By Halle Knast

2012-02-28 17:03:19 8 Comments

Possible Duplicate:
Why doesn't GCC optimize structs?
Why doesn't C++ make the structure tighter?

Consider the following example on a 32 bit x86 machine:

Due to alignment constraints, the following struct

struct s1 {
    char a;
    int b;
    char c;
    char d;
    char e;

could be represented more memory-efficiently (12 vs. 8 bytes) if the members were reordered as in

struct s2 {
    int b;
    char a;
    char c;
    char d;
    char e;

I know that C/C++ compilers are not allowed to do this. My question is why the language was designed this way. After all, we may end up wasting vast amounts of memory, and references such as struct_ref->b would not care about the difference.

EDIT: Thank you all for your extremely useful answers. You explain very well why rearranging doesn't work because of the way the language was designed. However, it makes me think: Would these arguments would still hold if rearrangement was part of the language? Let's say that there was some specified rearrangement rule, from which we required at least that

  1. we should only reorganize the struct if actually necessary (don't do anything if the struct is already "tight")
  2. the rule only looks at the definition of the struct, not inside inner structs. This ensures that a struct type has the same layout whether or not it is internal in another structure
  3. the compiled memory layout of a given struct is predictable given its definition (that is, the rule is fixed)

Adressing your arguments one by one I reason:

  • Low-level data mapping, "element of least surprise": Just write your structs in a tight style yourself (like in @Perry's answer) and nothing has changed (requirement 1). If, for some weird reason, you want internal padding to be there, you could insert it manually using dummy variables, and/or there could be keywords/directives.

  • Compiler differences: Requirement 3 eliminates this concern. Actually, from @David Heffernan's comments, it seems that we have this problem today because different compilers pad differently?

  • Optimization: The whole point of reordering is (memory) optimization. I see lots of potential here. We may not be able to remove padding all together, but I don't see how reordering could limit optimization in any way.

  • Type casting: It seems to me that this is the biggest problem. Still, there should be ways around this. Since the rules are fixed in the language, the compiler is able to figure out how the members were reordered, and react accordingly. As mentioned above, it will always be possible to prevent reordering in the cases where you want complete control. Also, requirement 2 ensures that type-safe code will never break.

The reason I think such a rule could make sense is because I find it more natural to group struct members by their contents than by their types. Also it is easier for the compiler to choose the best ordering than it is for me when I have a lot of inner structs. The optimal layout may even be one that I cannot express in a type-safe way. On the other hand, it would appear to make the language more complicated, which is of course a drawback.

Note that I am not talking about changing the language - only if it could(/should) have been designed differently.

I know my question is hypothetical, but I think the discussion provides deeper insight in the lower levels of the machine and language design.

I'm quite new here, so I don't know if I should spawn a new question for this. Please tell me if this is the case.


@user811773 2012-02-28 18:31:41

There are multiple reasons why the C compiler cannot automatically reorder the fields:

  • The C compiler doesn't know whether the struct represents the memory structure of objects beyond the current compilation unit (for example: a foreign library, a file on disc, network data, CPU page tables, ...). In such a case the binary structure of data is also defined in a place inaccessible to the compiler, so reordering the struct fields would create a data type that is inconsistent with the other definitions. For example, the header of a file in a ZIP file contains multiple misaligned 32-bit fields. Reordering the fields would make it impossible for C code to directly read or write the header (assuming the ZIP implementation would like to access the data directly):

    struct __attribute__((__packed__)) LocalFileHeader {
        uint32_t signature;
        uint16_t minVersion, flag, method, modTime, modDate;
        uint32_t crc32, compressedSize, uncompressedSize;
        uint16_t nameLength, extraLength;

    The packed attribute prevents the compiler from aligning the fields according to their natural alignment, and it has no relation to the problem of field ordering. It would be possible to reorder the fields of LocalFileHeader so that the structure has both minimal size and has all fields aligned to their natural alignment. However, the compiler cannot choose to reorder the fields because it does not know that the struct is actually defined by the ZIP file specification.

