Reasons for loving Ada: Type invariants (because bugs shouldn't sleep...)

pinotattari profile image Riccardo Bernardini ・7 min read

This tutorial talks about a powerful bug trap that was introduced in Ada 2012: the Type_invariant attribute.

Type invariant? What's that?

The idea of type invariant is pretty simple. Sometimes data structure are quite simple, just an aggregation of values, but often they are quite complex with an internal structure that needs to be preserved.

A type invariant associated to a given type is a Boolean expression that is true for every valid value of the type. Ada allows the association of a type invariant to a private type; the compiler — if instructed so — will insert code that checks that the invariant remains satisfied; if not, an exception will be raised.

An example: a table with two keys

Let's do a simple example. Suppose that

  • We have a set of users
  • Every user has a Serial_ID (a 6 digit number) and a SSN (Social Security Number). We will assume the Italian convention where the SSN is a 16 character string.
  • Both the Serial_ID and SSN identify uniquely the user, that is, there are no two users with the same Serial_ID nor two users with the same SSN.
  • We want to build a data structure User_Directory that will allow us to get (efficiently) an user both by Serial_ID and SSN

A possible solution is shown in the figure

Two table pointing to the same record

The data structure is made of two Ordered_Maps: one map is indexed by the Serial_ID, the other one by the SSN and both maps store pointers (access values in Ada jargon) to a User_Record, a record that contains the user information. This structure clearly introduces some (quite obvious) redundancy

  • The SSN stored in a User_Record must be equal to the corresponding key in the SSN_Map, the same for the Serial_ID
  • The entries of the two maps corresponding to the same user must map to the same record
  • The two maps have the same number of entries.

The spec file

This is an excerpt of the public part of the spec file (roughly the *.h of C)

   subtype ID_Char is Character range '0' .. '9';
   type Serial_ID is array (1 .. 6) of ID_Char;

   type User_SSN is new String (1 .. 16);

   type User_Directory is private;

   procedure Add_User (Dir : in out User_Directory;
                       ID  : in Serial_ID;
                       SSN : in User_SSN)
       Pre => not Contains (Dir, Id) and not Contains (Dir, Ssn),
     Post =>  Contains (Dir, Id) and Contains (Dir, Ssn);

   procedure Delete (Dir : in out User_Directory;
                     ID  : in Serial_ID)
       Pre => Contains (Dir, Id),
     Post =>  not Contains (Dir, Id);

Here we define

  • The types Serial_ID and User_SSN as fixed lenght strings. Note that Serial_ID can contain only digits.
  • User_Directory is the data structure we are defining.
  • Add_User and Delete should be quite obvious. Note the use of preconditions (after Pre =>) and postconditions (after Post =>) that document the behavior of Add_User and Delete.

The actual definition (in the private part) of User_Directory is basically the translation in Ada of the scheme shown above

 type User_Record is
         ID  : Serial_ID;
         SSN : User_SSN;
      end record;

   type User_Record_Pt is access User_Record;

   package ID_To_User_Maps is
     new Ada.Containers.Ordered_Maps (Key_Type     => Serial_ID,
                                      Element_Type => User_Record_Pt);

   package SSN_To_User_Maps is
     new Ada.Containers.Ordered_Maps (Key_Type     => User_SSN,
                                      Element_Type => User_Record_Pt);

   type User_Directory is
         ID_To_User  : ID_To_User_Maps.Map;
         SSN_To_User : SSN_To_User_Maps.Map;
      end record;

We have

  • The record User_Record holding the user information and its access User_Record_Pt
  • A package ID_To_User_Maps (obtained by specializing the generic standard package Ordered_Maps) that implements maps that associate User_ID to access to User_Record
  • A similar package SSN_To_User_Maps
  • Finally, we have the User_Directory that simply contains the two required maps.

The implementation

Let's look at the implementation of the package. Let's start with Add_User.

 procedure Add_User
     (Dir : in out User_Directory; 
      ID  : in Serial_ID; 
      SSN : in User_SSN)
      New_User : User_Record_Pt;
      if Dir.ID_To_User.Contains (ID) then
         raise Constraint_Error;
      end if;

      New_User  := new User_Record'(ID, SSN);

      Dir.ID_To_User.Include (Key      => Id,
                              New_Item => New_User);

      Dir.SSN_To_User.Include (Key      => SSN,
                               New_Item => New_User);
   end Add_User;

The implementation of Add_User is quite straightforward: with

New_User  := new User_Record'(ID  => ID, SSN => SSN);

we allocate dynamically a record with the user information and with

   Dir.ID_To_User.Include (Key      => Id,
                           New_Item => New_User);

   Dir.SSN_To_User.Include (Key      => SSN,
                            New_Item => New_User);

we update the two internal tables by associating the given ID and SSN with the address of the newly allocated record.

