Pointers in OCaml

Status of pointers in OCaml

Pointers exist in OCaml, and in fact they spread all over the place. They are used either implicitly (in the most cases), or explicitly (in the rare occasions where implicit pointers are not more handy). The vast majority of pointers usages that are found in usual programming languages simply disappear in OCaml, or more exactly, those pointers are totally automatically handled by the compiler. Thus, the OCaml programmer can safely ignore the existence of pointers, focusing on the semantics of their program.
For instance, lists or trees are defined without explicit pointers using a concrete datatype definition. The underlying implementation uses pointers, but this is hidden from the programmer since pointer handling is done by the compiler.

In the rare occasions where explicit pointers are needed (the most common case is when translating into OCaml an algorithm described in a classic imperative language), OCaml provides references that are full-fledged pointers, even first class citizen pointers (references can be passed as argument, embedded into arbitrary data structures, and returned as function results).

Explicit pointers are OCaml values of type ref

You can program directly with explicit references if you want to, but this is normally a waste of time and effort.

Let's examine the simple example of linked lists (integer lists to be simple). This data type is defined in C (or in Pascal) using explicit pointers, for instance:

/* Cells and lists type in C */
struct cell {
  int hd;
  struct cell *tl;

typedef struct cell cell, *list;
{Cells and lists type in Pascal}
 list = ^cell;
 cell = record
  hd: integer;
  tl: cell;

We can translate this in OCaml, using a sum type definition, without pointers:

# type list = Nil | Cons of int * list;;
type list = Nil | Cons of int * list

Cell lists are thus represented as pairs, and the recursive structure of lists is evident, with the two alternatives, empty list (the Nilconstructor) and non empty list (the Cons constructor).
Automatic management of pointers and automatic memory allocation shine when allocating list values: one just writes Cons (x, l) to add x in front of the list l. In C, you need to write this function, to allocate a new cell and then fill its fields. For instance:

/* The empty list */
#define nil NULL

/* The constructor of lists */
list cons (element x, list l)
  list result;
  result = (list) malloc (sizeof (cell));
  result -> hd = x;
  result -> tl = l;
  return (result);

Similarly, in Pascal:

{Creating a list cell}
function cons (x: integer; l: list): list;
  var p: list;
    p^.hd := x;
    p^.tl := l;
    cons := p

We thus see that fields of list cells in the C program have to be mutable, otherwise initialization is impossible. By contrast in OCaml, allocation and initialization are merged into a single basic operation: constructor application. This way, immutable data structures are definable (those data types are often refered to as “pure” or “functionnal” data structures). If physical modifications are necessary for other reasons than mere initialization, OCaml provides records with mutable fields. For instance, a list type defining lists whose elements can be in place modified could be written:

# type list = Nil | Cons of cell
  and cell = { mutable hd : int; tl : list };;
type list = Nil | Cons of cell and cell = { mutable hd : int; tl : list; }

If the structure of the list itself must also be modified (cells must be physically removed from the list), the tl field would also be declared as mutable:

# type list = Nil | Cons of cell
  and cell = {mutable hd : int; mutable tl : list};;
type list = Nil | Cons of cell and cell = { mutable hd : int; mutable tl : list; }

Physical assignments are still useless to allocate mutable data: you write Cons {hd = 1; tl = l} to add 1 to the list l. Physical assigments that remain in OCaml programs should be just those assignments that are mandatory to implement the algorithm at hand.

Pointers and mutable fields or vectors

Very often, pointers are used to implement physical modification of data structures. In OCaml programs this means using vectors or mutable fields in records. For this kind of use of pointers, the Pascal's instruction: x^.label := val (where x is a value of a record having a label field) corresponds to the OCaml construct x.label <- val (where x is a value of a record having a label mutable field). The Pascal's ^ symbol simply disapears, since dereferencing is automatically handled by the OCaml compiler.

In conclusion: You can use explicit pointers in OCaml, exactly as in Pascal or C, but this is not natural, since you get back the usual drawbacks and difficulties of explicit pointers manipulation of classical algorithmic languages. See a more complete example below.

Defining pointers in OCaml

The general pointer type can be defined using the definition of a pointer: a pointer is either null, or a pointer to an assignable memory location:

# type 'a pointer = Null | Pointer of 'a ref;;
type 'a pointer = Null | Pointer of 'a ref

Explicit dereferencing (or reading the pointer's designated value) and pointer assignment (or writing to the pointer's designated memory location) are easily defined. We define dereferencing as a prefix operator named !^, and assigment as the infix ^:=.

