Rationale for Ada 2005

John Barnes
Contents   Index   References   Search   Previous   Next 

1.3.2 Overview: Access types

It has been said that playing with pointers is like playing with fire – properly used all is well but carelessness can lead to disaster. In order to avoid disasters, Ada 95 takes a stern view regarding the naming of access types and their conversion. However, experience has shown that the Ada 95 view is perhaps unnecessarily stern and leads to tedious programming.
We will first consider the question of giving names to access types. In Ada 95 all access types are named except for access parameters and access discriminants. Thus we might have 
type Animal is tagged
   record Legs: Integer; ... end record;
type Acc_Animal is access Animal;    -- named
procedure P(Beast: access Animal; ... );    -- anonymous
Moreover, there is a complete lack of symmetry between named access types and access parameters. In the case of named access types, they all have a null value (and this is the default on declaration if no initial value be given). But in the case of access parameters, a null value is not permitted as an actual parameter. Furthermore, named access types can be restricted to be access to constant types such as 
type Rigid_Animal is access constant Animal;
which means that we cannot change the value of the Animal referred to. But in the case of access parameters, we cannot say 
procedure P(Beast: access constant Animal);    -- not Ada 95
In Ada 2005 almost all these various restrictions are swept away in the interests of flexibility and uniformity.
First of all we can explicitly specify whether an access type (strictly subtype) has a null value. We can write 
type Acc_Animal is not null access all Animal'Class;
This means that we are guaranteed that an object of type Acc_Animal cannot refer to a null animal. Therefore, on declaration such an object should be initialized as in the following sequence 
type Pig is new Animal with ... ;
Empress_Of_Blandings: aliased Pig := ... ;
My_Animal: Acc_Animal := Empress_Of_Blandings'Access; -- must initialize
(The Empress of Blandings is a famous pig in the novels concerning Lord Emsworth by the late P G Wodehouse.) If we forget to initialize My_Animal then Constraint_Error is raised; technically the underlying type still has a null value but Acc_Animal does not. We can also write not null access constant of course.
The advantage of using a null exclusion is that when we come to do a dereference 
Number_of_Legs: Integer := My_Animal.Legs;
then no check is required to ensure that we do not dereference a null pointer. This makes the code faster.
The same freedom to add constant and not null also applies to access parameters. Thus we can write all of the following in Ada 2005 
procedure P(Beast: access Animal);
procedure P(Beast: access constant Animal);
procedure P(Beast: not null access Animal);
procedure P(Beast: not null access constant Animal);
Note that all is not permitted in this context since access parameters always are general (that is, they can refer to declared objects as well as to allocated ones).
Note what is in practice a minor incompatibility, the first of the above now permits a null value as actual parameter in Ada 2005 whereas it was forbidden in Ada 95. This is actually a variation at runtime which is normally considered abhorrent. But in this case it just means that any check that will still raise Constraint_Error will be in a different place – and in any event the program was presumably incorrect.
Another change in Ada 2005 is that we can use anonymous access types other than just as parameters (and discriminants). We can in fact also use anonymous access types in 
the declaration of stand-alone objects and components of arrays and records,
a renaming declaration,
a function return type. 
Thus we can extend our farmyard example 
type Horse is new Animal with ... ;
type Acc_Horse is access all Horse;
type Acc_Pig is access all Pig;
Napoleon, Snowball: Acc_Pig := ... ;
Boxer, Clover: Acc_Horse := ... ;
and now we can declare an array of animals 
Animal_Farm: constant array (Positive range <>) of access Animal'Class :=
                                             (Napoleon, Snowball, Boxer, Clover);
(With acknowledgments to George Orwell.) Note that the components of the array are of an anonymous access type. We can also have record components of an anonymous type
type Ark is
      Stallion, Mare: access Horse;
      Boar, Sow: access Pig;
      Cockerel, Hen: access Chicken;
      Ram, Ewe: access Sheep;
   end record;
Noahs_Ark: Ark := (Boxer, Clover, ... );
This is not a very good example since I am sure that Noah took care to take actual animals into the Ark and not merely their addresses.
A more useful example is given by the classic linked list. In Ada 95 (and Ada 83) we have 
type Cell;
type Cell_Ptr is access Cell;
type Cell is
      Next: Cell_Ptr;
      Value: Integer;
   end record;
