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Weak References
:Author: John McCall
:Date: 2013-05-23
**Abstract:** This paper discusses the general concept of weak
references, including various designs in other languages, and proposes
several new core language features and a more sophisticated runtime
support feature which can be exploited in the standard library.
.. warning:: This document was used in planning Swift 1.0; it has not been kept
up to date and does not describe the current or planned behavior of Swift.
Reference Graphs
Let's run through some basic terminology.
Program memory may be seen abstractly as a (not necessarily connected)
directed graph where the nodes are objects (treating transient
allocations like local scopes as objects) and the edges are
references. (Multi-edges and self-edges are permitted, of course.)
We may assign a level of strength to each of these edges. We will
call the highest level *strong*; all others are some flavor of *weak*.
Every object has a *strength of reference* which arises from the
reference graph. This can be any level of strength or the special
value *unreferenced*. The strength of a path is the minimum strength
of any edge in the path. The strength of a set of paths is the
maximum strength of all the paths, unless the set is empty, in which
case it is *unreferenced*.
In general, the implementation is only outright forbidden to
deallocate an object if it is strongly referenced. However,
being somehow weakly referenced may trigger some sort of additional
guarantee; see the Language Precedents section.
In a cycle-collecting environment, certain nodes are given special
treatment as *roots*; these nodes are always strongly referenced.
Otherwise, the strength of reference for an object is the strength
of all paths from any root to the object.
In a non-cycle-collecting environment, the strength of reference for
an object is the strength of all the direct references to that
object, taken as length=1 paths. Note that this environmental
consideration becomes a language guarantee: even if the implementation
can trivially prove that an object is referenced only by itself, it
is still not permitted to deallocate the object.
It is common for certain kinds of reference to not receive a full
guarantee. For example, a strong reference from a local variable
may lose effectiveness as soon as the variable is no longer needed
(but before it formally leaves scope). This is pervasive in GC
environments but also true in e.g. ObjC ARC.
In some programs, especially event-driven programs like UIs or
servers, it can be useful to consider the *static* reference graph as
captured during a notional steady state. Local scopes may form many
references to objects in the static graph, but unless the scope
persists indefinitely or a major restructuring is triggered, these
references are likely to have no effect on the reference graph, and so
their strength of reference has no semantic importance. Understanding
this helps to explain why many environments provide no direct way to
form a local weak reference.
Language and Library Precedents
We're only going to discuss *managed* precedents here.
It is possible to create a kind of weak reference by just not
providing any special behavior to an object reference; if the
object is deallocated, the reference will dangle and uses of it
will likely crash or cause corruption. This could happen by
e.g. declining to insert reference-count manipulations for a
particular variable (in an ARC-like environment) or not mapping
a variable's frame offset as a pointer in a type map (in a
precise-GC environment). We will call this *dangling weak*.
All modes of Objective-C automate memory management for
synthesized properties. In GC and ARC, accessors just
use the normal semantics for the underlying ivar (plus
copy/atomic guarantees, of course). In MRC, accessors
use dangling weak semantics unless they're :code:`retain`
or :code:`copy`, in which case they maintain a +1 refcount
invariant on the referent.
In GC and ARC, variables qualified with :code:`__weak` are
immediately zeroed out when the referenced object begins
deallocation. There is no syntactic difference on use;
it's just possible that the value read will be :code:`nil`
instead of whatever was last written there, possibly causing
the loading code to crash (e.g. on an ivar access) or silently
do nothing (e.g. on a message send). There is an opt-in
warning in ARC for certain uses of values loaded from
:code:`__weak` ivars.
In GC, it is also possible to construct a dangling
weak reference by storing an object pointer into (1) unscanned
heap memory or (2) an instance variable that's not of
object-pointer type and isn't qualified with :code:`__strong`
or :code:`__weak`. Otherwise, object references are strong
(including all references from local scopes).
In ARC, it is possible to construct a dangling weak reference
by using the :code:`__unsafe_unretained` qualifier or by
bridging a pointer value to a C pointer type.
C++ smart pointers (e.g. :code:`std::unique_ptr`) typically
permit the creation of a dangling-weak reference by
providing an accessor to get the pointer as a normal C
pointer. (Even if they didn't have :code:`get()`, you could
manually call :code:`operator->` to get the same effect.)
C++'s :code:`std::shared_ptr` permits the formation of
weak pointers (:code:`std::weak_ptr`) from shared pointers.
It is not possibly to directly use a weak pointer; it must
first be converted back to a :code:`shared_ptr`, either by
using the :code:`lock()` operation (which produces a null
pointer if the referent has been deallocated) or by directly
constructing a :code:`shared_ptr` with the :code:`weak_ptr`
(which throws an exception if the referent has been deallocated).
There is also a way to explicitly query whether a
:code:`weak_ptr` is still valid, which may be more efficient
than checking the result of the cast.