  • C is an unsafe language. The C compiler doesn't know whether the data will be accessed via a different type than the one seen by the compiler, for example:

    struct S {
        char a;
        int b;
        char c;
    struct S_head {
        char a;
    struct S_ext {
        char a;
        int b;
        char c;
        int d;
        char e;
    struct S s;
    struct S_head *head = (struct S_head*)&s;
    struct S_ext ext;
    struct S *sp = (struct S*)&ext;

    This is a widely used low-level programming pattern, especially if the header contains the type ID of data located just beyond the header.

  • If a struct type is embedded in another struct type, it is impossible to inline the inner struct:

    struct S {
        char a;
        int b;
        char c, d, e;
    struct T {
        char a;
        struct S s; // Cannot inline S into T, 's' has to be compact in memory
        char b;

    This also means that moving some fields from S to a separate struct disables some optimizations:

    // Cannot fully optimize S
    struct BC { int b; char c; };
    struct S {
        char a;
        struct BC bc;
        char d, e;
  • Because most C compilers are optimizing compilers, reordering struct fields would require new optimizations to be implemented. It is questionable whether those optimizations would be able to do better than what programmers are able to write. Designing data structures by hand is much less time consuming than other compiler tasks such as register allocation, function inlining, constant folding, transformation of a switch statement into binary search, etc. Thus the benefits to be gained by allowing the compiler to optimize data structures appear to be less tangible than traditional compiler optimizations.

@Halle Knast 2012-02-28 20:55:32

I accept type casting argument. However I'm not sure I see the problems with optimization. I was just thinking that the compiler could treat the struct exactly as if I had written it in ordered form myself. Sure there are cases where we cannot compact completely, but this is the case anyway. Also, regarding your first argument: If the standard required a specific reordering, would this argument still hold? One could say that when you write a struct to represent some external data, you should be aware of reordering and choose your types accordingly.

@Izkata 2012-02-29 03:30:25

+1 for the first point: @HalleKnast - One example is reading a blob of data and casting it to a struct type. The order of the elements in the struct will matter in that case.

@Izkata 2012-02-29 03:32:34

@HalleKnast Another live example would be Perry's answer

@bradleyrzeller 2013-12-04 00:09:16

@Atom can you please expand on your first bullet point? Possibly an example? Thanks!

@ratchet freak 2012-02-29 01:41:07

suppose you have a header a.h with

struct s1 {
    char a;
    int b;
    char c;
    char d;
    char e;

and this is part of a separate library (of which you only have the compiled binaries compiled by a unknown compiler) and you wish to use this struct to communicate with this library,

if the compiler is allowed to reorder the members in whichever way it pleases this will be impossible as the client compiler doesn't know whether to use the struct as-is or optimized (and then does b go in front or in the back) or even fully padded with every member aligned on 4 byte intervals

to solve this you can define a deterministic algorithm for compacting but that requires all compilers to implement it and that the algorithm is a good one (in terms of efficiency). it is easier to just agree on padding rules than it is on reordering

it is easy to add a #pragma that prohibits the optimization for when you need the layout of to a specific struct be exactly what you need so that is no issue

@supercat 2012-02-29 16:25:20

I don't think that would be a problem, if the rule were that putting particular set of elements in a structure in a particular order must always yield the same arrangement but the implementation could use whatever arrangement it favors (e.g. all bytes first, then all halfwords, etc.). On the other hand, I don't know how anything other than an in-order requirement could satisfy the "union" rule which says that if a union contains two structs, and the first n fields, in source code order, are identical, they will be aliased cleanly.

@gnasher729 2014-04-03 00:12:04

The "union" rule would work if the compiler assigns an offset to each member as they are defined, without looking at later members, but moves later members into gaps. For example, if your struct members are 1, 4, 2, 1 bytes in that order, the compiler could assign them to offsets 0, 4, 2, 1.

@perreal 2012-02-28 17:21:41

C [and C++] are regarded as systems programming languages so they provide low level access to the hardware, e.g., memory by means of pointers. Programmer can access a data chunk and cast it to a structure and access various members [easily].

