Thomas Touhey

Computer enthusiast.

stdarg.h and its secrets

If you have read About me recently, you may have read a little about my libc project, libcarrot. With it, I aim at supporting several compilers, even the ones I don't really use, to try and understand their advanced use and what they have in common. Well, lately, I have been collecting and understanding information about the variable argument lists and their macros, all of them being declared in a standard C header, stdarg.h (which replaces the K&R varargs.h).

First, a recap.

You're using variable argument lists as soon as the last argument of your function is ..., for example:

int printf(const char *format, ...);

The compiler will put the arguments after the "normal" arguments, in some non-standardized way. Once in the function, you don't know anything about these arguments, not even their number, types or values, you have to deduce them using the "normal" arguments : for example, if you pass "%d %s" to printf(), it will know the list you have sent to it is made of an int and a char * (you can add things after these, the printf() function will have no clue there is something left).

So how do you read the arguments from the list if you don't know how it's made? That's where the stdarg.h macros intervene. At the beginning of the function, make a va_list object (mine is usually called ap, like "argument pointer", but you can also call it args, alst or something else). Then you initialize it using va_start(ap, last);, where last is the name of the last argument before the .... Then, for each argument, you read it using va_arg(ap, <argument type>) (which will return the argument of the type you've passed to it). Finally, you deinitialize it using va_end(ap);.

Let's make a simple example, a sum_integers function that will take a certain amount of integers, sum them all and return the result. But here's a problem: even if we suppose the users will only pass int arguments, we don't know how many he is going to pass to us! In fact, that's not a problem, we can just ask it to him. Here's what the function looks like:

#include <stdarg.h>

int sum_integers(int num, ...)
    int result = 0;
    va_list ap;

    va_start(ap, num);
    while (num--)
        result += va_arg(ap, int);

    return (result);

Simple enough, right? But variable argument lists are an abstraction with very few operations. If you know the parameter field of the printf format placeholder, you're probably wondering how they can get a parameter from any position in the variable argument list. Is there an operation that allows you to go to any position in the variable argument list, just like a tab ? No, it's an iterable type.

But there is indeed a fourth operation on variable arguments lists, even if it only appeared in the standard in C99: it's va_copy(dest, source) (in older C versions, it was sometimes accessible as __va_copy(dest, source)). It allows you to copy the variable list from the position it is from. So if you initialize ap0 using va_start, copy it to ap1 using va_copy, then move forward an argument using va_arg, the next read on ap0 will be the second argument, and the next read on ap1 will be the first argument!

Still, you need to know the type of the arguments before the one you're trying to read. As I was wondering how printf() from the GNU C Library on my x86_64 PC managed this. I tried the following:

printf("%2$d\n", (double)43, (int)4);
printf("%2$d %1$lf\n", (double)43, (int)4);

And sure enough, the first case printed 1188616344. That's probably because the GNU implementation supposes the first field, which it doesn't know the type of, is an int, but as the double and int types aren't of the same size, it fails passing the first argument and just prints the second half of the first argument, interpreting it as an int. However, in the second test, 4 43.000000 is successfully printed, and that's probably because the GNU printf() implementation reads the rest of the string to check the argument types and pass them successfully. Good job, GNU guys!

Ever heard of "calling conventions"?

Calling conventions define how functions are called, in what order, how the arguments are passed in a lower-level language such as assembly or anything else under IR, et caetera. Using a library compiled using a calling convention with a program compiled using an other one won't work as expected, as the way the arguments are sent and the way they are read are incoherent, that's why it is usually best to use the same calling convention for a platform, or at least provide options to adapt to the "standard" calling convention for the platform.

For example, GCC's -mhitachi / -mrenesas options forces it to adopt the Renesas calling convention, where by default it uses the one the GNU developers defined before the Renesas calling convention was published. If you're using libraries compiled using the Renesas calling convention with your program compiled with the old GNU SuperH calling convention, shit might happen.

Back to business: how the compiler manages variable argument lists is part of this calling convention, so that's the place you want to adapt it.