Java does not provide any facility for dangling weak references.
The standard library does provide three levels of weak reference
(in :code:`java.lang.ref`). References cannot be re-seated
(although they can be explicitly cleared), and users must call
:code:`get()` in order to access the value, which may yield
There is a great deal of interesting discussion of these
reference classes `here <>`_.
Java :code:`Reference` objects may be constructed with an
optional :code:`ReferenceQueue`; if so, then when the
object's reachability changes, the reference object will be
added to that queue. This permits data structures to clean
up after cleared soft references without needing to either
periodically scan the entire structure or be fully lazy.
Additional data may be added to the reference object by
subclassing it.
The references are presented in order of decreasing strength.
:code:`SoftReference` is a sort of quasi-strong reference
which holds onto the object until the VM begins to run out
of memory. Soft references to softly-referenced objects are
guaranteed to have been cleared before the VM can throw an
:code:`OutOfMemoryError`. The reference will be cleared
before it is added to its reference queue (and so the
reference queue cannot resurrect the object). The intent
of soft references is to enable memory-sensitive caches,
but in practice a memory-sensitive cache would probably
want to implement a more subtle replacement strategy than
"drop things at random as soon as memory runs low". A
more interesting use is a memory-guided circuit-breaker:
when building up a very large structure, hold it in a
soft reference, and if that references goes null during
construction, just bail out. But that's a pretty tricky
use-case to get right.
:code:`WeakReference` is intended for use in non-memory-sensitive
weak caches, like a uniquing cache; it persists only as long
as the referent is more strongly referenced. The reference
will be cleared before it is added to its reference queue (and
so the reference queue cannot resurrect the object).
:code:`PhantomReference` provides a way to attach extra
finalization to an object without actually using finalizers
(which have several problems, including the ability to
resurrect the object). The phantom reference *always*
presents :code:`null` as its value and is therefore itself
useless as a reference. Phantom references are enqueued
after the object is finalized and therefore at a point when
there can be no references to the object within the VM
at all. However, the object itself cannot be deallocated
until the phantom references are all cleared or themselves
deallocated, which I believe is for the convenience of native
code that may hold a dangling weak reference to the referent
(or which may be able to directly read the reference).
The :code:`WeakReference` class in .NET is similar to
Java's :code:`WeakReference` class in that the value
cannot be accessed directly; it must be accessed
via the :code:`Target` property, which may yield
:code:`null`. The reference may be reseated to a
different value.
Weak references may be created *long*, which permits the
target object to be finalized but not actually deallocated.
A :code:`weakref` acts like a function object; it is created
with a particular value, which cannot be reseated. The
function will yield :code:`None` if the referent is collected.
There is library functionality to automatically proxy a value
as a weak reference. An exception is thrown if an operation
is performed on the proxy but the referent has been collected.
A :code:`weakref` may be constructed with a callback function.
The callback will be called after the weak reference is cleared;
it is, however, passed the weak ref object itself.
A :code:`WeakRef` is automatically a proxy for an object.
There is a :code:`weakref_alive` method to query whether the
reference is still alive; another other operation will cause
an exception to be thrown.
As far as I can tell, there is nothing like a weak reference
in Rust at the moment.
A *managed pointer* (:code:`@int`) is a strong reference
subject to GC.
An *owning pointer* (:code:`~int`) is a strong reference
that cannot be cloned (copying the pointer actually copies the
underlying data).
A *borrowed pointer* (:code:`&int`) is essentially a dangling
weak reference that is subject to static restrictions which
ensure that it doesn't actually dangle. It is thus primarily
a performance optimization.
A *raw pointer* (:code:`*int`) is a dangling weak reference.
Yes, of course Haskell has weak references.
A :code:`Weak t` is an association between a hidden key
and a visible value of type :code:`t`.
:code:`doRefWeak theRef` is an :code:`IO (Maybe t)`.
A weak reference may be constructed with an optional
:code:`IO ()` which will be run when the referent is
collected. This finalizer may (somehow) refer to the key
and value without itself keeping them alive; it is also
explicitly permitted to resurrect them.
Use Cases
There are many problems that are potentially addressable with
functionality like weak references. It is not at all obvious
that they should be addressed with the same language feature.
Back references
Given that Swift is not cycle-collecting, far and away the most
important use case in the static reference graph is that of the
*back-reference*: a reference *R* to an object which holds a strong
reference (possibly indirectly) to the object holding *R*. Examples
- A 'previousNode' pointer in a doubly-linked list.
- A 'parent' pointer in a render tree.
- An edge in a general graph structure.
These have several properties in common:
- Using strong references would require a lot of explicit
code to tear down the reference cycles.
- These references may be accessed very frequently, so
performance is important.
- It is not always feasible to make these references valid
immediately on construction.
