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F# RFC FS-1053 - voidptr, IsReadOnly structs, inref, outref, ByRefLike structs, byref extension members

.NET has a new feature Span. This RFC adds support for this in F#.

Summary

The main aim of the RFC is to allow effective consumption of APIs using Span, Memory and ref-returns.

Span is actually built from several features and a library:

  • The voidptr type
  • The NativePtr.ofVoidPtr and NativePtr.toVoidPtr functions
  • The inref and outref types via capabilities on byref pointers
  • ByRefLike structs (including Span and ReadOnlySpan)
  • IsReadOnly structs
  • implicit dereference of byref and inref-returns from methods
  • byref extension members

Quick Guide

C# F#
out int arg arg: byref<int>
out int arg arg: outref<int>
in int arg arg: inref<int>
ref readonly int (return) normally inferred, can use : inref<int>
ref expr &expr

Links

Motivation

The main aim of the RFC is to allow effective consumption of APIs using Span, Memory, and ref-returns. This helps all of:

  • Parity with .NET Core 2.1 and C#
  • Proper interoperability with current and future .NET/C# APIs which use Span and Memory heavily
  • Better code generation
  • Better performance for F# when used to produce code that is performance-critical.

Detailed design

There are several elements to the design.

Add the voidptr type to represent void*

The voidptr type represents void* in F# code, i.e. an untyped unmanaged pointer. This type should only be used when writing F# code that interoperates with native code. Use of this type in F# code may result in unverifiable code being generated. Conversions to and from the nativeint or other native pointer type may be required. Values of this type can be generated by the functions in the NativeInterop.NativePtr module.

Add NativePtr.toVoidPtr and NativePtr.ofVoidPtr

We add these:

//namespace FSharp.Core

module NativePtr = 
    val toVoidPtr : address:nativeptr<'T> -> voidptr
    val ofVoidPtr : voidptr -> nativeptr<'T>

Add byref<'T, 'Kind> to represent pointers with different capabilities

We add this type:

//namespace FSharp.Core

type byref<'T, 'Kind> 

The following capabilities are defined:

//namespace FSharp.Core

module ByRefKinds = 
    /// Read capability
    type In
    
    /// Write capability
    type Out
    
    /// Read and write capabilities
    type InOut

For example, the type byref<int, In> represents a byref pointer with read capabilities. The following abbreviations are defined:

//namespace FSharp.Core

type byref<'T> = byref<'T, ByRefKinds.InOut>
type inref<'T> = byref<'T, ByRefKinds.In>
type outref<'T> = byref<'T, ByRefKinds.Out>

Here byref<'T> is the existing F# byref type.

A special constraint solving rule allows ByRefKinds.InOut :> ByRefKinds.In and ByRefKinds.InOut :> ByRefKinds.Out in subsumption, e.g. most particularly at method and function argument application. This means, for example, that a byref<int> can be passed where an inref<int> is expected (dropping the Out capability) and a byref<int> can be passed where an outref<int> is expected (dropping the In capability).

Capabilities assigned to pointers get solved in the usual way by type inference. Inference variables for capabilities are introduced each point the operators &expr and NativePtr.toByRef are used. In both cases their listed return type of byref<T> is expanded to byref<T, ?Kind> for a new type inference variable ?Kind.

NOTE: In F# 4.5, the byref<'T, 'Kind> type and the tags ByRefKinds.InOut, ByRefKinds.In, ByRefKinds.Out are not available for direct use, and are only usable in FSharp.Core.dll.

inref<T> for readonly references and input reference parameters

The type inref<'T> is defined as byref<'T, ByRefKinds.In> to indicate a read-only byref, e.g. one that acts as an input parameter. It's primary use is to pass structures more efficiently, without copying and without allowing mutation. For example:

let f (x: inref<System.DateTime>) = x.Days

Semantically inref<'T> means "the holder of the byref pointer may only use it to read". It doesn't imply that other threads or aliases don't have write access to that pointer. And inref<SomeStruct> doesn't imply that the struct is immutable. However inref<SomeStruct> does imply that any pointer acquired to struct fields nested within SomeStruct are in turn given type inref<_>. Together with other rules this means inref<'T> also implies "the holder of the byref pointer may not modify the immediate contents of the memory pointed to".

