17.4.2 General-Purpose Data Types

I have a true love/hate relationship with unions.

Arnold Robbins

That’s the thing about unions: the compiler will arrange things so they can accommodate both love and hate.

Chet Ramey

The extension API defines a number of simple types and structures for general-purpose use. Additional, more specialized, data structures are introduced in subsequent sections, together with the functions that use them.

The general-purpose types and structures are as follows:

typedef void *awk_ext_id_t;

A value of this type is received from gawk when an extension is loaded. That value must then be passed back to gawk as the first parameter of each API function.

#define awk_const …

This macro expands to ‘const’ when compiling an extension, and to nothing when compiling gawk itself. This makes certain fields in the API data structures unwritable from extension code, while allowing gawk to use them as it needs to.

typedef enum awk_bool {
    awk_false = 0,
} awk_bool_t;

A simple Boolean type.

typedef struct awk_string {
    char *str;      /* data */
    size_t len;     /* length thereof, in chars */
} awk_string_t;

This represents a mutable string. gawk owns the memory pointed to if it supplied the value. Otherwise, it takes ownership of the memory pointed to. Such memory must come from calling one of the gawk_malloc(), gawk_calloc(), or gawk_realloc() functions!

As mentioned earlier, strings are maintained using the current multibyte encoding.

typedef enum {
    AWK_SCALAR,         /* opaque access to a variable */
    AWK_VALUE_COOKIE,   /* for updating a previously created value */
} awk_valtype_t;

This enum indicates the type of a value. It is used in the following struct.

typedef struct awk_value {
    awk_valtype_t val_type;
    union {
        awk_string_t       s;
        awknum_t           n;
        awk_array_t        a;
        awk_scalar_t       scl;
        awk_value_cookie_t vc;
        awk_bool_t         b;
    } u;
} awk_value_t;

An “awk value.” The val_type member indicates what kind of value the union holds, and each member is of the appropriate type.

#define str_value      u.s
#define strnum_value   str_value
#define regex_value    str_value
#define num_value      u.n.d
#define num_type       u.n.type
#define num_ptr        u.n.ptr
#define array_cookie   u.a
#define scalar_cookie  u.scl
#define value_cookie   u.vc
#define bool_value     u.b

Using these macros makes accessing the fields of the awk_value_t more readable.


This enum is used in the following structure for defining the type of numeric value that is being worked with. It is declared at the top level of the file so that it works correctly for C++ as well as for C.

typedef struct awk_number {
    double d;
    enum AWK_NUMBER_TYPE type;
    void *ptr;
} awk_number_t;

This represents a numeric value. Internally, gawk stores every number as either a C double, a GMP integer, or an MPFR arbitrary-precision floating-point value. In order to allow extensions to also support GMP and MPFR values, numeric values are passed in this structure.

The double-precision d element is always populated in data received from gawk. In addition, by examining the type member, an extension can determine if the ptr member is either a GMP integer (type mpz_ptr), or an MPFR floating-point value (type mpfr_ptr_t), and cast it appropriately.

CAUTION: Any MPFR or MPZ values that you create and pass to gawk to save are copied. This means you are responsible to release the storage once you’re done with it. See the sample intdiv extension for some example code.

typedef void *awk_scalar_t;

Scalars can be represented as an opaque type. These values are obtained from gawk and then passed back into it. This is discussed in a general fashion in the text following this list, and in more detail in Variable Access and Update by Cookie.

typedef void *awk_value_cookie_t;

A “value cookie” is an opaque type representing a cached value. This is also discussed in a general fashion in the text following this list, and in more detail in Creating and Using Cached Values.

Scalar values in awk are numbers, strings, strnums, or typed regexps. The awk_value_t struct represents values. The val_type member indicates what is in the union.

Representing numbers is easy—the API uses a C double. Strings require more work. Because gawk allows embedded NUL bytes in string values, a string must be represented as a pair containing a data pointer and length. This is the awk_string_t type.

A strnum (numeric string) value is represented as a string and consists of user input data that appears to be numeric. When an extension creates a strnum value, the result is a string flagged as user input. Subsequent parsing by gawk then determines whether it looks like a number and should be treated as a strnum, or as a regular string.

This is useful in cases where an extension function would like to do something comparable to the split() function which sets the strnum attribute on the array elements it creates. For example, an extension that implements CSV splitting would want to use this feature. This is also useful for a function that retrieves a data item from a database. The PostgreSQL PQgetvalue() function, for example, returns a string that may be numeric or textual depending on the contents.

Typed regexp values (see Strongly Typed Regexp Constants) are not of much use to extension functions. Extension functions can tell that they’ve received them, and create them for scalar values. Otherwise, they can examine the text of the regexp through regex_value.str and regex_value.len.

Identifiers (i.e., the names of global variables) can be associated with either scalar values or with arrays. In addition, gawk provides true arrays of arrays, where any given array element can itself be an array. Discussion of arrays is delayed until Array Manipulation.

The various macros listed earlier make it easier to use the elements of the union as if they were fields in a struct; this is a common coding practice in C. Such code is easier to write and to read, but it remains your responsibility to make sure that the val_type member correctly reflects the type of the value in the awk_value_t struct.

Conceptually, the first three members of the union (number, string, and array) are all that is needed for working with awk values. However, because the API provides routines for accessing and changing the value of a global scalar variable only by using the variable’s name, there is a performance penalty: gawk must find the variable each time it is accessed and changed. This turns out to be a real issue, not just a theoretical one.

Thus, if you know that your extension will spend considerable time reading and/or changing the value of one or more scalar variables, you can obtain a scalar cookie106 object for that variable, and then use the cookie for getting the variable’s value or for changing the variable’s value. The awk_scalar_t type holds a scalar cookie, and the scalar_cookie macro provides access to the value of that type in the awk_value_t struct. Given a scalar cookie, gawk can directly retrieve or modify the value, as required, without having to find it first.

The awk_value_cookie_t type and value_cookie macro are similar. If you know that you wish to use the same numeric or string value for one or more variables, you can create the value once, retaining a value cookie for it, and then pass in that value cookie whenever you wish to set the value of a variable. This saves storage space within the running gawk process and reduces the time needed to create the value.



See the “cookie” entry in the Jargon file for a definition of cookie, and the “magic cookie” entry in the Jargon file for a nice example. See also the entry for “Cookie” in the Glossary.