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UnsafeRawPointer API

For detailed instructions on how to migrate your code to this new Swift 3 API refer to the UnsafeRawPointer Migration Guide. See also: See bindMemory(to:capacity:), assumingMemoryBound(to:), and withMemoryRebound(to:capacity:).

For quick reference on the full API, jump to:

Contents:

Introduction

Swift enforces type safe access to memory and follows strict aliasing rules. However, code that uses unsafe APIs or imported types can circumvent the language's natural type safety. Consider the following example of type punning using the UnsafePointer type:

let ptrT: UnsafeMutablePointer<T> = ...
// Store T at this address.
ptrT[0] = T()
// Load U at this address
let u = UnsafePointer<U>(ptrT)[0]

This code violates assumptions made by the compiler and falls into the category of "undefined behavior". Undefined behavior is a way of saying that we cannot easily specify constraints on the behavior of programs that violate a rule. The program may crash, corrupt memory, or be miscompiled in other ways. Miscompilation may include optimizing away code that was expected to execute or executing code that was not expected to execute.

Swift already protects against undefined behavior as long as the code does not use "unsafe" constructs. However, UnsafePointer is an important API for interoperability and building high performance data structures. As such, the rules for safe, well-defined usage of the API should be clear. Currently, it is too easy to use UnsafePointer improperly. For example, innocuous argument conversion such as this could lead to undefined behavior:

func takesUIntPtr(_ p: UnsafeMutablePointer<UInt>) -> UInt {
  return p[0]
}
func takesIntPtr(q: UnsafeMutablePointer<Int>) -> UInt {
  return takesUIntPtr(UnsafeMutablePointer(q))
}

Furthermore, no API currently exists for accessing raw, untyped memory. UnsafePointer<Pointee> and UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee> refer to a typed region of memory, and the compiler assumes that the element type (Pointee) is consistent with other access to the same memory. For details of the compiler's rules for memory aliasing, see proposed Type Safe Memory Access documentation. Making UnsafePointer safer requires introducing a new pointer type that is not subject to the same strict aliasing rules.

This proposal aims to achieve several goals in one coherent design:

  1. Specify a memory model that encompasses all UnsafePointer access and defines which memory operations are subject to strict aliasing rules.

  2. Inhibit UnsafePointer conversion that violates strict aliasing, in order to make violations of the model clear and verifiable.

  3. Provide an untyped pointer type.

  4. Provide an API for raw, untyped memory access (memcpy semantics).

  5. Provide an API for manual memory layout (bytewise pointer arithmetic).

Swift-evolution threads:

Mentions of UnsafePointer that appear in this document's prose also apply to UnsafeMutablePointer.

Proposed Solution

We first introduce each aspect of the proposed API so that the Motivation section can show examples. The Detailed design section lists the complete API.

UnsafeRawPointer

New raw pointer types, UnsafeRawPointer and UnsafeMutableRawPointer, will represent a "raw", untyped view of memory. Typed pointers, UnsafePointer<T> and UnsafeMutablePointer<T>, continue to represent a typed view of memory. Memory access through a raw pointer accesses raw memory, and memory access through a typed pointer accesses typed memory. Because a raw pointer may alias with any type, the semantics of reading and writing through a raw pointer are similar to C memcpy. Memory access through a typed pointer adheres to strict aliasing.

Memory allocation and initialization

UnsafeMutableRawPointer will provide allocate and deallocate methods:

UnsafeMutableRawPointer {
  static func allocate(bytes size: Int, alignedTo: Int)

  func deallocate(bytes: Int, alignedTo: Int)
}

Initializing memory via an UnsafeMutableRawPointer produces an UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>, and deinitializing the UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee> returns an UnsafeMutableRawPointer.

UnsafeMutableRawPointer {
  // Returns an UnsafeMutablePointer into the newly initialized memory.
  func initializeMemory<T>(as: T.Type, count: Int = 1, to: T)
    -> UnsafeMutablePointer<T>
}

UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee> {
  /// Returns a raw pointer to the uninitialized memory.
  public func deinitialize(count: Int = 1) -> UnsafeMutableRawPointer
}

The type parameter T passed to initializeMemory is an explicit argument because the user must reason about the type's size and alignment at the point of initialization. Inferring the type from the value argument could result in miscompilation if the inferred type ever deviates from the user's original expectations. The type parameter also importantly conveys that the raw memory becomes accessible via a pointer to that type at the point of the call. The type should be explicitly spelled at this point because accesing the memory via a typed pointer of an unrelated type could also result in miscompilation.

Binding memory to a type

With the above API for allocation and initialization, the only way to acquire a typed pointer is by using a raw pointer to initialize memory. Raw pointer initialization implicitly binds the memory to the initialized type. A memory location's bound type is an abstract, dynamic property of the memory used to formalize type safety.

Whenever memory is accessed via a typed pointer, the memory must be bound to a related type. This includes operations on Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer in addition to regular language constructs, which are always strictly typed. It does not include memory accessed via a raw pointer, which is not strictly typed. Violations result in undefined behavior.

The user may defer initialization and explicitly bind memory to a type using the bindMemory API:

Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer {
  /// Returns an `Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<T>` pointing to this memory.
  func bindMemory<T>(to: T.Type, capacity: Int) -> Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<T>
}

Calling bindMemory on a newly allocated raw pointer produces a typed pointer to uninitialized memory. The bound memory can then be safely initialized using a typed pointer:

let ptrToA = rawPtr.bindMemory(to: A.self, capacity: 1)
ptrToA.initialize(to: A())

Note that typed pointer initialization does not bind the type. The memory must already be bound to the correct type as a precondition.

Allocating and binding memory to a type may be performed in one step by using UnsafeMutablePointer.allocate():

UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee> {
  static func allocate(capacity count: Int) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>
}

Raw memory access

Loading from and storing to memory via an Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer is safe independent of the memory's bound type as long as layout guarantees are met (per the ABI), and care is taken to properly initialize and deinitialize nontrivial values (see Trivial types). This allows raw memory to be reinterpreted without rebinding the memory type. Rebinding memory invalidates existing typed pointers, but loading from and storing to raw memory does not.

UnsafeMutableRawPointer {
  /// Read raw bytes from memory at `self + offset` and construct a
  /// value of type `T`.
  ///
  /// - Precondition: The underlying pointer plus `offset` is properly
  ///   aligned for accessing `T`.
  ///
  /// - Precondition: The memory is initialized to a value of some type, `U`,
  ///   such that `T` is layout compatible with `U`.
  func load<T>(fromByteOffset: Int = 0, as: T.Type) -> T

  /// Store a value's bytes into raw memory at `self + offset`.
  ///
  /// - Precondition: The underlying pointer plus `offset` is properly
  ///   aligned for storing type `T`.
  ///
  /// - Precondition: `T` is a trivial type.
  ///
  /// - Precondition: The memory is uninitialized, or initialized to some
  ///   trivial type `U` such that `T` and `U` are mutually layout
  ///   compatible.
  /// 
  /// - Postcondition: The memory is initialized to raw bytes. If the
  ///   memory is bound to type `U`, then it now contains a value of
  ///   type `U`.
  func storeBytes<T>(of: T, toByteOffset: Int = 0, as: T.Type)
}

The load and storeBytes operations are asymmetric. load reads raw bytes but properly constructs a new value of type T with its own lifetime. Any copied references will be retained. In contrast, storeBytes only operates on a value's raw bytes, writing them into untyped memory. The in-memory copy will not be constructed and any previously initialized value in this memory will not be deinitialized (it cannot be because its type is unknown). Consequently, storeBytes should only be performed on trivial types.

