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More improved Swift pointers

Introduction

Swift’s pointer types are an important interface for low-level memory manipulation, but the current API design is not very consistent, or convenient. Many memory methods demand a capacity: or count: argument, forcing the user to manually track the size of the memory block, even though most of the time this is either unnecessary, or redundant as buffer pointers track this information natively. In some places, poor naming choices and overengineered function signatures compromise memory safety by leading users to believe that they have allocated or freed memory when in fact, they have not.

This proposal seeks to improve the Swift pointer API by ironing out naming inconsistencies, adding sensible default argument values, adding missing methods, and reducing excessive verbosity, offering a more convenient, more sensible, and less bug-prone API.

The previous draft of this proposal was relatively source-breaking, calling for a separation of functionality between singular pointer types and vector (buffer) pointer types. This proposal instead separates functionality between internally-tracked length pointer types and externally-tracked length pointer types. This results in an equally elegant API with about one-third less surface area.

Swift-evolution thread: Pitch: Improved Swift pointers, Pitch: More Improved Swift pointers

Motivation

Right now, UnsafeMutableBufferPointer is kind of a black box when it comes to producing and modifying instances of it. To create, bind, allocate, initialize, deinitialize, and deallocate them, you have to extract baseAddresses and counts. This is unfortunate because UnsafeMutableBufferPointer provides a handy container for tracking the size of a memory buffer, but to actually make use of this information, the buffer pointer must be disassembled. In practice, this means the use of memory buffers requires frequent (and annoying) conversion back and forth between buffer pointers and base address–count pairs. For example, to move-initialize memory between two buffer pointers, you have to write this:

buffer1.baseAddress?.moveInitialize(from: buffer2.baseAddress!, count: buffer1.count)

The ? is sometimes exchanged with an ! depending on the personality of the author, as normally, neither operator is meaningful here — the baseAddress is never nil if the buffer pointer was created around an instance of UnsafeMutablePointer.

Memory buffer allocation is especially painful, since it requires the creation of a temporary UnsafeMutablePointer instance. This means that the following “idiom” is very common in Swift code:

let buffer = UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<UInt8>(start: UnsafeMutablePointer<UInt8>.allocate(capacity: byteCount), count: byteCount)

Aside from being extremely long and unwieldy, and requiring the creation of a temporary, byteCount must appear twice.

You can’t even cast buffer pointer types to their mutable or immutable forms without creating a temporary.

var mutableBuffer = UnsafeMutableBufferPointer(start: UnsafeMutablePointer(mutating: immutableBuffer.baseAddress!), count: immutableBuffer.count)

Currently, memory is deallocated by an instance method on UnsafeMutablePointer, deallocate(count:). Like much of the Swift pointer API, performing this operation on a buffer pointer requires extracting baseAddress! and count. It is very common for the allocation code above to be immediately followed by:

defer
{
    buffer.baseAddress?.deallocate(capacity: buffer.count)
}

This method is extremely problematic because nearly all users, on first seeing the signature of deallocate(capacity:), will naturally conclude from the capacity label that deallocate(capacity:) is equivalent to some kind of realloc() that can only shrink the buffer. However this is not the actual behavior — deallocate(capacity:) actually ignores the capacity argument and just calls free() on self. The current API is not only awkward and suboptimal, it is misleading. You can write perfectly legal Swift code that shouldn’t segfault, but still can, for example

var ptr = UnsafeMutablePointer<UInt8>.allocate(capacity: 1000000)
ptr.initialize(to: 13, count: 1000000)
ptr.deallocate(capacity: 500000) // deallocate the second half of the memory block
ptr[0] // segmentation fault

where the first 500000 addresses should still be valid if the documentation is to be read literally.

Users who are aware of this behavior may also choose to disregard the capacity argument and write things like this:

defer
{
    buffer.baseAddress?.deallocate(capacity: 42)
}

which is functionally equivalent. However this will lead to disastrous source breakage if the implementation of deallocate(capacity:) is ever “corrected”. Since the API would not change, such code would still compile, but suddenly start failing at runtime. Thus, the current API, combined with incorrect documentation, is serving as a vector for introducing memory bugs into Swift code.

Inconsistencies exist in the memorystate functions. The initialize(from:count:) method on UnsafeMutablePointer has a repeating variant, initialize(to:count:), but assign(from:count:) has no such variant, even though it would make just as much sense for it to have one.

