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Flexible C++ #8: Union Casts Considered Harmful, but Necessary

Flexible C++ #8: Union Casts Considered Harmful, but Necessary

Unions in C and C++ are aggregate quantities like structs, except that each elements of the union has offset 0, and the total size of the union is only as large as is required to hold its largest member [1]. Only one member of a union may be "active" at a time. Unions are most often used to provide variant functionality; i.e., allowing a variable to contain data of different types, as in the following structure from a GUI list control:

struct CellItem
    UInt        mask;       /* valid field mask. (Combination of flags).  */
    . . .
    Boolean     bReadOnly;  /* Indicates item's editable state.           */
    Int         type;       /* Type of data.                              */
<table width="100%" border="0" bgcolor="gray">
    union                   /* Union of data.                             */
        SInt32      lVal;   /* 32-bit integral value.                     */
        double      dVal;   /* Floating-point value.                      */
        char        *strVal; /* String.                                   */
        time_t      tVal;   /* File time.                                 */
    } data;
. . .

The CellItem structure represents the data for each cell in the display as one of an integral number, floating-point number, string, or time. A space economy is achieved by defining the data member as a union—in this case, it's an unnamed union—and hence storing only space for the largest member—in this case, dVal (a double)—rather than storing space for all possible data types. Naturally, the more members a union has, the more significant the space saving. Note that a separate member, type, in the CellItem structure, is required to record which member of data is "active," but that would be the case even if data were a structure, so it doesn't detract from the space saving of the union itself.

However, unions have another, darker, side. Because each member has a zero offset, a union can be used to overlay the bytes for one member with those of another. Since unions can have members of heterogeneous type—they'd be a pointless construct if they didn't—this content overlay can be used for casting.

You may already be alarmed at such a prospect. If that's the case, you've got good instincts. But let's break it down as you may still have missed some of the subtleties. There are actually four aspects to converting one type to another in such a "raw" byte block transfer: alignment, size, value, and bit representation.

The first aspect, alignment, is handled for us with the union's characteristic of placing all members at 0 offset. However, the other three are by no means guaranteed. In fact, they are emphatically violatable by unions—again, if this wasn't the case, unions would not be able to support their intended purpose.

Let's consider the issue of size. If we look back at our union from the CellItem, we might be inclined—assuming a 32-bit architecture—to cast between the lVal and strVal members, since they're both 32-bit quantities. Any hardy travelers who've encountered the Win32 API will have done such conversions many times, though more likely with C-style casts than via unions.

We can probably cast between lVal and tVal, since time_t is often defined as a 32-bit quantity. However, we'd certainly be asking for trouble if we attempted to coerce values between dVal and the other union members, because double is usually represented as either 64-bits or 80-bits [2]. Clearly, using unions to cast between elements of different sizes is a nonstarter.

The conversion between lVal and strVal, had another important consideration: the value of the integer/pointer. On some machine architectures, certain types must always be aligned on word boundaries, so translating from arbitrary integer values can result in misalignment, and a nasty bus error. Even on those architectures when you don't precipitate hardware violations, you're likely to incur significant costs if you oblige the processor to manipulate, say, 32-bit types that are spread over two 32-bit words. And that's not even considering the fact that the actual pointer value would very likely be wrong! This particular problem is also possible with reinterpret_cast, but it's arguably subtler with unions.

However, even when we've got compatible sizes, alignment and the value we want to convert is meaningfully in both "typespaces," there can still be problems. If dVal had been a float, which is often 32-bits on 32-bit systems, we'd still have a big problem in converting from dVal to, say, lVal.

Although it's not guaranteed by the Standard, casting between a 32-bit integral type and a 32-bit pointer is usually "valid" to the degree that pointers are effectively integral indexes into the address space of the "abstract machine." But there's nothing like that level of compatibility between the bit forms of an integral type and a floating-point type. For example, signed integers in C/C++ are represented in two's complement, and floating-points are represented in, er, well, floating point. There are very good reasons why we leave such things to the compiler to handle on our behalf. Consider the following code:

  long  l;
  float f;
} u;

u.l = 999;
assert(u.f > 998.0 && u.f < 1000.0); // Not a chance, bluey!

The actual value of u.f in this case is going to be some wildly different number; in my testing environment it is 1.39990x10-42. Not exactly a victory for the union cast!

So, if you didn't know before, hopefully you now realize that using a union to perform a cast is a pretty bad idea. Because it almost completely circumvents the compiler's ability to do any type checking, there's no protection from misalignment, truncation, or representation mismatches, and will likely get you only "dangerous and nonportable" [3] code.

(Actually, in chapter 19 of Imperfect C++ [4], I show how union casts, in the form of the STLSoft [5] union_cast template class, can be made into a very robust and useful technique by using constraints and a dash of template metaprogramming to restrict the cast types. Notwithstanding those techniques, union casts should be considered harmful and avoided wherever possible.)

Unfortunately, sometimes the carelessness of some library writers leads other library writers—that's us!—with little choice but to get them out of the bottom of the toolbox and carefully dust them off. Take, for example, the Microsoft WinInet API.