Assigning memory to a nontrivial type via a raw pointer is done by binding the type:

rawPtr.bindMemory(to: PreviousType.self, capacity: 1).deinitialize(count: 1)
rawPtr.initializeMemory(as: NewType.self, to: NewType())

Bytewise pointer arithmetic

Providing an API for accessing raw memory would not serve much purpose without the ability to compute byte offsets. Naturally, UnsafeRaw[Mutable]Pointer is Strideable as a sequence of bytes.

UnsafeRawPointer : Strideable {
  public func distance(to : UnsafeRawPointer) -> Int

  public func advanced(by : Int) -> UnsafeRawPointer
}

public func == (lhs: UnsafeRawPointer, rhs: UnsafeRawPointer) -> Bool

public func < (lhs: UnsafeRawPointer, rhs: UnsafeRawPointer) -> Bool

public func + (lhs: UnsafeRawPointer, rhs: Int) -> UnsafeRawPointer

public func - (lhs: UnsafeRawPointer, rhs: UnsafeRawPointer) -> Int

UnsafePointer conversion

Currently, an UnsafePointer initializer supports conversion between potentially incompatible pointer types:

struct Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<Pointee> {
  public init<U>(_ from : Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<U>)
}

This initializer will be removed. UnsafePointer conversion is still possible, but is now explicit and provably correct based on the conversion's preconditions and postconditions.

Recall that bindMemory(to:capacity:) produces a typed pointer from a raw pointer. As explained above, it can be used to bind uninitialized memory for deferred initialization. When invoked on memory that is already bound, and potentially already initialized, it effectively rebinds the memory. Because memory can only be bound to one type at a time, all strictly typed memory operations that subsequently access this memory must be consistent with the newly bound type.

A convenience API makes it easy to handle type mismatches that arise from interoperability without compromising on safety. In this case, the user already has a typed pointer but needs to temporarily rebind the memory for the purpose of invoking code that expects a different type. withMemoryRebound<T>(to:capacity:) rebinds memory to the specified type, executes a closure with a pointer to the rebound memory, then rebinds memory to the original type before returning:

Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<Pointee> {
  func withMemoryRebound<T>(to: T.Type, capacity count: Int,
    _ body: (Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<T>) throws -> ()) rethrows
}

This is safe provided that the body closure does not capture self.

It is possible to directly acquire a typed pointer from a raw pointer without rebinding the type, bypassing static safety. This does not weaken the rules for typed memory access because it relies on the precondition is that memory is already bound to the returned pointer's type. This is useful when the memory's bound type is known but the pointer's type has been erased:

Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer {
  func assumingMemoryBound<T>(to: T.Type) -> Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<T> 
}

For a more detailed discussion, see the Memory model explanation.

Motivation

The following examples show the differences between memory access as it currently would be done using UnsafeMutablePointer vs. the proposed UnsafeMutableRawPointer.

Consider two layout compatible, but unrelated structs, A and B, and helpers that read from these structs via unsafe pointers:

// --- common definitions used by old and new code ---
struct A {
  var value: Int
}

struct B {
  var value: Int
}

func printA(_ pA: UnsafePointer<A>) {
  print(pA[0])
}

func printB(_ pB: UnsafePointer<B>) {
  print(pB[0])
}

Normal allocation, initialization, access, and deinitialization of a struct looks like this with UnsafePointer:

// --- old version ---
func initA(pA: UnsafeMutablePointer<A>) {
  pA.initialize(to: A(value:42))
}

func initB(pB: UnsafeMutablePointer<B>) {
  pB.initialize(to: B(value:13))
}

func normalLifetime() {
  let pA = UnsafeMutablePointer<A>.allocate(capacity: 1)

  initA(pA)

  printA(pA)

  pA.deinitialize(count: 1)

  pA.deallocateCapacity(1)
}

This code continues to work. However, with UnsafeMutableRawPointer, it is possible to distinguish between raw allocated memory, and memory that has been initialized as some type. First, we define new initialization helpers that take raw pointers and return typed pointers:

// --- new version ---
func initRawA(p: UnsafeMutableRawPointer) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<A> {
  return p.initializeMemory(as: A.self, to: A(value:42))
}

func initRawB(p: UnsafeMutableRawPointer) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<B> {
  return p.initializeMemory(as: B.self, to: B(value:13))
}

Now we can allocate raw memory and obtain a typed pointer through initialization:

// --- new version ---
func normalLifetime() {
  let rawPtr = UnsafeMutableRawPointer.allocate(bytes: MemoryLayout<A>.stride,
                                                alignedTo: MemoryLayout<A>.alignment)

  // rawPtr cannot be assigned to a value of `A`, forcing initialization before
  // typed access.
  let pA = initRawA(rawPtr)

  printA(pA)

  let uninitPtr = pA.deinitialize(count: 1)
  uninitPtr.deallocate(bytes: MemoryLayout<A>.stride,
                       alignedTo: MemoryLayout<A>.alignment)
}

Consider another example, now ignoring memory deallocation for brevity. Technically, it is correct to initialize values of type A and B in different memory locations, but confusing and dangerous with the current UnsafeMutablePointer API:

// --- old version ---
// Return a pointer to (A, B).
func initAB() -> UnsafeMutablePointer<A> {

  // Memory is uninitialized, but pA is already typed.
  let pA = UnsafeMutablePointer<A>.allocate(capacity: 2)

  // Part of the memory is initialized to `A`. Redundant conversion of
  // UnsafeMutablePointer values like this is not uncommon, and it is
  // nonobvious at the point of conversion that it does not actually
  // change the pointer type.
  initA(UnsafeMutablePointer(pA))

  // pA is recast as pB with no indication that the pointee type has changed.
  initB(UnsafeMutablePointer(pA + 1))
  return pA
}

Code in the caller is confusing:

// --- old version ---
func testInitAB() {
  let pA = initAB()
  printA(pA)

  // pA is again recast as pB with no indication that the pointee type changes.
  printB(UnsafeMutablePointer(pA + 1))

  // Or recast to pB first, which is also misleading because the pointer still
  // points to an initialized `A` value at the point of the cast.
  printB(UnsafeMutablePointer<B>(pA) + 1)
}

With UnsafeMutableRawPointer there is no need to cast to an invalid pointer type in order to access manually allocated memory:

// --- new version ---
// Return a pointer to an untyped memory region initialized with (A, B).
func initRawAB() -> UnsafeMutableRawPointer {
  let rawPtr = UnsafeMutableRawPointer.allocate(bytes: 2 * MemoryLayout<Int>.stride,
                                                alignedTo: MemoryLayout<Int>.alignment)

