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Gem #63: The Effect of Pragma Suppress

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One of Ada's key strengths has always been its strong typing. The language imposes stringent checking of type and subtype properties to help prevent accidental violations of the type system that are a common source of program bugs in other less-strict languages such as C. This is done using a combination of compile-time restrictions (legality rules), that prohibit mixing values of different types, together with run-time checks to catch violations of various dynamic properties. Examples are checking values against subtype constraints and preventing dereferences of null access values.

At the same time, Ada does provide certain "loophole" features, such as Unchecked_Conversion, that allow selective bypassing of the normal safety features, which is sometimes necessary when interfacing with hardware or code written in other languages.

Ada also permits explicit suppression of the run-time checks that are there to ensure that various properties of objects are not violated. This suppression can be done using pragma Suppress, as well as by using a compile-time switch on most implementations (in the case of GNAT, with the -gnatp switch).

In addition to allowing all checks to be suppressed, Pragma Suppress supports suppression of specific forms of check, such as Index_Check for array indexing, Range_Check for scalar bounds checking, and Access_Check for dereferencing of access values. (See section 11.5 of the Ada Reference Manual for further details.)

Here's a simple example of suppressing index checks within a specific subprogram:

  procedure Main is
     procedure Sort_Array (A : in out Some_Array) is
        pragma Suppress (Index_Check);  -- eliminate check overhead
     end Sort_Array; 
  end Main;

Unlike a feature such as Unchecked_Conversion, however, the purpose of check suppression is not to enable programs to subvert the type system, though many programmers seem to have that misconception.

What's important to understand about pragma Suppress is that it only gives permission to the implementation to remove checks, but doesn't require such elimination. The intention of Suppress is not to allow bypassing of Ada semantics, but rather to improve efficiency, and the Ada Reference Manual has a clear statement to that effect in the note in RM-11.5, paragraph 29:

There is no guarantee that a suppressed check is actually removed; hence a pragma Suppress should be used only for efficiency reasons.

There is associated Implementation Advice that recommends that implementations should minimize the code executed for checks that have been suppressed, but it's still the responsibility of the programmer to ensure that the correct functioning of the program doesn't depend on checks not being performed.

There are various reasons why a compiler might choose not to remove a check. On some hardware, certain checks may be essentially free, such as null pointer checks or arithmetic overflow, and it might be impractical or add extra cost to suppress the check. Another example where it wouldn't make sense to remove checks is for an operation implemented by a call to a run-time routine, where the check might be only a small part of a more expensive operation done out of line.

Furthermore, in many cases GNAT can determine at compile time that a given run-time check is guaranteed to be violated. In such situations, it gives a warning that an exception will be raised, and generates code specifically to raise the exception. Here's an example:

   X : Integer range 1..10 := ...;


   if A > B then
      X := X + 1;
   end if;

For the assignment incrementing X, the compiler will normally generate machine code equivalent to:

   Temp := X + 1;
   if Temp > 10 then
      raise Constraint_Error;
   end if;
   X := Temp;

If range checks are suppressed, then the compiler can just generate the increment and assignment. However, if the compiler is able to somehow prove that X = 10 at this point, it will issue a warning, and replace the entire assignment with simply:

   raise Constraint_Error;

even though checks are suppressed. This is appropriate, because (1) we don't care about the efficiency of buggy code, and (2) there is no "extra" cost to the check, because if we reach that point, the code will unconditionally fail.

One other important thing to note about checks and pragma Suppress is this statement in the Ada RM (RM-11.5, paragraph 26):

If a given check has been suppressed, and the corresponding error situation occurs, the execution of the program is erroneous.

In Ada, erroneous execution is a bad situation to be in, because it means that the execution of your program could have arbitrary nasty effects, such as unintended overwriting of memory. Note also that a program whose "correct" execution somehow depends on a given check being suppressed might work as the programmer expects, but could still fail when compiled with a different compiler, or for a different target, or even with a newer version of the same compiler. Other changes such as switching on optimization or making a change to a totally unrelated part of the code could also cause the code to start failing.

So it's definitely not wise to write code that relies on checks being removed. In fact, it really only makes sense to suppress checks once there's good reason to believe that the checks can't fail, as a result of testing or other analysis. Otherwise, you're removing an important safety feature of Ada that's intended to help catch bugs.

Gary Dismukes

Gary Dismukes started his involvement with Ada in 1980, beginning the development of an Ada compiler while working under Dr. Kenneth Bowles at the UCSD Pascal Project, before graduating from the University of California, San Diego (BA in mathematics, BA and MS in computer science). This work transitioned to TeleSoft, one of the early Ada vendors, where he was employed as a principal software engineer from 1981 to 1994. Gary joined AdaCore at its inception in 1994. In addition to contributing to the development of the GNAT front end, he has also worked on the implementation of the GNAT-for-Java product and a back end targeting a proprietary stack-based processor family for one of AdaCore’s largest customers. He also participated as a distinguished reviewer and Ada Rapporteur Group (ARG) member for Ada 95 and continues as a member of the Ada 2005 ARG. In addition to his enthusiasm for Ada, Gary is an aficionado of the conjuring arts and has provided magical entertainment at several AdaCore company functions.




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