Now, let's implement it.

All of the compilers I wanted to implement stdarg.h for had at least some central libc headers, and this header, or others that provided the same functionnalities, were part of those. Some compilers even have a decent documentation which lists the built-ins to use, or describe their calling convention, and not only deal with what the associated compiler library provides.

First of all, some compilers provide built-ins, such as __builtin_va_arg or __builtin_stdarg_start, so you don't have to worry about what's going on under the hood. Among these compilers are GCC and GCC-compatible compilers such as clang or the Intel C Compiler, and the Portable C/C++ Compiler.

Then, we have the others, which force you to look at what's going on if you don't use their libraries (and that's because of them I'm writing this article).

Now, even if the standard says there can be implementations using 2-dimension lists or god knows what else, the only method (with variations) I've seen to this day is storing the arguments in the stack, after the "normal" arguments. Sometimes, there is some alignment (e.g. the Renesas C/C++ Compiler uses 4-byte alignment for each argument), and sometimes, instead of going up, the list goes down, such as SDCC for the DS-390 architecture (beyond not providing any built-ins for this, the SDCC implementation of variable argument lists differs from one architecture to the other).

For our virtual architecture, let's suppose we use a stack going upwards with no alignment, so our va_list type will simply be a byte pointer:

typedef char* va_list;

Then, let's concentrate on the va_start(ap, param) macro. Usually, when the compiler does not provide any built-in for this, it allows you to take the address of a parameter, and that's what we're going to use, by simply taking &param, adding its size, sizeof(param), and assigning it to ap. The problem is, the macro should behave as a function not returning anything (void return type), so we should cast the assignement as void. Here's our final macro:

#define va_start(ap, param) (void)(ap = &param + sizeof(param))

Then, let's do the va_end(ap) macro. We could just define it as nothing, as we do not need to free anything, but let's set NULL to the user pointer:

#define va_end(ap) (void)(ap = NULL)

Let's do the last easy thing, which is va_copy(dest, src) macro. We basically just want to copy the pointer, so here is the macro:

#define va_copy(dest, src) (void)(dest = src)

And now, we're left with the tricky macro, va_arg(ap, type). What we want to do here is return the current pointer, and add the type size to it, but we cannot do it in that order, as it's a simple expression. So we will have to add the type size to the pointer, and return the previous state of the pointer. Hey, but we know the previous state of the pointer: it is the current version, minus the current type! Do the operations, don't forget to cast the result, and here we are:

#define va_arg(ap, type) (*(type*)((ap = ap + sizeof(type)) - sizeof(type)))

Actually, there is also the Turbo C/C++ Compiler way, which is a little shorter:

#define va_arg(ap, type) (*((type*)ap)++)

See, it's not that difficult. What can be a little trickier is when we have alignment, but I use va_ceil and va_floor macros to get the 4-aligned address. Here is my implementation for the Renesas C/C++ compiler, which you should now understand:

typedef char* va_list;

#define __va_ceil(addr) \
    (va_list)(((uintptr_t)(addr) & ~3) + ((uintptr_t)(addr) & 3) ? 4 : 0)
#define __va_floor(addr) \
    (va_list) ((uintptr_t)(addr) & ~3)

#define va_start(ap, param) \
    (void)(ap = __va_ceil((char*)&param + sizeof(param)))
#define va_end(_AP) \
    (void)(ap = NULL)

#define va_arg(ap, type) \
    (*(type*)__va_floor((ap = __va_ceil(ap + sizeof(type))) - sizeof(type)))

Now, you can sort of guess why the GNU printf() implementation had trouble reading the second argument without knowing the type of the first one.


Now you know more about stdarg.h, you should search for more about calling conventions, mostly for your platform (Microsoft Windows for x86, standard calling conventions for SuperH, etc), and look up if your compiler uses the appropriate calling convention for the platform.

If you liked this article, you can poke me on my social networks that are on About me. I might do some others about C libraries in some time! :)

Thomas Touhey

Computer enthusiast.