runtime performance, and make a case on how to re-purpose a small part of it to improve correctness too.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Compile-time tests

 btrc: compile5 : compile-time tests

A code snippet operates on states and parameters. The code snippet is deemed valid if its inputs respect a number of conditions. It can be as simple as saying that a size should be positive, and a state should be already allocated.
The usual way to check if conditions are effectively met is to assert() them. This adds a runtime check, which is typically active during tests. If tests are thorough enough, it’s hoped that any scenario which can violate the conditions will be found during tests thanks to assert(), and fixed.

As one can already guess, this method features a few weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong: adding assert() is way way better than not adding them, but the whole precinct is to hope that tests will be good enough to find the bad paths leading to a condition violation, and one can never be sure that all bad paths were uncovered.

For some conditions, it’s possible to transfer the check at compile time instead.
Granted, it’s only a subset of what can be checked. But whatever can be validated at compiler stage is “good to go”: no further runtime test required. It’s like a mini-proof that holds for whatever state the program is in.
On top of that, the condition is checked immediately, while editing, right in the short-loop feedback. No need to wait for long test results ! Failures are identified and fixed quickly.

Not all checks can be transferred to compile-time, but whatever can be should seriously consider it.

static assert

Invariant guarantees can be checked at compile time with a static_assert(). Compilation will stop, with an error, if the invariant condition is not satisfied. A successful compilation necessarily means that the condition is always respected (for the compilation target).
A typical usage is to ensure that int type of target system is wide enough. Or that some constants respect a pre-defined order. Or, as mentioned in an earlier article, that a shell type is necessarily large enough to host its target type.

It has all the big advantages mentioned previously : no trace in the generated binary : no run time nor space cost ! The condition doesn’t have to be disabled depending on debug or release mode. And no need to rely on tests to verify that the condition holds.

C90 compatibility

static_assert() is a special macro added in the C11 standard. While most modern compilers are compatible with this version of the standard, if you plan on making your code portable on a wider set of compilers, it’s a good thing to consider an alternative which is compatible with older variants, such as C90.

Fortunately, it’s not that hard. static_assert() started its life as a “compiler trick”, and many of them can be found over Internet. The basic idea is to transform a condition into an invalid construction, so that the compiler must issue an error at the position of the static_assert(). Typical tricks include :

  • defining an enum value as a constant divided by 0
  • defining a table which size is negative

For example :

#define STATIC_ASSERT(COND,MSG) typedef char static_assert_##MSG[(COND)?1:-1]

One can find multiple versions, with different limitations. The macro above has the following ones :

  • cannot be expressed in a block after the first statement for C90 compatibility (declarations before statements)
  • require different error messages to distinguish multiple assertions
  • require the error message to be a single uninterrupted word, without double quotes, differing from C11 version

The 1st restriction can be circumvented by putting brackets around { static_assert(); } whenever needed.
The 2nd one can be improved by adding a __LINE__ macro as part of the name, thus making it less probable for two definitions to use exactly the same name.
The last one is more concerning. It’s an incompatibility and a strong limitation compared to C11.

That’s why I rather recommend this more complete version by Joseph Quinsey, which makes it possible to invoke the macro the same way as the C11 version, allowing to switch easily from one to another. The declaration / statement limitation for C90 is still present, but as mentioned, easily mitigated.


Unfortunately, static asserts can only reason about constants, which values are known at compile time.

Constants, in the C dialect, regroup a very restricted set :

  • Literals value, e.g. 222.
  • Macros which result in literals value, e.g. #define value 18
  • enum values
  • sizeof() results
  • Mathematical operations over constants which can be solved at compile time, e.g. 4+1 or even ((4+3) << 2) / 18.

As a counter-example, one might believe that const int i = 1; is a constant, as implied by the qualifier const. But it’s a misnomer : it does not define a constant, merely a “read-only” (immutable) value.

Therefore it’s not possible to static_assert() conditions on variables, not even const ones. It’s also not possible to express conditions using functions (though macro replacements are valid).

This obviously strongly restrains the set of conditions that can be expressed with a static_assert().

Nonetheless, every time static_assert() is a valid option, it’s recommended to use it. It’s a cheap, efficient zero-cost abstraction which guarantees an invariant, contributing to a safer outcome.

Arbitrary conditions validated at compile time

Checking arbitrary conditions at compile time, like say a runtime assert() ? That sounds preposterous. Yet, there’s indeed something close enough.

The question asked changes in a subtle way : it’s no longer “prove that the condition holds given current value(s) in memory”, but rather “prove that the condition can never be false”, which is a much stronger statement.

The benefits are similar to static_assert() : since the condition is guaranteed to be met, there’s no need to check it at run time, hence this check is completely runtime free.

Enforcing such a strong property may seem a bit overwhelming. Yet, that’s exactly the kind of condition which is silently required by any operation featuring undefined behavior due to a narrow contract. Problem is, by default, there is no signal at compilation time to warn the programmer when these conditions are broken, resulting in unpredictable consequences at run time. This is a big source of bugs.

This method is not suitable for situations involving an unpredictable runtime event. For example, compiler cannot guarantee that a certain file will exist, so trying to open a file will always require a runtime check.
But it’s appropriate for conditions that the programmer expect to be always true, and which violation constitute a programming error. The compiler will now be in charge of proving that the invariant is necessarily true, and issue a warning if that’s not the case.

Let’s give a simple example :
dereferencing a pointer requires that, as a bare minimum, the pointer is not NULL. It’s not a loose statement, like “this pointer is probably not NULL in general”, it must be 100% true, otherwise, undefined behavior is invoked.
How to ensure this property then ?
Simple : test if the pointer is NULL, and if it is, do not dereference it, and branch elsewhere.
Passing the branch test guarantees the pointer is now non-NULL.

This example is trivial, yet very applicable to everyday code.
It’s extremely common to forget such a test, since there’s no warning for the programmer. And NULL pointer can happen due to exceptional conditions which can be difficult to trigger during tests, such as a rare malloc() failure for example.
And that’s just a beginning : most functions and operations feature a set of (hopefully documented) conditions to be respected for their behavior and result to be correct. Want to divide ? better be by non-zero. Want to add signed values ? Better be sure they don’t overflow. Let’s call memcpy() ? Better ensure memory segments are allocated and don’t overlap. And on, and on, and on.

