Pointer to "base" type - what does the Standard say about this?

Discussion in 'C Programming' started by Stephan Beal, Nov 5, 2008.

  1. Stephan Beal

    Stephan Beal Guest

    Hi, all!

    Before i ask my question, i want to clarify that my question is not
    about the code i will show, but about what the C Standard says should

    A week or so ago it occurred to me that one can implement a very basic
    form of subclassing in C (the gurus certainly already know this, but
    it was news to me). What i've done (shown below) seems to work all
    fine and well, and does exactly what i'd expect, but i'm asking about
    it because when i switched to a higher optimization level on gcc i
    started getting warnings about type-punned pointers violating "strict
    mode." That got me wondering, does it mean "strict C mode" or "strict
    GCC mode"? i don't care much about the latter, as long as i comply
    with the former. To be clear (again), my question is not GCC-specific.
    My question is whether or not the approach i've taken here is legal
    according to The Standard. i only ask because GCC suggests (at some
    optimization levels, anyway) that i might be violating some C rule
    without knowing i'm doing so.

    The code (sorry for the length - it's about as short as i can make
    this example in C while still keeping it readable):

    // ------------------- begin code
    #include <stdio.h>
    #include <stdlib.h>

    struct base_type; // unfortunate fwd decl
    // Public API for base_type objects:
    struct base_public_api
    void (*func1)( struct base_type const * self );
    long (*func2)( struct base_type const * self, int );
    typedef struct base_public_api base_public_api;

    // Base-most type of the abstract interface
    struct base_type
    base_public_api api;
    typedef struct base_type base_type;

    // Implementation of base_type abstract interface
    struct sub_type
    base_public_api api;
    int member1;
    typedef struct sub_type sub_type;

    #define MARKER if(1) printf("MARKER: %s:%d:%s():
    \n",__FILE__,__LINE__,__func__); if(1) printf

    #define SUBP ((sub_type const *)self)
    void impl_f1( base_type const * self )
    long impl_f2( base_type const * self, int x )
    return SUBP->member1 * x;

    // Now here's the part which is dubious: note the concrete types here:
    static const sub_type sub_type_inst = { {impl_f1,impl_f2}, 42 };
    static base_type const * sub_inst = (base_type const*) &sub_type_inst;
    // ^^^^ "warning: dereferencing type-punned pointer will break strict-
    aliasing rules"

    int main( int argc, char const ** argv )

    MARKER("func2()==%ld\n", sub_inst->api.func2(sub_inst, 2) );
    return 0;
    // ------------------- end code

    On my box that looks like:
    [email protected]:~/tmp$ ls -la inher.c
    -rw-r--r-- 1 stephan stephan 1184 2008-11-05 14:43 inher.c
    [email protected]:~/tmp$ make inher
    cc inher.c -o inher
    [email protected]:~/tmp$ ./inher
    MARKER: inher.c:34:impl_f1():
    MARKER: inher.c:48:main():

    Am i headed down a Dark Path with this approach? Or is there a better/
    more acceptable approach to simulating single inheritance in C? (i'm
    not abject to changing the model, but i really do need some form of
    separate interface/implementation for what i'm doing.)

    Many thanks in advance for your insights.

    PS (not relevant to the question, really): what's the point of all
    that? i'm working on a library where i really need abstract base
    interfaces (with only one level of inheritance necessary), and this
    approach seems to be fairly clear (though a tad bit verbose at times).
    i've used it to implement subclasses of an abstract stream interface,
    for example, so my library can treat FILE handles and in-memory
    buffers (or client-supplied stream types, with an appropriate wrapper)
    with the same read/write API.

    PS2: my appologies for the dupe post on comp.lang.c.moderated - i
    inadvertently posted to that group.
    Stephan Beal, Nov 5, 2008
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  2. Having subtype as "base class struct + some extra fields" and casting
    back to the base when necessary is completely ubiquitous in networking
    code based on Berkeley sockets. So if your code is meant to run on
    Windows or a *nix that does networking, then this approach will
    certainly work.

    If your interested in head-on-a-pin discussions about whether it will
    work on embedded C for a coffee machine with half the standard library
    missing, the "regulars" will no doubt be along soon with their usual
    grandstanding answers.
    Antoninus Twink, Nov 5, 2008
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  3. Stephan Beal

    Stephan Beal Guest

    That's good to hear, thanks :).
    The code is intended to be platform neutral (but "C" below...), and it
    now sounds like the approach i chose is also platform neutral. i was
    worried there for a while.