- Traversing a reference after the referent is deallocated is likely a
sign that something has been kept alive longer than it was meant to
be. However, programmers may reasonably differ about the correct
response to this: crashing, and therefore encouraging the programmer
to track down a root cause, or simply writing the operation to
handle both cases correctly. Ultimately, this choice comes down to
Weak caches are used in order to prevent a cache from taking
over all available memory. By being tied to the reachability
of a value, the cache prevents entries from spuriously
expiring when their values are still in active use; but by
using weak references, the cache permits the system to
deallocate values that are no longer in use.
Generally, a data structure using weak references extensively
also needs some way to receive notification that the weak
reference was collected. This is because entries in the data
structure are likely to have significant overhead even if the
value is collected. A weak data structure which receives no
notification that a reference has been invalidated must either
allow these entries to accumulate indefinitely or must
periodically scan the entire structure looking for stale entries.
A weak reference which permits immediate deallocation of its
referent when the last strong reference is dropped is
substantially less useful for the implementation of a weak
cache. It is a common access pattern (for, say, a memoizing
cache) for a value to be looked up many times in rapid
succession, but for each use to be temporarily disjoint
from the others. A naive use of weak references in this case
will simply cause the cache to thrash. This problem is less
likely to arise in an environment with nondeterministic
collection because the entry is likely to service multiple
lookups between collections.
It is likely that users implementing weak data structures
would prefer a highly flexible infrastructure centered around
resurrection and notifications of reaching a zero refcount
than a more rigid system built directly into the language.
Since the Swift model is built around statically-inserted
operations rather than a memory scanner, this is much more
External Finalization
Finalization models built around calling a method on the
finalized object (such as Objective-C's :code:`-dealloc`)
suffer from a number of limitations and problems:
- Since the method receives a pointer to the object being
deallocated, the implementation must guard against
attempts to resurrect the object. This may complicate
and/or slow down the system's basic reference-management
logic, which tends to be quite important for performance.
- Since the method receives a pointer to the object being
deallocated, the implementation must leave the object at
least a minimally valid state until the user code is
complete. For example, the instance variables of a
subclass cannot be destroyed until a later phase of
destruction, because a superclass finalizer might invoke
subclass behavior. (This assumes that the dynamic type
of the object does not change during destruction, which
is an alternative that brings its own problems.)
- Finalization code must be inherent to the object; other
objects cannot request that code be run when the object
is deallocated. For example, an object that registers
itself to observe a certain event source must explicitly
deregister itself in a finalizer; the event source cannot
simply automatically drop the object when it is
Functions often create a large number of temporary references. In a
reference-counting environment like Swift, these references require
the implementation to implicitly perform operations to increment and
decrement the reference count. These operations can be quite fast,
but they are not free, and our experience has been that the
accumulated cost can be quite significant. A straightforward local
static analysis can eliminate many operations, but many others will be
blocked by abstraction barriers, chiefly dynamically-dispatched calls.
Therefore, if Swift is to allow precise performance control, it is
important to be able to allow motivated users to selectively control
the emission of reference-counting operations.
This sort of control necessarily permits the creation of dangling weak
references and so is not safe.
Proposal Overview
Looking at these use-cases, there are two main thrusts:
- There is a general need to set up back references to objects.
These references must be designed for convenient use by non-expert
- There are a number of more sophisticated use cases which require
notification or interruption of deallocation; these can be used in
the implementation of higher-level abstractions like weak caches.
Here it is reasonable to expect more user expertise, such that
power and flexibility should take priority over ease of use.
The second set of use cases should be addressed by library types working
on top of basic runtime support.
The first set of use cases will require more direct language support.
To that end, I propose adding two new variable attributes,
:code:`@weak` and :code:`@unowned`. I also propose a small slate of
new features which directly address the problem of capturing a value
in a closure with a different strength of reference than it had in the
enclosing context.
Proposed Variable Attributes
In the following discussion, a "variable-like" declaration is any
declaration which binds a name to a (possibly mutable) value of
arbitrary type. Currently this is just :code:`var`, but this proposal
also adds :code:`capture`, and we may later add more variants, such as
:code:`const` or :code:`val` or the like.
:code:`weak` is an attribute which may be applied to any
variable-like declaration of reference type :code:`T`. For
type-system purposes, the variable behaves like a normal
variable of type :code:`Optional<T>`, except:
- it does not maintain a +1 reference count invariant and
- loading from the variable after the current referent (if present)
has started destruction will result in a :code:`Nothing` value,
indistinguishable from the normal case.
The semantics are quite similar to weak references in other
environments (particularly Objective-C) except that the change in
formal type forces the user of the value to check its validity before
using it.
It doesn't really matter how the compiler would find the type
:code:`Optional<T>`; compiler-plus-stdlib magic, most likely. I do
not think the type should be :code:`Weak<T>` because that would
effectively make this a type attribute and thus make it too easy to
accidentally preserve the value as a weak reference. See the section
discussing type attributes vs. declaration attributes.
