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7.1.7 Optimization and Strict Aliasing

The strong typing capabilities of Ada allow an optimizer to generate efficient code in situations where other languages would be forced to make worst case assumptions preventing such optimizations. Consider the following example:


procedure R is type Int1 is new Integer; type Int2 is new Integer; type Int1A is access Int1; type Int2A is access Int2; Int1V : Int1A; Int2V : Int2A; ... begin ... for J in Data'Range loop if Data (J) = Int1V.all then Int2V.all := Int2V.all + 1; end if; end loop; ... end R;

In this example, since the variable Int1V can only access objects of type Int1, and Int2V can only access objects of type Int2, there is no possibility that the assignment to Int2V.all affects the value of Int1V.all. This means that the compiler optimizer can "know" that the value Int1V.all is constant for all iterations of the loop and avoid the extra memory reference required to dereference it each time through the loop.

This kind of optimization, called strict aliasing analysis, is triggered by specifying an optimization level of -O2 or higher and allows GNAT to generate more efficient code when access values are involved.

However, although this optimization is always correct in terms of the formal semantics of the Ada Reference Manual, difficulties can arise if features like Unchecked_Conversion are used to break the typing system. Consider the following complete program example:


package p1 is type int1 is new integer; type int2 is new integer; type a1 is access int1; type a2 is access int2; end p1; with p1; use p1; package p2 is function to_a2 (Input : a1) return a2; end p2; with Unchecked_Conversion; package body p2 is function to_a2 (Input : a1) return a2 is function to_a2u is new Unchecked_Conversion (a1, a2); begin return to_a2u (Input); end to_a2; end p2; with p2; use p2; with p1; use p1; with Text_IO; use Text_IO; procedure m is v1 : a1 := new int1; v2 : a2 := to_a2 (v1); begin v1.all := 1; v2.all := 0; put_line (int1'image (v1.all)); end;

This program prints out 0 in -O0 or -O1 mode, but it prints out 1 in -O2 mode. That's because in strict aliasing mode, the compiler can and does assume that the assignment to v2.all could not affect the value of v1.all, since different types are involved.

This behavior is not a case of non-conformance with the standard, since the Ada RM specifies that an unchecked conversion where the resulting bit pattern is not a correct value of the target type can result in an abnormal value and attempting to reference an abnormal value makes the execution of a program erroneous. That's the case here since the result does not point to an object of type int2. This means that the effect is entirely unpredictable.

However, although that explanation may satisfy a language lawyer, in practice an applications programmer expects an unchecked conversion involving pointers to create true aliases and the behavior of printing 1 seems plain wrong. In this case, the strict aliasing optimization is unwelcome.

Indeed the compiler recognizes this possibility, and the unchecked conversion generates a warning:

     p2.adb:5:07: warning: possible aliasing problem with type "a2"
     p2.adb:5:07: warning: use -fno-strict-aliasing switch for references
     p2.adb:5:07: warning:  or use "pragma No_Strict_Aliasing (a2);"

Unfortunately the problem is recognized when compiling the body of package p2, but the actual "bad" code is generated while compiling the body of m and this latter compilation does not see the suspicious Unchecked_Conversion.

As implied by the warning message, there are approaches you can use to avoid the unwanted strict aliasing optimization in a case like this.

One possibility is to simply avoid the use of -O2, but that is a bit drastic, since it throws away a number of useful optimizations that do not involve strict aliasing assumptions.

A less drastic approach is to compile the program using the option -fno-strict-aliasing. Actually it is only the unit containing the dereferencing of the suspicious pointer that needs to be compiled. So in this case, if we compile unit m with this switch, then we get the expected value of zero printed. Analyzing which units might need the switch can be painful, so a more reasonable approach is to compile the entire program with options -O2 and -fno-strict-aliasing. If the performance is satisfactory with this combination of options, then the advantage is that the entire issue of possible "wrong" optimization due to strict aliasing is avoided.

To avoid the use of compiler switches, the configuration pragma No_Strict_Aliasing with no parameters may be used to specify that for all access types, the strict aliasing optimization should be suppressed.

However, these approaches are still overkill, in that they causes all manipulations of all access values to be deoptimized. A more refined approach is to concentrate attention on the specific access type identified as problematic.

First, if a careful analysis of uses of the pointer shows that there are no possible problematic references, then the warning can be suppressed by bracketing the instantiation of Unchecked_Conversion to turn the warning off:

        pragma Warnings (Off);
        function to_a2u is
          new Unchecked_Conversion (a1, a2);
        pragma Warnings (On);

Of course that approach is not appropriate for this particular example, since indeed there is a problematic reference. In this case we can take one of two other approaches.

The first possibility is to move the instantiation of unchecked conversion to the unit in which the type is declared. In this example, we would move the instantiation of Unchecked_Conversion from the body of package p2 to the spec of package p1. Now the warning disappears. That's because any use of the access type knows there is a suspicious unchecked conversion, and the strict aliasing optimization is automatically suppressed for the type.

If it is not practical to move the unchecked conversion to the same unit in which the destination access type is declared (perhaps because the source type is not visible in that unit), you may use pragma No_Strict_Aliasing for the type. This pragma must occur in the same declarative sequence as the declaration of the access type:

        type a2 is access int2;
        pragma No_Strict_Aliasing (a2);

Here again, the compiler now knows that the strict aliasing optimization should be suppressed for any reference to type a2 and the expected behavior is obtained.

Finally, note that although the compiler can generate warnings for simple cases of unchecked conversions, there are tricker and more indirect ways of creating type incorrect aliases which the compiler cannot detect. Examples are the use of address overlays and unchecked conversions involving composite types containing access types as components. In such cases, no warnings are generated, but there can still be aliasing problems. One safe coding practice is to forbid the use of address clauses for type overlaying, and to allow unchecked conversion only for primitive types. This is not really a significant restriction since any possible desired effect can be achieved by unchecked conversion of access values.