  // Initialize the first Int with `A`, producing UnsafeMutablePointer<A>.
  let pA = initRawA(rawPtr)

  // Initialize the second Int with `B`.
  // This implicitly casts UnsafeMutablePointer<A> to UnsafeMutableRawPointer,
  // which is equivalent to initB(rawPtr + MemoryLayout<Int>.stride).
  // Unlike the old API, no unsafe pointer conversion is needed.
  initRawB(pA + 1)

  return rawPtr
}

Now, in the caller, unsafe conversion from raw memory to typed memory is always explicit:

// --- new version ---
// Code in the caller is explicit:
func testInitAB() {
  // Get a raw pointer to (A, B).
  let p = initRawAB()

  // The untyped memory is explicitly converted to a pointer-to-A.
  // Safe because we know the underlying memory is bound to `A` via
  // raw pointer initialization.
  let pA = p.assumingMemoryBound(to: A.self)
  printA(pA)

  // Converting from a pointer-to-A into a pointer-to-B without
  // rebinding the type requires casting to an UnsafeRawPointer.
  printB(UnsafeRawPointer(pA + 1).assumingMemoryBound(to: B.self))

  // Or directly convert the original UnsafeRawPointer into pointer-to-B.
  printB((p + MemoryLayout<Int>.stride).assumingMemoryBound(to: B.self))
}

This is much more explicit and verifiable, but still not statically type safe. However, now that it is possible to bind memory to a type, this example may be rewritten so that strict aliasing rules are statically enforced. Now the caller no longer needs to assume the pointer type that was used to initialize memory in initAB. They only need to agree on the layout of the memory:

// --- new and improved version ---
// Return a pointer to an untyped memory region initialized with (A, B).
func initRawAB() -> UnsafeMutableRawPointer {
  let intPtr = UnsafeMutablePointer<Int>.allocate(capacity: 2)
  intPtr[0] = 42 // knowing A is layout compatible with Int
  intPtr[1] = 13 // knowing B is layout compatible with Int
  return UnsafeMutableRawPointer(intPtr)
}

func testInitAB() {
  // Get a raw pointer to (A, B).
  let p = initRawAB()

  let pA = p.bindMemory(to: A.self, capacity: 1)
  printA(pA)

  // Knowing the `B` has the same alignment as `A`.
  let pB = UnsafeRawPointer(pA + 1).bindMemory(to: B.self, capacity: 1)
  printB(pB)
}

Initializing or assigning values of different types to the same location using a typed pointer is undefined. Here, the compiler can choose to ignore the order of assignment, and initAthenB may print 13 twice or 42 twice.

// --- old version ---
func initAthenB(_ p: UnsafeMutablePointer<Void>) {
  let p = UnsafeMutablePointer<Int>.allocate(capacity: 1)

  initA(UnsafeMutablePointer(p))  // *p = 42
  printA(UnsafeMutablePointer(p))

  initB(UnsafeMutablePointer(p))  // *p = 13
  printB(UnsafeMutablePointer(p))
}

With the proposed API, assigning values of different types to the same location can now be safely done by properly initializing and deinitializing the memory through UnsafeMutableRawPointer. Ultimately, the values may still be accessed via the same convenient UnsafeMutablePointer type. Type punning has not happened, because the UnsafeMutablePointer has the same type as the memory's bound type whenever it is dereferenced.

// --- new version ---
func initAthenB {
  let rawPtr = UnsafeMutableRawPointer.allocate(bytes: MemoryLayout<Int>.stride,
                                                alignedTo: MemoryLayout<Int>.alignment)

  let pA = initRawA(rawPtr) // raw pointer initialization binds memory to `A`
  printA(pA)

  // After deinitializing pA, uninitPtr receives a pointer to
  // untyped raw memory, which may be reused for `B`.
  let uninitPtr = pA.deinitialize(count: 1)

  // rawPtr and uninitPtr have the same value, thus are substitutable.
  assert(rawPtr == uninitPtr)

  // initB rebinds the memory to `B` before writing to memory, so
  // reinitialization cannot be reordered with previous accesses to pA.
  initRawB(uninitPtr)
  printB(pB)
}

No API currently exists that allows initialized memory to hold either A or B.

// --- old version ---
// This conditional initialization looks valid, but is dangerous.
func initAorB(_ p: UnsafeMutablePointer<Void>, isA: Bool) {
  if isA {
    initA(UnsafeMutablePointer(p))
  }
  else {
    initB(UnsafeMutablePointer(p))
  }
}

Code in the caller could produce undefined behavior:

// --- old version ---
func testInitAorB() {
  let p = UnsafeMutablePointer<Int>.allocate(capacity: 1)

  // If the compiler inlines, then the initialization and use of the
  // values of type `A` and `B`, which share memory, could be incorrectly
  // interleaved.
  initAorB(p, isA: true)
  printA(UnsafeMutablePointer(p))

  initAorB(p, isA: false)
  printB(UnsafeMutablePointer(p))
}

UnsafeMutableRawPointer allows initialized memory to hold either A or B. The same UnsafeMutableRawPointer value can be reused across multiple initializations and deinitializations. Unlike the old API, this is safe because the memory initialization on a raw pointer writes to untyped memory and binds the memory type. Binding memory to a type separates access to the distinct types from the compiler's viewpoint.

// --- new version ---
func initRawAorB(_ p: UnsafeMutableRawPointer, isA: Bool) {
  // Unsafe pointer conversion is no longer required to initialize memory.
  if isA {
    initRawA(p)
  }
  else {
    initRawB(p)
  }
}

Code in the caller is well defined because initAorB is now a compiler barrier for unsafe pointer access. Furthermore, each unsafe pointer cast is explicit:

// --- new version ---
func testInitAorB() {
  let p = UnsafeMutableRawPointer.allocate(bytes: MemoryLayout<Int>.stride,
                                           alignedTo: MemoryLayout<Int>.alignment)

  initRawAorB(p, isA: true)
  printA(p.assumingMemoryBound(to: A.self))

  initRawAorB(p, isA: false)
  printB(p.assumingMemoryBound(to: B.self))
}

UnsafeMutableRawPointer provides a legal way to reinterpret memory in-place, which was previously unsupported. The following example is safe because the load of B reads from untyped memory via a raw pointer.

// --- new version ---
func testReinterpret() {
  let p = UnsafeMutableRawPointer.allocate(bytes: MemoryLayout<Int>.stride,
                                           alignedTo: MemoryLayout<Int>.alignment)

  // Initialize raw memory to `A`.
  initRawAorB(p, isA: true)

  // Load from raw memory as `B` (reinterpreting the value in memory).
  print(p.load(as: B.self))
}

This is not "type-punning" because a typed pointer is never accessed. Note that printB(p.assumingMemoryBound(to: B.self)) would be illegal, because the a typed pointer to B cannot be used to access an unrelated type A.


