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The Use Of assert() In SQLite

1. Assert() And Similar Macros In SQLite

The assert(X) macro is part of standard C, in the the <assert.h> header file. SQLite adds three other assert()-like macros named NEVER(X), ALWAYS(X), and testcase(X).

SQLite version 3.22.0 (2018-01-22) contains 5290 assert() macros, 839 testcase() macros, 88 ALWAYS() macros, and 63 NEVER() macros.

1.1. Philosophy of assert()

In SQLite, the presence of assert(X) means that the developers have a proof that X is always true. Readers can depend upon X being true to help them reason about the code. An assert(X) is a strong statement about the truth of X. There is no doubt.

The ALWAYS(X) and NEVER(X) macros are a weaker statement about the truth of X. The presence of ALWAYS(X) or NEVER(X) means that the developers believe X is always or never true, but there is no proof, or the proof is complex and error-prone, or the proof depends on other aspects of the system that seem likely to change.

In other systems sometimes use assert(X) in a way that is similar to the use of ALWAYS(X) or NEVER(X) in SQLite. Developers will add an assert(X) as a tacit acknowledgement that they do not fully believe that X is always true. We believe that this use of assert(X) is wrong and violates the intent and purpose of having assert(X) available in C in the first place. An assert(X) should not be seen as a safety-net or top-rope used to guard against mistakes. Nor is assert(X) appropriate for defense-in-depth. An ALWAYS(X) or NEVER(X) macro, or something similar, should be used in those cases because ALWAYS(X) or NEVER(X) will be followed by code to actually deal with the problem when the programmers reasoning turns out to be wrong. Since the code that follows ALWAYS(X) or NEVER(X) is untested, it should be something very simple, like a "return" statement, that is easily verified by inspection.

The Go programming language omits assert(). The Go developers recognize this is contentious. Disallowing assert() is essentially telling developers that they are not allowed to do run-time verification of invariants. It is as if the developers of Go do not want coders to prove the software is correct. The SQLite developers believe that the lack of assert() disqualifies Go as a language for serious development work.

1.2. Different Behaviors According To Build Type

Three separate builds are used to validate the SQLite software.

  1. A functionality testing build is used to validate the source code.
  2. A coverage testing build is used to validate the test suite, to confirm that the test suite provides 100% MC/DC.
  3. The release build is used to validate the generated machine code.

All tests must give the same answer in all three builds. See the "How SQLite Is Tested" document for more detail.

The various assert()-like macros behave differently according to how SQLite is built.

Functionality TestingCoverage TestingRelease
assert(X) abort() if X is false no-op no-op
ALWAYS(X) abort() if X is false always true pass through the value X
NEVER(X) abort() if X is true always false pass through the value X
testcase(X) no-op do some harmless work if X is true no-op

The default behavior of assert(X) in standard C is that it is enabled for release builds. This is a reasonable default. However, the SQLite code base has many assert() statements in performance-sensitive areas of the code. Leaving assert(X) turned on causes SQLite to run about three times slower. Also, SQLite strives to provide 100% MC/DC in an as-delivered configuration, which is obviously impossible if assert(X) statements are enabled. For these reasons, assert(X) is a no-op for release builds in SQLite.

The ALWAYS(X) and NEVER(X) macros behave like assert(X) during functionality testing, because the developers want to be immediately alerted to the issue if the value of X is different from what is expected. But for delivery, ALWAYS(X) and NEVER(X) are simple pass-through macros, which provide defense-in-depth. For coverage testing ALWAYS(X) and NEVER(X) are hard-coded boolean values so that they do not cause unreachable machine code to be generated.

The testcase(X) macro is normally a no-op, but for a coverage test build it does generate a small amount of extra code that includes at least one branch, in order to verify that test cases exist for which X is both true and false.

2. Examples

An assert() statement is often used to validate pre-conditions on internal functions and methods. Example: https://sqlite.org/src/artifact/c1e97e4c6f?ln=1048. This is deemed better than simply stating the pre-condition in a header comment, since the assert() is actually executed. In a highly tested program like SQLite, the reader knows that the pre-condition is true for all of the hundreds of millions of test cases run against SQLite, since it has been verified by the assert(). In contrast, a text pre-condition statement in a header comment is untested. It might have been true when the code was written, but who is to say that it is still true now?

Sometimes SQLite uses compile-time evaluatable assert() statements. Consider the code at https://sqlite.org/src/artifact/c1e97e4c6f?ln=2130-2138. Four assert() statements verify the values for compile-time constants so that the reader can quickly check the validity of the if-statement that follows, without having to look up the constant values in a separate header file.

Sometimes compile-time assert() statements are used to verify that SQLite has been correctly compiled. For example, the code at https://sqlite.org/src/artifact/c1e97e4c6f?ln=157 verifies that the SQLITE_PTRSIZE preprocessor macro is set correctly for the target architecture.

The CORRUPT_DB macro is used in many assert() statements. In functional testing builds, CORRUPT_DB references a global variable that is true if the database file might contain corruption. This variable is true by default, since we do not normally know whether or not a database is corrupt, but during testing while working on databases that are known to be well-formed, that global variable can be set to false. Then the CORRUPT_DB macro can be used in assert() statements such as seen at https://sqlite.org/src/artifact/18a53540aa3?ln=1679-1680. Those assert()s specify pre-conditions to the routine that are true for consistent database files, but which might be false if the database file is corrupt. Knowledge of these kinds of conditions is very helpful to readers who are trying to understand a block of code in isolation.

ALWAYS(X) and NEVER(X) functions are used in places where we always want the test to occur even though the developers believe the value of X is always true or false. For example, the sqlite3BtreeCloseCursor() routine shown must remove the closing cursor from a linked list of all cursors. We know that the cursor is on the list, so that the loop must terminate by the "break" statement, but it is convenient to use the ALWAYS(X) test at https://sqlite.org/src/artifact/18a53540aa3?ln=4371 to prevent running off the end of the linked list in case there is an error in some other part of the code that has corrupted the linked list.

An ALWAYS(X) or NEVER(X) sometimes verifies pre-conditions that are subject to change if other parts of the code are modified in subtle ways. At https://sqlite.org/src/artifact/18a53540aa3?ln=5512-5516 we have a case test for two pre-conditions that are true only because of the limited scope of use of the sqlite3BtreeRowCountEst() function. Future enhancements to SQLite might use sqlite3BtreeRowCountEst() in new ways where those preconditions no longer hold, and the NEVER() macros will quickly alert the developers to that fact when the situation arises. But if, for some reason, the pre-conditions are not satisfied in a release build, the program will still behave sanely and will not do an undefined memory access.

The testcase() macro is often used to verify that boundary cases of an inequality comparison are checked. For example, at https://sqlite.org/src/artifact/18a53540aa3?ln=5766. These kind of checks help to prevent off-by-one errors.