By the type inference rules above, a byref<'T> may be used where an inref<'T> is expected.

For methods and properties on F# value types, the F# value type this paramater is given type inref<'T> if the value type is considered immutable (has no mutable fields and no mutable sub-structs).

outref<T> for output reference parameters

The type outref<'T> is defined as byref<'T, ByRefKinds.Out> to indicate a write-only byref that can act as an output parameter.

let f (x:outref<System.DateTime>) = x <- System.DateTime.Now

Semantically outref means "the holder of the byref pointer may only use it to write". It doesn't imply that other threads or aliases don't have read access to that pointer.

By the type inference rules above, a byref<'T> may be used where an outref<'T> is expected.

Relationship between inref<T>, outref<T> and byref<T>

The following examples show code that is not permitted:

    module WriteToInRef = 
        let f1 (x: inref<int>) = x <- 1 // not allowed

    module InRefToByRef = 
        let f1 (x: byref<'T>) = 1
        let f2 (x: inref<'T>) = f1 &x    // not allowed 

    module InRefToOutRef = 
        let f1 (x: outref<'T>) = 1
        let f2 (x: inref<'T>) = f1 &x     // not allowed   

    module InRefToByRefClassMethod = 
        type C() = 
            static member f1 (x: byref<'T>) = 1
        let f2 (x: inref<'T>) = C.f1 &x // not allowed   

    module InRefToOutRefClassMethod =
        type C() = 
            static member f1 (x: outref<'T>) = 1 // not allowed
        let f2 (x: inref<'T>) = C.f1 &x        

Similarly, a write to an inner struct field is not permitted:

    [<Struct>]
    type S = 
        [<DefaultValue(true)>]
        val mutable X : int

    module WriteToInRefStructInner = 
        let f1 (x: inref<S>) = x.X <- 1 //not allowed

Similarly, taking the address of an inner struct field via an inref<_> pointer gives an inref<_> pointer type:

    [<Struct>]
    type S = 
        [<DefaultValue(true)>]
        val mutable X : int

    module WriteToInRefStructInner = 
        let f1 (x: inref<S>) = 
            let addr = &x.X
            addr <- 1 //not allowed

However, a similar set of rules do not apply to outref<'T>. This is for compatibility reasons, and the outref<'T> type is considered essentially equivalent to byref<'T>: you can both read and write from an outref<_> type, and no specific checks are performed to ensure definite assignment to outref<_>. Further, instances of [<Out>] or [out] attributes occurring in .NET metadata or from provided types are interpreted as the type byref<'T>. This means the outref<_> is really for code documentation purposes only. The reason for this is compatibility: method signatures using [out] are already being implemented by byref types. This means outref<'T> types are never introduced implicitly by F#.

For compatibility, .NET parameters using the [in] attribute (e.g. [in] int32& p) are interpreted as type byref<'T> (e.g. byref<int32>). This is for similar reasons to the above: .NET method signatures already exist that may use [in]. This means the only place where inref<'T> types are introduced implicitly by F# is

  1. For a .NET parameter or return type that has an IsReadOnlyAttribute modreq, see below.
  2. For the this pointer on a struct type that has no mutable fields, see belowif a .NET signature also has a modreq attribute for IsReadOnly on a parameter, see below.
  3. For the address of a memory location derived from another inref<_> pointer.

Implicit dereference of return byrefs

F# 4.1 added return byrefs. We adjust these so that they implicitly dereference when a call such as span.[i] is used, which calls span.get_Item(i) method on Span. To avoid the implicit dereference you must write &span.[i].

For example:

let SafeSum(bytes: Span<byte>) =
    let mutable sum = 0
    for i in 0 .. bytes.Length - 1 do 
        sum <- sum + int bytes.[i]
    sum

This applies to module-defined functions returning byrefs as well, e.g.

let mutable x = 1

let f () = &x

let test() = 
    let addr : byref<int> = &f()
    addr <- addr + 1

Hwoever it specifically doesn't apply to:

  • the & operator itself

  • NativePtr.toByRef which is an existing library function returning a byref

As noted above, in these cases the returned type byref<T> is expanded to byref<T, ?Kind> for a new type inference variable ?Kind.