Giving the variable a consistent type of :code:`Optional<T>` permits
the user to assign :code:`Nothing` into it and therefore removes the
somewhat odd expressive possibility of a reference that can only be
missing if the object has been deallocated. I think this is an
acceptable cost of making a cleaner feature.
One alternative to using :code:`Optional<T>` would be to simply treat
the load as a potentially-failing operation, subject to the (not yet
precisely designed) language rules for error handling. This would
require the runtime to potentially synthesize an error event, which
could then propagate all the way to the end-user if the programmer
accidentally failed to check the result in a context that permitted
error propagation outwards. That's bad.
A slightly different alternative would be to treat it as a form of
error orthogonal to the standard user-error propagation. This would
be cleaner than changing the type of the variable but can't really be
designed without first having a solid error-handling design.
:code:`unowned` is an attribute which may be applied to any
"variable-like" declaration of reference type :code:`T`. For
type-system purposes, the variable behaves exactly like a normal
variable of type :code:`T`, except:
- it does not maintain a +1 reference count invariant and
- loading from the variable after the referent has started
destruction causes an assertion failure.
This is a refinement of :code:`weak` focused more narrowly on the case
of a back reference with relatively tight validity invariants. This
is also the case that's potentially optimizable to use dangling weak
references; see below.
This name isn't really optimal. We've considered several different
- :code:`weak` is a poor choice because our semantics are very
different from weak references in other environments where it's
valid to access a cleared reference. Plus, we need to expose
those semantics, so the name is claimed.
- :code:`backref` is strongly evocative of the major use case in the
static reference graph; this would encourage users to use it for
back references and to consider alternatives for other cases, both
of which I like. The latter also makes the husk-leaking
implementation (see below) more palatable. It also contrasts very
well with :code:`weak`. However, its evocativeness makes it
unwieldy to use for local reference-counting optimizations.
- :code:`dangling` is more general than :code:`backref`, but it has
such strong negative associations that it wouldn't be unreasonable
for users to assume that it's unsafe (with all the pursuant
debugging difficulties) based on the name alone. I don't think
we want to discourage a feature that can help users build tighter
invariants on their classes.
- :code:`unowned` is somewhat cleaner-looking, and it isn't as tied
to a specific use case, but it does not contrast with :code:`weak`
*at all*; only someone with considerable exposure to weak
references would understand why we named each one the way we did,
and even they are likely to roll their eyes at us. But it's okay
for a working proposal.
Asserting and Uncheckable
There should not be a way to check whether a :code:`unowned`
reference is still valid.
- An invalid back-reference is a consistency error that
we should encourage programmers to fix rather than work
around by spot-testing for validity.
- Contrariwise, a weak reference that might reasonably be
invalidated during active use should be checked for validity
at *every* use. We can provide a simple library facility
for this pattern.
- Permitting implicit operations like loads to fail in a
recoverable way may end up complicating the language model
for error-handling.
- By disallowing recovery, we create a model where the only
need to actually register the weak reference with the system
is to enable a consistency check. Users who are confident
in the correctness of their program may therefore simply
disable the consistency check without affecting the semantics
of the program. In this case, that leaves the variable a
simple dangling-weak reference.
The standard implementation for a weak reference requires the
address of the reference to be registered with the system so
that it can be cleared when the referent is finalized. This
has two problems:
- It forces the runtime to maintain a side-table mapping
objects to the list of weak references; generally this
adds an allocation per weakly-referenced object.
- It forces the representation of weak references to either
be non-address-invariant or to introduce an extra level of
For some use cases, this may be warranted; for example, in
a weak cache it might come out in the noise. But for a simple
back-reference, these are substantial penalties.
Dave Z. has proposed instead using a weak refcount, analogous to a
strong refcount. Ownership of a weak retain can be easily transferred
between locations, and it does not require a side-table of an object's
weak references. However, it does have a very important downside:
since the system cannot clear all the references, it is impossible to
actually deallocate an object that is still weakly-referenced
(although it can be finalized). Instead, the system must wait for all
the weak references to at least be accessed. We call this "husk
This downside could be a problem for a general weak reference.
However, it's fine for a back-reference, which we expect to typically
be short-lived after its referent is finalized.
Declaration Attribute or Type Attribute
This proposal describes :code:`weak` and :code:`unowned` as
declaration attributes, not type attributes.
As declaration attributes, :code:`@unowned` and :code:`weak` would be
permitted on any :code:`var` declaration of reference type. Their
special semantics would be a property only of the declaration; in
particular, they would not change the type (beyond the shift to
:code:`Optional<T>` for :code:`weak`) , and more generally the
type-checker would not need to know about them. The implementation
would simply use different behavior when loading or storing that
As a type attribute, :code:`weak` and :code:`@unowned` would be
permitted to appear at arbitrary nested locations in the type system,
such as tuple elements, function result types, or generic arguments.