This is our first tentative to the implementation of Delete.

procedure Delete (Dir : in out User_Directory; ID : in Serial_ID) is
      To_Be_Removed : User_Record_Pt := Dir.ID_To_User (Id);
      Dir.ID_To_User.Delete (Id);

      Free (To_Be_Removed);
   end Delete;

This implementation has a bug 🐛, as it is clear from this figure that pictures the behavior of Delete.

Entry deleted from only one table

The dashed line means that the memory area of the user record now has gone back to the heap. It is clear that we forgot to remove the entry from Dir.SSN_To_User and now we have a dangling pointer referring to the old user record.

This is a nasty bug.

Gollum with a scolopendra saying it is a nasty bug
Oh, yes, believe me. I have already seen this movie, actually I was the main character. What could go wrong? Well, for example, later you could want to update the entries of Dir.SSN_To_User in some way. However, the memory that was assigned to the user record now belongs to some other structure that will be corrupted by your update.

Depending on your code, the bug can remain dormant for long time, then, suddenly, one day, if you are lucky, you get a SEGFAULT when you try to use the corrupted structure again. If you are unlucky you'll get funny random behaviors, possibly difficult to replicate.

Even if you are lucky (so to say...) you'll get the SEGFAULT in a place totally unrelated with the real bug in Delete. Believe me, finding this bug can take days of stumbling around in the dark. Not even an army of rubber ducks can save you.

Army of rubber ducks

Although this is a specific example, this kind of time bomb 💣 (or Sword of Damocles) behavior is typical of bugs that cause a loss of internal coherence in some complex structure. The bug will not manifest itself when the structure is corrupted, but later as a delayed consequence of the loss of coherence, making bug hunting difficult.

Remember: there is one thing worse than a bug that causes a crash: a bug that causes the program to continue as nothing happened.

The solution: type invariant

Fear not, my friends and colleagues. Ada comes to the rescue with the Type_Invariant. It suffices to add it to the type definition as in

type User_Directory is
         ID_To_User  : ID_To_User_Maps.Map;
         SSN_To_User : SSN_To_User_Maps.Map;
      end record
    with Type_Invariant => Is_Coherent (User_Directory);

where Is_Coherent is a function that checks that the whole structure is coherent, that is, that the two maps have the same number of entries and that the data in the user record match the corresponding key in the tables. The source code of the (fairly long) function is included, for reference, at the end of this post.

Now if we run the following test program

with User_Directories;   use User_Directories;

procedure Main is
   Dir : User_Directory;
   Add_User (Dir => dir,
             ID  => "123456",
             SSN => "ABCDEF64X12Q456R");

   Add_User (Dir => dir,
             ID  => "654321",
             SSN => "XBCDEF64X12Q456R");

   Delete (Dir, Id => "123456");
end Main;

we get the following results

Execution of obj/main terminated by unhandled exception
  failed invariant from user_directories.ads:65
Call stack traceback locations:

where, for the sake of readability I replaced part of the dump text with . The line

failed invariant from user_directories.ads:65

refers to the line where type User_Directory is declared. In the stack dump the first two lines refer to some system files, we are interested in the third line


that refers to the first line of procedure Delete.

  • Before calling Delete user directory Dir was fine
  • After calling Delete it is not fine anymore, who are you gonna blame?

Ghostbusters! No, sorry, wrong citation... 😊😛 (this is also a hint to my age... 😊)

Judge finds Delete guilty of data structure damage

After a brief inspection of Delete we discover the problem and we fix it quite easily

procedure Delete (Dir : in out User_Directory; ID : in Serial_ID) is
      To_Be_Removed : User_Record_Pt := Dir.ID_To_User (Id);
      Dir.SSN_To_User.Delete (To_Be_Removed.SSN); -- New line
      -- and here???
      Dir.ID_To_User.Delete (Id);

      Free (To_Be_Removed);
   end Delete;

Wait a minute...

Someone maybe could observe that at the line -- and here??? the variable Dir is in a non coherent state since we updated one table, but not the other. The same happen in the Add_User procedure. Wouldn't this raise an exception?

Well, no. The details are a bit complex, but the basic idea is that since Add_User and Delete are declared in the same package of User_Directory, they are able to operate on the internal structure of the type and it is acceptable that during this manipulation the internal structure is not coherent for a moment. The type invariant will be checked only when the procedures end;
see the Reference manual if you want every single, gory, detail...


Implementation of Is_Coherent

function Is_Coherent (Dir : User_Directory) return Boolean is
      use Ada.Containers;
      use ID_To_User_Maps;
      use SSN_To_User_Maps;
      if Dir.ID_To_User.Length /= Dir.SSN_To_User.Length then
         return False;
      end if;

      for Pos in Dir.ID_To_User.Iterate loop
            Usr_Entry : constant User_Record_Pt := Element (Pos);
            if Usr_Entry /= Dir.SSN_To_User (Usr_Entry.Ssn) then
               return False;
            end if;

            if Key (Pos) /= Usr_Entry.Id then
               return False;
            end if;
      end loop;

      return True; 
   end Is_Coherent;



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