While most of the memorystate functions are absent from UnsafeMutableBufferPointer, there is one strange exception — UnsafeMutableBufferPointer features an initialize<S>(from:) method which takes a Sequence. This method was originally an inhabitant of UnsafeMutablePointer before it was supposedly moved to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer by SE-147. This decision appears to have never been carried out, as the type still features an active initialize<C>(from:) method which takes a Collection. (The original SE-147 method took a Collection.)

Finally, the naming of some UnsafeMutableRawPointer members deserves a second look. While the original API intended to introduce a naming convention where bytes refers to uninitialized memory, capacity to uninitialized elements, and count to initialized elements, the actual usage of the three words does not always agree. In copyBytes(from:count:), count refers to the number of bytes, which may or may not be initialized. Similarly, the UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer allocate(count:) type method includes a count argument which actually refers to uninitialized bytes.

Proposed solution

The presence of an associated count variable in UnsafeMutableBufferPointer, and the absence of it in UnsafeMutablePointer leads to a very natural and elegant set of memory APIs. Because buffer length is tracked externally when using UnsafeMutablePointer, memory methods on it should explicitly ask for the sizing parameter. Conversely, because buffer length is tracked internally by UnsafeMutableBufferPointer, memory methods on it should supply the buffer’s own count property for the operation’s sizing parameter. This means you would call

ptr1.initialize(from: ptr2, count: count)

on an UnsafeMutablePointer, but

buffer1.initialize(from: buffer2)

on an UnsafeMutableBufferPointer. This differs from the previous draft of this proposal, in that this expansion is more additive and less source-breaking, preserving the much of the sized API present on UnsafeMutablePointer.

In detail, the following changes should be made:

  • remove the capacity parameter from deallocate(capacity:) and deallocate(bytes:alignedTo:)

Removing capacity from deallocate(capacity:) will end the confusion over what deallocate() does, making it obvious that deallocate() will free the entire memory block at self, just as if free() were called on it.

The old deallocate(capacity:) method should be marked as unavailable since it currently encourages dangerously incorrect code. This avoids misleading future users, forces current users to address this potentially catastrophic memory bug, and leaves the possibility open for us to add a deallocate(count:) method in the future, or perhaps even a reallocate(toCount:) method.

Along similar lines, the bytes and alignedTo parameters should be removed from the deallocate(bytes:alignedTo:) method on UnsafeMutableRawPointer.

  • add unsized memory methods to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer

The following methods will be added to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer, giving it parity with UnsafeMutablePointer.

static func allocate<Element>(capacity:Int) -> UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>
func deallocate()

func assign(from:UnsafeBufferPointer<Element>)
func moveAssign(from:UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>)
func moveInitialize(from:UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>)
func initialize(from:UnsafeBufferPointer<Element>)
func initialize(to:Element)
func deinitialize()

Where there would have been a capacity: or count: argument on these methods, this value will be filled by the buffer pointer’s own count property. For the binary operations assign(from:), moveAssign(from:), moveInitialize(from:), and initialize(from:), it is assumed that the other buffer pointer contains at least as many elements as self does.

  • add an assign(to:count:) method to UnsafeMutablePointer and an assign(to:) method to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer

This addresses the missing assignment analogues to the initialize(to:count:) and initialize(to:) methods.

  • add a default value of 1 to all size parameters on UnsafeMutablePointer and applicable size parameters on UnsafeMutableRawPointer

Since the most common use case for plain pointers is to manage one single instance of a type, the size parameters on UnsafeMutablePointer’s memory methods are good candidates for a default value of 1. Any size parameter on UnsafeMutableRawPointer’s memory methods which take a stride quantity should also receive a default value of 1. The size parameters in UnsafeMutableRawPointer’s other methods should not receive a default value as they refer to byte quantities.

  • rename copyBytes(from:count:) to copy(from:bytes:)

To reduce the inconsistency in our use of the words bytes, count, and capacity, we will enforce the convention that:

  • bytes refers to, well, a byte quantity that is not assumed to be initialized.
  • capacity refers to a strided quantity that is not assumed to be initialized.
  • count refers to a strided quantity that is assumed to be initialized.