    As a baseline i'm trying to make sure it also compiles (and behaves
    properly) with tcc (TinyC Compiler).
    i'm only interested in conforming to The Standard. My programming
    won't allow me to sleep at night if i knowingly make use of a compiler-
    specific extension (with the exception of a couple very common
    extensions, like free placement of var decls in functions, instead of
    all at the front).

    Thanks for the answer - it sounds like i'm not treading any
    particularly dangerous ground here (assuming the API is used properly,
    of course).
    Stephan Beal, Nov 5, 2008
  4. Stephan Beal

    Stephan Beal Guest

    Doh, i spoke to soon:



    "In C99, it is illegal to create an alias of a different type than the
    original. This is often refered to as the strict aliasing rule."

    Now i'm at an impasse - a few parts of my code rely on C99 features,
    all but 1 of them (vsscanf()) i could probably easily do without. But
    if i require C99 mode then i'm knowingly using undefined behaviour.
    That's a tough call, considering that i don't think i can reasonably
    reimplement around this limitation. Damn.
    Stephan Beal, Nov 5, 2008
  5. The problem isn't with a coffee machine -- the compiler for which will
    probably have a simple optimizer -- but with a complex optimizer which uses
    the aliasing rules to drives the optimisation. And so code will
    works... until the optimizer see an opportunity to use the fact that two
    things shouldn't alias.

    In the OP case, there is hope. Replacing

    static base_type const * sub_inst = (base_type const*) &sub_type_inst;


    static base_type const * sub_inst = &sub_type_inst.api;

    will remove complains about this line. Now the only problematic part is

    ((sub_type const *)self)

    but this isn't problematic AFAIK ( in C99 and I seem to remember
    that C90 has the same language: A pointer to a structure object, suitably
    converted, points to its initial member (or if that member is a bit-field,
    then to the unit in which it resides), and vice versa.) BTW, that reference
    shows that there isn't a need to complains about the first line.

    Jean-Marc Bourguet, Nov 5, 2008
  6. Stephan Beal

    jameskuyper Guest

    Stephan Beal wrote:
    You can combine those two statements:

    typedef struct base_public_api
    // details
    } base_public_api;
    There's no problem there. Section says "A pointer to a
    structure object, suitably converted, points to its initial member (or
    if that member is a bit-field, then to the unit in which it resides),
    and vice versa."

    Strictly speaking, you have to apply that rule twice, and that implies
    that the correct conversion has to be:

    static_base_type const* sub_inst = (base type const*)

    If we are given the fact that, for a specific set of types A, B, and
    C, where p is object of type C*, the conversion (A*)(B*)p is legal,
    the standard says nothing that allows us to conclude that (A*)(B*)p ==
    (A*)p. It doesn't even guarantee that (A*)p is also legal. However,
    in practice, I would expect this to work, and I believe that the
    intent was that it should work.
    jameskuyper, Nov 5, 2008
  7. Stephan Beal

    Stephan Beal Guest

    Optimization is certainly a potential problem. i can conceive that for
    some reason a compiler might optimize or pad these differently:

    struct sub1
    base_api api;
    int m1;
    double m2;

    struct sub1
    base_api api;
    double m1;
    char const * m2;

    but my knowledge of explicit optimizations done by any given compiler
    is pretty minimal. i'm much better versed in C++ than C.
    That was my original thought, but the point of passing (base_type
    [const]*) as the "self" argument of base_type_api was to give me a
    level of indirection which i want (for storage of subtype-specific
    data without requiring subclasses to literally redeclare the whole
    public API), and i lose that (and features based off of it) if i pass
    a (base_type_api*) and cast it to a (sub_type*) (which in my eyes is
    just plain wrong, even if it might work in this case).
    Coincidentally, i spent the last half hour reading up on that topic.
    The reading here was enlighting:


    After reading that, i'm very confused about whether using the
    "restrict" keyword might in some way help me here.

    My current conclusion is:

    a) it's technically illegal.
    b) it's largely assumed to be safe on "most" platforms.
    c) my subclasses are all private implementations (file-level scope)
    and are never referenced using their subtype outside of a single file,
    so the compiler might have a chance of knowing what i'm hoping for.
    gcc doesn't complain until i turn on -O2 or higher or turn on the -
    fstrict-aliasing flag. tcc doesn't complain at all.