The usual way to ensure that these conditions are met is to assert() them (when they can be expressed). Yet, since assert() is a runtime test with associated runtime cost, it is designed to be disabled once in production. Even if assert() are let enabled, they will terminate the process quite abruptly, which is still not great for production environment.

A better solution is to ensure that the condition always hold. This is where a compile-time guarantee comes in.

We want the compiler to emit a warning whenever a condition cannot be guaranteed to be true. Technically, this is almost like an assert(), though one that leaves no trace in generated binary.

This outcome, by the way, already happens regularly, though silently, whenever an assert() can be proven to be always true, through a fairly common optimization stage called Dead Code Elimination (DCE).
Therefore, the idea is to design an assert() that is meant to be removed from final binary through DCE, and emits a warning if it does not. Since no such instruction exists in the base language, we’ll have to rely on some compiler-specific extensions.

gcc for example offers a function attribute which does exactly that :

warning ("message")
If the warning attribute is used on a function declaration and a call to such a function is not eliminated through dead code elimination or other optimizations, a warning that includes "message" is diagnosed. This is useful for compile-time checking.

This makes it possible to create this macro :

__attribute__((warning("condition not guaranteed")))
static void never_reach(void) { abort(); } // must define a side effect, to not be optimized away

// EXPECT() : will trigger a warning if the condition is not guaranteed to be true
#define EXPECT(c) (void)((c) ? (void)0 : never_reach())

The resulting macro is called EXPECT(), for consistency with a recent C++20 proposal, called attribute contract, which suggests the notation [[expects: expression]] to achieve something similar (though not identical, proposed behavior is different in important ways).

EXPECT() is designed to be used the same way as assert(), the difference being it will trigger a warning at compile time whenever it cannot be optimized away, underlying that the condition can not be proven to be always true.


It would be too easy if one could just start writing EXPECT() everywhere as an assert() replacement. Beyond the fact that it can only be used to test programming invariants, there are additional limitations.

First, this version of EXPECT() macro only works well on gcc. I have not found a good enough equivalent for other compilers, though it can be emulated using other tricks, such as an incorrect assembler statement, or linking to some non existing function, both of which feature significant limitations : do not display the line at which condition is broken, or do not work when it’s not a program with a main() function.

Second, checking the condition is tied to compiler’s capability to combine Value Range Analysis with Dead Code Elimination. That means the compiler must use at least a bit of optimization. These optimizations are not too intense, so -O1 is generally enough. Higher levels can make a difference if they increase the amount of inlining (see below).

However, -O0 definitely does not cut it, and all EXPECT() will fail. Therefore, EXPECT() must be disabled when compiling with -O0. -O0 can be used for fast debug builds for example, so it cannot be ruled out. This issue makes it impossible to keep EXPECT() always active by default, so its activation must be tied to some explicit build macro.

Third, Value Range Analysis is limited, and can only track function-local changes. It cannot cross function boundaries.

There is a substantial exception to this last rule for inline functions : for these cases, since function body will be included into the caller’s body, EXPECT() conditions will be applied to both sides of the interface, doing a great job at checking conditions and inheriting VRA outcome for optimization.
inline functions are likely the best place to start introducing EXPECT() efficiently in an existing code base.

Function pre-conditions

Beyond inline functions, EXPECT() must be used differently compared to assert().
A typical way to check that input conditions are respected is to assert() them at the beginning of the function.
This wouldn’t work with EXPECT().

Since VRA does not cross function boundaries, EXPECT() will not know that the function is called with bad parameters. Actually, it will also not know that the function is called with good parameters. With no ability to make any assumption on function parameters, EXPECT() will just always fail.

// Never call with `v==0`
int division(int v)
    EXPECT(v!=0);  // This condition will always fail :
                   // the compiler cannot make any assumption about `v` value.
    return 1/v;

int lets_call_division_zero(void)
    return division(0);   // No warning here, though condition is violated

To be useful, EXPECT() must be declared on the caller side, where it can properly check input conditions.
Yet, having to spell input conditions on the caller side at every invocation is cumbersome. Worse, it’s too difficult to maintain : if conditions change, all invocations must be updated !
A better solution is to spell all conditions in a single place, and encapsulate them as part of the invocation.

// Never call with `v==0`
int division(int v)
    return 1/v;

// The macro has same name as the function, so it masks it.
// It encapsulates all preconditions, and deliver the same result as the function.
#define division(v) ( EXPECT(v!=0), division(v) )

int lets_call_division_zero(void)
    return division(0);   // Now, this one gets flagged right here

int lets_call_division_by_something(int divisor)
    return division(divisor);   // This one gets flagged too : there is no guarantee that it is not 0 !

int lets_divide_and_pay_attention_now(int divisor)
    if (divisor == 0) return 0;
    return division(divisor);   // This one is okay : no warning

Here are some more example usages. Note how EXPECT() are combined with a function signature into a macro, so that compile time checks get triggered every time the function is called.


This construction solves the issue on the caller side, which is the most important one.

You may note that the macro features a typical flaw : its argument v is present twice. It means that, if v is actually a function, it’s going to be invoked twice. In some cases, like rand(), both invocations may even produce different results.

However, in this specific case, it’s not a problem, because it is impossible to successfully invoke the macro using a function as argument.
The reason is, function’s return value has no any guarantee attached, beyond its type. So, if it is an int, it could be any value, from INT_MIN to INT_MAX.
As a consequence, no function’s return value can ever comply with any condition. It will necessarily generate a warning.

The encapsulating macro can only check conditions on variables.
It will only accept variables which are guaranteed to respect the conditions. If a single one may break any condition, a warning is issued.

However, pre-conditions remain unknown to the function body itself. This is an issue, because the function may benefit from this information to comply with other function pre-conditions. Without it, it will be necessary to re-express the conditions withing function body, which is an unwelcome burden.

While the safest solution is to branch out bad cases, sometimes, in order for code simplicity to benefit from the narrow contract, it’s better to rely on the fact that conditions are necessarily respected. It would be a waste, and unwelcome complexity, to generate a branch for them. In which case, a quick solution is to express these guarantees with assert(). This is, by the way, what should have been done anyway, even without EXPECT().

