Pointers in Caml

Contact the author Pierre.Weis@inria.fr

Created the 10th of April 2000.

Status of pointers in Caml

Pointers exist in Caml, 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 Caml, or more exactly, those pointers are totally automatically handled by the compiler and the Caml programmer can safely just ignore their existence, focusing on the semantics of his program.
For instance lists or trees are defined without explicit pointers (we simply use a concrete data type definition). The underlying implementation indeed uses pointers, but this is transparent to the programmer since pointers handling is done by the compiler.

In the rare occasions where explicit pointers are needed (the most common case is when translating in Caml an algorithm described in a classic imperative language), Caml 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 Caml values of type ref

You can program directly with explicit references if you want to, but this is normally a vast 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 */
struct cell {
  int hd;
  struct cell *tl;

typedef struct cell cell, *list;

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

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 (cellule));
  result -> hd = x;
  result -> tl = l;
  return (result);

We thus see that fields of list cells in the C program have to be mutable, otherwise initialization is impossible. By contrast in Caml, allocation and initialization are merged into a single basic operation: constructor application. This way, immutable data structures are definable (those data types are often referred to as ``pure'' or ``functional'' data structures). If physical modifications are necessary for other reasons than mere initialization, Caml 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};;

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};;

Physical assignments are still useless to allocate mutable data: you write Cons {hd = 1; tl = l} to add 1 to the list l. Physical assignments that remain in Caml 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 modifications of data structures. In Caml 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 Caml construct
x.label <- val ((where x is a value of a record having a label mutable field)

The Pascal's ^ symbol simply disappears, since dereferencing is automatically handled by the Caml compiler.

In conclusion:
You can use explicit pointers in Caml, 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 explicit pointers in Caml

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

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

Basic operations of dereferencing and assignment for explicit pointers are easy to define. Dereferencing corresponds to reading the pointer's designated values and assignment means writing to the pointer's designated memory location.
In order to use notations reminiscent the traditional Pascal usage, we define dereferencing as a prefix operator named !^, and assignment as the infix operator ^:=.

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>

We also have to define the allocation of a new (fresh) pointer, initially pointing 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 (ref 0)
#p ^:= 1;;
- : unit = ()
- : int = 1

Integer Lists

The definition of lists with explicit pointers involves the recursive definition of two types: the cell type that describes the contents of lists' cells and the ilist type that describes lists as explicit pointers to the initial cell of the designated list (this is just mimicking the classical encoding of lists in usual imperative languages):

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

We also have to 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 the literature on algorithms, 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 (ref {hd = 1; tl = Pointer (ref {hd = 2; tl = Null})})

let l2 = cons 3 Null;;
val l2 : ilist = Pointer (ref {hd = 3; tl = Null})

append l1 l2;;
- : unit = ()

The lists l1 and l2 are effectively catenated:

- : ilist =
    {hd = 1; tl = Pointer (ref {hd = 2; tl = Pointer (ref {hd = 3; tl = Null})})})

Don't miss this typical (and unexpected) side effect of physical list concatenation: the list l1 now contains the concatenation of the two lists l1 and l2, thus the list l1 no longer exists: in some sense, append consumes or destroys its first argument. In other words, the value of a list data now can depend on its history, meaning that a list value can be a function of the entire sequence of function calls that have used this list value since its initial creation. This strange behavior can be powerful, but it also leads to a lot of difficulties. Try for instance, the seemingly harmless:

append l1 l1;;
- : unit = ()

Then evaluate l1:


In conclusion: general explicit pointers manipulation is possible and easy in Caml. However, this programming style should be reserved to peculiar situation where the more natural functional data structures cannot be used. Since explicit pointers manipulation is always difficult and error prone, it should be considered as a kind of black magic that is devoted to brave soul experts or masochists. You have been warned!

Polymorphic lists

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

type 'a list = 'a cell pointer
and 'a cell = {mutable hd : 'a pointer; mutable tl : 'a list};;

let new_cell () = {hd = Null; tl = Null};;
let cons x l =
 let c = new_cell () in
 c.hd <- new_pointer x;
 c.tl <- l;
 (new_pointer c : 'a lists);;
let hd (l : 'a lists) = !^l.hd;;
let tl (l : 'a lists) = !^l.tl;;

let append (l1 : 'a lists) (l2 : 'a lists) =
 let temp = ref l1 in
 while tl !temp <> Null do
  temp := tl !temp
 !^ !temp.tl <- l2;;

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Contact the author Pierre.Weis@inria.fr