Implicit dereference of byrefs in for..in expressions

When iterating over a collection using a for..in expression that returns a byref as its item, that item will be implicitly dereferenced.

For example:

let test (s: Span<int>) =
    for x in s do
        ()

x is of type int because the item returned from Span is implicitly dereferenced at that point.

Assignment to return byrefs

Direct assignment to returned byrefs is permitted, e.g.

let mutable v = System.DateTime.Now
let f() = &v
f() <-  f().AddDays(2.0)

Likewise for byrefs returned by methods, e.g.

type C() = 
    let mutable v = System.DateTime.Now
    member __.InstanceM() = &v

let F1() = 
    let today = System.DateTime.Now.Date
    let c = C() 
    c.InstanceM() <-  today.AddDays(2.0)

And likewise for properties, e.g.

type C() = 
    let mutable v = System.DateTime.Now
    member __.InstanceProperty = &v

let F1() = 
    let today = System.DateTime.Now.Date
    let c = C() 
    c.InstanceProperty <- today.AddDays(2.0)

Scoping for byrefs

The general idea is that a let-bound value cannot have its reference escape the scope from which it was declared, effectively its visibility. For example:

let test () =
    let x =
        let y = 1
        &y
    ()

&y will now receive an error describing that it's escaping its local scope.

Another example:

let test () =
    let z = 1
    let x =
        let y = 1
        if true then
            &y
        else
            &z
    ()

&y will also give the same error.

The rationale behind this is not just for soundness reasons, but for guarantees in the optimizer that local values like this will not escape in such a manner.

IsReadOnly on structs

F# structs are normally readonly, it is quite hard to write a mutable struct. Knowing a struct is readonly gives more efficient code and fewer warnings.

Example code:

[<IsReadOnly; Struct>]
type S(count1: int, count2: int) = 
    member x.Count1 = count1
    member x.Count2 = count2

IsReadOnly is not added to F# struct types automatically, you must add it manually.

Note that [<IsReadOnly>] does not imply [<Struct>]. Both attributes have to be specified.

Using IsReadOnly attribute on a struct which has a mutable field will give an error.

ByRefLike structs

"ByRefLike" structs are stack-bound types with rules like byref<_> and Span<_>. They declare struct types that are never allocated on the heap. These are useful for high-performance programming as you get a set of strong checks about the lifetimes and non-capture of these values. They are also potetnially useful for correctness in some situations where capture must be avoided.

  • Can be used as function parameters, method parameters, local variables, method returns
  • Cannot be static or instance members of a class or normal struct
  • Cannot be captured by any closure construct (async methods or lambda expressions)
  • Cannot be used as a generic parameter

Here is an example:

open System.Runtime.CompilerServices

[<IsByRefLike; Struct>]
type S(count1: int, count2: int) = 
    member x.Count1 = count1
    member x.Count2 = count2

ByRefLike structs can have IsByRefLike members, e.g.

open System.Runtime.CompilerServices

[<IsByRefLike; Struct>]
type S(count1: Span<int>, count2: Span<int>) = 
    member x.Count1 = count1
    member x.Count2 = count2

Note that [<IsByRefLike>] does not imply [<Struct>] both attributes have to be specified.

No special treatment of stackalloc

The F# approach to stackalloc has always been to make it an "unsafe library function" whose use generates a "here be dragons" warning. The C# team make it part of the language and are able to do some additional checks.

In theory it would be possible to mirror those checks in F#. However, the C# team are considerig further rule changes around stackalloc in any case. Thus it seems ok (or at least consistent) if we follow the existing approach for F# and don’t add any specific knowledge of stackalloc to the rules.

Ignoring Obsolete attribute on existing ByRefLike definitions

C# attaches an Obsolete attribute to the Span and Memory types in order to give errors in down level compilers seeing these types, and presumably has special code to ignore it. We add a corresponding special case in the compiler to ignore the Obsolete attribute on ByRefLike structs.