An associated downside is that ensuring that EXPECT() conditions are respected using assert() presumes that assert() are present and active in source code, to guide the Value Range Analysis. If assert() are disabled, corresponding EXPECT() will fail. This suggests that EXPECT() can only be checked in debug builds. But with optimization enabled (-O1).

Now with all these assert() back, it seems like these compile-time checks are purely redundant, and almost useless.

Not quite. It’s true that so far, it has not reduced the amount of assert() present in the code, but the compiler now actively checks pre-conditions, and mandates the presence of assert() for every condition that the local code does not explicitly rule out. This is still a step up : risks of contract violation are now clearly visible, and it’s no longer possible to “forget” an assert(). As a side effect, tests will also catch condition violations sooner, leading to more focused and shorter debug sessions. This is still a notable improvement.

It nonetheless feels kind of incomplete. One missing aspect is an ability to transfer pre-conditions from the calling site to the function body, so that they can be re-used to satisfy later pre-conditions.
This capability requires another complementary tool. But that’s for another blog post.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Compiler Warnings

 btrc: compile4 : compiler warnings

One way to improve C code quality is to reduce the number of strange constructions that the standard does not explicitly forbid. This will greatly help code reviewers, who want less surprises, and try to understand what a segment of source code is achieving and impacting.

A straightforward way to create such a “constrained” C variant is to add compiler-specific warning flags. They will trigger warnings on detecting certain constructions considered dubious, if not downright dangerous.

A simple example is the condition if (i=1) {. This test seems to check if i equal 1, but that’s not what it does : it assigns the value 1 to i. Also, as a consequence, it is always true. This is most likely a typo, the programmer probably wanted to express an equality test if (i==1) {. Yet, it’s not invalid, strictly speaking. So a compiler is allowed to accept it at face value and generate corresponding assembly without any warning. That may take a while to debug …

The if (i=1) { typo statement is well known, and nowadays it triggers a warning in most compilers with the help of warning flags.
At the very least, the warning is an invitation to spell the intention more clearly.
Sometimes, it was a genuine error, and the compiler just helped us catch this issue before it ever reaches production, saving some considerable debug time.

Multiplying the number of flags will increase the number of warnings. But sifting through a large list of warnings to find which ones are interesting and which one are merely informational can be daunting. Moreover, collaborative programming requires simple rules, that anyone can abide by.

Using warnings should be coupled with a strict “zero-warning” policy. Every warning must be considered an error to be dealt with immediately. This is a clean signal that everyone understand, and that any CI environment can act upon. If a warning message is considered not fixable, or not desirable to fix, it’s preferable to remove the associated flag from the build chain.

On gcc, ensuring that no warning can be ignored can be enforced by the -Werror flag, which makes any warning a fatal error. Visual has “treat warnings as errors”.
More complex policies are possible, such as activating more warnings and only make some of them fatal (for example -Werror=vla) but it makes the setup more complex, and logs more difficult to follow.

As a consequence, it’s not a good idea to just “enable everything”. Each additional flag increases the number of false-positive to deal with. When too many warnings are generated, it will feel like a discouraging and low-value task, leading to its abandon. Only warnings which bring some value deserve to be tracked, fixed, and continuously maintained. Therefore, it is preferable to only add a flag when its benefit is clearly understood.

That being said, the best moment to crank up the warning level is at the beginning of a project. What tends to be difficult is to add new flags to an existing project, because new flags will reveal tons of programming patterns that where silently allowed and must now be avoided, anywhere within the repository. On the other hand, keeping an existing code clean is much simpler, as issues appear only in new commits, and can therefore be located and fixed quickly.

MS Visual

My programming habits have largely switched from Windows to Unix these last few years, so I’m no longer up to date on this topic.
By default, Visual organizes its list of optional warnings into “levels”. The higher the level, the more warnings it generates. It’s also possible to opt-in for a single specific warning, but I have not enough experience to comment that usage.

By default, Visual compiler uses level 1 on command line , and level 3 on IDE.
Level 3 is already pretty good, but I recommend to aim for level 4 if possible. That level will catch additional tricky corner cases, making the code cleaner and more portable.
Obviously, on an existing project, move up progressively towards higher levels, as each of them will generate more warnings to clean up.

The exact way to change the warning level may depend on the IDE version. On command line, it’s always /W4, so that one is pretty clear. On IDE, it’s generally accessible in the properties->C tab, which is one of the first displayed, as shown here.

Do not use /Wall as part of your regular build process. It contains too many warnings of “informational” value, which are not meant to be suppressed, hence will continuously drown the signal and make “zero warning policy” impossible.

gcc and clang

gcc and by imitation clang offer a command line experience with a large list of compatible flags for warnings.
Overtime, I’ve developed my own selection, which has become pretty long. I would recommend it to any code base. I’m going to detail it below. It is by no means a “final” or “ultimate” version. The list can always evolve, integrating more flags, either because I missed them, or they end up being more useful than I initially anticipated, or because they become more broadly supported.

For simplicity purpose, I tend to concentrate on flags that are well supported by gcc and clang, and present since a few revisions. Flags which only work on “latest version of X” are not considered in this list, because they can cause trouble for compilation on targets without version X. This issue can be solved by adding yet another machinery to maintain version-specific flags, complete with its own set of problems, but I would not recommend to start with such complexity.

If your project does not include those flags yet, I suggest to only enable them one after another. A project developed without a specific flag is likely to have used the flagged pattern in many places. It’s important to clean one flag completely before moving to next one, otherwise, the list of warnings to fix becomes so large that it will seem insurmountable. Whenever it is, just drop the flag for the time being, you’ll come back to it later.


  • -Wall : This is the “base” warning level for gcc/clang. In contrast to what its name implies, it does not enable “all” warnings, far from it, but a fairly large set of flags that the compiler team believes is generally safe to follow. For a detailed list of what it includes, you can consult this page, which is likely applicable to latest compiler version. The exact list of flags evolves with the specific version of the compiler. It’s even different depending on gcc or clang. It’s okay, because the flag itself doesn’t change.
    I would recommend to start with this flag, and get to the bottom of it before moving on to more flags. Should the generated list of warnings be overwhelming, you can break it down into a more narrow set of flags, or selectively disable a few annoying warnings with -Wno-###, then plan to re-enable them progressively later.

