Posts tagged ‘Void safety’

Attached by default?

 

Opinions requested! See at end.

A void call, during the execution of an object-oriented program, is a call of the standard OO form

x·some_routine (…)                                                /CALL/

where x, a reference, happens to be void (null) instead of denoting, as expected, an object. The operation is not possible; it leads to an exception and, usually, a crash of the program. Void calls are also called “null pointer dereferencing”.

One of the major advances in Eiffel over the past years has been the introduction of attached types, entirely removing the risk of void calls. The language mechanisms, extending the type system, make void-call avoidance a static property, part of type checking: just as the compiler will prevent you from assigning a boolean value to an integer variable, so will it flag your program if it sees a risk of void call. Put the other way around, if your program passes compilation, you have the guarantee that its executions will never produce a void call. Attached types thus remove one of the major headaches of programming, what Tony Hoare [1] called his “one-billion-dollar mistake”:

I call it my billion-dollar mistake. It was the invention of the null reference in 1965. At that time, I was designing the first comprehensive type system for references in an object oriented language (ALGOL W) [2]. My goal was to ensure that all use of references should be absolutely safe, with checking performed automatically by the compiler. But I couldn’t resist the temptation to put in a null reference, simply because it was so easy to implement. This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty year

Thanks to attached types, Eiffel programmers can sleep at night: their programs will not encounter void calls.

To benefit from this advance, you must declare variables accordingly, as either attached (never void after initialization) or detachable (possibly void). You must also write the program properly:

  • If you declare x attached, you must ensure in the rest of the program that before its first use x will have been attached to an object, for example through a creation instruction create x.
  • If you declare x detachable, you must make sure that any call of the above form /CALL/ happens in a context where x is guaranteed to be non-void; for example, you could protect it by a test if x /= Void then or, better, an “object test”.

Code satisfying these properties is called void-safe.

Void safety is the way to go: who wants to worry about programs, even after they have been thoroughly tested and have seemingly worked for a while, crashing at unpredictable times? The absence of null-pointer-dereferencing can be a statically  enforced property, as the experience of Eiffel now demonstrates; and that what it should be. One day, children will think void-safely from the most tender age, and their great-grandparents will tell them, around the fireplace during long and scary winter nights, about the old days when not everyone was programming in Eiffel and even those who did were worried about the sudden null-pointer-derefencing syndrome. To get void safety through ordinary x: PERSON declarations, you had (children, hold your breath) to turn on a compiler option!

The transition to void safety was neither fast nor easy; in fact, it has taken almost ten years. Not everyone was convinced from the beginning, and we have had to improve and simplify the mechanism along the way to make void-safe programming practical. Compatibility has been a key issue throughout: older classes are generally not void-safe, but in a language that has been around for many years and has a large code base of operational software it is essential to ensure a smooth transition. Void safety has, from its introduction, been controlled by a compiler option:

  • With the option off, old code will compile as it used to do, but you do not get any guarantee of void safety. At execution time, a void call can still cause your program to go berserk.
  • With the option on, you get the guarantee: no void calls. To achieve this goal, you have to make sure the classes obey the void safety rules; if they do not, the compiler will reject them until you fix the problem.

In the effort to reconcile the compatibility imperative with the inexorable evolution to void safety, the key decisions have affected default values for compiler options and language conventions. Three separate decisions, in fact. Two of the defaults have already been switched; the question asked at the end of this article addresses the switching of the last remaining one.

The first default governed the void-safety compiler option. On its introduction, void-safety was off by default; the mechanism had to be turned on explicitly, part of the “experimental” option that most EiffelStudio releases offer for new, tentative mechanisms. That particular decision changed a year ago, with version 7.3 (May 2013): now void safety is the default. To include non-void-safe code you must mark  it explicitly.

The second default affects a language convention: the meaning of a standard declaration. A typical declaration, such as

x: PERSON                                                                                      /A/

says that at run time x denotes a reference which, if not void, will be attached to an object of type PERSON.  In pre-void-safety Eiffel, as in today’s other typed OO languages,  the reference could occasionally become void at run time; in other words, x was detachable. With the introduction of void safety, you could emphasize this property by specifying it explicitly:

x: detachable PERSON                                                             /B/

You could also specify that x would never be void by declaring it attached, asking the compiler to guarantee this property for you (through its application of the void-safety rules to all operations involving x). The explicit form in this case is

x: attached PERSON                                                               /C/

In practical programming, of course, you do not want to specify attached or detachable all the time: you want to use the simple form /A/ as often as possible. Originally, since we were starting from a non-void-safe language, compatibility required /A/ to mean /B/ by default. But it turns out that “attached” really is the dominant case: most references should remain attached at all times and Void values should be reserved for important but highly specialized cases such as terminating linked data structures. So the simple form should, in the final state of the language, mean /C/. That particular default was indeed switched early (version 7.0, November 2011) for people using the void-safety compiler option. As a result, the attached keyword is no longer necessary for declarations such as the above, although it remains available. Everything is attached by default; when you want a reference that could be void (and are prepared to bear the responsibility for convincing the compiler that it won’t when you actually use it in a call), you declare it as detachable; that keyword remains necessary.

There remains one last step in the march to all-aboard-for-void-safety: removing the “detachable by default” option, that is to say, the compiler option that will make /A/ mean /B/ (rather than /C/). It is only an option, and not the default; but still it remains available. Do we truly need it? The argument for removing it  is that it simplifies the specification (the fewer options the better) and encourages everyone, even more than before, to move to the new world. The argument against is to avoid disturbing existing projects, including their compiler control files (ECFs).

