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The C language provides several different kinds of constants: integer constants, such as 10 and 0x1C; floating constants, such as 1.0 and 6.022e+23; and character constants, such as 'a' and '\x10'. C also provides string literals, such as "hello, world" and "\n". These constants can all be referred to as literals.

When used in program logic, literals can reduce the readability of source code. As a result, literals, in general, and integer constants, in particular, are frequently called magic numbers because their purpose is often obscured. Magic numbers can be constant values that represent either an arbitrary value (such as a determined appropriate buffer size) or a malleable concept (such as the age at which a person is considered an adult, which can change between geopolitical boundaries). Rather than embed literals in program logic, use appropriately named symbolic constants to clarify the intent of the code. In addition, if a specific value needs to be changed, reassigning a symbolic constant once is more efficient and less error prone than replacing every instance of the value [Saks 2002].

The C programming language has several mechanisms for creating named, symbolic constants: const-qualified objects, enumeration constants, and object-like macro definitions. Each of these mechanisms has associated advantages and disadvantages.

const-Qualified Objects

Objects that are const-qualified have scope and can be type-checked by the compiler. Because they are named objects (unlike macro definitions), some debugging tools can show the name of the object. The object also consumes memory.

A const-qualified object allows you to specify the exact type of the constant. For example,

const unsigned int buffer_size = 256;

defines buffer_size as a constant whose type is unsigned int.

Unfortunately, const-qualified objects cannot be used where compile-time integer constants are required, namely to define the

  • Size of a bit-field member of a structure.
  • Size of an array (except in the case of variable length arrays).
  • Value of an enumeration constant.
  • Value of a case constant.

If any of these are required, then an integer constant (which would be an rvalue) must be used.

const-qualified objects allow the programmer to take the address of the object:

const int max = 15;
int a[max]; /* Invalid declaration outside of a function */
const int *p;

/* A const-qualified object can have its address taken */
p = &max;

const-qualified objects are likely to incur some runtime overhead [Saks 2001b]. Most C compilers, for example, allocate memory for const-qualified objects. const-qualified objects declared inside a function body can have automatic storage duration. If so, the compiler will allocate storage for the object, and it will be on the stack. As a result, this storage will need to be allocated and initialized each time the containing function is invoked.

Enumeration Constants

Enumeration constants can be used to represent an integer constant expression that has a value representable as an int. Unlike const-qualified objects, enumeration constants do not consume memory. No storage is allocated for the value, so it is not possible to take the address of an enumeration constant.

enum { max = 15 };
int a[max]; /* OK outside function */
const int *p;

p = &max; /* Error: "&" on enum constant */

Enumeration constants do not allow the type of the value to be specified. An enumeration constant whose value can be represented as an int is always an int.

Object-like Macros

A preprocessing directive of the form

# define identifier replacement-list

defines an object-like macro that causes each subsequent instance of the macro name to be replaced by the replacement list of preprocessing tokens that constitute the remainder of the directive.

C programmers frequently define symbolic constants as object-like macros. For example, the code

#define buffer_size 256

defines buffer_size as a macro whose value is 256. The preprocessor substitutes macros before the compiler does any other symbol processing. Later compilation phases never see macro symbols, such as buffer_size; they see only the source text after macro substitution. As a result, many compilers do not preserve macro names among the symbols they pass on to their debuggers.

Macro names do not observe the scope rules that apply to other names. Therefore, macros could substitute in unanticipated places with unexpected results.

Object-like macros do not consume memory; consequently, it is not possible to create a pointer to one. Macros do not provide for type checking because they are textually replaced by the preprocessor.

Macros can be passed as compile-time arguments.

Summary

The following table summarizes some of the differences between const-qualified objects, enumeration constants, and object-like macro definitions.

Method

Evaluated At

Consumes Memory

Viewable by Debuggers

Type Checking

Compile-Time Constant Expression

Enumerations

Compile time

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

const-qualified

Runtime

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

Macros

Preprocessor

No

No

No

Yes

Noncompliant Code Example

The meaning of the integer literal 18 is not clear in this example:

/* ... */
if (age >= 18) {
   /* Take action */
}
else {
  /* Take a different action */
}
/* ... */

Compliant Solution

This compliant solution replaces the integer literal 18 with the symbolic constant ADULT_AGE to clarify the meaning of the code:

enum { ADULT_AGE=18 };
/* ... */
if (age >= ADULT_AGE) {
   /* Take action */
}
else {
  /* Take a different action */
}
/* ... */

Noncompliant Code Example

Integer literals are frequently used when referring to array dimensions, as shown in this noncompliant code example:

char buffer[256];
/* ... */
fgets(buffer, 256, stdin);

This use of integer literals can easily result in buffer overflows if, for example, the buffer size is reduced but the integer literal used in the call to fgets() is not.

Compliant Solution (enum)

In this compliant solution, the integer literal is replaced with an enumeration constant. (See DCL00-C. Const-qualify immutable objects.)

enum { BUFFER_SIZE=256 };

char buffer[BUFFER_SIZE];
/* ... */
fgets(buffer, BUFFER_SIZE, stdin);

Enumeration constants can safely be used anywhere a constant expression is required.