  • -Wextra : This is the second level for gcc and clang. It includes an additional set of flags, which constrains the code style further, improving maintainability. For example, this level will raise a warning whenever a switch() { case: } uses a fall-through implicitly, which is generally (but not always) a mistake.
    This flag used to be called -W, but I recommend the -Wextra form, which is more explicit.


  • -Wcast-qual : This flag ensures that a QUALifier is respected during a cast operation. This is especially important for the const “read-only” qualifier: it ensures that a pointer to a read-only area cannot be silently transformed into another pointer with write capability, which is quite an essential guarantee. I even don’t quite get it how come this is an optional warning, instead of a compulsory property of the language.

  • -Wcast-align : the C standard requires that a type must be stored at an address suitable for its alignment restriction. For example, on 32-bits systems, an int must be stored at an address which is a multiple of 4. This restriction tends to be forgotten nowadays because x86 cpus have always been good at dealing with unaligned memory accesses, and ARM ones have become better at this game (they used to be terrible). But it’s still important to respect this property, for portability, for performance (avoid inter-pages accesses), and for compatibility with deep transformations such as auto-vectorization. Casting can unintentionally violate this condition. A typical example is when casting a memory area previously reserved as a table of char*, hence without any alignment restriction, in order to store int value, which require an alignment of 4. -Wcast-align will detect the violation, and fixing it will make sure the code respect alignment restrictions, making it more portable.

  • -Wstrict-aliasing : Strict aliasing is a complex and badly known rule. It states that, in order to achieve better performance, compilers are allowed to consider that 2 pointers of different types never reference the same address space, so their content cannot “collide”. If they nonetheless do, it’s an undefined behavior, hence anything can happen unpredictably.
    To ensure this rule is not violated, compilers may optionally offer some code analysis capabilities, that will flag suspicious constructions. gcc offers -Wstrict-aliasing, with various levels of caution, with 1 being the most paranoid.
    Issues related to strict aliasing violation only show up in optimized codes, and are among the most difficult to debug. It’s best to avoid them. I recommend using this flag at its maximum setting. If it generates too much noise, try more permissive levels. -Wstrict-aliasing=3 is already included as part of -Wall, so if -Wall is already clean, the next logical step is level 2, then 1.
    One beneficial side-effect of this flag is that it re-inforces the separation of types, which is a safer practice. Cross-casting a memory region with pointers of different types is no longer an easy option, as it gets immediately flagged by the compiler. There are still ways to achieve this, primarily through the use of void* memory segments, which act as wildcards. But the extra-care required is in itself protective, and should remind the developer of the risks involved.

  • -Wpointer-arith forbids pointer arithmetic on void* or function pointer. C unfortunately lacks the concept of “memory unit”, so a void* is not a pointer to an address: it’s pointer to an object “we don’t know anything about”. Pointer arithmetic is closely related to the concept of table, and adding +1 is always relative to the size of the table element (which must be a constant). With void*, we have no idea what this element size could be, so it’s not possible to +1 it, nor do more complex pointer arithmetic.
    To perform operation on bytes, it’s necessary to use a pointer to a byte type, be it char*, unsigned char* or int8_t*.
    This is a strict interpretation of the standard, and helps make the resulting code more portable.

Variable declaration

  • -Winit-self : prevents a fairly silly corner case, where a variable is initialized with itself, such as int i = i+1;, which can not be right. clang and g++ make it part of -Wall, but not gcc.

  • -Wshadow : A variable v declared at a deep nesting level shadows any other variable with same name v declared at an upper level. This means that invoking vat the deeper level will target the deeper v. This is legal from a C standard perspective, but it’s considered bad practice, because it’s confusing for the reviewer. Now 2 different variables with different roles and lifetime carry the same name. It’s better to differentiate them, by using different names.
    Sidenote : name shadowing can be annoying when using a library which unfortunately defines very common symbol names as part of its interface. Don’t forget that the C namespace is global. For this reason, whenever publishing an API, always ensure that no public symbol is too “common” (such as i, min, max, etc.). At a minimum, add a PREFIX_ to the public symbol name, so that opportunities of collision get drastically reduced.

  • -Wswitch-enum : This flag ensures that, in a switch(enum) { case: } construction, all declared values of the enum have a case: branch. This can be useful to ensure that no enum value has been forgotten (even if there is a default: branch down the list to deal with them). Forgetting an enum value is a fairly common scenario when the enum list changes, typically by adding an element to it. The flag will issue a warning on all relevant switch() { case: }, simplifying code traversal to ensure that no case has been missed.


  • -Wstrict-prototypes : historically, C functions used to be declared with just their name, without even detailing their parameters. This is considered bad practice nowadays, and this flag will ensure that a function is declared with a fully formed prototype, including all parameter types.
    A common side effect happens for functions without any parameter. Declaring them as int function() seems to mean “this function takes no argument”, but it’s not correct. Due to this historical background, it actually means “this function may have any number of arguments of any type, it’s just not documented”. Such definition will limit the effectiveness of the compiler in controlling the validity of an invocation, so it’s bad, and this flag will issue a warning. The correct way to tell that a function has no (zero) argument is int function(void).

  • -Wmissing-prototypes : this flag enforces that any public function (non-static) has a declaration somewhere. It’s easy to game that condition by just writing a prototype declaration right in front of the function definition itself, but it misses the point : this flag will help find functions which are (likely) no longer useful.
    The problem with public functions is that the compiler has no way to ensure they are not used anymore. So it will generate them, and wait for the linking stage to know more. In a library, such “ghost” function will be present, occupy valuable space, and more importantly will still offer a public symbol to be reached, remaining within the library’s attack surface, and offering a potential backdoor for would-be attackers. Being no longer used, these functions may also not be correctly tested anymore, and might allow unintended state manipulations. So it’s better to get rid of them.
    If a kind of “private function just for internal tests” is needed, and should not be exposed in the official *.h header, create a secondary header, like *-debug.h for example, where the function is declared. And obviously #include it in the *.c unit. This will be cleaner and compatible with this flag.

  • -Wredundant-decls : A prototype should be declared only once, and this single definition should be #include everywhere it’s needed. This policy avoids multiple source of truth, with associated synchronization problems.
    This flag will trigger a warning if it detects that a function prototype is declared twice (or more).