The question looms: when do we switch the defaults? Some of us think the time is now; specifically, the November release (14.11) [4].

Do you think the option should go? We would like your opinion. Please participate in the Eiffelroom poll [5].

 

References and note

[1] C.A.R. Hoare: Null References: The Billion Dollar Mistake , abstract of talk at QCon London, 9-12 March 2009, available here.

[2] (BM note) As a consolation, before Algol W, LISP already had NIL, which is the null pointer.

[3] Bertrand Meyer, Alexander Kogtenkov and Emmanuel Stapf: Avoid a Void: The Eradication of Null Dereferencing, in Reflections on the Work of C.A.R. Hoare, eds. C. B. Jones, A.W. Roscoe and K.R. Wood, Springer-Verlag, 2010, pages 189-211, available here.

[4] EiffelStudio version numbering changed in 2014: from a classic major_number.minor_number to a plain year.month, with two principal releases, 5 and 11 (May and November).

[5] Poll on switching the attachment defaults: at the bottom of the Eiffelroom page here (direct access here).

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A safe and stable solution

Reading about the latest hullabaloo around Android’s usage of Java, and more generally following the incessant flow of news about X suing Y in the software industry (with many combinations of X and Y) over Java and other object-oriented technologies, someone with an Eiffel perspective can only smile. Throughout its history, suggestions to use Eiffel have often been met initially — along with “Will Eiffel still be around next year?”, becoming truly riotous after 25 years — with objections of proprietariness, apparently because Eiffel initially came from a startup company. In contrast, many other approaches, from C++ to Smalltalk and Java, somehow managed to get favorable vibes from the media; the respective institutions, from AT&T to Xerox and Sun, must be disinterested benefactors of humanity.

Now many who believed this are experiencing a next-morning surprise, discovering under daylight that the person next to whom they wake up is covered with patents and lawsuits.

For their part, people who adopted Eiffel over the years and went on to develop project after project  do not have to stay awake worrying about legal issues and the effects of corporate takeovers; they can instead devote their time to building the best software possible with adequate methods, notations and tools.

This is a good time to recall the regulatory situation of Eiffel. First, the Eiffel Software implementation (EiffelStudio): the product can be used through either an open-source and a proprietary licenses. With both licenses the software is exactly the same; what differs is the status of the code users generate: with the open-source license, they are requested to make their own programs open-source; to keep their code proprietary, they need the commercial license. This is a fair and symmetric requirement. It is made even more attractive by the absence of any run-time fees or royalties of the kind typically charged by database vendors.

The open-source availability of the entire environment, over 2.5 millions line of (mostly Eiffel) code, has spurred the development of countless community contributions, with many more in progress.

Now for the general picture on the language, separate from any particular implementation. Java’s evolution has always been tightly controlled by Sun and now its successor Oracle. There may actually be technical arguments in favor of the designers retaining a strong say in the evolution of a language, but they no longer seem to apply any more now that most of the Java creators have left the company. Contrast this with Eiffel, which is entirely under the control of an international standards committee at ECMA International, the oldest and arguably the most prestigious international standards body for information technology. The standard is freely available online from the ECMA site [1]. It is also an ISO standard [2].

The standardization process is the usual ECMA setup, enabling any interested party to participate. This is not just a statement of principle but the reality, to which I can personally testify since, in spite of being the language’s original designer and author of the reference book, I lost countless battles in the discussions that led to the current standard and continue in preparation of the next version. While I was not always pleased on the moment, the committee’s collegial approach has led to a much more solid result than any single person could have achieved.

The work of ECMA TC49-TG4 (the Eiffel standard committee) has disproved the conventional view that committees can only design camels. In fact TC49-TG4 has constantly worked to keep the language simple and manageable, not hesitating to remove features deemed obsolete or problematic, while extending the range of the language and increasing the Eiffel programmer’s power of expression. As a result, Eiffel today is an immensely better language than when we started our work in 2002. Without a strong community-based process we would never, for example, have made Eiffel the first widespread language to guarantee void-safety (the compile-time removal of null-pointer-dereferencing errors), a breakthrough for software reliability.

Open, fair, free from lawsuits and commercial fights, supported by an enthusiastic community: for projects that need a modern quality-focused software framework, Eiffel is a safe and stable solution.

References

[1] ECMA International: Standard ECMA-367: Eiffel: Analysis, Design and Programming Language, 2nd edition (June 2006), available here (free download).

[2] International Organization for Standardization: ISO/IEC 25436:2006: Information technology — Eiffel: Analysis, Design and Programming Language, available here (for a fee; same text as [1], different formatting).

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Void safety: Getting rid of the spectre of null-pointer dereferencing

A spectre is haunting programming — the spectre of null-pointer dereferencing. All the programming languages of old Europe and the New World have entered into a holy alliance to make everyone’s programs brittle:  Java, C, Pascal, C++, C# and yes, until recently, Eiffel.

The culprit is the use of references to denote objects used in calls: in

         x.f (...)

the value of x is a reference, which normally denotes an object but could at any time be void (or “null”). If this happens, the resulting “void call” will cause an exception and, usually, a crash.  No amount of testing can remove the risk entirely; the only satisfactory solution is a static one, enforcing void safety at the language level.

To this end, Eiffelists of various nationalities have assembled in the Cloud and sketched the following manifesto, to be published in the English language:

        Avoid a Void: The Eradication of Null Dereferencing
        Bertrand Meyer, Alexander Kogtenkov, Emmanuel Stapf
        White paper available here.
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