Developers may be forced to work with "loosely typed" APIs, particularly for interoperability:

func readBytes(_ bytes: UnsafePointer<UInt8>) {
  // 3rd party implementation...
}
func readCStr(_ string: UnsafePointer<CChar>) {
  // 3rd party implementation...
}

Working with these third party API's exclusively using UnsafeMutablePointer would lead to undefined behavior, as shown here using the current API:

// --- old version ---
func stringFromBytes(size: Int, value: UInt8) {
  let bytes = UnsafeMutablePointer<UInt8>.allocate(capacity: size + 1)
  bytes.initialize(to: value, count: size)
  bytes[size] = 0

  // Unsafe pointer conversion is requred to invoke readCString.
  // If readCString is inlineable and compiled with strict aliasing,
  // then it could read uninitialized memory.
  readCStr(UnsafePointer(bytes))

  // The signature of readBytes is consistent with the `bytes` argument type.
  readBytes(bytes)
}

Reading from uninitialized memory is now prevented by explicitly rebinding the type.

// --- new version ---
func stringFromBytes(size: Int, value: UInt8) {
  let buffer = UnsafeMutablePointer<UInt8>.allocate(capacity: size + 1)
  buffer.initialize(to: value, count: size)
  buffer[size] = 0

  buffer.withMemoryRebound(to: CChar.self, capacity: size + 1) {
    readCStr($0)
  }
  readBytes(buffer)
}

Rather than temporarily rebinding memory, the user may want to rebind memory to CChar once and keep the same typed pointer around for future use without keeping track of the memory capacity. In that case, the program could continue to write UInt8 values to memory without casting to CChar and without rebinding memory as long as those writes use the UnsafeMutableRawPointer.storeBytes API for raw memory access:

// --- new version ---
func mutateBuffer(size: Int, value: UInt8) {
  let rawBuffer = UnsafeMutableRawPointer.allocate(bytes: size + 1,
                                                   alignedTo: 1)
  rawBuffer.initializeMemory(as: UInt8.self, count: size, to: value)
  rawBuffer.initializeMemory(as: UInt8.self, atIndex: size, to: 0)

  let cstr = rawBuffer.bindMemory(to: CChar.self, capacity: size + 1)
  // Access memory as CChar.
  readCStr(cstr)

  // Write UInt8 values to memory without needing explicitly cast each
  // value to CChar first.
  for i in 0..<size {
    rawBuffer.storeBytes(of: getByte(), toByteOffset: i, as: UInt8.self)
  }

  // Access memory again as CChar.
  readCStr(cstr)
}
func getByte() -> UInt8 {
  // 3rd party implementation...
}

The side effects of illegal type punning may result in storing values in the wrong sequence, reading uninitialized memory, or memory corruption. It could even result in execution following code paths that aren't expected as shown here:

// --- old version ---
func testUndefinedExecution() {
  let pA = UnsafeMutablePointer<A>.allocate(capacity: 1)
  pA[0] = A(value:42)
  if pA[0].value != 42 {
    // Code path should never execute...
    releaseDemons()
  }
  // This compiler may inline this, and hoist the store above the
  // previous check.
  unforeseenCode(pA)
}

func releaseDemons() {
  // Something that should never be executed...
}

func assignB(_ pB: UnsafeMutablePointer<B>) {
  pB[0] = B(value:13)
}

func unforeseenCode(_ pA: UnsafeMutablePointer<A>) {
  // At some arbitrary point in the future, the same memory is
  // innocuously assigned to B.
  assignB(UnsafeMutablePointer(pA))
}

Prohibiting conversion between incompatible UnsafePointer types, providing an API for binding memory to a type, and supporting raw memory access are necessary to avoid the dangers of type punning and encourage safe idioms for working with pointers.

Memory model explanation

Raw vs. Typed Pointers

The fundamental difference between Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer and Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<Pointee> is simply that the former is used for "untyped" memory access, and the later is used for "typed" memory access. Let's refer to these as "raw pointers" and "typed pointers". Because operations on raw pointers access untyped memory, the compiler cannot make assumptions about the underlying type of memory and must be conservative. With operations on typed pointers, the compiler may make strict assumptions about the type of the underlying memory, which allows more aggressive optimization.

Memory initialization

All allocated memory is either "uninitialized" or "initialized". Upon initialization, memory contains a typed value. Initialized memory may be assigned to a new value of the same type. Upon deinitialization, the memory no longer holds a value.

Consider the sequence of abstract memory operations:

Abstract Operation Memory State
rawptr = allocate() uninitialized
tptr = rawptr.initializeMemory(T) initialized
tptr.pointee = T initialized
tptr.deinitialize() uninitialized

Initializing memory via a raw pointer binds the memory type. Initialized memory must always be bound to a type. Deinitialization does not unbind the type. Memory remains bound to a type until it is rebound to a different type.

Abstract Operation Memory State Type
rawptr = allocate() uninitialized None
tptr = rawptr.initializeMemory(T) initialized bound to T
tptr.deinitialize() uninitialized bound to T
uptr = rawptr.initializeMemory(U) initialized bound to U
uptr.deinitialize() uninitialized bound to U
rawptr.deallocate() invalid None

Rebinding memory effectively changes the type of any initialized values within the rebound memory region. Accessing the memory via a typed pointer of unrelated type is undefined:

Abstract Operation Memory State Type
tptr = rawptr.initializeMemory(T) initialized bound to T
tptr.deinitialize() uninitialized bound to T
uptr = rawptr.initializeMemory(U) initialized bound to U
uptr.deinitialize() uninitialized bound to U
tptr.initialize() undefined undefined

By this convention, raw pointers primarily refer to uninitialized memory and typed pointers primarily refer to initialized memory. This is not a requirement, and important use cases follow different conventions. After a raw pointer is initialized, the raw pointer value remains valid and can continue to be used to access the underlying memory in an untyped way. Conversely, a raw pointer can bound to a typed pointer without initializing the underlying memory.

Binding memory type

A raw pointer's memory may be explicitly bound to a type, bypassing raw initialization:

let ptrA = rawPtr.bindMemory(to: A.self, capacity: 1)

The resulting typed pointer may then be used to initialize memory:

ptrA.initialize(to: A())
Abstract Operation Memory State Type
rawptr = allocate() uninitialized None
tptr = rawptr.bindMemory(T) uninitialized bound to T
tptr.initialize() initialized bound to T

The memory remains bound to this type until it is rebound through raw pointer initialization or another call to bindMemory(to:).

Abstract Operation Memory State Type
rawptr = allocate() uninitialized None
tptr = rawptr.bindMemory(T) uninitialized bound to T
tptr.initialize() initialized bound to T
tptr.deinitialize() uninitialized bound to T
uptr = rawptr.bindMemory(U) uninitialized bound to U
uptr.initialize() initialized bound to U

Allocation and binding can be combined as typed allocation:

Abstract Operation Memory State Type
tptr = allocate(T) uninitialized bound to T
tptr.initialize() initialized bound to T

Typed pointer initialization

Initializing memory via a typed pointer requires the memory to be already be bound to that type. This is often more convenient than working with raw pointers, and can improve performance in some cases. In particular, it is an effective technique for implementing data structures that manage storage for contiguous elements. The data structure may allocate a buffer with extra capacity and track the initialized state of each element position as such:

func getAt(index: Int) -> A {
  if !isInitializedAt(index) {
    (ptrA + index).initialize(to: Type())
  }
  return ptrA[index]
}

For example, see the C buffer use case below.