Since this makes the word “bytes” occur twice in copyBytes(from:bytes:), we should drop the “Bytes” suffix and further rename the method to copy(from:bytes:). Since UnsafeMutableRawPointer is inherently untyped, it is obvious that any memory transfer operation on it is a bytewise operation so the “Bytes” suffix adds only verbosity and no clarity. An unsized version of this method will also be added to UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer.

We do not rename the count property on UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer to bytes since this could be confused with the actual buffer data.

  • rename count in UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer.allocate(count:) to bytes and add an alignedTo parameter to make it UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer.allocate(bytes:alignedTo:)

This brings it in line with the UnsafeMutableRawPointer allocator, and avoids the contradictory and inconsistent use of count to represent a byte quantity. Currently UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer.allocate(count:) aligns to the size of Int, an assumption not shared by its plain variant.

  • fix the ordering of the arguments in initializeMemory<Element>(as:at:count:to:) and rename the argument to: to repeating: in all repeating memorystate functions

The ordering of the to: and count: argument labels in the initializeMemory<Element>(as:at:count:to:) method on UnsafeMutableRawPointer contradicts the rest of the Swift pointer API, where to: precedes count:.

Because the ordering initializeMemory<Element>(as:at:to:count:) conflicts with the use of to: as the argument label for a target type, this argument should be renamed to repeating:. The word repeating: is much more clear in terms of describing the methods’ behavior, and is consistent with the use of the word in the Array API.

  • add the sized memorystate functions withMemoryRebound<Element, Result>(to:count:_:) to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer, and initializeMemory<Element>(as:at:repeating:count:), initializeMemory<Element>(as:from:count:) moveInitializeMemory<Element>(as:from:count:), and bindMemory<Element>(to:count:) to UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer

Since buffer pointers track their own count, this value is a natural fit for the count: argument in most of the memorystate functions. However, since raw buffer pointers don’t inherently “know” how many instances of an arbitrary type fit in themselves, initializeMemory<Element>(as:at:repeating:count:) and bindMemory<Element>(to:capacity:) should retain their size parameters.

For similar reasons, UnsafeMutableBufferPointer.withMemoryRebound<T, Result>(to:capacity:_:) keeps its size parameter because capacity may be different from count with a differently laid out type.

  • add a init(mutating:) initializer to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer

This makes it much easier to make a mutable copy of an immutable buffer pointer. Such an initializer already exists on UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer, so adding one to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer is also necessary for consistency. The reverse initializer, from UnsafeMutableBufferPointer to UnsafeBufferPointer should also be added for completeness.

  • add mutable overloads to non-vacating memorystate method arguments on UnsafeMutableBufferPointer and UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer

Non vacating memorystate operations such as assign(from:) and initialize(from:) on UnsafeMutableBufferPointer, and copy(from:) and initializeMemory(at:from:count:) on UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer currently take immutable source arguments. They should be overloaded to accept mutable source arguments to reduce the need for pointer immutability casts. Currently, for plain pointers, this is covered by a compiler subtyping relationship between UnsafePointer and UnsafeMutablePointer. No such relationship exists between UnsafeBufferPointer and UnsafeMutableBufferPointer or their raw counterparts.

  • finally deprecate initialize<C>(from:) from UnsafeMutablePointer

This method was supposed to be deprecated per SE-147. Better late than never.

What this proposal does not do

  • add missing memorystate functions that take Collections and Sequences

This proposal also does not address the missing Collection/Sequence memorystate functions, although it does call for (finally) removing UnsafeMutablePointer.initialize<C>(from:). This is out of scope for this proposal, and the missing functions can always be filled in at a later date, as part of a purely additive proposal.

  • remove subscripts from UnsafePointer and UnsafeMutablePointer

There are strong arguments for removing subscript capability from plain pointer types.

Subscripts on UnsafePointer and UnsafeMutablePointer are inconsistent with their intended purpose. For example, ptr[0] and ptr.pointee both do the same thing. Furthermore, it is not immediately obvious from the grammar that the subscript parameter is an offset. New users may conclude that subscripting a pointer at [89] dereferences the memory at address 0x0000000000000059! It would make more sense to use pointer arithmetic and the pointee property to access memory at an offset from self than to allow subscripting.

C programmers who defend this kind of syntax are reminded that many things obvious to C programmers, are obvious to only C programmers. The trend in Swift’s design is to separate C’s array–pointer duality; pointer subscripts run counter to that goal.

