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Lesson 15. Pattern 7. Pointer packing

Lesson 15. Pattern 7. Pointer packing

Jan 24 2012

A lot of errors occurring when porting code to 64-bit systems are related to changes of relations between the size of the pointer and the size of prime integers. In the environment with ILP32 data model prime integers and pointers have the same size. Unfortunately, 32-bit code always relies on this assumption. Pointers are often cast to int, unsigned, long, DWORD and other inappropriate types.

You should always keep in mind that you must use only memsize-types for integer representation of pointers. We believe it is better to use the type uintptr_t because it reflects our intention better and makes the code more portable protecting it from changes in future.

Consider two small examples.

1) char *p;
   p = (char *) ((int)p & PAGEOFFSET);
2) DWORD tmp = (DWORD)malloc(ArraySize); 
   int *ptr = (int *)tmp;

The both examples do not consider that the pointer's size might be other than 32 bits. Here an explicit type conversion is used that throws off the more significant bits of the pointer - this is an evident error on a 64-bit system. Below are the correct samples where integer memsize-types (intptr_t and DWORD_PTR) are used to pack the pointers:

1) char *p;
   p = (char *) ((intptr_t)p & PAGEOFFSET);
2) DWORD_PTR tmp = (DWORD_PTR)malloc(ArraySize); 
   int *ptr = (int *)tmp;

The two examples discussed above are dangerous because the program failure might stay undetected for a long time. The program may work correctly when dealing with small data amounts on a 64-bit system as long as the processed addresses remain inside the first four Gbytes of memory. But then, as the program will be launched to solve large applied tasks, an overflow will occur outside this area. The code of the examples will lead to an unpredictable program behavior when processing the pointer to an object situated outside this area.

The next code sample will reveal itself right away at the fist run:

void GetBufferAddr(void **retPtr) {
  // Access violation on 64-bit system
  *retPtr = p;
unsigned bufAddress;
GetBufferAddr((void **)&bufAddress);

To correct it you should also use a type capable of storing the pointer.

size_t bufAddress;
GetBufferAddr((void **)&bufAddress); //OK

Sometimes it is just necessary to pack a pointer into a 32-bit type. It usually happens when you need to work with obsolete API functions. In these cases you should resort to special functions such as LongToIntPtr, PtrToUlong, etc.

To sum it up, I would like to note that it would be a bad style to pack a pointer into the types which always equal 64 bits. The code below will have to be corrected again when 128-bit systems appear:

// Bad style. The 128-bit time will come.
__int64 n = __int64(p);
p = PVOID(n);

They say that Microsoft Research developers are already working on the task of providing compatibility of Windows 8 and Windows 9 cores with the 128-bit architecture. So, write a good code at once.


Packing of pointers into 32-bit types is diagnosed by the tool PVS-Studio with the diagnostic warnings V114 and V202.

We should note that simple errors related to conversions of pointers to 32-bit types are well diagnosed by Visual C++ compiler. For example, the compiler will warn you about the error in the code we have considered above:

char *p;
p = (char *) ((int)p & PAGEOFFSET);

Visual C++ will generate the warning "warning C4311: 'type cast' : pointer truncation from 'char *' to 'int'". But the example with GetBufferAddr will not be suspicious to Visual C++. So, PVS-Studio is more reliable than Visual C++ when you want to make sure that your code has no such errors.

Let us consider one more important thing related to PVS-Studio analyzer. Although some of the errors can be detected with the help of Visual C++ warnings, it is sometimes impossible in practice. Many warnings are often disabled in large and obsolete projects (especially if they contain large third-party libraries) and therefore there is little probability that all 64-bit errors will be detected. On the other hand, it is not desirable to enable the warnings. There may be a lot of these but only some of them can really help you in detecting 64-bit errors. All the rest warnings will be irrelevant to the project and rather tell you about the inaccuracy of the code than potential 64-bit issues.

PVS-Studio is invaluable in this case. It will detect only those potential errors in the code which are directly related to the issues of porting the code to the 64-bit architecture.

The course authors: Andrey Karpov (karpov@viva64.com), Evgeniy Ryzhkov (evg@viva64.com).

The rightholder of the course "Lessons on development of 64-bit C/C++ applications" is OOO "Program Verification Systems". The company develops software in the sphere of source program code analysis. The company's site: http://www.viva64.com.