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Add an Array Initializer with Access to Uninitialized Storage


This proposal suggests a new initializer for Array and ContiguousArray that provides access to an array's uninitialized storage buffer.

Swift-evolution thread:


Some collection operations require working on a fixed-size buffer of uninitialized memory. For example, one O(n) algorithm for performing a stable partition of an array is as follows:

  1. Create a new array the same size as the original array.
  2. Iterate over the original array, copying matching elements to the beginning of the new array and non-matching elements to the end.
  3. When finished iterating, reverse the slice of non-matching elements.

Unfortunately, the standard library provides no way to create an array of a particular size without initializing every element. Even if we avoid initialization by manually allocating the memory using an UnsafeMutableBufferPointer, there's no way to convert that buffer into an array without copying the contents. There simply isn't a way to implement this particular algorithm with maximum efficiency in Swift.

We also see this limitation when working with C APIs that fill a buffer with an unknown number of elements and return the count. The workarounds are the same as above: either initialize an array before passing it or copy the elements from an unsafe mutable buffer into an array after calling.

Proposed solution

Add a new Array initializer that lets a program work with an uninitialized buffer.

The new initializer takes a closure that operates on an UnsafeMutableBufferPointer and an inout count of initialized elements. This closure has access to the uninitialized contents of the newly created array's storage, and must set the intialized count of the array before exiting.

var myArray = Array<Int>(unsafeUninitializedCapacity: 10) { buffer, initializedCount in
    for x in 1..<5 {
        buffer[x] = x
    buffer[0] = 10
    initializedCount = 5
// myArray == [10, 1, 2, 3, 4]

With this new initializer, it's possible to implement the stable partition as an extension to the Collection protocol, without any unnecessary copies:

func stablyPartitioned(by belongsInFirstPartition: (Element) throws -> Bool) rethrows -> [Element] {
    return try Array<Element>(unsafeUninitializedCapacity: count) { 
        buffer, initializedCount in
        var low = buffer.baseAddress!
        var high = low + buffer.count
        do {
            for element in self {
                if try belongsInFirstPartition(element) {
                    low.initialize(to: element)
                    low += 1
                } else {
                    high -= 1
                    high.initialize(to: element)
            let highIndex = high - buffer.baseAddress!
            initializedCount = buffer.count
        } catch {
            let lowCount = low - buffer.baseAddress!
            let highCount = (buffer.baseAddress! + buffer.count) - high
            buffer.baseAddress!.deinitialize(count: lowCount)
            high.deinitialize(count: highCount)
            throw error

This also facilitates efficient interfacing with C functions. For example, suppose you wanted to wrap the function vDSP_vsadd in a Swift function that returns the result as an array. This function requires you give it an unsafe buffer into which it writes results. This is easy to do with an array, but you would have to initialize the array with zeroes first. With a function like vDSP_vsadd, this unnecessary zeroing out would eat into the slight speed edge that the function gives you, defeating the point. This can be neatly solved by using the proposed initializer:

extension Array where Element == Float {
    func dspAdd(scalar: Float) -> [Float] {
        let n = self.count
        return self.withUnsafeBufferPointer { buf in
            var scalar = scalar
            return Array<Float>(unsafeUninitializedCapacity: n) { rbuf, count in
                vDSP_vsadd(buf.baseAddress!, 1, &scalar, rbuf.baseAddress!, 1, UInt(n))
                count = n

Detailed design

The new initializer is added to both Array and ContiguousArray.

/// Creates an array with the specified capacity, then calls the given closure
/// with a buffer covering the array's uninitialized memory.
/// The closure must set its second parameter to a number `c`, the number 
/// of elements that are initialized. The memory in the range `buffer[0..<c]`  
/// must be initialized at the end of the closure's execution, and the memory 
/// in the range `buffer[c...]` must be uninitialized. This postcondition
/// must hold even if the `initializer` closure throws an error.
/// - Note: While the resulting array may have a capacity larger than the
///   requested amount, the buffer passed to the closure will cover exactly
///   the requested number of elements.
/// - Parameters:
///   - unsafeUninitializedCapacity: The number of elements to allocate space
///     for in the new array.
///   - initializer: A closure that initializes elements and sets the count of
///     the new array.
///     - Parameters:
///       - buffer: A buffer covering uninitialized memory with room
///         for the specified number of elements.
///       - initializedCount: The count of the array's initialized elements.
///         After initializing any elements inside `initializer`, update 
///         `initializedCount` with the new count for the array.
public init(
    unsafeUninitializedCapacity: Int,
    initializingWith initializer: (
        _ buffer: inout UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>,
        _ initializedCount: inout Int
    ) throws -> Void
) rethrows

Specifying a capacity

The initializer takes the specific capacity that a user wants to work with as a parameter. The buffer passed to the closure has a count that is exactly the same as the specified capacity, even if the ultimate capacity of the new array is larger.