The F# compiler doesn't emit these attributes when defining ByRefLike types. Authoring these types in F# for consumption by down-level C# consumers will be extremely rare (if it ever happens at all). Down-level consumption by F# consumers will also never happen and if it does the consumer will discover extremely quickly that the later edition of F# is required.

Interoperability

  • A C# ref return value is given type outref<'T>

  • A C# ref readonly return value is given type inref<'T> (i.e. readonly)

  • A C# in parameter becomes a inref<'T>

  • A C# out parameter becomes a outref<'T>

  • Using inref<T> in argument position results in the automatic emit of an [In] attribute on the argument

  • Using inref<T> in return position results in the automatic emit of an modreq attribute on the return item

  • Using inref<T> in an abstract slot signature or implementation results in the automatic emit of an modreq attribute on an argument or return

  • Using outref<T> in argument position results in the automatic emit of an [Out] attribute on the argument

Overloading

When an implicit address is being taken for an inref parameter, an overload with an argument of type SomeType is preferred to an overload with an argument of type inref<SomeType>. For example give this:

    type C() = 
         static member M(x: System.DateTime) = x.AddDays(1.0)
         static member M(x: inref<System.DateTime>) = x.AddDays(2.0)
         static member M2(x: System.DateTime, y: int) = x.AddDays(1.0)
         static member M2(x: inref<System.DateTime>, y: int) = x.AddDays(2.0)
    let res = System.DateTime.Now
    let v =  C.M(res)
    let v2 =  C.M2(res, 4)

In both cases the overload resolves to the method taking System.DateTime rather than the one taking inref<System.DateTime>.

byref extension members

"byref" extension methods allow extension methods to modify the struct that is passed in. Here is an example of a C#-style byref extension member in F#:

open System.Runtime.CompilerServices
[<Extension>]
type Ext = 
    [<Extension>]
    static member ExtDateTime2(dt: inref<DateTime>, x:int) = dt.AddDays(double x)

Here is an example of using the extension member:

let dt2 = DateTime.Now.ExtDateTime2(3)

this on immutable struct members becomes inref<StructType>

The this parameter on struct members is now inref<StructType> when the struct type has no mutable fields or sub-structures.

This makes it easier to write performant struct code which doesn't copy values.

IsByRefLike safety checks

At return expressions (i.e. the bodies of lambdas, methods and functions), checks are made that the expression being returned has a lifetime longer than the method activation or function activation. The checks are a cut-down version of those for C#. Specifically, checks are only made for "rvalues" and the existing checks for "lvalues" (byrefs) are not adjusted in this RFC.

  • An argument value is safe-to-return
  • Most composite expressions are safe-to-return if all its parts are safe-to-return

Examples of using Span and Memory

let SafeSum (bytes: Span<byte>) =
    let mutable sum = 0
    for i in 0 .. bytes.Length - 1 do 
        sum <- sum + int bytes.[i]
    sum

let TestSafeSum() = 
    // managed memory
    let arrayMemory = Array.zeroCreate<byte>(100)
    let arraySpan = new Span<byte>(arrayMemory);
    SafeSum(arraySpan)|> printfn "res = %d"

    // native memory
    let nativeMemory = Marshal.AllocHGlobal(100);
    let nativeSpan = new Span<byte>(nativeMemory.ToPointer(), 100);
    SafeSum(nativeSpan)|> printfn "res = %d"
    Marshal.FreeHGlobal(nativeMemory);

    // stack memory
    let mem = NativePtr.stackalloc<byte>(100)
    let mem2 = mem |> NativePtr.toVoidPtr
    let stackSpan = Span<byte>(mem2, 100)
    SafeSum(stackSpan) |> printfn "res = %d"

Compatibility

The additions are not backwards compatible for two reasons:

  • The implementation of the RFC includes a bug fix to the design of ref-returns. Functions, methods and properties returning byrefs are now implicitly de-referenced. An explicit use of an address-of operator such as &f(x) or &C.M() is needed to access the value as a byref pointer.

    An error message is used when a type annotation indicates that an implicit dereference of a ref-return is now being used.

  • "Evil struct replacement" now gives an error. e.g.