    Thanks for your input :).
    Stephan Beal, Nov 5, 2008
  8. Stephan Beal

    Stephan Beal Guest

    Thanks for that. i'm far more used to C++ than C (been away from C
    since 1995 or so), so i'm not all caught up yet.
    AND vice versa? That changes things. So that means that i could cast
    the (base_type_api*) itself back to the original subclass which
    contains it (provided i use it as we've shown here)?

    So does that imply that the following is actually legal? (warning -

    typedef struct API
    int (*func1)( struct API * );
    // ... more API ...
    } API;

    typedef struct Foo
    API api;
    int val;
    } Foo;

    int func1_Foo( API *x )
    return (Foo*)x;


    Foo foo;
    foo.api.func1 = func1_Foo;
    printf("%d\n",foo.api.func1( &foo ));

    If that's legal then i'm happy (though a bit perplexed as to why it
    would be allowed).
    Those last two parts: fair enough, and i think i understand why that
    must be so, but it is philosophically unsettling nonetheless.
    MY intent is for it to work, certainly ;). i just hope i'm not
    violating anyone's bits by doing this.

    Thanks for your insightful reply :).
    Stephan Beal, Nov 5, 2008
  9. Stephan Beal

    jameskuyper Guest


    Sorry about that. I got mixed up because I misread your code. I was
    somehow got confused while reading your code, and was under the
    impression that sub_type_inst had a member of type base_public_api
    (which was correct), and that base_public_api had a member of type
    base_type (which is exactly backwards). You can only perform such a
    conversion by defining a union of both types, and only when the
    original pointer points to one of the members of such a union.
    jameskuyper, Nov 5, 2008
  10. Stephan Beal

    Stephan Beal Guest

    It was a good try, though :).
    i'm considering the union option. However, that would require that i
    use all the concrete subtypes in the public union. Right now my
    subtypes are all static/file-scope implementations, so that wouldn't
    be possible without revealing those types, some of which require
    optional add-on functionality like sqlite3 (which the subclasses hide
    in the current API).

    In the off chance that you'd like to see the actual code, visit here:


    give in the user name "anonymous" with password "anonymous" (that's an
    anti-bot feature of the hosting SCM software), click Login, and you'll
    see the files. The base types are declared in c11n_io.h (search for
    "_api api;") and a couple concrete impls of the c11n_stream base are
    in c11n_stream_*.c. (c11n_io_handler_*.c are also relevant but
    significantly more complex because they are grammar parser

    Again, thanks for the insights!
    Stephan Beal, Nov 5, 2008
  11. Not quite. What is illegal, with some exceptions, is to access an
    object (such as the object the pointer points at) thorugh a different
    type than it was a created with. In Standardese, its "effective type".
    But you can cast pointers back and forth, as long as you don't break
    alignment requirements.

    One such exception is to access equivalent initial members of structs
    that are union members. So that's one formally valid way _if_ you know
    all the "subtypes" of your base type: Stuff them all into a union, then
    pass that union around. Don't make the base type a struct member,
    instead do
    #define BASE_STRUCT_BODY(prefix) \
    int prefix##_i, prefix##_j
    struct base_struct { BASE_STRUCT_BODY(bs); };
    struct other_struct { BASE_STRUCT_BODY(os); other members; };

    The prefix is only necessary if you want different member names in
    different structs.

    It's not really clear to me what else the standard allows though. A
    compiler's users would be kind of annoyed if sockets didn't work, as
    Antoninus suggests. OTOH if you are worrying about formal rather than
    practical examples that's not enough. Besides, the socket interface
    could use implementation-specific tricks to disable optimizations what
    would break sockets.

    One (or the?) point of the aliasing rules is to enable optimizations.
    If you access an object of type T and then call a function which the
    compiler knows does not access type T, nor call a function which does,
    nor use one of the exceptions, the compiler knows that it can move the
    access to the T object past the function call. One trick to protect
    your code from that is to keep the accesses through different types in
    different source files. However that can get defeated by "link-time

    Anyway, here are the relevant parts from C99 - with examples. Structure and union members

    5 One special guarantee is made in order to simplify the use of unions:
    if a union contains several structures that share a common initial
    sequence (see below), and if the union object currently contains one
    of these structures, it is permitted to inspect the common initial
    part of any of them anywhere that a declaration of the complete type
    of the union is visible. Two structures share a common initial
    sequence if corresponding members have compatible types (and, for
    bit-fields, the same widths) for a sequence of one or more initial

    6 EXAMPLE 1 If f is a function returning a structure or union, and x
    is a member of that structure or union, f().x is a valid postfix
    expression but is not an lvalue.

