Generic C Reference Counting

As a result of making regular use of object-oriented programming in C, I’ve discovered a useful reference counting technique for the occasional dynamically allocated structs that need it. The situation arises when the same struct instance is shared between an arbitrary number of other data structures and I need to keep track of it all.

It’s incredibly simple and lives entirely in a header file, so without further ado (ref.h):

#pragma once

struct ref {
    void (*free)(const struct ref *);
    int count;
};

static inline void
ref_inc(const struct ref *ref)
{
    ((struct ref *)ref)->count++;
}

static inline void
ref_dec(const struct ref *ref)
{
    if (--((struct ref *)ref)->count == 0)
        ref->free(ref);
}

It has only two fields: the reference count and a “method” that knows how to free the object once the reference count hits 0. Structs using this reference counter will know how to free themselves, so callers will never call a specific *_destroy()/*_free() function. Instead they call ref_dec() to decrement the reference counter and let it happen on its own.

I decided to go with a signed count because it allows for better error checking. It may be worth putting an assert() in ref_inc() and ref_dec() to ensure the count is always non-negative. I chose an int because it’s fast, and anything smaller will be padded out to at least that size anyway. On x86-64, struct ref is 16 bytes.

This is basically all there is to a C++ shared_ptr, leveraging C++’s destructors and performing all increment/decrement work automatically.

Thread Safety

Those increments and decrements aren’t thread safe, so this won’t work as-is when data structures are shared between threads. If you’re sure that you’re using GCC on a capable platform, you can make use of its atomic builtins, making the reference counter completely thread safe.

static inline void
ref_inc(const struct ref *ref)
{
    __sync_add_and_fetch((int *)&ref->count, 1);
}

static inline void
ref_dec(const struct ref *ref)
{
    if (__sync_sub_and_fetch((int *)&ref->count, 1) == 0)
        ref->free(ref);
}

Or if you’re using C11, make use of the new stdatomic.h.

static inline void
ref_inc(const struct ref *ref)
{
    atomic_fetch_add((int *)&ref->count, 1);
}

static inline void
ref_dec(const struct ref *ref)
{
    if (atomic_fetch_sub((int *)&ref->count, 1) == 1)
        ref->free(ref);
}

What’s That Const?

There’s a very deliberate decision to make all of the function arguments const, for both reference counting functions and the free() method. This may seem wrong because these functions are specifically intended to modify the reference count. There are dangerous-looking casts in each case to remove the const.

The reason for this is that’s it’s likely for someone holding a const pointer to one of these objects to want to keep their own reference. Their promise not to modify the object doesn’t really apply to the reference count, which is merely embedded metadata. They would need to cast the const away before being permitted to call ref_inc() and ref_dec(). Rather than litter the program with dangerous casts, the casts are all kept in one place — in the reference counting functions — where they’re strictly limited to mutating the reference counting fields.

On a related note, the stdlib.h free() function doesn’t take a const pointer, so the free() method taking a const pointer is a slight departure from the norm. Taking a non-const pointer was a mistake in the C standard library. The free() function mutates the pointer itself — including all other pointers to that object — making it invalid. Semantically, it doesn’t mutate the memory behind the pointer, so it’s not actually violating the const. To compare, the Linux kernel kfree() takes a const void *.

Just as users may need to increment and decrement the counters on const objects, they’ll also need to be able to free() them, so it’s also a const.

Usage Example

So how does one use this generic reference counter? Embed a struct ref in your own structure and use our old friend: the container_of() macro. For anyone who’s forgotten, this macro not part of standard C, but you can define it with offsetof().

#define container_of(ptr, type, member) \
    ((type *)((char *)(ptr) - offsetof(type, member)))

Here’s a dumb linked list example where each node is individually reference counted. Adding an extra 16 bytes to each of your linked list nodes isn’t normally going to help with much, but if the tail of the linked list is being shared between different data structures (such as other lists), reference counting makes things a lot simpler.

struct node {
    char id[64];
    float value;
    struct node *next;
    struct ref refcount;
};

I put refcount at the end so that we’ll have to use container_of() in this example. It conveniently casts away the const for us.

static void
node_free(const struct ref *ref)
{
    struct node *node = container_of(ref, struct node, refcount);
    struct node *child = node->next;
    free(node);
    if (child)
        ref_dec(&child->refcount);
}

Notice that it recursively decrements its child’s reference count afterwards (intentionally tail recursive). A whole list will clean itself up when the head is freed and no part of the list is shared.

The allocation function sets up the free() function pointer and initializes the count to 1.

struct node *
node_create(char *id, float value)
{
    struct node *node = malloc(sizeof(*node));
    snprintf(node->id, sizeof(node->id), "%s", id);
    node->value = value;
    node->next = NULL;
    node->refcount = (struct ref){node_free, 1};
    return node;
}

(Side note: I used snprintf() because strncpy() is broken and strlcpy() is non-standard, so it’s the most straightforward way to do this in standard C.);

And to start making some use of the reference counter, here’s push and pop.

void
node_push(struct node **nodes, char *id, float value)
{
    struct node *node = node_create(id, value);
    node->next = *nodes;
    *nodes = node;
}

struct node *
node_pop(struct node **nodes)
{
    struct node *node = *nodes;
    *nodes = (*nodes)->next;
    if (*nodes)
        ref_inc(&(*nodes)->refcount);
    return node;
}

Notice node_pop() increments the reference count of the new head node before returning. That’s because the node now has an additional reference: from *nodes and from the node that was just popped. It’s up to the caller to free the returned node, which would decrement the count of the new head node, but not free it. Alternatively node_pop() could set next on the returned node to NULL rather than increment the counter, which would also prevent the returned node from freeing the new head when it gets freed. But it’s probably more useful for the returned node to keep functioning as a list. That’s what the reference counting is for, after all.

Finally, a simple program to exercise it all. It reads ID/value pairs from standard input.

void
node_print(struct node *node)
{
    for (; node; node = node->next)
        printf("%s = %f\n", node->id, node->value);
}

int main(void)
{
    struct node *nodes = NULL;
    char id[64];
    float value;
    while (scanf(" %63s %f", id, &value) == 2)
        node_push(&nodes, id, value);
    if (nodes != NULL) {
        node_print(nodes);
        struct node *old = node_pop(&nodes);
        node_push(&nodes, "foobar", 0.0f);
        node_print(nodes);
        ref_dec(&old->refcount);
        ref_dec(&nodes->refcount);
    }
    return 0;
}

I’ve used this technique several times over the past few months. It’s trivial to remember, so I just code it up from scratch each time I need it.

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null program

Chris Wellons