Floating point

  • -Wfloat-equal : this flag prevents usage of == equality operator between float value. This is because floating point values are lossy representations of real numbers, and any operation with them will incur an inaccuracy uncertainty, which exact detail depends on target platform, hence is not portable. Two floating-point values should not be compared with equality, it’s not supposed to make sense given the lossy nature of the representation. Rather ensure that the distance between 2 floats is below a certain threshold to consider them “equivalent enough”.


  • -Wundef : forbids evaluation of a macro symbol that’s not defined. Without it, #if SYMBOL_NOT_EXIST is silently translated into #if 0, which may or may not generate the intended outcome. This is useful when the list of macro symbols evolves : whenever a macro symbol disappears, all related preprocessor tests get flagged with this warning, which makes it possible to review and adapt them.

Standard Library

  • -Wformat=2 : this will track potential printf() issues which can be abused to create security hazard scenarios.
    An example is when the formatting chain itself can be under control of an external source, such as printf(message), with char* message being externally manipulated. This can be used to read and write out of bound and take remote control of the system. Yep, it’s that dangerous.
    The solution to this specific issue is to write printf("%s", message). It may look equivalent, but this second version is safer, as it interprets message only as a pure char* string to display, instead of a formatting string which can trigger read/write orders from inside printf().
    -Wformat=2 will flag this issue, and many more, such as ensuring proper correspondence between the argument type and control string statement, leading to a safer program.
    These issues go beyond the C language proper, and more into stdio library territory, but it’s good to enable more options to be protected from this side too.

Extended compatibility

  • -Wvla : prevents usage of Variable Length Array.
    VLA were supported in C99, but are now optional since C11 (support can be tested using __STDC_NO_VLA__ macro). They allow nice things such as allocating on stack a table of variable size, depending on a function parameter. However, VLA have a pretty poor reputation. I suspect a reason is that they were served by sub-par implementations leading to all sort of hard issues, such as undetected stack-overflow, with unpredictable consequences.
    Note that even “good” implementations, able to dynamically expand stack to make room for larger tables, and correctly detect overflow issue to properly abort(), cannot provide any way for the program to be informed of such issue and react accordingly. It makes it impossible to create a program that is guaranteed to not abort().
    For better portability, it’s enough to know that some implementations of VLA are/were poor, and that VLA is no longer required in C11 to justify avoiding it. VLA is also not available for C90.

  • -Wdeclaration-after-statement : this flag is useful for C90 compatibility. Having all declarations at the top of the block, before any statement, is a strict rule that was dropped with C99, and it’s now possible to declare new variables anywhere in a block. This flag is mostly useful if the goal is to be compatible with C90 compilers, such as MS Visual Studio C before 2015 as an example.

  • -Wc++-compat : this flag ensures that the source can be compiled unmodified as both valid C and C++ code. This will require a few additional restrictions, such as casting from void*, which is unnecessary in C, but required in C++.
    This it handy for highly portable code, because it’s not uncommon for some users to just import the source file in their project and compile it as a C++ file, even though it’s clearly labelled as C. Moreover, when targeting C90 compatibility, C++ compatibility is not too far away, so the remaining effort is moderate.

Other interesting flags

  • -Wconversion : The C language allows most conversions to be performed silently. Transforming an int value into a short one ? No problem, just spell it. This design choice dates from the 70’s, when reducing the number of keystrokes was important, due to concerns we can’t even start to imagine today (slow printers, limited display space, hard key presses, etc.). Thing is, many type conversions are actually dangerous. That int to short ? What if the original value is larger than SHRT_MAX ? Yep, that’s undefined behavior. short to int conversion, on the other hand, is risk free.
    -Wconversion will flag any silent type conversion which is not risk free. In an existing code base developed without this flag, this will lead to a very large number of warnings, likely within intractable territory.
    The situation is even worse for gcc, because it flags type conversions resulting from implicit operation conversions. In this short example, all variables are short types. There is no other type anywhere. Yet, gcc's -Wconversion flag will trigger multiple warnings, because a basic operation such as + is allowed to be performed into int space, hence storing the final result into a short is now considered a “risky” conversion. Some constructions, such as += can’t even be fixed !
    Bottom line : starting a new code base with -Wconversion is doable, but adding this flag to an existing project is likely a too large burden.
    Special mention for the combination clang + -Wconversion -Wno-sign-conversion, which I use regularly, but only on clang.

  • -Weverything (clang only) : While it’s not recommended to use too many warnings in the production build chain, it can be sometimes interesting to look at more options. Special mention can be given to -Weverything on clang, which will activate every possible warning flag.
    Now, -Weverything is not meant to be used in production. It’s mostly a convenient “discovery” feature for clang developers, which can track and understand new warnings as they are added to “trunk”.
    But for the purpose of testing if the compiler can help find new issues, it can be an interesting temporary digression. One or two of these warnings might uncover real issues, inviting to re-assess the list of flags used in production.


All the flags presented so far can be combined into the following list, provided below for copy-pasting purposes :
-Wall -Wextra -Wcast-qual -Wcast-align -Wstrict-aliasing -Wpointer-arith -Winit-self -Wshadow -Wswitch-enum -Wstrict-prototypes -Wmissing-prototypes -Wredundant-decls -Wfloat-equal -Wundef -Wvla -Wdeclaration-after-statement -Wc++-compat

Quite a mouthful. Adopting as-is this list into an existing project might result in an abundant list of warnings if they were not already part of the build. Don’t be afraid, your code is not completely broken, but consider having a look: it might be fragile in subtle ways that these flags will help find. Enable additional warnings one by one, selectively, pick those which add value to your project. In the long run, these flags will help keep the code better maintained.

Compiler warning flags can be seen as a giant list of patterns that the compiler is pre-trained to detect. It’s great. But beyond these pre-defined capabilities, one might be interested in adding one’s own set of conditions for the compiler to check and enforce. That’s the purpose of next blog post.

Special Thanks

An early version of this article was commented by Nick Terrell and Evan Nemerson.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Opaque types and static allocation

 btrc: compile3 : opaque type and static allocation
In a previous episode, we’ve seen that it is possible to create opaque types. However, creation and destruction of such type must be delegated to some dedicated functions, which themselves rely on dynamic allocation mechanisms.

