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Eliminate IndexDistance from Collection


Eliminate the associated type IndexDistance from Collection, and modify all uses to the concrete type Int instead.


Collection allows for the distance between two indices to be any SignedInteger type via the IndexDistance associated type. While in practice the distance between indices is almost always an Int, generic algorithms on Collection need to either constrain IndexDistance == Int or write their algorithm to be generic over any SignedInteger.

Swift 4.0 introduced the ability to constrain associated types with where clauses (SE-142) and will soon allow protocol constraints to be recursive (SE-157). With these features, writing generic algorithms against Collection is finally a realistic tool for intermediate Swift programmers. You no longer need to know to constrain SubSequence.Element == Element or SubSequence: Collection, missing constraints that previously led to inexplicable error messages.

At this point, the presence of IndexDistance is of of the biggest hurdles that new users trying to write generic algorithms face. If you want to write code that will compile against any distance type, you need to constantly juggle with explicit type annotations (i.e. you need to write let i: IndexDistance = 0 instead of just let i = 0), and perform numericCast to convert from one distance type to another.

But these numericCasts are hard to use correctly. Given two collections with different index distances, it's very hard to reason about whether your numericCast is casting from the smaller to larger type correctly. This turns any problem of writing a generic collection algorithm into both a collection and numeric problem. And chances are you are going to need to interoperate with a method that takes or provides a concrete Int anyway (like Array.reserveCapacity inside Much of the generic code in the standard library would trap if ever presented with a collection with a distance greater than Int.max. Additionally, this generalization makes specialization less likely and increases compile-time work.

For these reasons, it's common to see algorithms constrained to IndexDistance == Int. In fact, the inconvenience of having to deal with generic index distances probably encourages more algorithms to be constrained to Index == Int, such as this code in the Swift Package Manager. Converting this function to work with any index type would be straightforward. Converting it to work with any index distance as well would be much trickier.

The general advice from The Swift Programming Language when writing Swift code is to encourage users to stick to using Int unless they have a special reason not to:

Unless you need to work with a specific size of integer, always use Int for integer values in your code. [...] Int is preferred, even when the values to be stored are known to be nonnegative. A consistent use of Int for integer values aids code interoperability, avoids the need to convert between different number types, and matches integer type inference[.]

There are two main use cases for keeping IndexDistance as an associated type rather than concretizing it to be Int: tiny collections that might benefit from tiny distances, and huge collections that need to address greater than Int.max elements. For example, it may seem wasteful to force a type that presents the bits in a UInt as a collection to need to use a whole Int for its distance type. Or you may want to create a gigantic collection, such as one backed by a memory mapped file, with a size great than Int.max. The most likely scenario for this is on 32-bit processors where a collection would be constrained to 2 billion elements.

These use cases are very niche, and do not seem to justify the considerable impedance to generic programming that IndexDistance causes. Therefore, this proposal recommends removing the associated type and replacing all references to it with Int.

Proposed solution

Scrap the IndexDistance associated type. Switch all references to it in the standard library to the concrete Int type:

protocol Collection {
	var count: Int { get }
	func index(_ i: Index, offsetBy n: Int) -> Index
	func index(_ i: Index, offsetBy n: Int, limitedBy limit: Index) -> Index?
	func distance(from start: Index, to end: Index) -> Int
// and in numerous extensions in the standard library

The one instance where a concrete type uses an IndexDistance other than Int in the standard library is AnyCollection, which uses Int64. This would be changed to Int.

Source compatibility

This can be split into 2 parts:

Algorithms that currently constrain IndexDistance to Int in their where clause, and algorithms that use IndexDistance within the body of a method, can be catered for by a deprecated typealias for IndexDistance inside an extension on Collection. This is the common case.

Collections that truly take advantage of the ability to define non-Int distances would be source-broken, with no practical way of making this compatible in a 4.0 mode. It's worth noting that there are no such types in the Swift source compatibility suite.

Effect on ABI stability

This removes an associated type and changes function signatures, so must be done before declaring ABI stability

Alternatives considered

None other than status quo.