It would be possible to have both lvalues and rvalues of so-qualified
type, and the type checker would need to introduce implicit
conversions in the right places.
These implicit conversions require some thought. Consider code like
the following::
func moveToWindow(_ newWindow : Window) {
var oldWindow = self.window // an @unowned back reference
oldWindow.hide() // might remove the UI's strong reference
It would be very unfortunate if the back-reference nature of the
:code:`window` property were somehow inherited by :code:`oldWindow`!
Something, be it a general rule on loading back-references or a
type-inference rule, must introduce an implicit conversion and cause
the :code:`unowned` qualifier to be stripped.
That rule, however, is problematic for generics. A key goal of
generics is substitutability: the semantics of generic code should
match the semantics of the code you'd get from copy-pasting the
generic code and substituting the arguments wherever they're written.
But if a generic argument can be :code:`@unowned T`, then this
won't be true; consider::
func foo<T>(x : T) {
var y = x
In substituted code, :code:`y` would have the qualifier stripped and
become a strong reference. But the generic type-checker cannot
statically recognize that this type is :code:`unowned`-qualified, so
in order to match semantics, this decision must be deferred until
runtime, and the type-checker must track the unqualified variant of
:code:`T`. This adds a great deal of complexity, both to the
implementation and to the user model, and removes many static
optimization opportunities due to potential mismatches of types.
An alternative rule would be to apply an implicit "decay" to a strong
reference only when a type is known to be a :code:`unowned` type. It
could be argued that breaking substitution is not a big deal because
other language features, like overloading, can already break it. But
an overlapping overload set with divergent behavior is a poor design
which itself violates substitution, whereas this would be a major
unexcused deviation. Furthermore, preserving the weakness of a
reference is not a safe default, because it permits the object to be
destroyed while a reference is still outstanding.
In addition, any implementation model which permits the safety checks
on :code:`unowned`\ s to be disabled will require all code to agree about
whether or not the checks are enabled. When this information is tied
to a declaration, this is easy, because declarations are ultimately
owned by a particular component, and we can ask how that component is
compiled. (And we can demand that external APIs commit to one level
of safety or the other before publishing.) The setting for a type, on
the other hand, would have to be determined by the module which "wrote
the type", but again this introduces a great deal of complexity which
one can only imagine settling on the head of some very confused user.
For all these reasons, I feel that making :code:`weak` and
:code:`unowned` type attributes would be unworkable. However, there
are still costs to making them declaration attributes:
- It forces users to use awkward workarounds if they want to
make, say, arrays of back-references.
- It makes back-references less composable by, say, preventing
them from being stored in a tuple.
- It complicates SIL and IR-gen by making the rules for manipulating a
physical variable depend on more than just the type of the variable.
- It automatically enables certain things (like passing the address of
a :code:`@unowned` variable of type :code:`T` to a :code:`inout T`
parameter) that perhaps ought to be more carefully considered.
The first two points can be partly compensated for by adding library
types to wrap a back-reference. Accessing a wrapped reference will
require extra syntax, and it runs the same risk of accidentally
preserving the weakness of a reference that I discussed above.
However, note that these problems are actually at odds: requiring
extra syntax to access the wrapped reference will leave breadcrumbs
making it clear when the change-over occurs. For more on this,
see the library section.
:code:`weak`-Capable Types
Swift reference types can naturally be made to support any kind of
semantics, and I'm taking it on faith that we could enhance ObjC
objects to support whatever extended semantics we want. There
are, however, certain Swift value types which have reference-like
semantics that it could be useful to extend :code:`weak` (and/or
:code:`unowned`) to:
- Being able to conveniently form an optional back-reference seems
like a core requirement. If :code:`weak` were a type attribute,
we could just expect users to write :code:`Optional<@weak T>`;
as a declaration attribute, this is substantially more difficult. I
expect this to be common enough that it'll be unreasonable to ask
users to use :code:`Optional<WeakReference<T>>`.
- Being able to form a back-reference to a slice or a string seems
substantially less important.
One complication with extending :code:`weak` to value types is that
generally the implementing type will need to be different from the
underlying value type. Probably the best solution would be to hide
the use of the implementing type from the type system outside of the
wellformedness checks for the variable; SIL-gen would lower the field
to its implementing type using the appropriate protocol conformances.
As long as we have convenient optional back-references, though, we
can avoid designing a general feature for 1.0.
Generic Weak Support
All other uses for weak references can be glossed as desiring
some amount of additional work to occur when the strong reference
count for an object reaches zero. This necessarily entails a
global side-table of such operations, but I believe that's
acceptable as long as it's relegated to less common use-cases.
It is important that the notification mechanism not require
executing code re-entrantly during the finalization process.