Compliant Solution (sizeof)

Frequently, it is possible to obtain the desired readability by using a symbolic expression composed of existing symbols rather than by defining a new symbol. For example, a sizeof expression can work just as well as an enumeration constant. (See EXP09-C. Use sizeof to determine the size of a type or variable.)

char buffer[256];
/* ... */
fgets(buffer, sizeof(buffer), stdin);

Using the sizeof expression in this example reduces the total number of names declared in the program, which is generally a good idea [Saks 2002]. The sizeof operator is almost always evaluated at compile time (except in the case of variable-length arrays).

When working with sizeof(), keep in mind ARR01-C. Do not apply the sizeof operator to a pointer when taking the size of an array.

Noncompliant Code Example

In this noncompliant code example, the string literal "localhost" and integer constant 1234 are embedded directly in program logic and are consequently difficult to change:

LDAP *ld = ldap_init("localhost", 1234);
if (ld == NULL) {
  perror("ldap_init");
  return(1);
}

Compliant Solution

In this compliant solution, the host name and port number are both defined as object-like macros, so they can be passed as compile-time arguments:

#ifndef PORTNUMBER     /* Might be passed on compile line */
#  define PORTNUMBER 1234
#endif

#ifndef HOSTNAME       /* Might be passed on compile line */
#  define HOSTNAME "localhost"
#endif

/* ... */

LDAP *ld = ldap_init(HOSTNAME, PORTNUMBER);
if (ld == NULL) {
  perror("ldap_init");
  return(1);
}

Exceptions

DCL06-C-EX1: Although replacing numeric constants with a symbolic constant is often a good practice, it can be taken too far. Remember that the goal is to improve readability. Exceptions can be made for constants that are themselves the abstraction you want to represent, as in this compliant solution.

x = (-b + sqrt(b*b - 4*a*c)) / (2*a);

Replacing numeric constants with symbolic constants in this example does nothing to improve the readability of the code and can actually make the code more difficult to read.

enum { TWO = 2 };     /* A scalar */
enum { FOUR = 4 };    /* A scalar */
enum { SQUARE = 2 };  /* An exponent */
x = (-b + sqrt(pow(b, SQUARE) - FOUR*a*c))/ (TWO * a);

When implementing recommendations, it is always necessary to use sound judgment.

Note that this example does not check for invalid operations (taking the sqrt() of a negative number). See FLP32-C. Prevent or detect domain and range errors in math functions for more information on detecting domain and range errors in math functions.

Risk Assessment

Using numeric literals makes code more difficult to read and understand. Buffer overruns are frequently a consequence of a magic number being changed in one place (such as in an array declaration) but not elsewhere (such as in a loop through an array).

Recommendation

Severity

Likelihood

Remediation Cost

Priority

Level

DCL06-C

Low

Unlikely

Medium

P2

L3

Automated Detection

Tool

Version

Checker

Description

Axivion Bauhaus Suite

6.9.0

CertC-DCL06
Compass/ROSE



Could detect violations of this recommendation merely by searching for the use of "magic numbers" and magic strings in the code itself. That is, any number (except a few canonical numbers: −1, 0, 1, 2) that appears in the code anywhere besides where assigned to a variable is a magic number and should instead be assigned to a const integer, enum, or macro. Likewise, any string literal (except "" and individual characters) that appears in the code anywhere besides where assigned to a char* or char[] is a magic string

ECLAIR

1.2

CC2.DCL06

Fully implemented

LDRA tool suite
9.7.1

201 S

Fully implemented

Parasoft C/C++test
10.4.2

CERT_C-DCL06-a

"#define" or enum constants should be used instead of hard coded values whenever possible

Polyspace Bug Finder

R2019a

CERT C: Rec. DCL06-C


Checks for:

  • Hard-coded buffer size
  • Hard-coded loop boundary

Rec. fully covered.

PRQA QA-C
9.5

3120, 3121, 3122,

3123, 3131, 3132

Partially implemented

Related Vulnerabilities

Search for vulnerabilities resulting from the violation of this rule on the CERT website.

Related Guidelines

Bibliography



3 Comments

  1. How much readability is necessary for a symbolic constant name to be meaningful?

    1. I think this would be a quality of implementation issue. My concern would be how to eliminate false positives by not flagging the exceptions from DCL06-EX1?

      1. I don't think you can eliminate false positives from DCL06-EX1. It's easy for a static analyzer to spot a magic number or string literal in code. It's impossible for an analyzer to ascertain if that number is better represeted as a constant (variable/macro/enum). I do think the amount of false-positive magic numbers is far outweighed by the amount of 'true' magic numbers in the code, so it is still worthwhile flagging violators of DCL06-EX1.

        The problem of notifying static analyzers that a 'magic' number actually improves readability (DCL06-EX1) is IMHO best left to some external channel for static analyzers. Something like pragmas or attributes.