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B.3 Type Rules for Aliasing

C code that converts a pointer to a different pointer type can use the pointers to access the same memory locations with two different data types. If the same address is accessed with different types in a single control thread, optimization can make the code do surprising things (in effect, make it malfunction).

Here’s a concrete example where aliasing that can change the code’s behavior when it is optimized. We assume that float is 4 bytes long, like int, and so is every pointer. Thus, the structures struct a and struct b are both 8 bytes.

#include <stdio.h>
struct a { int size; char *data; };
struct b { float size; char *data; };

void sub (struct a *p, struct b *q)
  int x;
  p->size = 0;
  q->size = 1;
  x = p->size;
  printf("x       =%d\n", x);
  printf("p->size =%d\n", (int)p->size);
  printf("q->size =%d\n", (int)q->size);

int main(void)
  struct a foo;
  struct a *p = &foo;
  struct b *q = (struct b *) &foo;

  sub (p, q);

This code works as intended when compiled without optimization. All the operations are carried out sequentially as written. The code sets x to p->size, but what it actually gets is the bits of the floating point number 1, as type int.

However, when optimizing, the compiler is allowed to assume (mistakenly, here) that q does not point to the same storage as p, because their data types are not allowed to alias.

From this assumption, the compiler can deduce (falsely, here) that the assignment into q->size has no effect on the value of p->size, which must therefore still be 0. Thus, x will be set to 0.

GNU C, following the C standard, defines this optimization as legitimate. Code that misbehaves when optimized following these rules is, by definition, incorrect C code.

The rules for storage aliasing in C are based on the two data types: the type of the object, and the type it is accessed through. The rules permit accessing part of a storage object of type t using only these types:

What do these rules say about the example in this subsection?

For foo.size (equivalently, a->size), t is int. The type float is not allowed as an aliasing type by those rules, so b->size is not supposed to alias with elements of j. Based on that assumption, GNU C makes a permitted optimization that was not, in this case, consistent with what the programmer intended the program to do.

Whether GCC actually performs type-based aliasing analysis depends on the details of the code. GCC has other ways to determine (in some cases) whether objects alias, and if it gets a reliable answer that way, it won’t fall back on type-based heuristics.

The importance of knowing the type-based aliasing rules is not so as to ensure that the optimization is done where it would be safe, but so as to ensure it is not done in a way that would break the program. You can turn off type-based aliasing analysis by giving GCC the option -fno-strict-aliasing.

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