    7 EXAMPLE 2 In:
    struct s { int i; const int ci; };
    struct s s;
    const struct s cs;
    volatile struct s vs;
    the various members have the types:
    s.i int
    s.ci const int
    cs.i const int
    cs.ci const int
    vs.i volatile int
    vs.ci volatile const int

    8 EXAMPLE 3 The following is a valid fragment:

    union {
    struct {
    int alltypes;
    } n;
    struct {
    int type;
    int intnode;
    } ni;
    struct {
    int type;
    double doublenode;
    } nf;
    } u;
    u.nf.type = 1;
    u.nf.doublenode = 3.14;
    /* ... */
    if (u.n.alltypes == 1)
    if (sin(u.nf.doublenode) == 0.0)
    /* ... */

    The following is not a valid fragment (because the union type is not
    visible within function f):

    struct t1 { int m; };
    struct t2 { int m; };
    int f(struct t1 * p1, struct t2 * p2)
    if (p1->m < 0)
    p2->m = -p2->m;
    return p1->m;
    int g()
    union {
    struct t1 s1;
    struct t2 s2;
    } u;
    /* ... */
    return f(&u.s1, &u.s2);

    And the basic rules:

    6.5 Expressions
    6 The effective type of an object for an access to its stored value is
    the declared type of the object, if any.[72] If a value is stored
    into an object having no declared type through an lvalue having a
    type that is not a character type, then the type of the lvalue
    becomes the effective type of the object for that access and for
    subsequent accesses that do not modify the stored value.
    If a value is copied into an object having no declared type using
    memcpy or memmove, or is copied as an array of character type, then
    the effective type of the modified object for that access and for
    subsequent accesses that do not modify the value is the effective
    type of the object from which the value is copied, if it has one.
    For all other accesses to an object having no declared type, the
    effective type of the object is simply the type of the lvalue used
    for the access.

    7 An object shall have its stored value accessed only by an lvalue
    expression that has one of the following types:[73]
    - a type compatible with the effective type of the object,
    - a qualified version of a type compatible with the effective type of
    the object,
    - a type that is the signed or unsigned type corresponding to the
    effective type of the object,
    - a type that is the signed or unsigned type corresponding to a
    qualified version of the effective type of the object,
    - an aggregate or union type that includes one of the aforementioned
    types among its members (including, recursively, a member of a
    subaggregate or contained union), or
    - a character type.

    72) Allocated objects have no declared type.
    73) The intent of this list is to specify those circumstances in
    which an object may or may not be aliased.
    Hallvard B Furuseth, Nov 5, 2008
  12. The technique you describe has been used in C since forever. The other
    posters already gave you a quote form the language specification, which
    validates this useful technique, and which was actually included into
    the language specification specifically for that purpose.

    (The valid struct<->first member conversion actually made it into C++
    specification as well).
    Andrey Tarasevich, Nov 5, 2008
  13. Stephan Beal

    Stephan Beal Guest

    <HUGE snip

    Wow, thanks for that! Now i've got some reading to do :).

    The base struct macro you show is basically how i'm initiaizing my
    subclasses, with the exception that i have on extra degree of
    indirection - the subtypes hold an object which itself holds the
    common API (that approach seems to simplify maintenance of the
    subclass implementations in the event of a change in the base API).
    Stephan Beal, Nov 5, 2008
  14. Those structs will likely be padded differently, yes, but you _should_
    be able to cast from one to the other as long as you only access the
    initial elements that they have in common (in this case, only "api").
    Compilers are required to pad consistently enough that, as far into the
    struct as the element types remain the same, they will be at the same
    offsets; this is deliberate to allow casts to access them.