I suggest adopting an interface centered around the Java
concept of a :code:`ReferenceQueue`. A reference structure
is registered with the runtime for a particular object with
a particular set of flags and an optional reference queue::
struct Reference {
void *Referent; // must be non-null upon registration
struct ReferenceQueue *Queue; // must be valid or null
size_t Reserved[2];
void swift_registerReference(struct Reference *reference,
size_t flags);
The user/library code is responsible for allocating these structures
and initializing the first two fields, and it may include arbitrary
fields before or after the :code:`Reference` section, but while the
reference is registered with the runtime, the entire :code:`Reference`
section becomes reserved and user/library code must not access it in
any way.
The flags include:
- A priority. Should be constrained to two or three bits. References
are processed in order of decreasing priority; as long as a
reference still exists with higher priority, references with lower
priority cannot be processed. Furthermore, as long as any reference
exists, the referent cannot be finalized.
- Whether to automatically clear the reference when processing it.
Note that a cleared reference is still considered to be
registered with the runtime.
These could be combined so that e.g. even priorities cause
an automatic clear and odd priorities do not; this would avoid some
odd effects.
The runtime may assume that explicit user operations on the same
reference will not race with each other. However, user operations on
different references to the same referent may be concurrent, either
with each other or with other refcount operations on the referent.
The operations on references are as follows::
void *swift_readReference(struct Reference *reference);
This operation atomically either produces a strong reference to the
referent of the given object or yields :code:`null` if the referent
has been finalized (or if the referent is :code:`null`). The
reference must currently be registered with the runtime::
void swift_writeReference(struct Reference *reference,
void *newReferent);
This operation changes the referent of the reference to a new object,
potentially :code:`null`. The argument is taken at +0. The reference
must currently be registered with the runtime. The reference keeps
the same flags and reference queue::
void swift_unregisterReference(struct Reference *Reference);
This operation clears a reference, removes it from its reference
queue (if it is enqueued), and unregisters it from the runtime.
The reference must currently be registered with the runtime.
I propose the following simple interface to a ReferenceQueue;
arguably, however, it ought to be a reference-counted library
type with a small amount of native implementation::
struct ReferenceQueue;
struct ReferenceQueue *swift_createReferenceQueue(void);
Allocate a new reference queue::
void swift_destroyReferenceQueue(struct ReferenceQueue *queue);
Destroy a reference queue. There must not be any references with
this queue currently registered with the runtime::
struct Reference *swift_pollReferenceQueue(struct ReferenceQueue *queue);
Proposed Rules for Captures within Closures
When a variable from an enclosing context is referenced in a closure,
by default it is captured by reference. Semantically, this means that
the variable and the enclosing context(s) will see the variable as a
single, independent entity; modifications will be seen in all places.
In terms of the reference graph, each context holds a strong reference
to the variable itself. (In practice, most local variables captured
by reference will not require individual allocation; usually they will
be allocated as part of the closure object. But in the formalism,
they are independent objects.)
Closures therefore make it fairly easy to introduce reference cycles:
for example, an instance method might install a closure as an event
listener on a child object, and if that closure refers to
:code:`self`, a reference cycle will be formed. This is an
indisputable drawback of an environment which cannot collect reference
Relatively few languages both support closures and use
reference-counting. I'm not aware of any that attempt a language
solution to the problem; the usual solution is to the change the
captured variable to use weak-reference semantics, usually by copying
the original into a new variable used only for this purpose. This is
annoyingly verbose, clutters up the enclosing scope, and duplicates
information across multiple variables. It's also error-prone: since
both names are in scope, it's easy to accidentally refer to the wrong
one, and explicit capture lists only help if you're willing to be very
A better alternative (which we should implement in Objective-C as
well) is to permit closures to explicitly specify the semantics under
which a variable is captured. In small closures, it makes sense to
put this near the variable reference; in larger closures, this can
become laborious and redundant, and a different mechanism is called for.
In the following discussion, a *var-or-member expression* is an
expression which is semantically constrained to be one of:
- A reference to a local variable-like declaration from an
enclosing context.
- A member access thereof, possibly recursively.
Such expressions have two useful traits:
- They always end in an identifier which on some level meaningfully
identifies the object.
- Evaluating them is relatively likely (but not guaranteed) to not
have interesting side effects, and so we feel less bad about
apparently shifting their evaluation around.
Decorated Capture References
Small closures are just as likely to participate in a reference cycle,
but they suffer much more from extraneous syntax because they're more
likely to be center-embedded in interesting expressions. So if
there's anything to optimize for in the grammar, it's this.
I propose this fairly obvious syntax::
button1.setAction { unowned(self).tapOut() }
button2.setAction { if (weak(self)) { weak(self).swapIn() } }
The operand is evaluated at the time of closure formation. Since
these references can be a long way from the top of the closure, we
don't want to allow a truly arbitrary expression here, because the
order of side-effects in the surrounding context could be very
confusing. So we require the operand to be an :code:`expr-var-or-member`.
