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DIP25: Sealed references

Title: Sealed references
DIP: 25
Version: 1
Status: Preliminary Approved
Created: 2013-02-05
Last Modified: 2015-01-17
Author: Walter Bright and Andrei Alexandrescu


D offers a number of features aimed at systems-level coding, such as unrestricted pointers, casting between integers and pointers, and the @system attribute. These means, combined with the other features of D, make it a complete and expressive language for systems-level tasks. On the other hand, economy of means should be exercised in defining such powerful but dangerous features. Most other features should offer good safety guarantees with little or no loss in efficiency or expressiveness. This proposal makes ref provide such a guarantee: with the proposed rules, it is impossible in safe code to have ref refer to a destroyed object. The restrictions introduced are not entirely backward compatible, but disallow code that is stylistically questionable and that can be easily replaced either with equivalent and clearer code.

In a nutshell

This DIP proposes that any ref parameter that a function received and also wants to return must be also annotated with return. Annotation are deduced for templates and lambdas, but must be explicit for all other declarations. Example:

ref int fun(ref int a} { return a; } // ERROR
ref int gun(return ref int a} { return a; } // FINE
ref T hun(T)(ref T a} { return a; } // FINE, templates use deduction


Currently, D has some provisions for avoiding dangling references:

ref int fun(int x) {
  return x; // Error: escaping reference to local variable x 
ref int gun() {
  int x;
  return x; // Error: escaping reference to local variable x 
struct S {
    int x;
ref int hun() {
  S s;
  return s.x; // see https://issues.dlang.org/show_bug.cgi?id=13902
ref int iun() {
  int a[42];
  return a[5]; // see https://issues.dlang.org/show_bug.cgi?id=13902

However, this enforcement is shallow (even after fixing issue 13902). The following code compiles and allows reads and writes through defunct stack locations, bypassing scoping and lifetime rules:

ref int identity(ref int x) {
  return x; // pass-through function that does nothing 
ref int fun(int x) {
  return identity(x); // escape the address of a parameter 
ref int gun() {
  int x;
  return identity(x); // escape the address of a local
struct S {
    int x;
    ref int get() { return x; }
ref int hun(S x) {
  return x.get; // escape the address of a part of a parameter 
ref int iun() {
  S s;
  return s.get; // escape the address of part of a local
ref int jun() {
  return S().get; // worst contender: escape the address of a part of an rvalue

The escape patterns are obvious in these simple examples that make all code available and use no recursion, and may be found automatically. The problem is that generally the compiler cannot see the body of identity or S.get(). We need to devise a method that derives enough information for safety analysis only given the function signatures, not their bodies.

This DIP devises rules that allow passing objects by reference down into functions, and return references up from functions, whilst disallowing cases such as the above when a reference passed up ends up referring to a deallocated temporary.

Adding return as a parameter attribute

The main issue is typechecking functions that return a ref T and accept some of their parameters by ref. Those that attempt to return locals or parts thereof are already addressed directly, contingent to Issue 13902. The one case remaining is allowing a function returning ref T to return a (part of a) parameter passed by ref.

The key is to distinguish legal from illegal cases. One simple but overly conservative option would be to simply disallow returning a ref parameter or part thereof. That makes identity impossible to implement, and as a consequence accessing elements of a container by reference becomes difficult or impossible to typecheck properly. Also, heap-allocated structures with deterministic destruction (e.g. reference counted) must insert member copies for all accesses.

This proposal promotes adding return as an attribute that propagates the lifetime of a parameter to the return value of a function. With the proposed semantics, a function is disallowed to return a ref parameter of a part thereof UNLESS the parameter is also annotated with return. Under the proposed semantics identity will be spelled as follows:

@safe ref int wrongIdentity(ref int x) { 
    return x; // ERROR! Cannot return a ref, please use "return ref"
@safe ref int identity(return ref int x) { 
    return x; // fine

Just by seeing the signature ref int identity(return ref int x) the compiler assumes that the result of identity must have a shorter or equal lifetime than x and typechecks callers accordingly. Example (given the previous definition of identity):

@safe ref int fun(return ref int x) { 
    int a;
    return a; // ERROR per current language rules
    static int b;
    return b; // fine per current language rules
    return identity(a); // ERROR, this may escape the address of a local
    return x; // fine, propagate x's lifetime to output
    return identity(x); // fine, propagate x's lifetime through identity to the output
    return identity(identity(x)); // fine, propagate x's lifetime twice through identity to the output
@safe ref int gun(ref int input) {
    static int[42] data;
    return data[input]; // works, can always return static-lived data
@safe struct S {
    private int x;
    ref int get() return { return x; } // should work, see next section 

Interaction with auto ref

Syntactically it is illegal to use auto ref and return ref on the same parameter. Deduction of the return attribute still applies as discussed below.


Deduction of the return attribute will be effected under the same conditions as for pure (currently for generic and lambda functions). That means the generic identity function does not require the return attribute:

auto ref T identity(auto ref T) {
    return x; // correct, no need for return

Types of Result vs. Parameters


@safe ref int fun(return ref float x);

This function arguably cannot return a value scoped within the lifetime of its argument for the simple reason it's impossible to find an int somewhere in a float (apart from unsafe address manipulation). However, this DIP ignores types; if a parameter is return ref, it is always considered potentially escaped as a result. It is in fact possible that the author of fun wants to constrain its output's lifetime for unrelated reasons.

Future versions of this DIP may relax this rule.

Multiple Parameters

If multiple return ref parameters are present, the result's lifetime is conservatively assumed to be enclosed in the lifetime of the shortest-lived of those arguments.

Member Functions

Member functions of structs must qualify this with return if they want to return a result by ref that won't outlive this. Example:

@safe struct S {
    static int a;
    int b;
    ref int fun() { return a; } // fine, callers assume infinite lifetime
    ref int gun() { return b; } // ERROR! Cannot return a direct member
    ref int hun() return { return b; } // fine, result is scoped within this


For the initial release, the requirement of returns for ref parameter data to be marked with return will only apply to @safe functions. The reasons for this are to avoid breaking existing code, and because it's not yet clear whether this feature will interfere with valid constructs in a system language.

@safe   ref int fun(ref int x)        { return x;} // Error
@safe   ref int gun(return ref int x) { return x;} // OK
@system ref int hun(ref int x)        { return x;} // OK for now, @system code.
@system ref int jun(return ref int x) { return x;} // preferred, gives more hints to compiler for lifetime of return value


This document has been placed in the Public Domain.