Access types (pointers)

Overview

Pointers are a potentially dangerous construct, which conflicts with Ada's underlying philosophy.

There are two ways in which Ada helps shield programmers from the dangers of pointers:

  1. One approach, which we have already seen, is to provide alternative features so that the programmer does not need to use pointers. Parameter modes, arrays, and varying size types are all constructs that can replace typical pointer usages in C.

  2. Second, Ada has made pointers as safe and restricted as possible, but allows "escape hatches" when the programmer explicitly requests them and presumably will be exercising such features with appropriate care.

Here is how you declare a simple pointer type, or access type, in Ada:

    
    
        
package Dates is type Months is (January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December); type Date is record Day : Integer range 1 .. 31; Month : Months; Year : Integer; end record; end Dates;
with Dates; use Dates; package Access_Types is -- Declare an access type type Date_Acc is access Date; -- ^ "Designated type" -- ^ Date_Acc values point -- to Date objects D : Date_Acc := null; -- ^ Literal for -- "access to nothing" -- ^ Access to date end Access_Types;

This illustrates how to:

  • Declare an access type whose values point to ("designate") objects from a specific type

  • Declare a variable (access value) from this access type

  • Give it a value of null

In line with Ada's strong typing philosophy, if you declare a second access type whose designated type is Date, the two access types will be incompatible with each other:

    
    
        
with Dates; use Dates; package Access_Types is -- Declare an access type type Date_Acc is access Date; type Date_Acc_2 is access Date; D : Date_Acc := null; D2 : Date_Acc_2 := D; -- ^ Invalid! Different types end Access_Types;

In other languages

In most other languages, pointer types are structurally, not nominally typed, like they are in Ada, which means that two pointer types will be the same as long as they share the same target type and accessibility rules.

Not so in Ada, which takes some time getting used to. A seemingly simple problem is, if you want to have a canonical access to a type, where should it be declared? A commonly used pattern is that if you need an access type to a specific type you "own", you will declare it along with the type:

package Access_Types is
   type Point is record
      X, Y : Natural;
   end record;

   type Point_Access is access Point;
end Access_Types;

Allocation (by type)

Once we have declared an access type, we need a way to give variables of the types a meaningful value! You can allocate a value of an access type with the new keyword in Ada.

    
    
        
with Dates; use Dates; package Access_Types is type Date_Acc is access Date; D : Date_Acc := new Date; -- ^ Allocate a new Date record end Access_Types;

If the type you want to allocate needs constraints, you can put them in the subtype indication, just as you would do in a variable declaration:

    
    
        
with Dates; use Dates; package Access_Types is type String_Acc is access String; -- ^ -- Access to unconstrained array type Msg : String_Acc; -- ^ Default value is null Buffer : String_Acc := new String (1 .. 10); -- ^ Constraint required end Access_Types;

In some cases, though, allocating just by specifying the type is not ideal, so Ada also allows you to initialize along with the allocation. This is done via the qualified expression syntax:

    
    
        
with Dates; use Dates; package Access_Types is type Date_Acc is access Date; type String_Acc is access String; D : Date_Acc := new Date'(30, November, 2011); Msg : String_Acc := new String'("Hello"); end Access_Types;

Dereferencing

The last important piece of Ada's access type facility is how to get from an access value to the object that is pointed to, that is, how to dereference the pointer. Dereferencing a pointer uses the .all syntax in Ada, but is often not needed — in many cases, the access value will be implicitly dereferenced for you:

    
    
        
with Dates; use Dates; package Access_Types is type Date_Acc is access Date; D : Date_Acc := new Date'(30, November, 2011); Today : Date := D.all; -- ^ Access value dereference J : Integer := D.Day; -- ^ Implicit dereference for -- record and array components -- Equivalent to D.all.day end Access_Types;

Other features

As you might know if you have used pointers in C or C++, we are still missing features that are considered fundamental to the use of pointers, such as:

  • Pointer arithmetic (being able to increment or decrement a pointer in order to point to the next or previous object)

  • Manual deallocation - what is called free or delete in C. This is a potentially unsafe operation. To keep within the realm of safe Ada, you need to never deallocate manually.

Those features exist in Ada, but are only available through specific standard library APIs.

Attention

The guideline in Ada is that most of the time you can avoid manual allocation, and you should.

There are many ways to avoid manual allocation, some of which have been covered (such as parameter modes). The language also provides library abstractions to avoid pointers:

  1. One is the use of containers. Containers help users avoid pointers, because container memory is automatically managed.

  2. A container to note in this context is the Indefinite holder. This container allows you to store a value of an indefinite type such as String.

  3. GNATCOLL has a library for smart pointers, called Refcount Those pointers' memory is automatically managed, so that when an allocated object has no more references to it, the memory is automatically deallocated.

Mutually recursive types

The linked list is a common idiom in data structures; in Ada this would be most naturally defined through two types, a record type and an access type, that are mutually dependent. To declare mutually dependent types, you can use an incomplete type declaration:

    
    
        
package Simple_List is type Node; -- This is an incomplete type declaration, -- which is completed in the same -- declarative region. type Node_Acc is access Node; type Node is record Content : Natural; Prev, Next : Node_Acc; end record; end Simple_List;