Guarantees after throwing

If the closure parameter to the initializer throws, the initializedCount value at the time an error is thrown is assumed to be correct. This means that a user who needs to throw from inside the closure has one of two options. Before throwing, they must:

  1. deinitialize any newly initialized instances, or
  2. update initializedCount to the correct count.

In either case, the postconditions that buffer[0..<initializedCount] are initialized and buffer[initializedCount...] are deinitialized still hold.

Naming considerations

The argument labels on the initializer are definitely a little on the long side!

There are two important details of this API that led to the proposed spelling. First, the initializer is unsafe, in that the user must be sure to properly manage the memory addressed by the closure's buffer pointer parameter. Second, the initializer provides access to the array's uninitialized storage, unlike the other Array.withUnsafe... methods that already exist. Because trailing closures are commonly used, it's important to include those terms in the initial argument label, such that they're always visible at the use site.

Unused terminology

This proposal leaves out wording that would reference two other relevant concepts:

  • reserving capacity: Arrays currently have a reserveCapacity(_:) method, which is somewhat akin to the first step of the initializer. However, that method is used for the sake of optimizing performance when adding to an array, rather than providing direct access to the array's capacity. In fact, as part of the RangeReplaceableCollection protocol, that method doesn't even require any action to be taken by the targeted type. For those reasons, the idea of "reserving" capacity doesn't seem as appropriate as providing a specific capacity that will be used.

  • unmanaged: The proposed initializer is unusual in that it converts the lifetime management of manually initialized instances to be automatically managed, as elements of an Array instance. The only other type that performs this kind of conversion is Unmanaged, which is primarily used at the border of Swift and C interoperability, particularly with Core Foundation. Additionally, Unmanaged can be used to maintain and manage the lifetime of an instance over a long period of time, while this initializer performs the conversion as soon as the closure executes. As above, this term doesn't seem appropriate for use with this new API.

Source compatibility

This is an additive change to the standard library, so there is no effect on source compatibility.

Effect on ABI stability

These initializers will need to be gated by OS versions on platforms that ship the standard library in the OS.

Effect on API resilience

The additional APIs will be a permanent part of the standard library, and will need to remain public API.

Alternatives considered

Returning the new count from the initializer closure

An earlier proposal included a method that allowed for access to the uninitialized spare capacity of an array that also contained initialized elements. Handling cases where the passed-in closure throws when there are existing initialized elements is more complicated than in the initializer case, and the proposal was returned for revision. Given the utilility and need of the initializer part of the proposal is far greater, these two proposals are being split out to unblock progress on that.

An earlier proposal had the initializer's closure return the new count, instead of using an inout parameter. This proposal uses the parameter instead, so that the method and initializer use the same closure type.

In addition, the throwing behavior described above requires that the initialized count be set as an inout parameter instead of as a return value. Not every Element type can be trivially initialized, so a user that deinitializes some elements and then needs to throw an error would be stuck. (This is only an issue with the mutating method.) Removing the throws capability from the closure would solve this problem and simplify the new APIs' semantics, but would be inconsistent with the other APIs in this space and would make them more difficult to use as building blocks for higher-level operations like stablyPartitioned(by:).

Creating an array from a buffer

An Array initializer that simply converts an UnsafeMutableBufferPointer into an array's backing storage seems like it would be another solution. However, an array's storage includes information about the count and capacity at the beginning of its buffer, so an UnsafeMutableBufferPointer created from scratch isn't usable.


You can Try This At Home™ with this extension, which provides the semantics (but not the copy-avoiding performance benefits) of the proposed additions:

extension Array {
    public init(
        unsafeUninitializedCapacity: Int,
        initializingWith initializer: (
            _ buffer: inout UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>,
            _ initializedCount: inout Int
        ) throws -> Void
    ) rethrows {
        var buffer = UnsafeMutableBufferPointer<Element>
            .allocate(capacity: unsafeUninitializedCapacity)
        defer { buffer.deallocate() }
        var count = 0
        do {
            try initializer(&buffer, &count)
        } catch {
            buffer.baseAddress!.deinitialize(count: count)
            throw error
        self = Array(buffer[0..<count])
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