Monday, January 28, 2019

Compile-time tests

btrc: compile5 : compile-time tests

Compile-time tests

A function generally operates on states and parameters. The function’s result is deemed valid if its inputs respect a number of (hopefully documented) 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 met is to assert() them, right at the beginning of the function. The assert() adds a runtime check, which is typically active during tests. The hope if that, if tests are thorough enough, any scenario which can violate the conditions will be found during tests, and fixed.

As one can already guess, this method is imperfect. 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.

In some cases, it’s possible to transfer a check at compile time instead.
It only works for a subset of what can be checked. But whatever is validated at compilation stage carries much stronger guarantees : it’s like a mini-proof that always holds, for whatever state the program is in.

As a consequence, it eliminates the need for a runtime check, which saves cpu and binary size.
More importantly, it removes the need of a “failure code path”, requiring the caller to test and consider carefully what must be done when an incorrect condition happens. This leads to a corresponding simplification of the code, with massive maintenance benefits.
On top of that, since the condition can be checked immediately during compilation or parsing, it’s right in the short feedback loop of the programmer, allowing failures to be identified and fixed quickly.

This set of benefits is too strong to miss. As a general rule, whatever can be checked at compile time should be.

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 the int type of target system is wide enough. Or that some constants respect a pre-defined order. Or, as suggested 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 runtime nor space cost, no reliance on runtime tests to ensure that the condition is respected.

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 macro definition becomes more complex though.
The last restriction is more concerning: it’s a strong limitation, directly incompatible with 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.


A huge limitation is that 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, not even pure ones (only 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 very cheap, efficient zero-cost abstraction which guarantees an invariant, contributing to a safer code generation.

Arbitrary conditions validated at compile time

Checking an arbitrary condition at compile time? like a runtime assert() ? That sounds preposterous.
Yet, that’s exactly what we are going to see in this paragraph.

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() : as the condition is guaranteed to be met, no need to check it at run time, hence no runtime cost, no need for a failure path, no reliance on tests to detect bad cases, etc.

Enforcing such a strong property may seem a bit overwhelming. However, that’s exactly what is already required by the standard, for any operation featuring undefined behavior as a consequence of violation of their narrow contract.
The real problem is that the full responsibility of knowing and respecting the contract is transferred onto the programmer, which receives, by default, no compile-time signal to warn when these conditions are broken.

Compile-time condition validation reverse this logic, and ensure that a condition is always met if it passes compilation. This is a big change, with corresponding safety benefits.

This method is not suitable for situations determined by some unpredictable runtime event. For example, it’s not possible to guarantee that a certain file will exist at runtime, so trying to open a file always requires a runtime check.

But there are a ton of conditions that the programmer expect to be always true, and which violation necessarily constitutes a programming error. These are our targets.


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.
It’s extremely common to forget such a test, since there’s no warning for the programmer. A 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 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 ? Well, be sure they don’t overflow. Let’s call memcpy() ? First, ensure memory segments are allocated and don’t overlap.
And on, and on, and on.

While it’s sometimes possible to assert() some of these conditions, it’s not great, because in absence of compilation warnings, contract violation can still happen at runtime. And while the assert(), if enabled, will avoid the situation to degenerate into undefined behavior, it still translates into an abrupt abort(), which is another form of vulnerability.

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 without a trace in the generated binary.

This outcome is already common : whenever an assert() can be proven to be always true, the compiler will remove it, through a fairly common optimization stage called Dead Code Elimination (DCE).

Therefore, the idea is to design an assert() that must 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 strictly identical, but that’s a later topic).

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() into an existing code base.

Function pre-conditions

When a function is not inline, the situation becomes more complex, and EXPECT() must be used differently compared to assert().

For example, 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, at this stage, it’s impossible to successfully invoke the macro using a function as argument to begin with.
That’s because then function’s return value has no any guarantee attached beyond its type.
So, if the function is int f(), its return value 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, and 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 without it, it is necessary to re-express the conditions within the function body, which is an unwelcome burden.

A quick work-around is to express these guarantees inside the function body using assert(). This is, by the way, what should have been done anyway.

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, their corresponding EXPECT() will fail.
This suggests that EXPECT() can only be checked in debug builds, and with optimization enabled (-O1).

With all these assert() back, it seems like these compile-time checks are purely redundant, hence 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 expressed 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 underlined early, 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 a chain of pre-conditions.
This capability requires another complementary tool. We’ll see that in the next blog post.


  1. If you use lto, you can do more compile-time checks.

    1. Yes, that's a very good point Ralph.

      TBH, I'm not a great fan of LTO for binary generation, for reasons too long to detail in this short answer,
      but as an extender of compile-time verifications, it can have a role.

      I will have to experiment a bit more about it to get a better sense of its capabilities and limitations.

    2. I remember now :
      The problem of inline functions is that
      when the condition is not respected,
      it indeed triggers a warning at compile time,
      but it locates the warning _inside the inlined function_,
      which unfortunately does not tell much about the caller using incorrect parameter
      making debugging more difficult.

      This is where bundled macro have an advantage :
      they locate the problem at the position of the caller.

    3. Yeah, you do have to follow the error chain to the source line. Do you have any solution to the warning in "lets_call_division_by_something()"? I find most projects have abstractions so often have to go up the call stack a couple levels to find the invalid constant expression. I agree there can be downsides to lto, so the ideal would be the ability to enable specific parts of it like dead code elimination and constant propagation. I plan to do some comparisons between gcc and clang/llvm since I've mainly used gcc.