When using a typed pointer to initialize memory, the programmer must ensure that memory has been bound to that type and takes responsibility for tracking the initialized state of memory.

Strict aliasing

Accessing memory via a pointer type that is unrelated to the memory's bound type violates strict aliasing, and is thus undefined. For the purpose of this proposal, we simply specify when strict aliasing applies and that aliasing types must be related. For an explanation of related types and layout compatibility, see proposed Type Safe Memory Access documentation.

Regardless of whether strict aliasing applies, accessing initialized in-memory values always requires the access type to be layout compatible with the value's type. This applies to access via the raw pointer API in addition to typed pointer access. Similarly, rebinding initialized in-memory values to another type requires both the previous and new type to be mutually layout compatible.

Accessing memory via a typed pointer (or normal, safe language construct) has an additional requirement that the pointer type must be related to the memory's bound type. For this reason, typed pointers are only obtained by initializing raw memory or explicitly binding the memory type. In practice, with the proposed API, the only way to violate strict aliasing is to reuse a typed pointer value after the underlying memory has been rebound to an unrelated type:

Abstract Operation Memory State Type
tptr = rawptr.bindMemory(T) uninitialized bound to T
uptr = rawptr.bindMemory(U) uninitialized bound to U
tptr.initialize() undefined T is unrelated to U

Accessing initialized memory with a raw pointer.

A program may read from and write to memory via a raw pointer even after the memory has been initialized:

let rawPtr = UnsafeMutableRawPointer.allocate(bytes: MemoryLayout<SomeType>.stride,
                                              alignedTo: MemoryLayout<SomeType>.alignment)

let ptrToSomeType = rawPtr.initializeMemory(as: SomeType.self, to: SomeType())

// read raw initialized memory
let reinterpretedValue = rawPtr.load(as: AnotherType.self)

// overwrite raw initialized memory
rawPtr.storeBytes(of: AnotherType(), as: AnotherType.self)

SomeType and AnotherType need not to be related types. They must only be layout compatible. In other words, the programmer must ensure compatibility of the size, alignment, and position of references. This requires some knowledge of the ABI.

Loading from raw memory reinterprets the in-memory bytes, and constructs a new local value. If that value contains class references, the class type of those reference must be related to the instance's dynamic type. This is a incontrovertible property of all reference values in the system.

Storing a value into raw memory does not support reference types. Additionally, it requires consideration of the type of value being overwritten because a raw store overwrites memory contents without destroying the previous value. Storing to raw memory is safe if either the memory is uninitialized or initialized to a trivial type. The value being stored must also be trivial so that it can be assigned via a bit-for-bit copy.

Trivial types

A "trivial type" promises that assignment just requires a fixed-size bit-for-bit copy without any indirection or reference-counting operations. Generally, native Swift types that do not contain strong or weak references or other forms of indirection are trivial, as are imported C structs and enums.

Examples of trivial types:

  • Integer and floating-point types
  • Bool
  • Optional<T> where T is trivial
  • Unmanaged<T: AnyObject>
  • struct types where all members are trivial
  • enum types where all payloads are trivial

Expected use cases

This section lists several typical use cases involving UnsafeRawPointer and UnsafePointer.

For explanatory purposes consider the following global definitions:

struct A {
  var value: Int32
}
struct B {
  var value: Int32
}

var ptrToA: UnsafeMutablePointer<A>
var eltCount: Int = 0

Single value

Using a pointer to a single value:

func createValue() {
  ptrToA = UnsafeMutablePointer<A>.allocate(capacity: 1)
  ptrToA.initialize(to: A(value: 42))
}

func deleteValue() {
  ptrToA.deinitialize(count: 1)
  ptrToA.deallocate(capacity: 1)
}

C array

Using a fully initialized set of contiguous homogeneous values:

func createCArray(from source: UnsafePointer<A>, count: Int) {
  ptrToA = UnsafeMutablePointer<A>.allocate(capacity: count)
  ptrToA.initialize(from: source, count: count)
  eltCount = count
}

func deleteCArray() {
  ptrToA.deinitialize(count: eltCount)
  ptrToA.deallocate(capacity: eltCount)
}

C buffer

Managing a buffer with a mix of initialized and uninitialized contiguous elements. Typically, information about which elements are initialized will be separately maintained to ensure that each method's preconditions are met:

func createCBuffer(size: Int) {
  ptrToA = UnsafeMutablePointer<A>.allocate(capacity: size)
  eltCount = size
}

// - precondition: memory at `index` is uninitialized.
func initElement(index: Int, with value: A) {
  (ptrToA + index).initialize(to: value)
}

// - precondition: memory at `index` is initialized.
func getElement(index: Int) -> A {
  return ptrToA[index]
}

// - precondition: memory at `index` is initialized.
func assignElement(index: Int, with value: A) {
  ptrToA[index] = value
}

// - precondition: memory at `index` is initialized.
func deinitElement(index: Int) {
  (ptrToA + index).deinitialize()
}

// - precondition: memory for all elements is uninitialized.
func freeCBuffer() {
  ptrToA.deallocate(capacity: eltCount)
}

Manual layout of typed, aligned memory

// Layout an object with header type `A` followed by `n` elements of type `B`.
func createValueWithTail(count: Int) {
  // Assuming the alignment of `A` satisfies the alignment of `B`.
  let numBytes = MemoryLayout<A>.stride + (count * MemoryLayout<B>.stride)

  let rawPtr = UnsafeMutableRawPointer.allocate(
    bytes: numBytes, alignedTo: MemoryLayout<A>.alignment)

  // Initialize the object header.
  ptrToA = rawPtr.initializeMemory(as: A.self, to: A(value: 42))

  // Append `count` elements of type `B` to the object tail.
  eltCount = count
  UnsafeMutableRawPointer(ptrToA + 1).initializeMemory(
    as: B.self, count: count, to: B(value: 13))
}

func getTailElement(index: Int) -> B {
  return UnsafeRawPointer(ptrToA + 1)
    .assumingMemoryBound(to: B.self)[index]
}

func deleteValueWithTail() {
  UnsafeMutableRawPointer(ptrToA + 1)
    .assumingMemoryBound(to: B.self).deinitialize(count: eltCount)

  let numBytes = MemoryLayout<A>.stride + (eltCount * MemoryLayout<B>.stride)

  ptrToA.deinitialize(count: 1).deallocate(
    bytes: numBytes, alignedTo: MemoryLayout<A>.alignment)
}

Raw buffer of unknown type

Direct bytewise memory access to a buffer of unknown type:

// Format1:
//   flags: UInt16
//   state: UInt16
//   value: Int32

// Format2:
//   value: Int32

func receiveMsg(flags: UInt16, state: UInt16, value: Int32) {
  // ...
}

func readMsg(msgBuf: UnsafeRawPointer, isFormat1: Bool) {
  if isFormat1 {
    receiveMsg(flags: msgBuf.load(as: UInt16.self),
      state: msgBuf.load(fromByteOffset: 2, as: UInt16.self),
      value: msgBuf.load(fromByteOffset: 4, as: Int32.self))
  }
  else {
    receiveMsg(flags: 0, state: 0, value: msgBuf.load(as: Int32.self))
  }
}

