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Posted at 2011-04-15 16:20 | RSS feed (Full text feed) | Blog Index
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Friday Q&A 2011-04-15: Compile-Time Tips and Tricks
by Mike Ash  

Greetings, salutations, and welcome to another edition of Friday Q&A, the Fridayest source of information on the internet. This week, friend of the blog Jose Vazquez had the idea of discussing miscellaneous compile-time tips and tricks in C/Objective-C, like useful preprocessor techniques and compile-time asserts.

#if, #elif, #else, #endif
A common one which is already familiar to most people is the #if directive. This instructs the preprocessor to conditionally include or eliminate a block of code based on a condition. The #elif directive allows checking for an alternate, #else allows a fallback, and the whole thing is concluded with #endif For example:

    #if 2 + 2 == 4
    #elif 3 + 3 == 6
While limited expressions are allowed, like the above, #if is most commonly used with simple identifiers, defined by the user, by system headers, or by the compiler:
    #if __LITTLE_ENDIAN__
        // little endian code here
        // big endian code here
    #define LOGGING_ENABLED 1
        #define LOG NSLog
        #define LOG(...) (void)0
These support common C-like expressions such as comparison operators and logical operators like && and ||.

In addition to testing the value of identifiers, it's also possible to simply test for whether an identifier is defined. This is done using the defined pseudo-function, like so:

    #if defined(MIGHT_NOT_BE_DEFINED)
        // it's defined!
Note that, unlike most places in C, using an undefined identifier in #if is not illegal, it simply treats it as zero.

Since testing whether an identifier is defined or not is a pretty common operation, there are shortcuts for it. #ifdef X is equivalent to #if defined(X), and #ifndef X is equivalent to #if !defined(X). These shortcuts are handy, but can't be easily combined into more complicated logical expressions, so defined is often useful as well.

One major use of #if is to alter code based on the target platform. For example, you may have code which targets both Mac and iOS but needs some minor alterations between platforms. Apple offers a few conditionals that you can check for this. They are described in a handy table here: Hamster Emporium: TargetConditionals.h.

When using these constructs, it's important to understand just when they run and what they work on. They are all evaluated by the preprocessor, before any real compilation begins. They only understand preprocessor identifiers, not identifiers from C code. For example, it's common for people who are new to C to attempt something like this:

    #ifndef MyType
        typedef struct { ... } MyType;
The intention is to define a type only if it's not already defined. This fails, because the typedef is evaluated long after the preprocessor runs. As far as the preprocessor is concerned, the MyType identifier is never defined, even after it evaluates this code. If you need to do something like this, then you need to add a preprocessor define as well:
        typedef struct { ... } MyType;
        #define MYTYPE_DEFINED 1
One last note: while you can use #define inside an #if to conditionally define macros, you cannot use an #if inside a #define to build macros which make clever decisions at the point of use.

Built-in Defines
The compiler defines a variety of identifiers for every program it compiles. Many of these are obscure and low level, but it can sometimes be handy to see what's made available. To do this, a handy shell command will print them all:

    gcc -E -dM -x c /dev/null
This also works with clang instead of gcc. Let's unpack this command a bit.

First, the -E tells gcc to only run the preprocessor and then print its output. No compilation or linking is performed.

Next, -dM instructs the compiler to perform a debugging dump after that stage is performed. This dump is what we're after.

After that, the -x c flag tells the compiler to ignore the file extension on the file and compile it as plain C. This flag can be changed to c++, objective-c, or objective-c++ to see what gets defined in those modes. Finally, /dev/null is passed to the compiler so that it receives an empty file and dumps only what it defines internally.

#error and #warning
These two directives allow creating a custom error or warning in the code. This can be handy for marking things that really need your attention to ensure that you don't forget. For example, you might add a warning about a method that really needs to be implemented:

    - (NSString *)importantString
        #warning this needs a real implementation
        return nil;
This warning will show up in the list along with any others from your code. If things are really dire, you can cause a hard error instead:
    - (NSString *)reallyImportantstring
        #error running the app without an implementation here causes disaster!
These directives go especially well in combination with the #if directive. They allow you to create conditionally compiled code for certain conditions, and warn or error when a situation comes up that you haven't coded for. For example, if you haven't written a big-endian version of your code yet and don't anticipate needing one soon, you might just make it an error:
    #if __LITTLE_ENDIAN__
        // code here
        #error we don't support big endian yet
Along those lines, you may have code for both, but not entirely trust the mechanism of detection. If neither one is positively identified, you can kill compilation with an error instead of potentially picking the wrong code path by mistake:
    #if __LITTLE_ENDIAN__
        // code here
    #elif __BIG_ENDIAN__
        // code here
        #error unknown endianness