More complicated expressions really ought to be hoisted out to a
separate variable for legibility anyway.
I do believe that being able to capture the value of a property
(particularly of :code:`self`) is very important. In fact, it's
important independent of weak references. It is often possible to
avoid a reference cycle by simply capturing a specific property value
instead of the base object. Capturing by value is also an
expressivity improvement: the programmer can easily choose between
working with the property's instantaneous value (at the time the
closure is created) or its current value (at the time the closure is
Therefore I also suggest a closely-related form of decoration::
button3.setAction { capture(self.model).addProfitStep() }
This syntax would force :code:`capture` to become a real keyword.
All of these kinds of decorated references are equivalent to adding a
so-attributed :code:`capture` declaration (see below) with a nonce
identifier to the top of the closure::
button1.setAction {
capture @unowned _V1 = self
button2.setAction {
capture @weak _V2 = self
if (_V2) { _V2.swapIn() }
button3.setAction {
capture _V3 = self.model
If the operand of a decorated capture is a local variable, then that
variable must not be the subject of an explicit :code:`capture`
declaration, and all references to that variable within the closure
must be identically decorated.
The requirement to decorate all references can add redundancy, but
only if the programmer insists on decorating references instead of
adding an explicit :code:`capture` declaration. Meanwhile, that
redundancy aids both maintainers (by preventing refactors from
accidentally removing the controlling decoration) and readers (who
would otherwise need to search the entire closure to understand how
the variable is captured).
Captures with identical forms (the same sequence of members of the
same variable) are merged to the same capture declaration. This
permits type refinement to work as expected, as seen above with the
:code:`weak` capture. It also guarantees the elimination of some
redundant computation, such as with the :code:`state` property in this
resetButton.setAction {
log("resetting state to " + capture(self.state))
I don't see any immediate need for other kinds of capture decoration.
In particular, I think back references are likely to be the right kind
of weak reference here for basically every use, and I don't think that
making it easy to capture a value with, say, a zeroable weak reference
is important. This is just an intuition deepened by hallway
discussions and close examination of a great many test cases, so I
concede it may prove to be misguided, in which case it should be easy
enough to add a new kind of decoration (if we're willing to burn a
keyword on it).
:code:`capture` Declarations
This feature generalizes the above, removing some redundancy in large
closures and adding a small amount of expressive power.
A :code:`capture` declaration can only appear in a closure: an
anonymous closure expression or :code:`func` declaration that appears
directly within a function. (By "directly" I mean not within, say, a
local type declaration within the function). :code:`capture` will
need to at least become a context-sensitive keyword.
A closure may contain multiple :code:`capture` declarations, but they
must all appear at the very top. One reason is that they can affect
the capture semantics within the closure, so someone reading the
closure should be able to find them easily. Another reason is that
they can involve executing interesting code in the enclosing context
and so should reliably appear near the closure formation site in the
source code::
decl ::= decl-capture
decl-capture ::= 'capture' attribute-list '=' expr-var-or-member
decl-capture ::= 'capture' attribute-list decl-capture-expr-list
decl-capture-expr-list ::= expr-var-or-member
decl-capture-expr-list ::= expr-var-or-member ',' decl-capture-expr-list
Both forms of :code:`capture` declaration cause one or more fields to
be created within the closure object. At the time of creating the
closure, these fields are initialized with the result of evaluating an
expression in the enclosing context. Since the expression is
evaluated in the enclosing context, it cannot refer to "previous"
captures; otherwise we could have some awkward ambiguities. I think
we should reserve the right to not execute an initializer if the
closure will never be called; this is more important for local
:code:`func` declarations than for anonymous closure expressions.
The fields introduced by :code:`capture` declarations should be
immutable by default, but programmers should be able to write
something like :code:`capture var ...` to make them mutable. Locking
down on mutation isn't quite as important as it is with implicit
captures (where it's easy to accidentally believe you're modifying the
enclosing variable) or even explicit captures in C++11 lambdas (where
copies of the lambda object will copy the capture field and thus
produce mystifying behavior in uncareful code), but it's still a
source of easy mistakes that should require manual intervention to
enable. This all presumes that we eventually design mutability into
the language, of course.
In the pattern-initializer form, the field names are given explicitly
by the pattern. The abbreviated form borrows the name of the captured
member or local variable. In either case, names should be subject to
the usual shadowing rules, whatever they may be, with the exception
that capturing an enclosing variable with the abbreviated form is not
Attributes on a :code:`capture` declaration affect all the fields it
Let's spell out some examples. I expect the dominant form to be a
simple identifier::
capture @unowned foo
This captures the current value of whatever :code:`foo` resolves to
(potentially a member of :code:`self`!) and binds it within the
closure as a back-reference.