There is an argument that singular pointer subscripts are useful when singular pointers of unknown length are returned by C APIs. The counter-argument is that you almost never need to do random access into a vector of unknown length, rather you would iterate one element at a time until you reach the end. This lends itself well to pointer incrementation and the pointee property rather than subscripting.

while ptr.pointee != sentinel
{
    ...
    
    ptr += 1
}

However, this is a source breaking change, and there are (rare) cases where this syntax is helpful, for example, when dealing with multi-element strides.

var pixel:UnsafeMutablePointer<UInt8> = base
while pixel < base + size
{
    // assign the RGBA color #ff1096ff
    pixel[0] = 0xff
    pixel[1] = 0x10
    pixel[2] = 0x96
    pixel[3] = 0xff
    pixel += 4
}

Detailed design

struct UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>
{
--- static func allocate<Pointee>(capacity:Int) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>
+++ static func allocate<Pointee>(capacity:Int = 1) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>
--- func deallocate(capacity _:Int)
+++ func deallocate()

--- func initialize<C>(from:C)

+++ func assign(repeating:Pointee, count:Int = 1)

--- func assign(from:UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count:Int)
--- func moveAssign(from:UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>, count:Int)
--- func moveInitialize(from:UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>, count:Int)
--- func initialize(from:UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count:Int)
--- func initialize(repeating:Element, count:Int)
--- func deinitialize(count:Int)
--- func withMemoryRebound<T, Result>(to:T.Type, count:Int, _ body:(UnsafeMutablePointer<T>) -> Result)

+++ func assign(from:UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count:Int = 1)
+++ func moveAssign(from:UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>, count:Int = 1)
+++ func moveInitialize(from:UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>, count:Int = 1)
+++ func initialize(from:UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count:Int = 1)
+++ func initialize(repeating:Element, count:Int = 1)
+++ func deinitialize(count:Int = 1)
+++ func withMemoryRebound<T, Result>(to:T.Type, count:Int = 1, _ body:(UnsafeMutablePointer<T>) -> Result)
}

struct UnsafeMutableRawPointer
{
--- func deallocate(bytes _:Int, alignedTo _:Int)
+++ func deallocate()

--- func copyBytes(from:UnsafeRawPointer, count:Int)
+++ func copy(from:UnsafeRawPointer, bytes:Int)
--- func initializeMemory<T>(as:T.Type, at:Int, count:Int, to:T)
+++ func initializeMemory<T>(as:T.Type, at:Int, repeating:T, count:Int = 1)

--- func initializeMemory<C>(as:C.Element.Type, from:C)

--- func bindMemory<T>(to:T.Type, count:Int)
--- func initializeMemory<T>(as:T.Type, from:UnsafePointer<T>, count:Int)
--- func moveInitializeMemory<T>(as:T.Type, from:UnsafeMutablePointer<T>, count:Int)

+++ func bindMemory<T>(to:T.Type, count:Int = 1)
+++ func initializeMemory<T>(as:T.Type, from:UnsafePointer<T>, count:Int = 1)
+++ func moveInitializeMemory<T>(as:T.Type, from:UnsafeMutablePointer<T>, count:Int = 1)
}

struct UnsafeBufferPointer<Element> 
{
+++ init(_:UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>)
}

struct UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>
{
+++ init(mutating:UnsafeBufferPointer<Element>)

+++ static func allocate<Element>(capacity:Int) -> UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>
+++ func deallocate()

+++ func assign(from:UnsafeBufferPointer<Element>)
+++ func assign(from:UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>)
+++ func assign(repeating:Pointee)
+++ func moveAssign(from:UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>)
+++ func moveInitialize(from:UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>)
+++ func initialize(from:UnsafeBufferPointer<Element>)
+++ func initialize(from:UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>)
+++ func initialize(repeating:Element)
+++ func deinitialize()
+++ func withMemoryRebound<T, Result>
+++ (to:T.Type, count:Int, _ body:(UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<T>) -> Result)
}

struct UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer
{
--- static func allocate(count:Int) -> UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer
+++ static func allocate(bytes:Int, alignedTo:Int) -> UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer
    func deallocate()
+++ func bindMemory<Element>(to:Element.Type, count:Int)
--- func copyBytes(from: UnsafeRawBufferPointer)
+++ func copy(from:UnsafeRawBufferPointer)
+++ func copy(from:UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer)
+++ func initializeMemory<Element>(as:Element.Type, at:Int, repeating:Element, count:Int)
+++ func initializeMemory<Element>(as:Element.Type, from:UnsafeBufferPointer<Element>, count:Int)
+++ func initializeMemory<Element>(as:Element.Type, from:UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>, count:Int)
+++ func moveInitializeMemory<Element>(as:Element.Type, from:UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>, count:Int)
}

Source compatibility

Some parts of this proposal are source breaking. This proposal is significantly less source breaking than its previous iteration.