Another example is a struct like the one below, which stores variable sized data.

struct {
  uint32_t data_size;
  uint8_t  data[1]; // this has to be the last member
} _vv_a;

@Peter M 2012-02-28 17:35:41

forget files, structs can be mapped to actual hardware registers/addresses. Its not quite possible for the compiler to move silicon around to suit.

@kenny 2012-02-28 17:43:42

I think the pointers to HW is the best argument against, but it would be nice to turn off

@Sled 2019-02-04 17:41:42

Is that actually defined by the standard, or is it technically "undefined behaviour" that seems to work conveniently with most compilers?

@Perry 2012-02-28 23:27:57

C is designed and intended to make it possible to write non-portable hardware and format dependent code in a high level language. Rearrangement of structure contents behind the back of the programmer would destroy that ability.

Observe this actual code from NetBSD's ip.h:

 * Structure of an internet header, naked of options.
struct ip {
    unsigned int ip_hl:4,       /* header length */
             ip_v:4;        /* version */
    unsigned int ip_v:4,        /* version */
             ip_hl:4;       /* header length */
    u_int8_t  ip_tos;       /* type of service */
    u_int16_t ip_len;       /* total length */
    u_int16_t ip_id;        /* identification */
    u_int16_t ip_off;       /* fragment offset field */
    u_int8_t  ip_ttl;       /* time to live */
    u_int8_t  ip_p;         /* protocol */
    u_int16_t ip_sum;       /* checksum */
    struct    in_addr ip_src, ip_dst; /* source and dest address */
} __packed;

That structure is identical in layout to the header of an IP datagram. It is used to directly interpret blobs of memory blatted in by an ethernet controller as IP datagram headers. Imagine if the compiler arbitrarily re-arranged the contents out from under the author -- it would be a disaster.

And yes, it isn't precisely portable (and there's even a non-portable gcc directive given there via the __packed macro) but that's not the point. C is specifically designed to make it possible to write non-portable high level code for driving hardware. That's its function in life.

@John Bode 2012-02-28 22:49:28

Not being a member of WG14, I can't say anything definitive, but I have my own ideas:

  1. It would violate the principle of least surprise - there may be a damned good reason why I want to lay my elements out in a specific order, regardless of whether or not it's the most space-efficient, and I would not want the compiler to rearrange those elements;

  2. It has the potential to break a non-trivial amount of existing code - there's a lot of legacy code out there that relies on things like the address of the struct being the same as the address of the first member (saw a lot of classic MacOS code that made that assumption);

The C99 Rationale directly addresses the second point ("Existing code is important, existing implementations are not") and indirectly addresses the first ("Trust the programmer").

@Jens Gustedt 2012-02-28 18:00:21

Your case is very specific as it would require the first element of a struct to be put re-ordered. This is not possible, since the element that is defined first in a struct must always be at offset 0. A lot of (bogus) code would break if this would be allowed.

More generally pointers of subobjects that live inside the same bigger object must always allow for pointer comparison. I can imagine that some code that uses this feature would break if you'd invert the order. And for that comparison the knowledge of the compiler at the point of definition wouldn't help: a pointer to a subobject doesn't have a "mark" do which larger object it belongs. When passed to another function just as such, all information of a possible context is lost.

@ugoren 2012-02-28 17:48:06

Here's a reason I didn't see so far - without standard rearrangement rules, it would break compatibility between source files.

Suppose a struct is defined in a header file, and used in two files.
Both files are compiled separately, and later linked. Compilation may be at different times (maybe you touched just one, so it had to be recompiled), possibly on different computers (if the files are on a network drive) or even different compiler versions.
If at one time, the compiler would decide to reorder, and at another it won't, the two files won't agree on where the fields are.

As an example, think of the stat system call and struct stat.
When you install Linux (for example), you get libC, which includes stat, which was compiled by someone sometime.
You then compile an application with your compiler, with your optimization flags, and expect both to agree on the struct's layout.