# let ( !^ ) = function
    | Null -> invalid_arg "Attempt to dereference the null pointer"
    | Pointer r -> !r;;
val ( !^ ) : 'a pointer -> 'a = <fun> # let ( ^:= ) p v = match p with | Null -> invalid_arg "Attempt to assign the null pointer" | Pointer r -> r := v;;
val ( ^:= ) : 'a pointer -> 'a -> unit = <fun>

Now we define the allocation of a new pointer initialized to point to a given value:

# let new_pointer x = Pointer (ref x);;
val new_pointer : 'a -> 'a pointer = <fun>

For instance, let's define and then assign a pointer to an integer:

# let p = new_pointer 0;;
val p : int pointer = Pointer {contents = 0} # p ^:= 1;;
- : unit = () # !^p;;
- : int = 1

Integer Lists

Now we can define lists using explicit pointers as in usual imperative languages:

# (* The list type ``à la Pascal'' *)
  type ilist = cell pointer
  and cell = {mutable hd : int; mutable tl : ilist};;
type ilist = cell pointer and cell = { mutable hd : int; mutable tl : ilist; }

We then define allocation of a new cell, the list constructor and its associated destructors.

# let new_cell () = {hd = 0; tl = Null};;
val new_cell : unit -> cell = <fun> # let cons x l = let c = new_cell () in c.hd <- x; c.tl <- l; (new_pointer c : ilist);;
val cons : int -> ilist -> ilist = <fun> # let hd (l : ilist) = !^l.hd;;
val hd : ilist -> int = <fun> # let tl (l : ilist) = !^l.tl;;
val tl : ilist -> ilist = <fun>

We can now write all kind of classical algorithms, based on pointers manipulation, with their associated loops, their unwanted sharing problems and their null pointer errors. For instance, list concatenation, as often described in literature, physically modifies its first list argument, hooking the second list to the end of the first:

# (* Physical append *)
  let append (l1 : ilist) (l2 : ilist) =
    let temp = ref l1 in
    while tl !temp <> Null do
      temp := tl !temp
    !^ !temp.tl <- l2;;
val append : ilist -> ilist -> unit = <fun> # (* An example: *) let l1 = cons 1 (cons 2 Null);;
val l1 : ilist = Pointer {contents = {hd = 1; tl = Pointer {contents = {hd = 2; tl = Null}}}} # let l2 = cons 3 Null;;
val l2 : ilist = Pointer {contents = {hd = 3; tl = Null}} # append l1 l2;;
- : unit = ()

The lists l1 and l2 are effectively catenated:

# l1;;
- : ilist = Pointer {contents = {hd = 1; tl = Pointer {contents = {hd = 2; tl = Pointer {contents = {hd = 3; tl = Null}}}}}}

Just a nasty side effect of physical list concatenation: l1 now contains the concatenation of the two lists l1 and l2, thus the list l1 no longer exists: in some sense append consumes its first argument. In other words, the value of a list data now depends on its history, that is on the sequence of function calls that use the value. This strange behaviour leads to a lot of difficulties when explicitly manipulating pointers. Try for instance, the seemingly harmless:

# append l1 l1;;
- : unit = ()

Then evaluate l1:

# l1;;
- : ilist = Pointer {contents = {hd = 1; tl = Pointer {contents = {hd = 2; tl = Pointer {contents = {hd = 3; tl = <cycle>}}}}}}

Polymorphic lists

To go beyond Pascal type system, we define polymorphic lists using pointers; here is a simple implementation of those polymorphic mutable lists:

# type 'a lists = 'a cell pointer
  and 'a cell = {mutable hd : 'a pointer; mutable tl : 'a lists};;
type 'a lists = 'a cell pointer and 'a cell = { mutable hd : 'a pointer; mutable tl : 'a lists; } # let new_cell () = {hd = Null; tl = Null};;
val new_cell : unit -> 'a cell = <fun> # let cons x l = let c = new_cell () in c.hd <- new_pointer x; c.tl <- l; (new_pointer c : 'a lists);;
val cons : 'a -> 'a lists -> 'a lists = <fun> # let hd (l : 'a lists) = !^l.hd;;
val hd : 'a lists -> 'a pointer = <fun> # let tl (l : 'a lists) = !^l.tl;;
val tl : 'a lists -> 'a lists = <fun> # let append (l1 : 'a lists) (l2 : 'a lists) = let temp = ref l1 in while tl !temp <> Null do temp := tl !temp done; !^ !temp.tl <- l2;;
val append : 'a lists -> 'a lists -> unit = <fun>