  • remove the capacity parameter from deallocate(capacity:) and deallocate(bytes:alignedTo:)

This change is source-breaking, but this is a Good Thing™. The current API encourages incorrect code to be written, and sets us up for potentially catastrophic source breakage down the road should the implementations of deallocate(capacity:) and deallocate(bytes:alignedTo:) ever be “fixed”, so users should be forced to stop using them as soon as possible.

  • add unsized memory methods to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer

This change is purely additive.

  • add an assign(to:count:) method to UnsafeMutablePointer and an assign(to:) method to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer

This change is purely additive.

  • add a default value of 1 to all size parameters on UnsafeMutablePointer and applicable size parameters on UnsafeMutableRawPointer

This change is purely additive.

  • rename copyBytes(from:count:) to copy(from:bytes:)

This change is source breaking but can be trivially automigrated.

  • rename count in UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer.allocate(count:) to bytes and add an alignedTo parameter to make it UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer.allocate(bytes:alignedTo:)

This change is source breaking but can be trivially automigrated. The alignedTo: parameter can be filled in with MemoryLayout<Int>.stride.

  • fix the ordering of the arguments in initializeMemory<Element>(as:at:count:to:) and rename the argument to: to repeating: in all repeating memorystate functions

This change is source breaking but can be trivially automigrated.

  • add the sized memorystate functions withMemoryRebound<Element, Result>(to:count:_:) to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer, and initializeMemory<Element>(as:at:repeating:count:), initializeMemory<Element>(as:from:count:) moveInitializeMemory<Element>(as:from:count:), and bindMemory<Element>(to:count:) to UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer

This change is purely additive.

  • add a init(mutating:) initializer to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer

This change is purely additive.

  • add mutable overloads to non-vacating memorystate method arguments on UnsafeMutableBufferPointer and UnsafeMutableRawBufferPointer

This change is purely additive.

  • finally deprecate initialize<C>(from:) from UnsafeMutablePointer

This change is source-breaking only for the reason that such code should never have compiled in the first place.

Effect on ABI stability

Removing sized deallocators changes the existing ABI, as will renaming some of the methods and their argument labels.

Effect on API resilience

Some proposed changes in this proposal change the public API.

Removing sized deallocators right now will break ABI, but offers increased ABI and API stability in the future as reallocator methods can be added in the future without having to rename deallocate(capacity:) which currently occupies a “reallocator” name, but has “free()” behavior.

This proposal seeks to tackle all the breaking changes required for such an overhaul of Swift pointers, and leaves unanswered only additive changes that still need to be made in the future, reducing the need for future breakage.

Alternatives considered

  • keeping sized deallocators and fixing the stdlib implementation instead

Instead of dropping the capacity parameter from deallocate(capacity:), we could fix the underlying implementation so that the function actually deallocates capacity’s worth of memory. However this would be catastrophically, and silently, source-breaking as existing code would continue compiling, but suddenly start leaking or segfaulting at runtime. deallocate(capacity:) can always be added back at a later date without breaking ABI or API, once users have been forced to address this potential bug.

  • adding an initializer UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>.init(allocatingCount:) instead of a type method to UnsafeMutableBufferPointer

The allocator could be expressed as an initializer instead of a type method. However since allocation involves acquisition of an external resource, perhaps it is better to keep with the existing convention that allocation is performed differently than regular buffer pointer construction.

  • using the argument label value: instead of repeating: in methods such as initialize(repeating:count:) (originally initialize(to:count:))

The label value: or toValue: doesn’t fully capture the repeating nature of the argument, and is inconsistent with Array.init(repeating:count:). While value: sounds less strange when count == 1, on consistency and technical correctness, repeating: is the better term. Furthermore, value is a common variable name, meaning that function calls with value: as the label would be prone to looking like this:

ptr.initialize(value: value)
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