Loads and stores on untyped memory

Accessing raw underlying memory bytes, independent of the memory's bound type:

// Direct bytewise element copy.
func copyArrayElement(fromIndex: Int, toIndex: Int) {
  let srcPtr = UnsafeRawPointer(ptrToA + fromIndex)
  let destPtr = UnsafeMutableRawPointer(ptrToA + toIndex)

  destPtr.copyBytes(from: srcPtr, count: MemoryLayout<A>.size))
}

// Bytewise element swap.
// Initializes and deinitializes temporaries of type Int.
// Int is layout compatible with `A`.
func swapArrayElements(index i: Int, index j: Int) {
  let rawPtrI = UnsafeMutableRawPointer(ptrToA + i)
  let rawPtrJ = UnsafeMutableRawPointer(ptrToA + j)
  let tmpi = rawPtrI.load(as: Int.self)
  let tmpj = rawPtrJ.load(as: Int.self)
  rawPtrI.storeBytes(of: tmpj, as: Int.self)
  rawPtrJ.storeBytes(of: tmpi, as: Int.self)
}

Custom memory allocation

var freePtr: UnsafeMutableRawPointer? = nil

func allocate32() -> UnsafeMutableRawPointer {
  if let newPtr = freePtr {
    freePtr = nil
    return newPtr
  }
  return UnsafeMutableRawPointer.allocate(bytes: 4, alignedTo: 4)
}

func deallocate32(_ rawPtr: UnsafeMutableRawPointer) {
  if freePtr != nil {
    rawPtr.deallocate(bytes: 4, alignedTo: 4)
  }
  else {
    freePtr = rawPtr
  }
}

func createA(value: Int32) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<A> {
  return allocate32().initializeMemory(as: A.self, to: A(value: value))
}

func createB(value: Int32) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<B> {
  return allocate32().initialize(as: B.self, to: B(value: value))
}

func deleteA(ptrToA: UnsafeMutablePointer<A>) {
  deallocate32(ptrToA.deinitialize(count: 1))
}

func deleteB(ptrToB: UnsafeMutablePointer<B>) {
  deallocate32(ptrToB.deinitialize(count: 1))
}

Detailed design

Pointer conversion details

UnsafePointer<T> to UnsafeRawPointer conversion will be provided via an unlabeled initializer.

extension UnsafeRawPointer: _Pointer {
  init<T>(_: UnsafePointer<T>)
  init<T>(_: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>)
}
extension UnsafeMutableRawPointer: _Pointer {
  init<T>(_: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>)
}

Conversion from UnsafeRawPointer to a typed UnsafePointer<T> requires invoking UnsafeRawPointer.bindMemory(to:capacity:) or UnsafeRawPointer.assumingMemoryBound(to:), explicitly spelling the destination type:

let p = UnsafeRawPointer(...)
let pT = p.bindMemory(to: T.self, capacity: n)
...
let pT2 = p.assumingMemoryBound(to: T.self)

Just as with unsafeBitCast, although the destination of the cast can usually be inferred, we want the developer to explicitly state the intended destination type, both because type inference can be surprising, and because it's important for code comprehension.

Some existing conversions between UnsafePointer types do not convert Pointee types but instead coerce an UnsafePointer to an UnsafeMutablePointer. This is no longer an inferred conversion, but must be explicitly requested:

extension UnsafeMutablePointer {
  init(mutating from: UnsafePointer<Pointee>)
}

Implicit argument conversion

Consider two C functions that take const pointers:

void takesConstTPtr(const T*);
void takesConstVoidPtr(const void*);

Which will be imported with immutable pointer argument types:

func takesConstTPtr(_: UnsafePointer<T>)
func takesConstVoidPtr(_: UnsafeRawPointer)

Mutable pointers can be passed implicitly as immutable pointers.

let unsafeMutablePtr: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>
let mutableRawPtr: UnsafeMutableRawPointer
takesConstTPtr(unsafeMutablePtr)
takesConstVoidPtr(mutableRawPtr)

Any mutable or immutable typed pointer can be passed implicitly as an immutable void pointer:

let unsafePtr: UnsafePointer<T>
let unsafeMutablePtr: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>
takesConstVoidPtr(unsafePtr)
takesConstVoidPtr(unsafeMutablePtr)

Implicit inout conversion will continue to work:

var anyT: T
takesConstTPtr(&anyT)
takesConstVoidPtr(&anyT)

Array/String conversion will continue to work:

let a = [T()]
takesConstTPtr(a)
takesConstVoidPtr(a)

let s = "string"
takesConstVoidPtr(s)

Consider two C functions that take non-const pointers:

void takesTPtr(T*);
void takesVoidPtr(void*);

Which will be imported with mutable pointer argument types:

func takesTPtr(_: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>)
func takesVoidPtr(_: UnsafeMutableRawPointer)

Any mutable pointer type can be passed implicitly as a mutable void pointer:

let unsafeMutablePtr: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>
takesVoidPtr(unsafeMutablePtr)

Implicit inout conversion will continue to work:

var anyT = T(...)
takesTPtr(&anyT)
takesVoidPtr(&anyT)

Array/String conversion to mutable pointer is still not allowed.

Bulk copies

The following API entry points support copying or moving values between unsafe pointers.

Given values of these types:

let unsafePtr: UnsafePointer<T>
let unsafeMutablePtr: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>
let rawPtr: UnsafeRawPointer
let mutableRawPtr: UnsafeMutableRawPointer
let c: Int

UnsafeRawPointer to UnsafeMutableRawPointer raw copy (memcpy):

mutableRawPtr.copyBytes(from: rawPtr, count: c)

UnsafePointer<T> to UnsafeMutableRawPointer:

A raw copy from typed to raw memory can also be done by calling copyBytes, exactly as shown above. Implicit argument conversion from UnsafePointer<T> to UnsafeRawPointer makes this seamless.

Additionally, raw memory can be bulk initialized from typed memory:

mraw.initializeMemory(as: T.self, from: unsafePtr, count: c)

UnsafeMutablePointer<T> to UnsafeMutableRawPointer:

Because UnsafeMutablePointer<T> arguments are implicitly converted to UnsafePointer<T>, the initializeMemory call above works seamlessly.

Additionally, a mutable typed pointer can be moved-from:

mraw.moveInitializeMemory(as: T.self, from: unsafeMutablePtr, count: c)

UnsafeRawPointer to UnsafeMutablePointer<T>:

No bulk conversion is currently supported from raw to typed memory.