Win32 ANSI / Unicode Compilation

The WinInet function FtpFindFirstFile() is actually a macro that is defined as either FtpFindFirstFileA() or FtpFindFirstFileW(), depending on whether ANSI or Unicode compilation is selected (by the absence or presence of the UNICODE preprocessor symbol). Similarly, the WIN32_FIND_DATA structure is actually a macro defined either as WIN32_FIND_DATAA or WIN32_FIND_DATAW. Hence, although the third parameter of FtpFindFirstFile() is notionally a pointer to a WIN32_FIND_DATA structure, in actuality the two function variants take pointers to the corresponding structure variants, as in:

HINTERNET FtpFindFirstFileA( HINTERNET         hConnect
                           , char const        *lpszSearchFile
                           <table width="100%" border="0" bgcolor="gray">
                           , WIN32_FIND_DATAA  *lpFindFileData
, DWORD dwFlags , DWORD dwContext);


HINTERNET FtpFindFirstFileW( HINTERNET         hConnect
                           , wchar_t const     *lpszSearchFile
                           <table width="100%" border="0" bgcolor="gray"
                           , WIN32_FIND_DATAW  *lpFindFileData
, DWORD dwFlags , DWORD dwContext);

This technique is not especially sophisticated, but it does work and is widely used throughout the Win32 API, and third-party libraries, for building different binaries from the same source.

Add a Dash of Traits

In writing a traits class, as part of the InetSTL libraries [6], I came across a problem that necessitated using the any_caster class described in this article. The problem it addresses is that in the WinInet header files that come with versions 5 and 6 of the Visual C++ compiler, both variants of the FtpFindFirstFile() function, are declared as taking a pointer to a WIN32_FIND_DATA structure, and not to that of its requisite variants as shown above. Because WIN32_FIND_DATA is defined as WIN32_FIND_DATAA for ANSI compilation, and as WIN32_FIND_DATAW for Unicode compilation, there is no conflict with the analogous definition of the FtpFindFirstFile() macro. This means that if you code in terms of the two macros, rather any of the specific ANSI/Unicode variants, they are in sync and you won't have a problem.

Consider the following code:

WIN32_FIND_DATA    fd;

FindFirstFile(..., &fd, ...);

If you compile this without UNICODE defined, it is actually translated to:


FindFirstFileA(..., &fd, ...);

Whether this is compiled with the correct form—FindFirstFileA(..., WIN32_FIND_DATAA*, ...)—or the incorrect form—FindFirstFileA(..., WIN32_FIND_DATA*, ...)—it still works since WIN32_FIND_DATA is translated to WIN32_FIND_DATAA.

Conversely, if you compile this with UNICODE defined, it becomes:


FindFirstFileW(..., &fd, ...);

Again, this works with both forms because WIN32_FIND_DATA is translated to WIN32_FIND_DATAW in the presence of UNICODE.

However, if you want to write code that references the functions/structures explicitly, you're in a bit of a pickle, whether you attempt to use FtpFindFirstFileA() explicitly from a Unicode compilation, or FtpFindFirstFileW() from an ANSI compilation. In either case, the function will be prototyped to point to the wrong structure variant. Consider the following correct code:

WIN32_FIND_DATAA    fda;
WIN32_FIND_DATAW    fdw;

FindFirstFileA(..., &fda, ...); // 1
FindFirstFileW(..., &fdw, ...); // 2

This does not work with the incorrect form of the WinInet libraries. If UNICODE is not defined, then line 2 won't compile. If UNICODE is defined, then line 1 won't compile. This is not good.

Because traits that specialize in character type explicitly use the ANSI or Unicode variants of a given function—traits are entirely independent of the presence/absence of UNICODE—either the wchar_t or char specialization will cause an error when compiled with the Visual C++ 5/6 headers.

One solution is to attempt to discriminate which compiler you're using, and write the code with casts, as in:

template <>
struct inetstl::filesystem_traits<wchar_t>
  . . .
  static HINTERNET find_first_file( HINTERNET       hconn
                                ,   wchar_t const   *spec
                                ,   find_data_type  *findData
                                ,   uint32_t        flags = 0
                                ,   uint32_t        ctxt = 0)
#if defined(_MSC_VER) && \
    _MSC_VER <= 1200
    return ::FtpFindFirstFileW( hconn, spec
                    , reinterpret_cast<LPWIN32_FIND_DATA>(findData)
                    , flags, ctxt);
#else /* ? compiler */
    return ::FtpFindFirstFileW(hconn, spec, findData, flags, ctxt);
#endif /* ? compiler */
  . . .

Naturally, this is very ugly, and a maintenance headache: We'd have to vet each and every compiler's WinInet.h. But we have to put up with headaches every day, and ugliness is part and parcel of any portable coding effort. The overriding objection to this approach is that it is no solution at all.

