[swift-evolution] Contiguous Memory and the Effect of Borrowing on Safety

John McCall rjmccall at apple.com
Mon Nov 7 15:46:20 CST 2016

> On Nov 6, 2016, at 1:20 PM, Dave Abrahams via swift-evolution <swift-evolution at swift.org> wrote:
> Given that we're headed for ABI (and thus stdlib API) stability, I've
> been giving lots of thought to the bottom layer of our collection
> abstraction and how it may limit our potential for efficiency.  In
> particular, I want to keep the door open for optimizations that work on
> contiguous memory regions.  Every cache-friendly data structure, even if
> it is not an array, contains contiguous memory regions over which
> operations can often be vectorized, that should define boundaries for
> parallelism, etc.  Throughout Cocoa you can find patterns designed to
> exploit this fact when possible (NSFastEnumeration).  Posix I/O bottoms
> out in readv/writev, and MPI datatypes essentially boil down to
> identifying the contiguous parts of data structures.  My point is that
> this is an important class of optimization, with numerous real-world
> examples.
> If you think about what it means to build APIs for contiguous memory
> into abstractions like Sequence or Collection, at least without
> penalizing the lowest-level code, it means exposing UnsafeBufferPointers
> as a first-class part of the protocols, which is really
> unappealing... unless you consider that *borrowed* UnsafeBufferPointers
> can be made safe.  
> [Well, it's slightly more complicated than that because
> UnsafeBufferPointer is designed to bypass bounds checking in release
> builds, and to ensure safety you'd need a BoundsCheckedBuffer—or
> something—that checks bounds unconditionally... but] the point remains
> that
>  A thing that is unsafe when it's arbitrarily copied can become safe if
>  you ensure that it's only borrowed (in accordance with well-understood
>  lifetime rules).

UnsafeBufferPointer today is a copyable type.  Having a borrowed value
doesn't prevent you from making your own copy, which could then escape
the scope that was guaranteeing safety.

This is fixable, of course, but it's a more significant change to the type and
how it would be used.


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