UnsafePointer<T> to UnsafeMutablePointer<T>:

Copying between typed memory is still supported via bulk assignment (the naming style is updated for consistency):

ump.assign(from: up, count: c)
ump.moveAssign(from: up, count: c)

CString conversion

One of the more common unsafe pointer conversions arises from viewing a C string as either an array of bytes (UInt8) or C characters (CChar). In Swift, this manifests as arguments of type UnsafePointer<UInt8> and UnsafePointer<CChar>. The String API even encourages interoperability between C APIs and a String's UTF8 encoding. For example:

var utf8 = template.nulTerminatedUTF8
let (fd, fileName) = utf8.withUnsafeMutableBufferPointer {
  (utf8) -> (CInt, String) in
  let cStrBuf = UnsafeRawPointer(utf8.baseAddress!)
    .assumingMemoryBound(to: UnsafePointer<CChar>)
  let fd = mkstemps(cStrBuf, suffixlen)
  let fileName = String(cString: cStrBuf)
  ...
}

This particular case is theoretically invalid because nulTerminatedUTF8 writes a buffer of UInt8 and mkstemps overwrites the same memory as a buffer of CChar. More commonly, the pointer conversion is valid because the buffer is only initialized once. Nonetheless, the explicit casting is extremely awkward for such a common use case. To avoid excessive UnsafePointer conversion and ease migration to the UnsafeRawPointer model, helpers will be added to the String API.

In CString.swift:

extension String {
  init(cString: UnsafePointer<UInt8>)
}

And in StringUTF8.swift:

extension String {
  var nulTerminatedUTF8CString: ContiguousArray<CChar>
}

With these two helpers, conversion between UnsafePointer<CChar> and UnsafePointer<UInt8> is safe without sacrificing efficiency. The String initializer already copies the byte array into the String's internal representation, so can trivially convert the element type. The nulTerminatedUTF8CString function also copies the string's internal representation into an array of UInt8. With this helper, no unsafe casting is necessary in the previous example:

var utf8Cstr = template.nulTerminatedUTF8CString
let (fd, fileName) = utf8.withUnsafeMutableBufferPointer {
  (utf8CStrBuf) -> (CInt, String) in
  let fd = mkstemps(utf8CStrBuf, suffixlen)
  let fileName = String(cString: utf8CStrBuf)
  ...
}

Full UnsafeRawPointer API

Most of the API was already presented above. For the sake of having it in one place, a list of the expected UnsafeMutableRawPointer members is shown below.

For full doc comments, see the github revision.

struct UnsafeMutableRawPointer : Strideable, Hashable, _Pointer {
  var _rawValue: Builtin.RawPointer
  var hashValue: Int

  init(_ _rawValue : Builtin.RawPointer)
  init(_ other : OpaquePointer)
  init(_ other : OpaquePointer?)
  init?(bitPattern: Int)
  init?(bitPattern: UInt)
  init<T>(_: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>)
  init?<T>(_: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>?)

  static func allocate(bytes: Int, alignedTo: Int)
  -> UnsafeMutableRawPointer

  func deallocate(bytes: Int, alignedTo: Int)

  func bindMemory<T>(to: T.Type, capacity: Int) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<T>

  func assumingMemoryBound<T>(to: T.Type) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<T>

  func initializeMemory<T>(as: T.Type, at: Int = 0, count: Int = 1, to: T)
  -> UnsafeMutablePointer<T>

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

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

  func moveInitializeMemory<T>(
    as: T.Type, from: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>, count: Int
  ) -> UnsafeMutablePointer<T> {

  func load<T>(fromByteOffset: Int = 0, as: T.Type) -> T

  func storeBytes<T>(of: T, toByteOffset: Int = 0, as: T.Type)

  func copyBytes(from: UnsafeRawPointer, count: Int)

  func distance(to: UnsafeRawPointer) -> Int
  func advanced(by: Int) -> UnsafeRawPointer
}

The immutable UnsafeRawPointer members are:

struct UnsafeRawPointer : Strideable, Hashable, _Pointer {
  var _rawValue: Builtin.RawPointer
  var hashValue: Int

  init(_ _rawValue : Builtin.RawPointer)
  init(_ other : OpaquePointer)
  init(_ other : OpaquePointer?)
  init?(bitPattern: Int)
  init?(bitPattern: UInt)
  init<T>(_: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>)
  init?<T>(_: UnsafeMutablePointer<T>?)

  func deallocate(bytes: Int, alignedTo: Int)

  func bindMemory<T>(to: T.Type, capacity: Int) -> UnsafePointer<T>
  func assumingMemoryBound<T>(to: T.Type) -> UnsafePointer<T>

  func load<T>(fromByteOffset: Int = 0, as: T.Type) -> T

  func distance(to: UnsafeRawPointer) -> Int
  func advanced(by: Int) -> UnsafeRawPointer
}

The added UnsafeMutablePointer members are:

UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee> {
  init(mutating from: UnsafePointer<Pointee>)

  func withMemoryRebound<T>(to: T.Type, capacity count: Int,
    _ body: @noescape (UnsafeMutablePointer<T>) throws -> ()) rethrows

}

The added UnsafePointer members are:

UnsafePointer<Pointee> {
  // Inferred initialization from mutable to immutable.
  init(_ from: UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee>)
}

The following unsafe pointer conversions on Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer members are removed:

UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee> {
  init<U>(_ from : UnsafeMutablePointer<U>)
  init?<U>(_ from : UnsafeMutablePointer<U>?)
  init<U>(_ from : UnsafePointer<U>)
  init?<U>(_ from : UnsafePointer<U>?)
}
UnsafePointer<Pointee> {
  init<U>(_ from : UnsafePointer<U>)
  init?<U>(_ from : UnsafePointer<U>?)
}

UnsafeMutablePointer.deinitialize now returns a raw pointer:

UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee> {
  func deinitialize(count: Int = 1) -> UnsafeMutableRawPointer
}

The following UnsafeMutablePointer members are renamed:

extension UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee> {
  static func allocate(capacity: Int)
  func deallocate(capacity: Int)

  func initialize(to: Pointee, count: Int = 1)

  func assign(from source: UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count: Int)
  func moveInitialize(from source: ${Self}, count: Int)
  func initialize(from source: UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count: Int)
  func initialize<C : Collection>(from source: C)
  func moveAssign(from source: ${Self}, count: Int)
}

The following UnsafeMutablePointer members are removed:

extension UnsafeMutablePointer<Pointee> {
  func assignBackwardFrom(_ source: UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count: Int)
  func moveInitializeBackwardFrom(_ source: ${Self}, count: Int)
}

Impact on existing code

The largest impact of this change is that void* and const void* are imported as UnsafeMutableRawPointer and UnsafeRawPointer. This impacts many public APIs, but with implicit argument conversion should not affect typical uses of those APIs.

Any Swift projects that rely on type inference to convert between UnsafePointer types will need to take action. The developer needs to determine whether type punning is necessary. If so, they must migrate to the UnsafeRawPointer API. Otherwise, they can work around the new restriction by using bindMemory(to:capacity:), assumingMemoryBound<T>(to), or adding a mutating label to their initializer.

The unsafeptr_convert branch contains an implementation of a previous design, which will soon be ported to the rawptr branch.

Swift code migration

All occurrences of the type Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<Void> will be automatically replaced with Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer.

Initialization of the form Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer(p) will automatically be replaced by Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer(p) whenever the type checker determines that is the expression's expected type.