    Think about this example:

    struct point {
    int x;
    int y;
    struct circle {
    int x;
    int y;
    int radius;
    struct rect {
    int x;
    int y;
    int width;
    int height;

    Any time you need a struct point, you can safely cast a struct circle
    and access x or y. This is very, very bare-bones inheritance and
    You could also do the above as:

    struct point {
    int x;
    int y;
    struct circle {
    struct point center;
    int radius;

    The syntax to access x and y isn't quite as pretty, but the layout in
    memory will be the same (a pointer to a struct is guaranteed to be
    equivalent to a pointer to its first element) and the compiler should be
    quiet if you cast a struct circle to a struct point.

    I haven't read all your code due to the length, so I'm not entirely sure
    this helps, but I've used the same tricks in OO code of my own.
    If TCC doesn't complain, it probably doesn't have enough optimizing
    intelligence to care about aliasing problems. GCC is pretty aggressive
    in that area, but there's a huge cost in complexity to detect aliasing
    (or lack thereof), which TCC probably can't afford given its name.

    Stephen Sprunk, Nov 5, 2008
  15. Stephan Beal

    jameskuyper Guest

    Stephen Sprunk wrote:
    The relevant section of the standard makes that guarantee only if the
    two structs are members of the same union. In practice, it generally
    works for a much wider range of cases than the ones guaranteed by the
    jameskuyper, Nov 5, 2008
  16. Stephan Beal

    CBFalconer Guest

    Then you should entirely ignore Twink. He is a troll, and only
    interested in disturbing the newsgroup.
    CBFalconer, Nov 5, 2008
  17. Stephan Beal

    CBFalconer Guest


    The following references may be helpful. The C99 ones are the
    standard, while the n869_txt.bz2 is a bzipped version of n169.txt,
    which in turn is the last version available as a text file.

    Some useful references about C:
    <http://c-faq.com/> (C-faq)
    <http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg14/www/docs/n1256.pdf> (C99)
    <http://cbfalconer.home.att.net/download/n869_txt.bz2> (pre-C99)
    <http://www.dinkumware.com/c99.aspx> (C-library}
    <http://gcc.gnu.org/onlinedocs/> (GNU docs)
    CBFalconer, Nov 5, 2008
  18. Stephan Beal

    Stephan Beal Guest

    That thought kept me up much of the night :(.
    Coincidentally, that's the approach was is on my list of trying out
    tonight. It requires the fewest changes and "seems" to be safest
    (aside from the Union) so far.

    Stephan Beal, Nov 6, 2008
  19. Stephan Beal

    Stephan Beal Guest

    A follow up on how i got to a safe solution...

    i've ruled out the union idea because concrete impls can be provided
    by client code, and i obviously can't link those in to my lib.

    Here's what i've ended up doing, which offers both an approach with
    the safety guaranty approach and the extension-which-might-work-but-is-
    technically-unsafe approach:

    typedef struct base_api {
    void (*member1)( struct foo const * self );
    int (*member1)( struct foo const * self, int arg1 );
    void const * implData;
    } base_api;

    Now my Base type looks like:

    typedef struct base {
    base_api const * api;

    (This extra level of indirection isn't really necessary any longer,
    and i may get rid of it.)

    For my particular cases, all of my implementations can (and in fact
    should) be initialized with constant, immutable data (it may be
    instance-specific but should be immutable). With this approach i no
    longer need concrete "subclasses" - i only need concrete
    implementations of base, which allows me to completely avoid the
    ((base*)mySubT) cast. The impl functions can require that the api-
    the impls can then cast to their heart's content.

    What's all this for?

    As part of c11n (http://s11n.net/c11n/) i need abstract interfaces for
    3 particular object types. The interfaces are used by the rest of the
    API and only care that impls follow the rules defined in the API docs
    for the base class API. For example, i have an interface called
    c11n_marshaller, which is a marshaller type for de/serializing objects
    of a specific type (we need one implementation/instance per
    serializable type). Some common cases (e.g. well-known PODs) can be
    combined into a single implementation of the base_api functions,
    differing only in the metadata they need for the marshalling
    conversion. To do this we point the api->implData to some instance-
    specific static struct containing that metadata which differs from POD
    type to POD type (e.g. a printf/scanf specifier). For the c11n_stream
    interface, the (void * implData) (non-const) member will hold info for
    the underlying native stream object (e.g. FILE handle or in-memory


    Thanks a thousand times to all of you for your feedback - it's helped
    me move away from a potentially horrible design mistake!
    Stephan Beal, Nov 6, 2008
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