Vorner's random stuff

About the undefined behavior

One hears a lot about the dreaded Undefined Behavior in programming. It’s a big topic for Rust, because it tries to solve the problem. And there are many definitions about what it is. However, I feel some aspects of it are not appreciated enough. Therefore, this is what I think everyone (well, everyone close enough to computers) should know about it. Like the stories about why kids shouldn’t talk to strangers, this fairy tale should be told to kid-programmers before bed time.

The term was coined in the C standard, and most other languages just plain borrow the term. The standard actually talks about several „lesser“ levels of undefinedness:

Note: the previous version of the text stated that one such unspecified behavior is ++ x + ++ x. That is technically correct, but this is also undefined behavior (by definition, every undefined behavior is also unspecified).

Undefined behavior

This is basically „all bets are off“. You can’t have any expectations whatsoever about what happens if it is invoked. Monsters with tentacles from other dimensions and such 🐙.

This usually happens because the standard (or something else) says some situation can never happen, but this assumption is broken by the code. Like, integers never live on odd addresses (since there’s actually no legal way to put them there in the first place, so it makes no sense to prescribe what happens if one gets there nevertheless). Or dereferencing an invalid pointer. Indexing after the array’s end. Creating (not even using) a pointer further than 1 element past an array’s end.

Let’s see a bit of code:

char c[4];
memcpy(c, "hello", strlen("hello"));
printf("%s\n", c);

If this is ever executed (don’t do that, you might regret it!), it can do any of these, but also whatever else:

And all this just because printf assumes that it gets a valid string that fits into the memory allocated for it. What we did instead was the programmer equivalent of putting a cat into a microwave ‒ it was obviously never meant to be used that way and nobody thought about what might happen if you do such a stupid thing, because, well, it’s just plain stupid to do. Except when the situation is really complex and you pay little attention to what you do, you do such a thing by an accident.

You noticed I put the „correct“ behavior last. This is on purpose. They are ordered by the perceived severity.

This is what I’m trying to get to from the beginning. The absolutely worst thing about undefined behavior is that it is allowed to pretent to work as expected.

The issue may fly under the radar a very long time ‒ passing tests, getting into production and then making the autopilot crash the plane. The very fact that the code is linked with tests or not may change its behavior in unpredictable ways.

Therefore, you don’t want any undefined behavior in your code. Ever. There’s no kind of „safe“ undefined behavior. And the fact that your code doesn’t crash is not a good enough indicator that it does not contain it. If someone tells you „you know, what you do is wrong, this is actually undefined“, the right answer isn’t „but it works OK“. It works OK now, but it won’t tomorrow or the day after.

Downgrading undefinedness

Of course, a C compiler (or whatever compiler) is always allowed to downgrade the undefinedness of some case. It may promise to always execute the pre-increments from left to right, for example, and make it from unspecified to implementation defined. It may promise that whenever you do the hello thing above, it will always print the complete works of Shakespeare and then crash in very rude way, insulting your ancestors. It may promise that whenever you try to use an integer on even address, the program will crash in a well defined specific way.


Where does Rust stand in all this? Well, it tries to tell you „you know, what you do looks wrong“ before you ever try running the code („why are you carrying that cat to the microwave?!“). It may actually be OK, but Rust tries to err on the safe side (pun intended). You can still tell it „get of my way, I know what I’m doing“. But you should do so only if you really know what you’re doing, not because the compiler annoys you.

I might be paranoid, but whenever you write unsafe into your Rust code, you should make a proof (well, not necessary a formal proof, but at least a reasoning) why this use of unsafe is actually safe to do. And put it into a comment there, so others can see your reasoning. In addition, you should also state the reason why the unsafe is necessary in the first place ‒ simply because we all do mistakes in our proofs, formal or not, and why risk it.

In other words, it is great to have a language that kills at least the last and worst kind of undefinedness (note that it still has the others!) and if it crashes the plane, it does in a well defined and repeatable way. You can actually test for that.

Other languages

Some languages are safer than others. There’s however nothing such thing as a safe language ‒ you still can crash the plane even when staying in the realms of defined behavior. There’s still no replacement for using your brain.

Also note that not all undefined behaviors are caused by pointers, as would some proponents of so-called safe languages make you believe. For example, a data race (multi-threaded access to data without synchronisation while it is being modified) is undefined on the hardware level (well, it’s unspecified from the hardware point of view, but that can lead to having arbitrarily wrong data in arbitrary places, which makes it undefined higher up in software). Unless the language does something about it explicitly (eg. by making sure only one thread runs at a time, like in Python, or that you never can change a thing after you assigned it, like in Haskell), it is possible to invoke it.