Fixing const

The const type qualifier is used (in C, C++, D, rust among others) to declare that a piece of data will not be modified through the binding being declared. For pointers, the pointer and the data pointed to can be declared const independently.

int x = 42;
int y = 21;
const int* p = &x;
*p = 5; // error
p = &y; // Ok
int *const q = &x;
*q = 5; // Ok
q = &y; // error
const int * const r = &x;
*r = 5; // error
r = &y; // error

Pointers to const are commonly used as arguments to functions that promise that the data will not be modified through that pointer. This helps the caller of a function to infer what arguments will not be modified by the function. Consider the strchr function in C standard library that takes a null-terminated string and a character as argument and returns a pointer to the first matching character in the string. It is declared as follows:

char *strchr(const char *str, int c);

The argument is const char * because this function does not modify the input string. On the other hand, the return value is char * because the input string could actually be mutable and the caller of the function may want to mutate the string through the returned value.

char a[] = "Hello world";
char *p = strchr(a, 'w');
*p = 'W';

This magic is achieved by casting away the const in the function. The problem with this approach is that the input string could actually be const in which case the return value should not be mutable.

The C++ standard library solves this problem by declaring two overloads for this function.

char* strchr(char* str, int c);
const char* strchr(const char* str, int c);

This solution has two problems: First, overloads are a mechanism that should only be used when you want to provide different implementations based on the types of arguments. Here, the implementation of both functions are the same. Second, implementing overloading requires name mangling making the function un-callable from C.

Using templates, we can combine the two equivalent function definitions into a single definition.

template <class T>
// Hire a template guru to ensure that T = char or T = const char
T* strchr(T* str, int c) { }

This solution also does not solve the issue of name mangling. Templates are also too powerful for this purpose as they are usually used to map a single function definition in source code into multiple functions in the object file.

This problem of distinguishing between const and mut also arises in rust. For example, here are two methods of slice.

pub fn split_at(&self, mid: usize) -> (&[T], &[T])
pub fn split_at_mut(&mut self, mid: usize) -> (&mut [T], &mut [T])

In fact, the slice API is filled with f and f_mut for various values of f.

The D programming language provides a solution to this problem by providing the inout keyword that allows functions to be generic over const qualifiers.

inout(char)* strchr(inout(char)* str, int c) { return str; }

This function can be compiled without name mangling and be called from C. The exported declaration can be the same as the original declaration for strchr in C.

If there are multiple inout in the parameters, the inout is set to the most restrictive of all the corresponding qualifiers in arguments.

The D compiler does not properly handle inout appearing in higher-order functions. A more fundamental problem is that the inout is a single variable that gets assigned to a concrete const or mutable value upon instantiation. The following valid example does not compile.

inout(int)* foo(inout(int)* a, inout(int)* function (inout(int)*) b)
    return b(a);

int global = 0;

int* f(const(int)* x) { return &global; }

const int w = 0;
int *x = foo(&w, &f); // error
*x = 5;

Here, the inout in return type of foo must match the inout in the return type of parameter b and the inout in parameter a must match the inout in parameter of b.

const generic functions

Ideally, one should be able to specify multiple inout variables and the relations between them in the function declaration. An illuminating example is the following function used for iterating over intrusive linked lists:

void for_each(
    list_head* lh,
    void* (*entry)(list_head *),
    void (*process)(void *)

The entry function does the casting magic that is required to convert a list_head* into a pointer to the actual structure and the process function processes a single structure in the list. As written, all data is assumed to be mutable. This is too strict. The only requirements are that if the process function requires a pointer to mutable as input, then the entry function should produce one and if the entry function requires a pointer to mutable then lh should be one.

For simplicity, let us assume that the only type qualifiers are const and mut and they are totally ordered by the relation : given by const : mut. The above function can be declared much more precisely using the following declaration. The syntax is a mix of rust and D.

fn for_each!(
  inout!3 : inout!2
, inout!1 : inout!0
  lh : *inout!0 list_head
, entry : *fn(*inout!1 list_head) -> *inout!2 void
, process : *fn(*inout!3 void) -> void
) -> void;

Here, the !() block specifies constraints on generic parameters. The speicification inout!3 : inout!2 means that inout!2 is const implies that so is inout!3. Indeed, the code generated for the function remains the same irrespective of the actual values of inout variables. Therefore, this function can be exported to C as there is no need for name mangling. The following declaration should be used in C.

void for_each(
    const list_head* lh,
    const void *(*entry)(list_head *),
    void (*process)(void *)

i.e, an inout!i is replaced with const in contravariant positions and with mut in covariant positions.

const generic datatypes

One of the central concepts in D is that of ranges. A range is a generalization of the slice type T[] which is a pair (T*, int). One can iterate over the elements of a range by making the pointer point to the next element and decrementing the length. A very common datatype in D is a slice that points to const elements providing a read-only view of a range of elements.

A problem commonly encountered in D while working with ranges is that there is no way for the compiler to obtain a tail-const version of a user-defined range. For slices, which are the most common range types, the compiler knows that it can obtain the tail-const version of const(T[]) by transforming it to const(T)[]. But, for a user-defined range, the compiler has no way to obtain this type.

The problem here is that a range (like a pointer) is generic over two things: the type of the elements and their mutability. Slices allow the programmer to specify the mutability of elements separately in its datatype specification. But, the D programming language considers a range as a generic type with only the type parameter. One can solve this problem by allowing generic inout parameters in datatype definitions. For example, here is the definition of slice.

struct slice!(T)
    inout!1(T)* ptr;
    int len;

struct range!(T)
    // Some declarations that use inout!1

In the above definitions, we assume that inout!0 refers to the qualifier on the actual struct. By default, all members of a struct can be recursively qualified inout!0 giving us transitive const as the default.

To make this work, the use of inout!i variables at places other than qualifiers (For example, it should not be possible to test its value in a static if) has to be disallowed. The compiler can decide whether a const range!(T, const) is copy-able to range!(T, const). The compiler can also infer the values of inout variables by using rules that are similar to the inference rules for lifetime variables in rust.

For full generality, we can allow the use of any number of inout!i variables and specification of constraints on them inside the !() block as was the case for functions.