If you specify any recent version of the Microsoft Platform SDK's include directory prior to those that come with the compiler, Visual C++ 5/6 will build the correct form without issue. If we then present it with the code shown above, it will fail to compile because the LPWIN32_FIND_DATAA type is no longer incorrectly expected by FtpFindFirstFileW().

This is where our naughty cast comes in. Let's look at it in action before we see how it's implemented. Rewriting the function in an error-free form we get:

template <>
struct inetstl::filesystem_traits<wchar_t>
  . . .
  static HINTERNET find_first_file( HINTERNET       hconn
                                ,   wchar_t const   *spec
                                ,   find_data_type  *findData
                                ,   uint32_t        flags = 0
                                ,   uint32_t        ctxt = 0)
    return ::FtpFindFirstFileW( hconn, spec
    <table width="100%" border="0" bgcolor="gray">
                              , any_caster< find_data_type*
                                          , LPWIN32_FIND_DATAA
                                          , LPWIN32_FIND_DATAW
, flags, ctxt); } . . . . . . // same for inetstl::filesystem_traits<char>

The any_caster template (shown in Listing 1) takes a source type, followed by two or more conversion types—it has to be at least two, otherwise there'd be no point—and provides implicit conversion from the former to any of the latter. Naturally, there should be no ambiguity between the types to convert to, but that's the user's responsibility.

Make no mistake: At no time do we try to pass an ANSI structure to a Unicode function, or vice versa. It's just that the compiler thinks that we should, and we must do the right thing while making the compiler believe we're doing what it thinks is the right thing (which is wrong).

The converter has a remarkably simple implementation. It is just a union of nine types. Its constructor takes a single parameter of the source type, and there are eight implicit conversion operators for the eight destination types. In order to support between two and eight destination types, the latter six are defaulted. I originally wanted to default them to void, but naturally one cannot have implicit conversions to void. Nor can they be the same type, as the compiler would rightly complain about having multiple implicit conversion operators to the same type. So what I've done is default them to pointers to distinct instantiations of the InvalidType helper template.

any_caster is implemented as a union precisely because we want, in this rare case, to subvert all type checking. The alternative would be to implement the conversion operators using C++ casts. Unfortunately, as I show in [4], it can be very difficult to generically code such conversions with the appropriate mix of C++ casts, and even C casts will precipitate warnings with come compilers. Since the size, alignment and bit representation of our convertee types are compatible—LPWIN32_FIND_DATAA and LPWIN32_FIND_DATAW are both 32-bit pointers, and the conversion from one to the other is valid in this case because one actually is the other—the union cast is the appropriate choice in this (unusual) case. Hence union casts may be considered necessary.

And that's it! Readers of Imperfect C++ might want to apply some of the techniques described in the discussion of the union_cast template to any_caster in order to increase its robustness by constraining its range of acceptable types; the full implementation is available with the STLSoft libraries. We might, for example constrain all the types to be the same size and to be, say, all integral types or be all pointers, using static assertions [4]. For example:

  ~any_caster() // Place in dtor so always gets checked
    STATIC_ASSERT( is_pointer_type<T>::value &&
                   is_pointer_type<T1>::value &&
                   is_pointer_type<T2>::value &&
                   is_pointer_type<T3>::value &&
                   is_pointer_type<T4>::value &&
                   is_pointer_type<T5>::value &&
                   is_pointer_type<T6>::value &&
                   is_pointer_type<T7>::value &&

We could even constrain all types to be pointers that point to things that are the same size. Even if you elect to take such measures to increase the safety of your union casts, it's worth stressing one last time that using unions for casting is something to be done only in extremis. But I think that when pushed into it by poorly designed/tested libraries, we are entitled to get out the big guns!


Thanks to Bjorn Karlsson, Garth Lancaster, Greg Peet, John Torjo and Walter Bright, for their excellent criticisms and suggestions.

About the Author

Matthew Wilson is a software development consultant for Synesis Software, and creator of the STLSoft libraries. He is author of the book Imperfect C++ (Addison-Wesley, 2004), and is currently working on his next two books, one of which is not about C++. Matthew can be contacted via http://imperfectcplusplus.com/.

Notes & References

[1] Kernighan, Brian and Dennis Ritchie. The C Programming Language, Prentice-Hall, 1988.

[2] How Java's Floating-point Hurts Everybody Everywhere, Kahan and Darcy, http://http.cs.berkeley.edu/~wkahan/JAVAhurt.pdf.

[3] Stroustrup, Bjarne. The C++ Programming Language (Special Edition), Addison-Wesley, 2000.

[4] Wilson, Matthew. Imperfect C++, Addison-Wesley, 2004. (I can't recommend this book highly enough, ;-) )

[5] STLSoft is an open-source organization whose focus is the development of robust, lightweight, cross-platform STL-compatible software, and is located at http://www.stlsoft.org/.

[6] InetSTL (http://www.inetstl.org/) is the Internet-related subproject of STLSoft, which was introduced with STLSoft version 1.7.1. It currently provides STL-like mapping of the Win32 WinInet APIs, but will evolve to cover other Internet APIs (including those on platforms other than Win32).

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