Hypothesis: Reference stealing should be default (POLA) behaviour.

Those of you who have done programming in C++ are likely familiar with the auto_ptr smart pointer, or are familiar with coding standards that caution against the use of this type of smart pointer. With more and more parts of the new C++ standard making their way into C++ compilers, a new smart pointer type uniq_ptr is now available on the latest and hippest versions of some of the popular C++ compilers as part of the standard template library.

This new smart pointer type is said to deprecate the old auto_ptr smart pointer. If we combine the numerous C++ coding standards warning us against the use of auto_ptr with the C++ standard chromite deprecating the auto_ptr, it is hard not to jump to the conclusion that there must be something very wrong with this type of smart pointer.

In C++ we have a multiple ways to allocate objects and other data types. We have two ‘no-worries’ ways of allocating and one that requires the programmer to think about what he is doing as the language provides no default resource management for that type of allocation. An object or other data type can be allocated:

  1. On the stack
  2. Part of a composite object
  3. On the heap.

When an object is allocated on the heap using new, the new invocation returns a raw pointer to the newly allocated object. To any seasoned C++ programmers a bare raw pointer in a random place in the code is an abomination, something that needs fixing.  You know the when you go to the beach and run into your mom’s old friend wearing a bathing-suite that is way to tiny for someone of her age who doesn’t go to the gym every second day, and you think: “damn, please put some cloths on that” ?

Well thats how any C++ programmer (that is any good at his/her job) looks at raw heap pointers.  In C++ there are many cloths to choose from for raw heap pointers. The most elementary cloths are simple RAII objects that wrap a heap object pointer inside a stack object and thus controls the heap object its lifetime.  On the other side of the spectrum there is the shared_ptr, that as its name betrays is a shared reference counted smart pointer, the closest you will get to garbage collection in C++. Somewhere between those two we find a strange little creature called auto_ptr.

The auto_ptr is probably the simplest of all smart-pointers. It basically works like a RAII object with pointer semantics most of the time, but it has one funny little property that makes it behave rather odd.   Copy and assignment will under the hood result in a move instead of a copy. There are situations where its clear that this is desired behavior. For example when implementing the factory method or the abstract factory design patterns. These patterns can return an auto_ptr instead of a  raw pointer and the move will be exactly what anyone would want and would expect.

The problem however arises when an auto_ptr is used as an argument to a method. A method might steal our pointer by for example assigning it to a temporary or to a member variable of the invoked object.  I believe everyone can see there is a problem in there somewhere, but maybe, just maybe there is actually a glimpse of a solution to a problem hidden in there. A problem by the way that most programmers, especially C++ programmers don’t realize exists.

So lets have a look at the problem. When trying to build high integrity systems, there is one important principle that we must apply to every aspect of the system design and development. This principle is called the Principle Of Least Authority or POLA for short.  According to this principle we should, to state it simple, minimize the dependencies of each piece of code to the minimum amount possible. So what type of dependencies do we see in our pointer stealing example?  We see an object Bob with method foo and we see that this foo method takes some kind of reference to a Carol object. We see some object Alice with a reference to Bob and a reference to Carol that invokes :

  • bob->foo(somewrapper(carol))

So what does bob->foo do with carol and more importantly, if we treat bob and its foo method like a black box, what would we want bob->foo to be able to do with carol? Basic usable security doctrine states that the default action should be the most secure one.  So what would be tha sane default most secure option here?  Basically this depends on the concurrency properties of Bob with respect to Alice. First lets assume that bob is a regular (non active) object. Than the least authority  option would be for somewrapper to be a RAII style temporary object that when going out of scope revokes access to carol. That way bobs access to carol would be scoped to the foo invocation.

Basically when building software using multi threading or multi process architecture, there are two mode’s of concurency we could use.

  1. Shared state concurrency using raw threads, mutexes, semaphores, etc
  2. Message passing concurrency using communicating event loops,  lock-free fifo’s, active objects etc.

As with many shared state solutions, when looking for high system integrity guards, the shared state solutions tend to be the solutions we should steer away from, so basically message passing concurrency should be the way to go here.

Now lets assume that we are using a message passing style of concurrency where alice, bob (and not necessarily carol) are active objects. What would be the sane least authority action for this invocation. The foo invocation scoping would make absolutely no sense in this scenario. The foo method will be handled asynchronously by bob. This means we do need to give bob a reference to Carol that will not be automatically revoked.  Given that carol is not necessarily an active object,  this reference would thus make carol an object that is shared between two concurrently running active objects.  Now given that sharing between two threads of operations implies quite some more authority and thus less implicit integrity for the overall system, the safest default operation may be that provided by what we considered to be wrong with auto_ptr in C++.  With single core computers becoming hard to find and the normal  amount of cores in a computer still going up, I believe its safe to say that we should assume modern programs will use some form of concurrent processing that according to POLA should probably be message passing concurrency. That is, the foo method should by default steal the reference to carol and allice should be explicit if she wants to retain her own copy of the reference to carol. This line of reasoning makes me come to the following hypothesis with respect to least authority.

  • Reference stealing should be default (POLA) behavior for method invocation.

If this hypothesis is right, than the C++ auto_ptr flaw that the new C++ standard claims to fix by deprecating auto_ptr, might actually not be a flaw that needs fixing,  but a starting-point for,  in line with usable security doctrine,  making high integrity concerns into default behavior.


5 responses to “Hypothesis: Reference stealing should be default (POLA) behaviour.

  1. I might have wanted to comment on the technical content of this post, but I got too irritated at the body-shaming “walrus” insults, and the analogy that does nothing to convey why one actually might want to avoid bare pointers in C++. So I didn’t even get to the point of reading why you thought that auto_ptr might be relevant to better-designed languages. If you’re going to use analogies to explain something, please try to choose more relevant ones that are less likely to cause offence.

    • Hi DavidSarah,

      I’ve now replaced most of the wordings of the metaphor in order to make it hopefully no longer offensive. I hope you can now bare to read past the metaphor and if you see fit comment on the technical content as I very much value your view on this.

    • Hi David-Sarah,

      I removed the image and tamed down the metaphor some more. If you can think of a better metaphor that describes the way that seasoned C++ programmers have grown to have a feeling bordering disgust at the site of bare heap pointers in the code that would not be offensive to anyone, I would be very happy to use that instead.

  2. I actually came around to your point of view on the technical issue here. Borrowed references are indeed still useful in better-designed languages than C++, and making them the default does have the POLA advantage you mention (especially if the semantics is to enforce temporary immutability while the reference is borrowed, which is what Rust does and what my language Noether will do).

    It’s a pity I can’t link to this post because it still has the fat-shaming picture and paragraph preceding it. I really wish you would delete those; they are offensive and detract from your presentation of the argument.

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