Catching use-after-move bugs with Clang's consumed annotations

This post describes a compile-time technique for catching use-after-move bugs in modern C++. It’s currently used to prevent some mistakes in the Serenity Operating System.


We were all excited when C++11 added move semantics. Finally we could work together with the compiler to avoid copies (instead of against the compiler, which is how it sometimes felt before.)

There is one footgun lurking with move semantics though. Once you std::move an object and pass it to someone who takes an rvalue-reference, your local object may very well end up in an invalid state. It’ll still be destructible, of course, but it’s no longer logically valid.

An obvious example is std::unique_ptr:

auto object = std::make_unique<Object>();
auto other_object = std::move(object);
// Now the Object has moved into "other_object"
// and "object" is null.
other_object->do_something(); // This is fine.
object->do_something(); // Crash: nullptr dereference!

This kind of problem can be hard to spot in longer functions, and you find yourself wishing the compiler would give you a hand..

So I came up with a way to catch some of these bugs. It only works with the Clang compiler (AFAIK) and uses some obscure attributes listed under “Consumed Annotation Checking” in the Clang documentation.

The basic idea is: you mark a class as consumable. Objects of that class then exist in one of three states: unconsumed, consumed or unknown. Using function attributes, you can read and modify this state on a per-object basis. And most importantly (for our needs), the compiler can generate a warning when a member function is called on an object in an unwanted state!

Let’s write a little program to illustrate how this mechanism can be harnessed. First, an error-prone version:

class Object {
public:
    Object() {}
    Object(Object&& other) { other.invalidate(); }
    void do_something() { assert(m_valid); }

private:
    void invalidate() { m_valid = false; }
    bool m_valid { true };
};

int main(int, char**)
{
    Object object;
    auto other = std::move(object);
    object.do_something();
    return 0;
}

The above code will assert in do_something(). There’s nothing technically wrong with the program, so the compiler won’t get in our way.

Now let’s annotate the class with these attributes:

class [[clang::consumable(unconsumed)]] CleverObject {
public:
    [[clang::return_typestate(unconsumed)]]
    CleverObject() {}

    CleverObject(CleverObject&& other) { other.invalidate(); }

    [[clang::callable_when(unconsumed)]]
    void do_something() { assert(m_valid); }

private:
    [[clang::set_typestate(consumed)]]
    void invalidate() { m_valid = false; }

    bool m_valid { true };
};

int main(int, char**)
{
    CleverObject object;
    auto other = std::move(object);
    object.do_something();
    return 0;
}

We’ve made these four annotations:

  • The CleverObject class is made consumable, with each object starting out in the unconsumed state.
  • The constructor is marked as returning an object in the unconsumed state.
  • The do_something() function must only be called on objects in the unconsumed state.
  • The invalidate() function sets the state of the callee object to consumed. Note that the CleverObject(CleverObject&&) move constructor calls invalidate() on the moved-from object, causing it to become consumed.

Compiling the above code with clang -Wconsumed gives you this output:

clang -Wconsumed    test.cpp   -o test
test.cpp:36:12: warning: invalid invocation of method 'do_something' on object 'object'
      while it is in the 'consumed' state [-Wconsumed]
    object.do_something();
           ^
1 warning generated.

Pretty neat, huh? :^)

For a bigger example, you can see how I’ve implemented the NonnullRefPtr smart pointer in Serenity. NonnullRefPtr is a variant of RefPtr (a reference counting smart pointer) that cannot be null. However, you are allowed to move from it, which puts it into an invalid (and consumed) state.

Curiously, I couldn’t find a single instance of anyone using these attributes for anything on the web. If you’ve seen them anywhere, I’d love to hear about it.

Until next time!

Written on July 10, 2019