The Peril of the Ampersand

This thread has been locked by a moderator.
A recent version of Xcode (1) added new warnings that help detect a nasty gotcha related to the lifetime of unsafe pointers. For example:
  • Initialization of 'UnsafeMutablePointer<timeval>' results in a dangling pointer

  • Inout expression creates a temporary pointer, but argument 'iov_base' should be a pointer that outlives the call to 'init(iov_base:iov_len:)'

I’ve seen a lot of folks confused by these warnings, and by the lifetime of unsafe pointers in general, and this post is my attempt to clarify the topic.

If you have questions about any of this, please put them in a new thread and tag that with Swift and Debugging.

Finally, I encourage you to watch the following WWDC presentations:
These cover some of the same ground I’ve covered here, and a lot of other cool stuff as well.

Share and Enjoy

Quinn “The Eskimo!”
Apple Developer Relations, Developer Technical Support, Core OS/Hardware
let myEmail = "eskimo" + "1" + ""

(1) Swift 5.2.2, as shipped in Xcode 11.4. See the discussion of SR-2790 in Xcode 11.4 Release Notes.


In Swift, the ampersand (&) indicates that a parameter is being passed inout. Consider this example:

Code Block
func addVarnish(_ product: inout String) {
product += " varnish"
var waffle = "waffle"
// printed: waffle varnish

On line 6, the ampersand tells you that waffle could be modified by addVarnish(_:).

However, there is another use of ampersand that was designed to help with C interoperability. Consider this code:

Code Block
var tv = timeval()
gettimeofday(&tv, nil)
// printed: timeval(tv_sec: 1590743104, tv_usec: 77027)

The first parameter to gettimeofday is an UnsafeMutablePointer<timeval>. Here the ampersand denotes a conversion from a timeval to an UnsafeMutablePointer<timeval>. This conversion makes it much easier to call common C APIs from Swift.

This also works for array values. For example:

Code Block
var hostName = [CChar](repeating: 0, count: 256)
gethostname(&hostName, hostName.count)
print(String(cString: hostName))
// printed: slimey.local.

In this code the ampersand denotes a conversion from [CChar] to an UnsafeMutablePointer<CChar> that points to the base of the array.

While this is convenient, it’s potentially misleading, especially if you come from a C background. In C-based languages, using ampersand in this way yields a pointer to the value that’s valid until the value gets deallocated. That’s not the case in Swift. Rather, the pointer generated by the ampersand syntax is only valid for the duration of that function call.

To understand why that’s the case, consider this code:

Code Block
struct TimeInTwoParts {
var sec: time_t = 0
var usec: Int32 = 0
var combined: timeval {
get { timeval(tv_sec: sec, tv_usec: usec) }
set {
sec = newValue.tv_sec
usec = newValue.tv_usec
var time = TimeInTwoParts()
gettimeofday(&time.combined, nil)
// printed: timeval(tv_sec: 1590743484, tv_usec: 89118)
// printed: 1590743484
// printed: 89118

Here combined is a computed property that has no independent existence in memory. Thus, it simply makes no sense to take the address of it.

So, how does ampersand deal with this? Under the covers the Swift compiler expands line 13 to something like this:

Code Block
var tmp = time.combined
gettimeofday(&tmp, nil)
time.combined = tmp

Once you understand this it’s clear why the resulting pointer is only valid for the duration of the call: As soon as Swift cleans up tmp, the pointer becomes invalid.

A Gotcha

This automatic conversion can be a nasty gotcha. Consider this code:

Code Block
var tv = timeval()
let tvPtr = UnsafeMutablePointer(&tv)
// ^~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
// Initialization of 'UnsafeMutablePointer<timeval>' results in a dangling pointer
gettimeofday(tvPtr, nil)

This results in undefined behaviour because the pointer generated by the ampersand on line 2 is no longer valid when it’s used on line 5. In some cases, like this one, the later Swift compiler is able to detect this problem and warn you about it. In other cases you’re not so lucky. Consider this code:

Code Block
guard let f = fopen("tmp.txt", "w") else { … }
var buf = [CChar](repeating: 0, count: 1024)
setvbuf(f, &buf, _IOFBF, buf.count)
let message = [UInt8]("Hello Crueld World!".utf8)
fwrite(message, message.count, 1, f)

This uses setvbuf to apply a custom buffer to the file handle. The file handle uses this buffer until after the close on line 6. However, the pointer created by the ampersand on line 3 only exists for the duration of the setvbuf call. When the code calls fwrite on line 5 the buffer pointer is no valid and things end badly.

Unfortunately the compiler isn’t able to detect this problem. Worse yet, the code might actually work initially, and then stop working as you change optimisation settings, update the compiler, change unrelated code, and so on.