Sometimes, it can be convenient to bypass the heap, and all its malloc() / free() shenanigans. Pushing a structure onto the stack, or within thread-local storage, are natural capabilities offered by a normal struct. It can be desirable at times.

The previously described opaque type is so secret that it has no size, hence is not suitable for such scenario.

Fortunately, static opaque types are possible.
The main idea is to create a “shell type”, with a known size and an alignment, able to host the target (private) structure.

For safer maintenance, the shell type and the target structure must be kept in sync, by using typically a static assert. It will ensure that the shell type is always large enough to host the target structure. This check is important to automatically detect future evolution of the target structure.

If it wasn’t for the strict aliasing rule, we would have a winner : just use the shell type as the “public” user-facing type, proceed with transforming it into the private type inside the unit. It would combine properties of struct while remaining opaque.

Strict aliasing

Unfortunately, the strict aliasing rule gets in the way : we can't manipulate the same memory region from two pointers of different type (edit Christer Ericson : for the lifespan of the stored value). That's because the compiler is allowed to make assumptions about pointer value provenance for the benefit of performance.

To visualize the issue, I like this simple example, powered by Godbolt. Notice how the two +1 get combined into a single +2, saving one save+load round trip, and allowing computation over i and f in parallel, so it’s real saving.
But unfortunately, if f and i have same addresses, the result is wrong : the first i+1 influences the operation on f which influences the final value of i.
Of course, this example feels silly : it’s pretty hard to find a use case which justifies operations on int and float simultaneously and pointing at the same memory address. It shows that the rule is quite logical : if these pointers have different type, they most likely do not reference the same memory area. And since benefits are substantial, it’s tempting to use that assumption.

Interpreting differently the same memory area using different types of pointers is called “type punning”. It may work, as long as the compiler serializes operations as expected in the code, but there is no guarantee that it will continue to work safely in the future. A known way to break older programs employing type punning is to recompile them with modern compilers using advanced performance optimizations such as -O3 -lto. With enough inlining, register caching and dead code elimination, one will start to experience strange effects, which can be very hard to debug.

This is explained in greater details in this excellent article from Mike Acton. For an even deeper understanding of what can happen under the hood, you can read this document suggested by Josh Simmons. It demonstrates that there is a lot more to a pointer than just its binary representation.

One line of defense could be disable usage of strict aliasing by the optimizer, with a compilation directive such as fno-strict-aliasing on gcc.
I wouldn’t recommend it though. On top of impacting performance, it ties code correctness to a specific compiler setting, which may or may not be present in user’s project. Portability is also impacted, since there is no guarantee that this capability will always be available on some different C compiler.

Another line of defense consists in using the char* pointer, which is the exception to the rule, and can alias anything. When one memory area is passed as a char*, the compiler will pay attention to serialize char* read/write properly. It works well in practice, at least in my tests. What is worrying though is that in theory, the compiler is only obliged to guarantee the read in correct order. That it pays attention to serialize the write too seems to be “extra care”, presumably so that existing programs continue to work as intended. Not sure if it is reliable to depend on it on long term.

Another issue is, our proposed shell type is not a char* table. It’s a union, containing a char* table. That’s not the same, and in this case, the exception does not hold.

As a consequence, the shell type must not be confused with the target type. The strict aliasing rule makes them non-interchangeable !

Safe static allocation for opaque types

The trick is to use a 3rd party initializer, to convert the allocated space and return a pointer of appropriate type.
To ensure strict compliance with C standard, it’s a multi-steps trick, hence a more complex setup. Consider this technique as “advanced”, implying limited usage scenarios.

Here is an example :

typedef struct thing_s thing;   // incomplete (opaque) type

typedef union {
    char body[SIZE];
    unsigned alignment_enforcer;   // ensures `thingBody` respect alignment of largest member of `thing`
} thingBody;

// PREFIX_initStatic_thing() accepts any buffer as input, 
// and returns a properly initialized `thing*` opaque pointer.
// It ensures `buffer` has proper size (`SIZE`) and alignment (4) restrictions
// and will return `NULL` if it does not.
// Resulting `thing*` uses the provided buffer only, it will not allocate further memory on its own.
// Use `thingBody` to define a memory area respecting all conditions.
// On success, `thing*` will also be correctly initialized.
thing* PREFIX_initStatic_thing(void* buffer, size_t size);

// Notice there is no corresponding destructor.
// Since the space is reserved externally, its deallocation is controlled externally.
// This presumes that `initStatic` does Not dynamically allocates further space.
// Note that it doesn't make sense for `initStatic` to invoke dynamic allocation.

/* ====================================== */
/* Example usage */

int function()
    thingBody scratchSpace;   /* on stack */
    thing* T const = PREFIX_initStatic_thing(&scratchSpace, sizeof(scratchSpace));
    assert(T != NULL);  // Should be fine. Only exception is if `struct thing_s` definition changes and there is some version mismatch.
    // Now use `T` as a normal `thing*` pointer
    // (...)
    // do Not `free(T)` at function's end, since thingBody is part of the stack

In this example, the static size of thingBody is used to allocate space for thing on the stack. It’s faster, and there is no need to care about deallocation.

But that’s all it does. No data is ever read from nor written to thingBody. All usages of the memory region pass through thing*, which is safe.

Compared to a usual public struct, the experience is not equivalent.
To begin with, the proposed stack allocation is a multi-liner and creates 2 variables : the shell type, and the target pointer. It’s not too bad, and this model fits well enough any kind of manual allocation scenario, be it on stack or within a pre-reserved area (for embedded environments typically).

If that matters, stack allocation could have been made a one liner, hidden behind a macro.
But I tend to prefer the variant in above example. It makes it clear what’s happening. Since one of C strengths is a clear grasp of resource control, it is better to preserve that level of understanding.

There are more problematic differences though.
It’s not possible to use the shell type as a return type of a function: once again, shell type and target incomplete type are different things. On the same line, it’s not possible to pass the shell type by value. The memory region can only be passed by reference, and only using the correctly typed pointer.