Compile-Time Asserts
The #error directive is invaluable for ensuring that code isn't inadvertently compiled in an environment that it's not prepared to handle. However, it can only check for things that the preprocessor is aware of. It can't be used to check things that aren't evaluated until the compiler runs. The big use case that I know of is checking the size of a type. The preprocessor knows nothing about types, so #error can't be used for that.

We can use a standard assert macro for this, but this only works at runtime. Often this is sufficient, but it's nice to get errors while compiling if possible, and that also eliminates the risk that the assert never gets executed because the code which has it never got tested.

With a bit of trickery, it's possible to build a check which happens at compile time, late enough so that types are known, but before your program actually runs. There are actually a few different ways to do this, but my preferred way is to declare an array whose size depends on the expression to test. If it passes, set the size to 1, which compiles. If it fails, set the size to -1, which is illegal and causes an error. The error message cannot be fully customized, but by giving the array a descriptive name, the message can still be conveyed.

Here's an example of a compile-time assert. This would be used in code which depends on pointers being 64 bits:

    extern char this_code_requires_64_bit_pointers[sizeof(void *) == 8 ? 1 : -1];
When the size is 8, this code compiles fine and doesn't affect anything. When the size is anything else, the array gets a negative size and compilation is halted with an error.

The expressions that this is useful for are fairly limited (they must be compile-time constants, but something the preprocessor couldn't deal with) but when they are useful they are very nice to have.

In many ways, C is a small and simple language. In other ways, it's a complex language with a great deal of depth. These tips are part of that depth. While relatively simple, they can also be extremely handy to have around.

That wraps things up for today. As always, return in two more weeks for the next edition. Like I say every week, Friday Q&A is driven by reader suggestions. If you have a topic that you would like to see covered, send it in!

Did you enjoy this article? I'm selling a whole book full of them. It's available for iBooks and Kindle, plus a direct download in PDF and ePub format. It's also available in paper for the old-fashioned. Click here for more information.


Jesper Särnesjö at 2011-04-15 16:53:55:
That last tip about compile-time asserts is a good one. I like to wrap it up in macro, to save on typing and improve readability somewhat:

#define STATIC_ASSERT(cond, message_var_name) \
  extern char static_assert_##message_var_name[(cond) ? 1 : -1]

STATIC_ASSERT(sizeof(void *) == 8, 64_bit_pointers);
STATIC_ASSERT(sizeof(int) == 4, 32_bit_ints);

Chris Suter at 2011-04-15 22:01:32:
Here’s the macro I use:

#define CHECK__(line, x) typedef char check_##line##_[(x) ? 1 : -1];
#define CHECK_(line, x) CHECK__(line, x)
#define CHECK(x) CHECK_(__LINE__, (x))

Dave Zarzycki at 2011-04-16 12:06:42:
Here is a nice trick for making a generic assert that dynamically becomes a static assert when possible:

#define my_assert(e) do { \
                if (__builtin_constant_p(e)) { \
                        extern char __compile_time_assert__[(bool)(e) ? 1 : -1]; \
                } else { \
                        assert(e); \
                } \
        } while (0)

Jérôme Noël at 2011-04-16 23:52:34:
We use a combination of Chris and Jesper macro for compile-time checks:

#define lang_CHECK_CST(name, cond)    \
    typedef int lang_CheckCst_##name##_##__LINE__ [(cond) ? 1 : -1]

It has a meaningful name but uses a typedef which avoids the declaration of externs.

Trevor at 2011-04-17 20:33:05:

Shouldn't that be


Aidan Steele at 2011-04-17 22:21:54:
I quite like the following macros:

#define likely(x) __builtin_expect(!!(x), 1)
#define unlikely(x) __builtin_expect(!!(x), 0)

mikeash at 2011-04-18 15:12:25:
Trevor: Yes, either that or #if !MYTYPE_DEFINED. I went with the latter, but in any case it's fixed now. Thanks!

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