[<Struct>]
type S(x: int, y: int) = 
    member __.X = x
    member __.Y = y
    member this.Replace(s: S) = this <- s

Note that the struct is immutable, except for a Replace method. The this parameter will now be considered inref<S> and an error will be reported suggesting to add a mutable field if the struc is to be mutated.

Allowing this assignment was never intended in the F# design and I consider this as fixing a bug in the F# compiler now we have the machinery to express read-only references.

Drawbacks

  • The addition of pointer capabilities slightly increases the perceived complexity of the language and core library.

  • The addition of IsByRefLike types increases the perceived complexity of the language and core library.

Alternatives

  • Make inref, byref and outref completely separate types rather than algebraically related

    --> The type inference rules become much harder to specify and much more "special case". The current rules just need a couple of extra equations added to the inference engine.

  • Generalize the subsumption "InOut --> In" and "InOut --> Out" to be a more general feature of F# type inference for tagged/measure/... types.

    --> Thinking this over

  • No implicit dereference on byref return from let-bound functions. Originally we did not do implicit-dereference when calling arbitrary let-bound functions. However usability feedback indicated this is a source of inconsistency

  • Implicit address-of for inref<'T> arguments on member methods. While this is part of the corresponding C# design, it has a specific scoping issue:

let x = &M(1)

The AST from that is translated into this:

let x =
    let tmp = 1
    &M(&tmp)

Because M returns a byref, we have to assume its scope will escape on return because it was passed a byref from a local defined within the scope of the call. tmp is narrow in scope.

One option to resolve this issue is to force explicit address-of for arguments on member methods that return a byref. Everything else can be implicit.

--> Will try to bring this in for F# 5.0. We might start seeing APIs use inref<'T> more that warrant this feature coming back.

  • No implicit dereference of byrefs in for..in expressions when using & syntax.

For example:

let test (s: Span<int>) =
    for &x in s do
        x <- 5

x is now of type byref<int> because it is not implicitly dereferenced due to using &. Because &x is a pattern, this might be quite tricky to get right.

Notes

  • Implicit address-of is not applied for parameters to let-bound functions. For example:
let testIn (m: inref<System.DateTime>) =
    ()

let callTestIn() =
    testIn System.DateTime.Now

The F# language does no conversions apart from subsumption at calls to let-bound functions (e.g. no F# lambda --> System.Func conversion). While the programmer may initially expect the same conversions to take place, it is better to maintain consistency and not add this one adhoc type-directed auto-convert. If we were to make a change here, it would be better to make a systematic change here that took into account all conversions.

  • No new or additional checks are made that outref<_> parameters are written to. F# has already had [<Out>] parameters and their rarity means there's not a lot of value in adding the control-flow-based checks to implement this.

  • F# structs are not always readonly/immutable.

    1. You can declare val mutable. The compiler knows about that and uses it to infer that the struct is readonly/immutable.
    2. Mutable fields can be hidden by signature files
    3. Structs from .NET libraries are mostly assumed to be immutable, so defensive copies aren't taken
    4. You can do wholesale replacement of the contents of the struct through this <- v in a member (see above)
  • Note that F# doesn't compile

type DateTime with 
    member x.Foo() = ...

as a "byref this" extension member where x is a readonly reference. Instead you have to define a C#-style byref extension method. This means a copy happens on invocation. If it did writing performant extension members for F# struct types would be very easy. Perhaps we should allow somthing like this

type DateTime with 
    member (x : inref<T>).Foo() = ...

or

type DateTime with 
    [<SomeNewCallByRefAttribute>]
    member x.Foo() = ...

This makes it impossible to define byref extension properties in particular.

  • Note that IsByRefLikeAttribute is only available in .NET 4.7.2.
namespace System.Runtime.CompilerServices
    open System
    open System.Runtime.CompilerServices
    open System.Runtime.InteropServices
    [<AttributeUsage(AttributeTargets.All,AllowMultiple=false); Sealed>]
    type IsReadOnlyAttribute() =
        inherit System.Attribute()

    [<AttributeUsage(AttributeTargets.All,AllowMultiple=false); Sealed>]
    type IsByRefLikeAttribute() =
        inherit System.Attribute()

Unresolved questions

None