#Opaque types in C89

This article was written around 2010. It is likely incorrect and I'm unlikely to revise it significantly.

An opaque type is a user data type, normally a struct, that presents no public member variable interface.

The following examples were compiled with gcc -std=c89 -Wall:

/* opaque.h */
#ifndef __OPAQUE_H__
#define __OPAQUE_H__

struct opaque_type;
typedef struct opaque_type opaque_type;
extern const unsigned sizeof_opaque;

void opaque_init(opaque_type * o, unsigned data);
unsigned opaque_data(const opaque_type * o);

#endif

There's no implementation in the above header, only declarations. Clients are unaware of implementation, their only interface is provided by the function prototypes.

/* opaque.c */
#include "opaque.h"

struct opaque_type
{
  unsigned data;
};

const unsigned sizeof_opaque = sizeof(opaque_type);

void opaque_init(opaque_type * o, unsigned data)
{
  o->data = data;
}

unsigned opaque_data(const opaque_type * o)
{
  return o->data;
}

The above source contains the implementation for the opaque type. This implementation has file scope and is unknown at compile time to all other files in the build.

/* main.c */
#include <stdio.h>
#include "opaque.h"

/* not permitted: variable sized type outside function.
unsigned char mem[sizeof_opaque];
*/

opaque_type * o;

int main()
{
  /* not permitted: size unknown.
  opaque_type o;
  */
  unsigned char mem[sizeof_opaque];

  o = (opaque_type *)mem;

  opaque_init(o, 10);
  printf("%u\n", opaque_data(o));

  return 0;
}

The above source shows how a client may interface with the opaque type.

Now that we see how most implementations may be written, let's look at a simpler case. Here's what it would like if we stuffed it all in main.c:

/* main.c */
#include <stdio.h>

/* forward declarations. */
struct opaque_type;
typedef struct opaque_type opaque_type;
extern const unsigned sizeof_opaque;

void opaque_init(opaque_type * o, unsigned data);
unsigned opaque_data(const opaque_type * o);

/* client code. */

/* not permitted: variable sized type outside function.
unsigned char mem[sizeof_opaque];
*/

opaque_type * o;

int main()
{
  /* not permitted: size unknown.
  opaque_type o;
  */
  unsigned char mem[sizeof_opaque];

  o = (opaque_type *)mem;

  opaque_init(o, 10);
  printf("%u\n", opaque_data(o));

  return 0;
}

/* opaque implementation. */

struct opaque_type
{
  unsigned data;
};

const unsigned sizeof_opaque = sizeof(opaque_type);

void opaque_init(opaque_type * o, unsigned data)
{
  o->data = data;
}

unsigned opaque_data(const opaque_type * o)
{
  return o->data;
}

The example demonstrates that it is impractical to allocate opaque types at compile time. Since the opaque_type implementation is unknown in main, the compiler cannot instantiate an object of this type. Hacking around this problem by making an opaque_type * and assigning statically allocated memory works, but you can only make the allocation in function scope. In systems permitting dynamic allocation, this may not be an issue. Even an opaque_ctor() function could be defined.

This case also shows there's no partial public / private interfaces possible. It's all public or all opaque. Consequently, this means that every member variable to be exposed must have an associated getter and setter function. This may cause poor code optimization in our multiple file example since the implementation will be unknown at compile time and the compiler will be unable to eliminate the overhead of a function call. The exception here is if the compiler generates intermediate code in the object files to allow for optimizations in the linking step.