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da34bb7 Jun 4, 2018
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Pattern-based fixed statement

Summary

Introduce a pattern that would allow types to participate in fixed statements.

Motivation

The language provides a mechanism for pinning managed data and obtain a native pointer to the underlying buffer.

fixed(byte* ptr = byteArray)
{
   // ptr is a native pointer to the first element of the array
   // byteArray is protected from being moved/collected by the GC for the duration of this block 
}

The set of types that can participate in fixed is hardcoded and limited to arrays and System.String. Hardcoding "special" types does not scale when new primitives such as ImmutableArray<T>, Span<T>, Utf8String are introduced.

In addition, the current solution for System.String relies on a fairly rigid API. The shape of the API implies that System.String is a contiguous object that embeds UTF16 encoded data at a fixed offset from the object header. Such approach has been found problematic in several proposals that could require changes to the underlying layout. It would be desirable to be able to switch to something more flexible that decouples System.String object from its internal representation for the purpose of unmanaged interop.

Detailed design

Pattern

A viable pattern-based “fixed” need to:

  • Provide the managed references to pin the instance and to initialize the pointer (preferably this is the same reference)
  • Convey unambiguously the type of the unmanaged element (i.e. “char” for “string”)
  • Prescribe the behavior in "empty" case when there is nothing to refer to.
  • Should not push API authors toward design decisions that hurt the use of the type outside of fixed.

I think the above could be satisfied by recognizing a specially named ref-returning member: ref [readonly] T GetPinnableReference().

In order to be used by the fixed statement the following conditions must be met:

  1. There is only one such member provided for a type.
  2. Returns by ref or ref readonly. (readonly is permitted so that authors of immutable/readonly types could implement the pattern without adding writeable API that could be used in safe code)
  3. T is an unmanaged type. (since T* becomes the pointer type. The restriction will naturally expand if/when the notion of "unmanaged" is expanded)
  4. Returns managed nullptr when there is no data to pin – probably the cheapest way to convey emptiness. (note that “” string returns a ref to '\0' since strings are null-terminated)

Alternatively for the #3 we can allow the result in empty cases be undefined or implementation-specific. That, however, may make the API more dangerous and prone to abuse and unintended compatibility burdens.

Translation

    fixed(byte* ptr = thing)
    { 
		// <BODY>
    }

becomes the following pseudocode (not all expressible in C#)

    byte* ptr;
    // specially decorated "pinned" IL local slot, not visible to user code.
    pinned ref byte _pinned;

    try
    {
        // NOTE: null check is omitted for value types 
        // NOTE: `thing` is evaluated only once (temporary is introduced if necessary) 
        if (thing != null)
        {
            // obtain and "pin" the reference
            _pinned = ref thing.GetPinnableReference();

            // unsafe cast in IL
            ptr = (byte*)_pinned;
        }
        else
        {
            ptr = default(byte*);
        }

        // <BODY> 
    }
    finally   // finally can be omitted when not observable
    {
        // "unpin" the object
        _pinned = nullptr;
    }

Drawbacks

  • GetPinnableReference is intended to be used only in fixed, but nothing prevents its use in safe code, so implementor must keep that in mind.

Alternatives

Users can introduce GetPinnableReference or similar member and use it as

    fixed(byte* ptr = thing.GetPinnableReference())
    { 
		// <BODY>
    }

There is no solution for System.String if alternative solution is desired.

Unresolved questions

  • Behavior in "empty" state. - nullptr or undefined ?
  • Should the extension methods be considered ?
  • If a pattern is detected on System.String, should it win over ?

Design meetings

None yet.