Embedding the shell type into a larger structure is dangerous and generally not recommended : it requires 2 members (the shell and the pointer), but the pointer is only valid if the struct is not moved around, nor copied. That’s a too strong constraint to make it safely usable.

Removing the pointer

Suggested by Sebastian Aaltonen, it is generally possible to bypass the target pointer, and just reuse the address of the shell type instead. Since the shell type is never accessed directly, there is no aliasing to be afraid of.

The only issue is, some compilers might not like the pointer cast from shellType* to target opaque*, irrespective of the fact that the shellType is never accessed directly. This is an annoying false positive. That being said, newer compilers are better at detecting this pattern, and won’t complain.
Note that the explicit casting is not optional, so the notation cannot be shortened, hence this method will not save much keystrokes.

The real goal is to guarantee that the address transmitted is necessarily the address of shell. This makes sense when the intention is to move shell around or copy it : no risk to lose sync with a separate pointer variable.

To be complete, note that, in above proposal, initStatic() does more than casting a pointer :

  • It ensures that the memory area has correct size & alignment properties
    • shellType provides these guarantees too.
      • The only corner case is when the program invokes initStatic() from a dynamic library. If runtime library version is different from the one used during compilation of the program, it can lead to a potential discrepancy on size or alignment requirements.
      • No such risk when using static linking.
  • It ensures that the resulting pointer references a properly initialized memory area.

The second bullet point, in particular, still needs to be done one way or another, so initStatic() is still useful, at least as an initializer.

Using the shell type directly

Removing the pointer is nice, but the real game changer is to be able to employ the opaque type as if it was a normal struct, in particular :

  • assign with =
  • can be passed by value as function parameter
  • can be received as return type from a function

These properties can influence the API design, making the opaque type “feel” more natural to use. For example :

// declaration
#define SIZE 8
typedef union {
    char body[SIZE];
    unsigned align4;   // ensures `thing` is aligned on 4-bytes boundaries
} thing;
// No need for a "separate" incomplete type.
// The shell IS the public-facing type for API.

thing thing_init(void);
thing thing_set_byValue(int v);
thing thing_combine(thing a, thing b);

// usage
thing doubled_value(int v)
    thing const ta = thing_set_byValue(v);
    thing const tb = ta;
    return thing_combine(ta, tb);

This can be handy for small POD types (typically less than a few dozens of bytes), giving them a behavior similar to basic types.
Since passing arguments and results by value implies some memory copy, the cost of this approach increases as type size increases. Therefore, whenever the type becomes uncomfortably large, prefer switching to a pointer reference.

The compiler may completely eliminate the memory copy operation if it can somehow inline the invoked functions. That’s, by definition, hard to do when these functions are in a separate unit, due to the need to access a private type declaration.
However, -lto (Link Time Optimization) can break the unit barrier. As a consequence, functions which were behaving correctly while not inlined might end up being inlined, triggering weird optimization effects.

For example, statements acting directly on shell*, such as potential memset() initialization, or any kind of value assignment, might be reordered for parallel processing with other statements within inlined functions acting on internal_type*, on the assumption that shell* and internal_type* should not be aliased.
To be fair, I would expect a modern compiler to be clever enough to detect that shell* and internal_type* reference effectively the same address, and avoid re-ordering or eluding memory read / write operations. Nevertheless, this is a risk, that might be triggered by complex cases or less clever compilers (typically older ones).

The solution is to use memcpy() to transfer data back and forth between internal type and shell type. memcpy() acts as a synchronization point for memory accesses : it guarantees that read and write orders will be serialized, ordered as written in the source code. The compiler will not be able to “outsmart” the code by re-ordering statements under the assumptions that side-effects on 2 pointers of different types cannot alias each other : a memcpy() can alias anything, so it has to be performed in the requested order.

Back to struct ?

Adding memcpy() everywhere is a small inconvenience. Also, there is always a risk that the compiler will not be smart enough to elide the copy operation.

Due to these limitations and risks, it can be better to give up this complexity and just use a public struct. As long as the struct is a POD type, all conveniences are available. And without the need to add some private declaration, it’s now possible to define implementations directly in header, as explicit inline functions, sharply reducing the cost of passing parameters.

To avoid direct accesses to structure member, one can still mention it clearly in code comments, and use scary member names as deterrent. A more involved way to protect struct members is to give them scary and useless names, such as dont_access_me_1, dont_access_me_2, etc. and rename them with macros in the code section which can actually interpret them. This is a bit more involving, especially if the number of member names is large, potentially leading to confusion. More importantly, the compiler will no longer be able to help in case of contract violation, and protecting the design pattern will now entirely depend on reviewers. Still, it’s a very reasonable choice, notably for “internal” types, which are not exposed on user side API, hence should only be manipulated by a small number of skillful contributors subject to review process.

For user facing types though, opacity is more valuable. And if the type size is large enough to begin with, it seems a no brainer : prefer the opaque type, and only use references.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The type system

 btrc: compile2 : the type system

The type system is a simple yet powerful way to ensure that the code knows enough about the data it is manipulating. It is used to declare conditions at interfaces, which are then enforced at each invocation.
The compiler is very good to check types. The condition is trivial to enforce, and doesn’t cost much compilation resource, so it’s a powerful combination.

typedef and weak types

C is sometimes labelled a “weakly typed” language, presumably because it is associated to the behavior of one of its keywords typedef.
The keyword itself implies that typedef DEFines a new TYPE, but it’s unfortunately a misnomer.

As an example, typedef can be used this way :

typedef int meters;
typedef int kilograms;

This defines 2 new “types”, meters and kilograms, which can be used to declare variables.

meters m;
kilograms k;

One could logically expect that, from now on, it’s no longer allowed to mix meters and kilograms, since they represent different types, hence should not be compatible.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case : meters and kilograms are still considered as int from the C type system perspective, and mixing them works without a single warning, even when every possible compiler warning is enabled.

As such, typedef must be considered a mere tagging system. It’s still useful from a code reviewer perspective, since it has documenting value, and that may help notice discrepancies, such as this example. But the compiler won’t be able to provide any signal.

Strong types in C

To ensure that two types cannot be accidentally mixed, it’s necessary to strongly separate them. And that’s actually possible.
C has one thing called a struct (and its remote relative called union).
Two struct defined independently are considered completely foreign, even if they contain exactly the same members.
They can’t be mixed unintentionally.