Conversion between incompatible Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer values will produce a diagnostic explaining asking the user to migrate to one of these forms:

  • Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer($0).withMemoryRebound(to:capacity:)
  • Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer($0).bindMemory(to:capacity:)
  • Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer($0).assumingMemoryBound(to: T.self)

The following UnsafeMutablePointer methods:

  • initializeFrom(_: UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count: Int)
  • initializeBackwardFrom(_: UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count: Int)
  • assignFrom(_ source: Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<Pointee>, count: Int)
  • moveAssignFrom(_ source: Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<Pointee>, count: Int)

will be automatically converted to:

  • initialize(from: UnsafePointer<Pointee>, count: Int)
  • assign(from source: Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<Pointee>, count: Int)

Standard library changes

Disallowing inferred UnsafePointer conversion requires some standard library code to use an explicit .bindMemory(to:capacity:) whenever the conversion may previously violate strict aliasing.

All occurrences of Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<Void> in the standard library are converted to Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer. e.g. unsafeAddress() now returns UnsafeRawPointer, not UnsafePointer<Void>.

Some occurrences of Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<Pointee> in the standard library are replaced with UnsafeRawPointer, either because the code was playing too loosely with strict aliasing rules, or because the code actually wanted to perform pointer arithmetic on byte-addresses.

StringCore.baseAddress changes from OpaquePointer to UnsafeMutableRawPointer because it is computing byte offsets and accessing the memory. OpaquePointer is meant for bridging, but should be truly opaque; that is, non-dereferenceable and not involved in address computation.

The StringCore implementation does a considerable amount of casting between different views of the String storage. For interoperability and optimization, String buffers frequently need to be cast to and from CChar. This will be made safe by using bindMemory(to:capacity:).

CoreAudio utilities now use Unsafe[Mutable]RawPointer.

Implementation status

An unsafeptr_convert branch has the first prototype, named UnsafeBytePointer, and includes standard library and type system changes listed below. A rawptr branch has the latest proposed implementation of UnsafeRawPointer. I am currently updating the rawptr branch to include the following changes.

There are a several things going on here in order to make it possible to build the standard library with the changes:

  • A new UnsafeRawPointer type is defined.

  • The type system imports void* as UnsafeRawPointer.

  • The type system handles implicit conversions to UnsafeRawPointer.

  • UnsafeRawPointer replaces both UnsafePointer<Void> and UnsafeMutablePointer<Void> (Recent feedback suggestes that UnsafeMutablePointer should also be introduced).

  • The standard library was relying on inferred UnsafePointer conversion in over 100 places. Most of these conversions now either take an explicit label, such as mutating or have been rewritten.

  • Several places in the standard library that were playing loosely with strict aliasing or doing bytewise pointer arithmetic now use UnsafeRawPointer instead.

  • Explicit labeled Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer initializers are added.

  • The inferred Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer conversion is removed.

Remaining work:

  • A SIL-level builtin needs to be implemented for binding a region of memory.

  • A name mangled abbreviation needs to be created for UnsafeRawPointer.

  • We may want a convenience utility for binding null-terminated string without providing a capacity.

  • The StringAPI tests should probably be rewritten with UnsafeRawPointer.

  • The NSStringAPI utilities and tests may need to be ported to UnsafeRawPointer

  • The CoreAudio utilities and tests may need to be ported to UnsafeRawPointer.

Future improvements and planned additive API

UnsafeRawPointer should eventually support unaligned memory access. I believe that we will eventually have a modifier that allows "packed" struct members. At that time we may also want to add an "unaligned" flag to UnsafeRawPointer's load and initialize methods.

Alternatives previously considered

unsafeBitCast workaround

In some cases, developers can safely reinterpret values to achieve the same effect as type punning:

let ptrI32 = UnsafeMutablePointer<Int32>.allocate(capacity: 1)
ptrI32[0] = Int32()
let u = unsafeBitCast(ptrI32[0], to: UInt32.self)

Note that all access to the underlying memory is performed with the same element type. This is perfectly legitimate, but simply isn't a complete solution. It also does not eliminate the inherent danger in declaring a typed pointer and expecting it to point to values of a different type.

typePunnedMemory property

We considered adding a typePunnedMemory property to the existing Unsafe[Mutabale]Pointer API. This would provide a legal way to access a potentially type punned Unsafe[Mutabale]Pointer. However, it would certainly cause confusion without doing much to reduce likelihood of programmer error. Furthermore, there are no good use cases for such a property evident in the standard library.

Special UnsafeMutablePointer type

The opaque _RawByte struct is a technique that allows for byte-addressable buffers while hiding the dangerous side effects of type punning (a _RawByte could be loaded but it's value cannot be directly inspected). UnsafePointer<_RawByte> is a clever alternative to UnsafeRawPointer. However, it doesn't do enough to prevent undefined behavior. The loaded _RawByte would naturally be accessed via unsafeBitCast, which would mislead the author into thinking that they have legally bypassed the type system. In actuality, this API blatantly violates strict aliasing. It theoretically results in undefined behavior as it stands, and may actually exhibit undefined behavior if the user recovers the loaded value.

To solve the safety problem with UnsafePointer<_RawByte>, the compiler could associate special semantics with a UnsafePointer bound to this concrete generic parameter type. Statically enforcing casting rules would be difficult if not impossible without new language features. It would also be impossible to distinguish between typed and untyped pointer APIs. For example, UnsafePointer<T>.load<U> would be a nonsensical vestige.

UnsafeBytePointer

This first version of this proposal introduced an UnsafeBytePointer. UnsafeRawPointer better conveys the type's role with respect to uninitialized memory. The best way to introduce UnsafeRawPointer to users is by showing how it represents uninitialized memory. It is the result of allocation, input to initialization, and result of deinitialization. This helps users understand the relationship between initializing memory and imbuing it with a type.

Furthermore, we do not intend to allow direct access to the "bytes" via subscript which would be implied by UnsafeBytePointer.

Alternate proposal for void* type

Changing the imported type for void* will be somewhat disruptive. We could continue to import void* as UnsafeMutablePointer<Void> and const void* as UnsafePointer<Void>, which will continue to serve as an "opaque" untyped pointer. Converting to UnsafeRawPointer would be necessary to perform pointer arithmetic or to conservatively handle possible type punning.

This alternative is much less disruptive, but we are left with two forms of untyped pointer, one of which (UnsafePointer) the type system somewhat conflates with typed pointers.

There seems to be general agreement that UnsafeMutablePointer<Void> is fundamentally the wrong way to represent untyped memory.

From a practical perspective, given the current restrictions of the language, it's not clear how to statically enforce the necessary rules for casting UnsafePointer<Void> once general UnsafePointer<T> conversions are disallowed. The following conversions should be inferred, and implied for function arguments (ignoring mutability):

  • UnsafePointer<T> to UnsafePointer<Void>

  • UnsafePointer<Void> to UnsafeRawPointer

I did not implement this simpler design because my primary goal was to enforce legal pointer conversion and rid Swift code of undefined behavior. I can't do that while allowing UnsafePointer<Void> conversions.

The general consensus now is that as long as we are making source breaking changes to UnsafePointer, we should try to shoot for an overall better design that helps programmers understand the concepts.