In Ada 2005, we do not have to declare the type Cell_Ptr in order to declare the type Cell and so we do not need to use the incomplete declaration to break the circularity. We can simply write 
type Cell is
      Next: access Cell;
      Value: Integer;
   end record;
Here we have an example of the use of the type name Cell within its own declaration. In some cases this is interpreted as referring to the current instance of the type (for example, in a task body) but the rule has been changed to permit its usage as here.
We can also use an anonymous access type for a single variable such as 
List: access Cell := ... ;
An example of the use of an anonymous access type for a function result might be in another animal function such as 
function Mate_Of(A: access Animal'Class) return access Animal'Class;
We could then perhaps write 
if Mate_Of(Noahs_Ark.Ram) /= Noahs_Ark.Ewe then
   ... -- better get Noah to sort things out
end if;
Anonymous access types can also be used in a renaming declaration. This and other detailed points on matters such as accessibility are discussed in Section 3.3.
The final important change in access types concerns access to subprogram types. Access to subprogram types were introduced into Ada 95 largely for the implementation of callback. But important applications of such types in other languages (going back to Pascal and even Algol 60) are for mathematical applications such as integration where a function to be manipulated is passed as a parameter. The Ada 83 and Ada 95 approach has always been to say "use generics". But this can be clumsy and so a direct alternative is now provided.
Recall that in Ada 95 we can write 
type Integrand is access function(X: Float) return Float;
function Integrate(Fn: Integrand; Lo, Hi: Float) return Float;
The idea is that the function Integrate finds the value of the integral of the function passed as parameter Fn between the limits Lo and Hi. This works fine in Ada 95 for simple cases such as where the function is declared at library level. Thus to evaluate
Integrate Sqrt(x)
we can write 
Result := Integrate(Sqrt'Access, 0.0, 1.0);
where the function Sqrt is from the library package Ada.Numerics.Elementary_Functions.
However, if the function to be integrated is more elaborate then we run into difficulties in Ada 95 if we attempt to use access to subprogram types. Consider the following example which aims to compute the integral of the expression xy over the square region 0 ≤ x, y ≤ 1. 
with Integrate;
procedure Main is
   function G(X: Float) return Float is
      function F(Y: Float) return Float is
         return X*Y;
      end F;
      return Integrate(F'Access, 0.0, 1.0);    -- illegal in Ada 95
   end G;
   Result: Float;
   Result:= Integrate(G'Access, 0.0, 1.0);    -- illegal in Ada 95
end Main;
But this is illegal in Ada 95 because of the accessibility rules necessary with named access types in order to prevent dangling references. Thus we need to prevent the possibility of storing a pointer to a local subprogram in a global structure. This means that both F'Access and G'Access are illegal in the above.
Note that although we could make the outer function G global so that G'Access would be allowed nevertheless the function F has to be nested inside G in order to gain access to the parameter X of G. It is typical of functions being integrated that they have to have information passed globally – the number of parameters of course is fixed by the profile used by the function Integrate.
The solution in Ada 2005 is to introduce anonymous access to subprogram types by analogy with anonymous access to object types. Thus the function Integrate becomes 
function Integrate(Fn: access function(X: Float) return Float;
                   Lo, Hi: Float) return Float;
Note that the parameter Fn has an anonymous type defined by the profile so that we get a nesting of profiles. This may seem a bit convoluted but is much the same as in Pascal.
The nested example above is now valid and no accessibility problems arise. (The reader will recall that accessibility problems with anonymous access to object types are prevented by a runtime check; in the case of anonymous access to subprogram types the corresponding problems are prevented by decreeing that the accessibility level is infinite – actually the RM says larger than that of any master which comes to the same thing.)
Anonymous access to subprogram types are also useful in many other applications such as iterators as will be illustrated later.
Note that we can also prefix all access to subprogram types, both named and anonymous, by constant and not null in the same way as for access to object types.

Contents   Index   References   Search   Previous   Next 
© 2005, 2006, 2007 John Barnes Informatics.
Sponsored in part by:
The Ada Resource Association and its member companies: ARA Members AdaCore Polyspace Technologies Praxis Critical Systems IBM Rational Sofcheck and   Ada-Europe: