Controlling Side Effects

As with most programming languages, C allows side effects in expressions. This leads to subtle issues about conflicting side effects, when subexpressions of the same expression read/write the same variable.

Preventing Undefined Behavior

Conflicting side effects are a kind of undefined behavior; the C Standard (section 6.5) defines the concept as follows:

"Between two sequence points, an object is modified more than once, or is modified and the prior value is read other than to determine the value to be stored"

This legalistic wording is somewhat opaque, but the notion of sequence points is summarized in Annex C of the C90 and C99 standards. MISRA C repeats these conditions in the Amplification of Rule 13.2, including the read of a volatile variable as a side effect similar to writing a variable.

This rule is undecidable, so MISRA C completes it with two rules that provide simpler restrictions preventing some side effects in expressions, thus reducing the potential for undefined behavior:

  • Rule 13.3: "A full expression containing an increment (++) or decrement (--) operator should have no other potential side effects other than that caused by the increment or decrement operator".

  • Rule 13.4: "The result of an assignment operator should not be used".

In practice, conflicting side effects usually manifest themselves as portability issues, since the result of the evaluation of an expression depends on the order in which a compiler decides to evaluate its subexpressions. So changing the compiler version or the target platform might lead to a different behavior of the application.

To reduce the dependency on evaluation order, MISRA C Rule 13.1 states: "Initializer lists shall not contain persistent side effects". This case is theoretically different from the previously mentioned conflicting side effects, because initializers that comprise an initializer list are separated by sequence points, so there is no risk of undefined behavior if two initializers have conflicting side effects. But given that initializers are executed in an unspecified order, the result of a conflict is potentially as damaging for the application.

Reducing Programmer Confusion

Even in cases with no undefined or unspecified behavior, expressions with multiple side effects can be confusing to programmers reading or maintaining the code. This problem arises in particular with C's increment and decrement operators that can be applied prior to or after the expression evaluation, and with the assignment operator = in C since it can easily be mistaken for equality. Thus MISRA C forbids the use of the increment / decrement (Rule 13.3) and assignment (Rule 13.4) operators in expressions that have other potential side effects.

In other cases, the presence of expressions with side effects might be confusing, if the programmer wrongly thinks that the side effects are guaranteed to occur. Consider the function decrease_until_one_is_null below, which decreases both arguments until one is null:

#include <stdio.h> void decrease_until_one_is_null (int *x, int *y) { if (x == 0 || y == 0) { return; } while (--*x != 0 && --*y != 0) { // nothing } } int main() { int x = 42, y = 42; decrease_until_one_is_null (&x, &y); printf("x = %d, y = %d\n", x, y); return 0; }

The program produces the following output:

x = 0, y = 1

I.e., starting from the same value 42 for both x and y, only x has reached the value zero after decrease_until_one_is_null returns. The reason is that the side effect on y is performed only conditionally. To avoid such surprises, MISRA C Rule 13.5 states: "The right hand operand of a logical && or || operator shall not contain persistent side effects"; this rule forbids the code above.

MISRA C Rule 13.6 similarly states: "The operand of the sizeof operator shall not contain any expression which has potential side effects". Indeed, the operand of sizeof is evaluated only in rare situations, and only according to C99 rules, which makes any side effect in such an operand a likely mistake.

Side Effects and SPARK

In SPARK, expressions cannot have side effects; only statements can. In particular, there are no increment/decrement operators, and no assignment operator. There is instead an assignment statement, whose syntax using := clearly distinguishes it from equality (using =). And in any event an expression is not allowed as a statement and this a construct such as X = Y; would be illegal. Here is how a variable X can be assigned, incremented and decremented:

X := 1;
X := X + 1;
X := X - 1;

There are two possible side effects when evaluating an expression:

  • a read of a volatile variable

  • a side effect occurring inside a function that the expression calls

Reads of volatile variables in SPARK are restricted to appear immediately at statement level, so the following is not allowed:

package Volatile_Read is X : Integer with Volatile; procedure P (Y : out Integer); end Volatile_Read;
package body Volatile_Read is procedure P (Y : out Integer) is begin Y := X - X; -- ERROR end P; end Volatile_Read;

Instead, every read of a volatile variable must occur immediately before being assigned to another variable, as follows:

package Volatile_Read is X : Integer with Volatile; procedure P (Y : out Integer); end Volatile_Read;
package body Volatile_Read is procedure P (Y : out Integer) is X1 : constant Integer := X; X2 : constant Integer := X; begin Y := X1 - X2; end P; end Volatile_Read;

Note here that the order of capture of the volatile value of X might be significant. For example, X might denote a quantity which only increases, like clock time, so that the above expression X1 - X2 would always be negative or zero.

Even more significantly, functions in SPARK cannot have side effects; only procedures can. The only effect of a SPARK function is the computation of a result from its inputs, which may be passed as parameters or as global variables. In particular, SPARK functions cannot have out or in out parameters:

function Bad_Function (X, Y : Integer; Sum, Max : out Integer) return Boolean; -- ERROR, since "out" parameters are not allowed

More generally, SPARK does not allow functions that have a side effect in addition to returning their result, as is typical of many idioms in other languages, for example when setting a new value and returning the previous one:

package Bad_Functions is function Set (V : Integer) return Integer; function Get return Integer; end Bad_Functions;
package body Bad_Functions is Value : Integer := 0; function Set (V : Integer) return Integer is Previous : constant Integer := Value; begin Value := V; -- ERROR return Previous; end Set; function Get return Integer is (Value); end Bad_Functions;

GNATprove detects that function Set has a side effect on global variable Value and issues an error. The correct idiom in SPARK for such a case is to use a procedure with an out parameter to return the desired result:

package Ok_Subprograms is procedure Set (V : Integer; Prev : out Integer); function Get return Integer; end Ok_Subprograms;
package body Ok_Subprograms is Value : Integer := 0; procedure Set (V : Integer; Prev : out Integer) is begin Prev := Value; Value := V; end Set; function Get return Integer is (Value); end Ok_Subprograms;

With the above restrictions in SPARK, none of the conflicts of side effects that can occur in C can occur in SPARK, and this is guaranteed by flow analysis.