@David Heffernan 2012-02-28 18:02:44

Different padding can give the same effect. However, it is easier to specify padding rules than putative reordering rules.

@Peter M 2012-02-28 17:39:15

Structs are used to represent physical hardware at the very lowest levels. As such the compiler cannot move things a round to suit at that level.

However it would not be unreasonable to have a #pragma that let the compiler re-arrange purely memory based structs that are only used internally to the program. However I don't know of such a beast (but that doesn't meant squat - I'm out of touch with C/C++)

@Kluge 2012-02-28 17:27:02

Keep in mind that a variable declaration, such as a struct, is designed to be a "public" representation of the variable. It's used not only by your compiler, but is also available to other compilers as representing that data type. It will probably end up in a .h file. Therefore, if a compiler is going to take liberties with the way the members within a struct are organized, then ALL compilers have to be able to follow the same rules. Otherwise, as has been mentioned, the pointer arithmetic will get confused between different compilers.

@David Heffernan 2012-02-28 17:30:47

But different compilers lay out the same struct in different ways due to alignment differences. And then there can be differences in the size of data types, e.g. int can differ in size on different compilers.

@Kluge 2012-02-28 21:03:52

Which is exactly my point. If two pieces of code need to share access to a struct (either in memory or in a binary file format), then both compilers need to agree on the internal representation of the struct. Different compilers will do this differently, especially based on the host operating system, but they then allow you to override this using #pragma pack.

@larsks 2012-02-28 17:17:50

If you were reading/writing binary data to/from C structures, reordering of the struct members would be a disaster. There would be no practical way to actually populate the structure from a buffer, for example.

@David Heffernan 2012-02-28 17:19:18

But the C standard does not say anything about packing and alignment which it would need to if you wanted to do what you describe. In other words, I can't believe that mapping of structs onto binary files in a portable way can have been a motivating factor in the language design.

@larsks 2012-02-28 17:23:22

Actually, given that C was designed as a systems language -- and this sort of work is typical of network and or file based i/o -- I'm pretty sure this is exactly the sort of thing that motivated the language design.

@David Heffernan 2012-02-28 17:24:19

Well I thought that, but if C compilers are free to add whatever padding they see fit, that would completely scupper such programming techniques.

@Perry 2012-02-29 00:33:19

You're making a mistake here. Sure, you can't map structs onto binary data in a portable manner, but C is designed to be useful for producing nonportable code like embedded systems software, device drivers, etc., where the nonportability is not an issue and using a high level language is precisely the point.

@vicatcu 2012-02-28 17:04:47

It would change the semantics of pointer operations to reorder the structure members. If you care about compact memory representation, it's your responsibility as a programmer to know your target architecture, and organize your structures accordingly.

@David Heffernan 2012-02-28 17:07:27

"It would change the semantics of pointer operations to reorder the structure members." I don't know what you mean. Could you elaborate. Remember that the question is why the language was designed the way it is and so a good answer has to give language design motivations.

@kenny 2012-02-28 17:41:49

@DavidHeffernan I think he means the reorder would change the pointer offsets, but it seems to me that the compiler could easily handle that since it's doing the reordering.

@Aaron Dufour 2012-02-28 17:53:23

@DavidHeffernan You're allowed to, for example, cast and then dereference a pointer to get access to the first member of the struct. If the compiler were to reorder them, this would give bad results.

@David Heffernan 2012-02-28 17:58:53

@aaron the language designers could have banned that. The question is about the design of the language and not its current state.

@01100110 2012-02-29 02:35:59

Upvoted for "organize your structures accordingly" as one can manually do this in cases where it matters. I've done it.

@jmoreno 2012-02-29 03:09:16

@DavidHeffernan: and the language designers consider it a good idea to let you do that -- probably because one of the most common things to put into any struct is a pointer to another struct, giving you simple syntax for checking to see if the pointer was null.

@supercat 2017-02-19 00:29:43

@AaronDufour: More notably, one can use memcpy to copy all portions of a struct that precede a given element without disturbing any elements that follow.

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