This gives us a basic tool to strongly segregate types.


Using struct comes with severe limitations. To begin with, the set of default operations is much more restricted. It’s possible to allocate struct on stack, and make it part of a larger struct, it’s possible to assign with = or memcpy(), but that’s pretty much it. No simple operation like + - * /, no comparison like < <= => >, etc.

Users may also access members directly, and manipulate them. But it breaks the abstraction.
When structures are used as a kind of “bag of variables”, to simplify transport, and enforce naming for clarity, it’s fine to let users access members directly. Compared to a function with a ton of parameters, an equivalent function with a structure as input will help readability tremendously, just because it enforces naming parameters.
But in the present case, when structures are used to enforce abstractions, users should be clearly discouraged from accessing members directly. Which means, all operations must be achieved at struct level directly.

To comply with these limitations, it’s now necessary to create all allowed operations one by one, giving a uniquely named symbol to each one. So if meters and kilograms can be added, both operations need their own function signature, such as add_meters() and add_kilograms(). This feels like a hindrance, and indeed, if there are many types to populate, it can require a lot of glue code.

But on the plus side, only what’s allowed is now possible. For example, multiplying meters with meters shouldn’t produce some meters, but rather a square_meters surface, which is a different concept. Allowing additions, but not multiplications, is an impossible subtlety for basic typedef.


There is no “intermediate” situation, where a type would be “compatible” with another type, yet different. In the mechanisms explained so far, types are either compatible and identical, using typedef, or completely incompatible, using a new definition and a new name.

In contrast, in Object Oriented languages, a cat can also be an animal, thanks to inheritance, so it’s possible to use cat to invoke animal methods, or use functions with animal parameter(s).

struct strongly leans towards composition. A struct cat can include a struct animal, which makes it possible to invoke animal related functions, though it’s not transparent : it’s necessary to explicitly spell the substructure (cat.animal) as a parameter or return value of the animal related function.

Note that even Object Oriented languages generally approve the composition over inheritance guiding principle. The guiding principle states that, if there isn’t a very good reason to employ inheritance, composition must always be preferred, because it generally fares better as the code evolves and becomes more complex (multiple inheritances quickly translate into a nightmare).

struct can be made more complex, with tables of virtual function pointers, achieving something similar to inheritance and polymorphism. But this is a whole different level of complexity. I will rather avoid this route for the time being. The current goal is merely to separate types in a way which can be checked by the compiler. Enforcing a unified interface on top of different types is a more complex topic, better left for a future article.

Opaque types

struct are fine as strong types, but publishing their definition implies that their members are public, meaning any user can access and modify them.
When it’s the goal, it’s totally fine.

But sometimes, one could wish that, in order to protect users from unintentional mis-usage, it would be better to make structure members unreachable. This is called an opaque type. An additional benefit is that whichever is inaccessible cannot be relied upon, hence may be changed in the future without breaking user code.

Object oriented language have the private tag, which allows exactly that : some members might be published, but they are nonetheless unreachable from the user (well, in theory…).

A “poor man” equivalent solution in C is to comment the code, clearly indicating which members are public, and which ones are private. No guarantee can be enforced by the compiler, but it’s still a good indication for users.
Another step is to give private members terrible names, such as never_ever_access_me, which provides a pretty serious hint, and is less easy to forget than a code comment.

Yet, sometimes, one wishes to rely on stronger compiler-backed guarantee, to ensure that no user will access private structure members. C doesn’t have private, but can do something equivalent.
It relies on the principles of incomplete type.

My own preference is to declare an incomplete type by pairing it with typedef :

typedef struct house_s house;
typedef struct car_s car;

Notice that we have not published anything about the internals of struct house_s. This is intentional. Since nothing is published, nothing can be accessed, hence nothing can be misused.

Fine, but what can we do about such a thing ? To begin with, we can’t even allocate it, since its size is not known.
That’s right, the only thing that can be declared at this stage is a pointer to the incomplete type, like this :

house* my_house;
car* my_car;

And now ?
Well, only functions with house* or car* as parameter or return type can actually do something with it.
These functions must access struct house_s and struct car_s internal definitions. These definitions are therefore published in a relevant unit *.c file, rather than the header *.h. Being not part of the public interface, the structure’s internal remains effectively private.

The first functions required are allocators and destructors.
For example, I’m used to the following name convention :

thing* PREFIX_createThing();
void PREFIX_freeThing(thing* t);

Now, it’s possible to allocate space for thing*, and eventually do something with it (with additional functions).
A good convention is that functions which accept thing* as mutable argument should have thing* as first parameter, like in this example :

int PREFIX_pushElement(thing* t, element e);
element PREFIX_pullElement(thing* t);

Notice that we are getting pretty close to object oriented programming with this construction. Functions and data members, while not declared in an encompassing “object”, must nonetheless be defined together: the need to know the structure content to do anything about it forces function definitions to be grouped into the unit that declares the structure content. It’s fairly close.

Compared with a direct struct, a few differences stand out :

  • Members are private
  • Allocation is implemented by a function, it can only be invoked
    • no way to allocate on stack
    • no way to include a thing into another struct
      • but it’s possible to include a pointer thing*
    • Initialization can be enforced directly in the constructor
      • removes risks of garbage content due to lack of initialization.
  • The caller is in charge of invoking the destructor.
    • The pattern is exactly identical to malloc() / free() (see future article on Resource Control)

The responsibility to invoke the destructor after usage is very important.
It’s no different than invoking free() after a malloc(),
but that’s still an additional detail to take care of, with the corresponding risk to forget or mismanage it.

To bypass this responsibility, and take control of the allocation process, it can be preferable to consider opaque types with static allocation. That’s the topic of the next article.


This closes this first chapter on the type system. We have seen that it’s possible to create strong types, and we can use this property to ensure users can’t mix up different types accidentally. We have seen that it’s possible to create opaque types, and ensure users can only invoke allowed operations, or can’t rely on secret internal details, clearing the path of future evolution. These properties are compiler-checked, so they are always automatically enforced.

That’s not bad. Just using these properties will seriously improve code resistance to potential mis-usages.

Yet, there is more the compiler can do to detect potential bugs in our code. To be continued…