Another Gotcha

There is another gotcha associated with the ampersand syntax. Consider this code:

Code Block
class AtomicCounter {
var count: Int32 = 0
func increment() {
OSAtomicAdd32(1, &count)

This looks like it’ll implement an atomic counter but there’s no guarantee that the counter will be atomic. To understand why, apply the tmp transform from earlier:

Code Block
class AtomicCounter {
var count: Int32 = 0
func increment() {
var tmp = count
OSAtomicAdd32(1, &tmp)
count = tmp

So each call to OSAtomicAdd32 could potentially be operating on a separate copy of the counter that’s then assign back to count. This undermines the whole notion of atomicity.

Again, this might work in some builds of your product and then fail in other builds.


So, to summarise:
  • Swift’s ampersand syntax has very different semantics from the equivalent syntax in C.

  • When you use an ampersand to convert from a value to a pointer as part of a function call, make sure that the called function doesn’t use the pointer after it’s returned.

  • It is not safe to use the ampersand syntax for functions where the exact pointer matters.

It’s Not Just Ampersands

There’s one further gotcha related to arrays. The gethostname example above shows that you can use an ampersand to pass the base address of an array to a function that takes a mutable pointer. Swift supports two other implicit conversions like this:
  • From String to UnsafePointer<CChar> — This allows you to pass a Swift string to an API that takes a C string. For example:

Code Block
let greeting = "Hello Cruel World!"
let greetingLength = strlen(greeting)
// printed: 18

  • From Array<Element> to UnsafePointer<Element> — This allows you to pass a Swift array to a C API that takes an array (in C, arrays are typically represented as a base pointer and a length). For example:

Code Block
let charsUTF16: [UniChar] = [72, 101, 108, 108, 111, 32, 67, 114, 117, 101, 108, 32, 87, 111, 114, 108, 100, 33]
let str = CFStringCreateWithCharacters(nil, charsUTF16, charsUTF16.count)!
// prints: Hello Cruel World!

Note that there’s no ampersand in either of these examples. This technique only works for UnsafePointer parameters (as opposed to UnsafeMutablePointer parameters), so the called function can’t modify its buffer. As the ampersand is there to indicate that the value might be modified, it’s not used in this immutable case.

However, the same pointer lifetime restriction applies: The pointer passed to the function is only valid for the duration of that function call. If the function keeps a copy of that pointer and then uses it later on, Bad Things™ will happen.

Consider this code:

Code Block
func printAfterDelay(_ str: UnsafePointer<CChar>) {
// printed: 18
DispatchQueue.main.asyncAfter(deadline: .now() + 1.0) {
// printed: 0
let greeting = ["Hello", "Cruel", "World!"].joined(separator: " ")

The second call to strlen yields undefined behaviour because the pointer passed to printAfterDelay(_:) becomes invalid once printAfterDelay(_:) returns. In this specific example the memory pointed to by str happened to contain a zero, and hence strlen returned 0 but that’s not guaranteed. The str pointer is dangling, so you might get any result from strlen, including a crash.


So, what can you do about this? There’s two basic strategies here:
  • Extend the lifetime of the pointer

  • Manual memory management

Extending the Pointer’s Lifetime

The first strategy makes sense when you have a limited number of pointers and their lifespan is limited. For example, you can fix the setvbuf code from above by changing it to:

Code Block
let message = [UInt8]("Hello Crueld World!".utf8)
guard let f = fopen("tmp.txt", "w") else { … }
var buf = [CChar](repeating: 0, count: 1024)
buf.withUnsafeMutableBufferPointer { buf in
setvbuf(f, buf.baseAddress!, _IOFBF, buf.count)
fwrite(message, message.count, 1, f)

This version of the code uses withUnsafeMutableBufferPointer(_:). That calls the supplied closure and passes it a pointer (actually an UnsafeMutableBufferPointer) that’s valid for the duration of that closure. As long as you only use that pointer inside the closure, you’re safe!

There are a variety of other routines like withUnsafeMutableBufferPointer(_:), including:

Manual Memory Management

If you have to wrangle an unbounded number of pointers — or the lifetime of your pointer isn’t simple, for example when calling an asynchronous call — you must revert to manual memory management. Consider the following code, which is a Swift-friendly wrapper around posix_spawn:

Code Block
func spawn(arguments: [String]) throws -> pid_t {
var argv = { arg -> UnsafeMutablePointer<CChar>? in
defer {
argv.forEach { free($0) }
var pid: pid_t = 0
let success = posix_spawn(&pid, argv[0], nil, nil, argv, environ) == 0
guard success else { throw NSError(domain: NSPOSIXErrorDomain, code: Int(errno), userInfo: nil) }
return pid

This code can’t use the withCString(_:) method on String because it has to deal with an arbitrary number of strings. Instead, it uses strdup to copy each string to its own manually managed buffer. And, as these buffers are manually managed, is has to remember to free them.

Change History

  • 1 Jun 2020 — Initial version.

  • 24 Feb 2021 — Fixed the formatting. Added links to the WWDC 2021 sessions. Fixed the feedback advice. Minor editorial changes.

Up vote post of eskimo