Permitting the slightly more general form::
capture window.title
allows users to conveniently capture specific values without mucking
up the enclosing scope with tons of variables only needed for setting
up the closure. In particular, this makes it easy to capture specific
fields out of an enclosing :code:`self` object instead of capturing
the object itself; that, plus forcing uses of :code:`self` to be
explicit in closures, would help users to conveniently avoid a class
of inadvertent retain cycles.
I've included the general pattern-initializer form mostly for ease of
exposition. It adds no major expressivity improvements over just
creating a variable in the enclosing context. It does avoid
cluttering the enclosing scope with new variables and permits captures
to be locally renamed, and it can very convenient if introducing a new
variable in the enclosing scope would be complicated (for example, if
there were a reason to prefer using a single statement there). I
don't think it does any harm, but I wouldn't mourn it, either. I do
think that generalizing the initializer to an arbitrary expression
would be a serious mistake, because readers are naturally going to
overlook code which occurs inside the closure, and promoting side
effects there would be awful.
It would be nice to have a way to declare that a closure should not
have any implicit captures. I don't have a proposal for that right now,
but it's not important for weak references.
Nested Closures
It is important to spell out how these rules affect captures in nested
Recall that all of the above rules can be transformed into
``capture`` declarations at the beginning of a closure, and that
``capture`` declarations always introduce a by-value capture
instead of a by-reference capture.
A by-reference capture is always of either a local variable or a
``capture`` declaration. In neither case do we currently permit
such captures to "drag in" other declarations silently, to the extent
that this is detectable. This means that mutable ``capture``
declarations that are themselves captured by reference must be
separately allocated from the closure object, much like what happens
with normal locals captured by reference.
I've considered it quite a bit, and I think that a by-value capture of
a variable from a non-immediately enclosing context must be made
ill-formed. At the very least, it must be ill-formed if either the
original variable is mutable (or anything along the path is, if it
involves properties) or the capture adds ``@unowned``.
This rule will effectively force programmers to use extra variables or
``capture``\ s as a way of promising validity of the internal
The motivation for this prohibition is that the intent of such
captures is actually quite ambiguous and/or dangerous. Consider
the following code::
async { doSomething(); GUI.sync { unowned(view).fireCompleted() } }
The intent of this code is to have captured a back-reference to the
value of :code:`view`, but it could be to do so at either of two
points in time. The language must choose, and in this hypothetical it
must do so without further declaration of intent and without knowledge
of when and how many times the closures will be called.
Suppose that we capture the value at the earlier point, when we form
the outer closure. This will behave very surprisingly if :code:`view`
is in fact mutated; it may be easier to imagine this if, instead of a
simple local variable, it was instead a path like :code:`self.view`.
And it's not clear that forming a back-reference at this earlier point
is actually valid; it is easy to imagine code that would rely on the
intermediate closure holding a strong reference to the view.
Furthermore, and crucially, these issues are inextricable: we cannot
somehow keep track of the mutable variable but only hold its value
But suppose instead that we capture the value at the later point.
Then the intermediate closure will capture the :code:`view` variable
by reference, which means that in effect it will hold :code:`view`
strongly. This may actually completely subvert the user's desired
It's not clear to me right now whether this problem applies equally to
explicit :code:`capture` declarations. Somehow decorated expressions
seem more ambiguous in intent, probably because the syntax is more
thoughtlessly convenient. On the other hand, making the decoration
syntax not just a shorthand for the explicit declarations makes the
model more complex, and it may be over-complex already.
So in summary, it would be best to enforce a strong prohibition against
these dangerous multi-level captures. We can tell users to introduce
secondary variables when they need to do subtle things across several
closure levels.
Library Directions
The library should definitely provide the following types:
- :code:`UnownedReference<T>`: a fragile value type with a single
public :code:`unowned` field of type :code:`T`. There should be an
implicit conversion *from* :code:`T` so that obvious initializations
and assignments succeed. However, there should not be an implicit
conversion *to* :code:`T`; this would be dangerous because it could
hide bugs introduced by the way that e.g. naive copies into locals
will preserve the weakness of the reference.
In keeping with our design for :code:`unowned`, I think this type
should actually be an alias to either
:code:`SafeUnownedReference<T>` or :code:`UnsafeUnownedReference<T>`
depending on the current component's build settings. The choice
would be exported in binary modules, but for cleanliness we would
also require public APIs to visibly commit to one choice or the
- :code:`WeakReference<T>`: a fragile value type with a single public
:code:`weak` field of type :code:`T`. As above, there should be an
implicit conversion *from* :code:`T` but no implicit conversion to
:code:`T` (or even :code:`Optional<T>`). There is, however, no
need for safe and unsafe variants.
The library should consider providing the following types:
- A simple, memory-sensitive weak cache.
- :code:`Finalizer`: a value type which is constructed with a referent
and a :code:`() -> ()` function and which causes the function to be
run (on a well-known dispatch queue?) when the object is finalized.