Ada Programming/Constants

Ada. Time-tested, safe and secure.
Ada. Time-tested, safe and secure.

Are Constants Constant? edit

Variables and constants are declared like so:

X, Y: T := Some_Value;  -- Initialization optional
C: constant T := Some_Value;

The initialization value for X and Y is evaluated separately for each one – thus, if this is a function call, they may have different values.

For the nomenclature: Ada calls variables and constants together "objects". Do not confuse this with the term "objects" used in OOP.

It is good practice to declare local objects which do not change as constant.

Silly question: What actually does "constant" mean?

procedure Swap (X, Y: in out T) is
  Temp: constant T := X;
  X := Y;
  Y := Temp;
end Swap;

In the Swap example, the temporary copy of X certainly is constant – we do not touch it. However (a triviality you’ll say), it is not constant during construction nor during destruction at the end of Swap.

Hold it!

In the following, you will learn some astonishing facts about “constants” (objects with the keyword constant).

First Doubts edit

Let us sow first doubts about the constancy.

Controlled types (RM 7.6) grant the programmer access to the process of construction, copy and destruction via the three operations Initialize, Adjust and Finalize.

Given a controlled type T.

X: constant T := F;

After construction of X and its initialization with a copy of F, the operation Adjust is called with parameter mode in out for the constant object X. (Initialize is not called here because an initial value is given.)

In Ada.*_IO (RM A.6-A.10), the file parameter of Create and Close has mode in out, of Read and Write (resp. Put and Get) it has in. But each of these operations does change the state of the file parameter.

This reflects a design where the (internal) File object's "state" represents the open-ness of the File object, rather than the content of the (external) file. Agreed that this choice is debatable, but it is consistent across the I/O packages.

The presumed implementation model implies a level of indirection, where the File parameter represents a reference, which is essentially "null" when the file is closed, and non-null when the file is open. Everything else is buried in some mysterious netherland whose state is not reflected in the mode of the File parameter.

This is a symptom of any language that has pointer parameters whose mode has no effect on the ability to update the pointed-to object.


An object is not constant at least during construction and destruction.

But as you have seen with Ada.*_IO, a constant object can indeed change its state also during its lifetime. (An in parameter is like a constant within a subprogram.)

“The constant keyword means that the value never changes” – this is a False statement for Ada (the details are painful); it's true for elementary types and some others, but not for most composite types.

You can find some interesting statements about this in Ada RM: RM 3.3(13/3, 25.1/3), 13.9.1(13/3). The corresponding terms are immutably limited and inherently mutable.

Example Pointers edit

  type Rec is record
    I: access Integer;
  end record;
  Ob: constant Rec := (I => new Integer'(42));
  -- Ob.I is constant, but not Ob.I.all!
  Ob.I.all := 53;
end Pointer;

Here you will certainly agree with me that this is clear as daylight.

But what about the case of an internal pointer accessing the whole object itself?

  type Rec is limited record  -- immutably limited
    -- Rosen technique (only possible on immutably limited types);
    -- Ref is a variable view (Rec is aliased since it is limited).
    Ref: access Rec := Rec'Unchecked_Access;
    I  : Integer;
  end record;
  Ob: constant Rec := (I => 42, Ref => <>);
  Ob.I := 53;  -- illegal
  Ob.Ref.I := 53;  -- erroneous until Ada 2005, legal for Ada 2012
end Reflexive;

The object must be limited since copying would ruin the reference.

Ada 2012 AARM 13.9.1(14.e/3): The Rosen trick (named after Jean Pierre Rosen) is no longer erroneous when the actual object is constant, but good practice.

This applies to objects where there is necessarily a variable view at some point in the lifetime of the object which you can "squirrel away" for later use. This certainly does not happen "by mistake", the programmer does it on purpose.

package Controlled is
  type Rec is new Ada.Finalization.Controlled with record
    Ref: access Rec;  -- variable view
    I  : Integer;
  end record;
  overriding procedure Initialize (T: in out Rec);
  overriding procedure Adjust     (T: in out Rec);
  -- "in out" means they see a variable view of the object
  -- (even if it's a constant)
end Controlled;

You can use it like so:

  function Create return Controlled.Rec isend Create;
  Ob: constant Controlled.Rec := Create;
  -- here, Adjust works on a constant on an assignment operation
  Ob.Ref.I := 53;  -- Ob.I := 53;  illegal

A copy of the return object Create is assigned to Ob, the object Create is finalized. Now the component Ref points to a no longer existing object. (Note the difference between assignment statement and assignment operation.) Adjust has to correct the wrong target.

Create might look like this:

function Create return Controlled.Rec is
  X: Controlled.Rec;  -- Initialize called
  return X;
end Create;

The variable X is declared without an initial value, so Initialize is called. Create returns this self referencing object.

This is the package body:

package body Controlled is
  procedure Initialize (T: in out Rec) is
    T := (Ada.Finalization.Controlled with
          Ref => T'Unchecked_Access,
          I   => 42);
  end Initialize;
  procedure Adjust (T: in out Rec) is
    T.Ref := T'Unchecked_Access;
  end Adjust;
end Controlled;

Initiallize is only called if no initial value is given in the object declaration. T is regarded as aliased so that the component Ref is a variable view of the object itself.

Example Task and Protected Object edit

Tasks are active objects, i.e. each task has its own thread of control: All tasks run concurrently. A task communicates with other tasks via rendezvous by calling one of its entries (roughly corresponding to a subprogram call).

Since Ada is a block-oriented language, tasks may be defined as components of arrays and records, and these may be constants.

task type TT is
  entry Set (I: Integer);
end TT;
task body TT is      -- local objects are not
  I: Integer := 42;  -- considered part of constant
  accept Set (I: Integer) do
    TT.I := I;
  end Set;
end TT;
type Rec is record
  T: TT;  -- active object that changes state (even if "constant")
end record;
Ob: constant Rec := (T => <>);
Ob.T.Set (53);  -- execution of an entry of a constant task

Protected objects are very similar to tasks.

protected type Prot is
  procedure Set (I: Integer);
  I: Integer := 42;  -- *
end Prot;
protected body Prot is
  procedure Set (I: Integer) is
    Prot.I := I;  -- Prot.I is *
  end Set;
end Prot;
type Rec is limited record
  Ref: access Rec := Rec'Unchecked_Access;  -- reflexive
  P  : Prot;
end record;
Ob: constant Rec := (others => <>);
Ob.P.Set (53);      -- illegal
Ob.Ref.P.Set (53);  -- variable view required

Constants Are Like This edit

If an object is declared “constant”, the meaning is just twofold:

  • The object cannot be used in an assignment (if it is not yet limited).
  • The object can only be used as an in parameter.

In no case at all does it mean that the logical state of the object is immutable. In fact, such a type should be private, which means the client has no influence at all on what happens in the object’s inside. The provider is responsible for the correct behavior. Immutably limited and controlled objects are inherently mutable.

See also edit

Wikibook edit

Ada Reference Manual edit