Just how constexpr is C++20’s std::string?

In C++20, string and vector are marked constexpr, which means they’re somewhat usable in compile-time programming. For example, we can write:

constexpr std::string firstName(std::string s) {
  size_t n = s.find_first_not_of(' ');
  if (n == s.npos)
    return "";
  return s.substr(n, s.find(' ', n) - n);
constexpr std::string bard() {
  return "William Shakespeare";
static_assert(firstName(bard()) == std::string("William"));

and it will Just Work. But we can’t write this:

constexpr std::string s = "William Shakespeare";

What’s the deal?

Two constraints on constexprness

A constexpr variable’s value (or a constinit variable’s initial value) must be known at compile time. Therefore, our first constraint is that the value can’t depend on any runtime input.

int main(int argc, char**) {
  constexpr int n = argc; // Error

This snippet, and the next one, show constexpr stack variables. In real life, there’s basically no reason ever to use constexpr on a stack variable; you’ll use it only on globals or as part of the set phrase static constexpr. But C++ physically allows constexpr even on stack variables, so I use it here for simplicity.

C++ treats memory addresses just as you’d expect if you know about ELF files. The addresses of variables in the static data section (i.e. globals and function-local statics) are treated as compile-time constants (because we can encode them in a single ELF relocation); but any non-trivial math on those addresses becomes non-constant. And the address of a stack variable is automatically non-constant.

int main() {
  int x = 0;
  static int y = 1;
  constexpr int *p = &x; // Error
  constexpr int *q = &y; // OK
  constexpr intptr_t r = intptr_t(q) * 47; // Error

That is, C++ forbids data to flow “backward” from runtime back into compile-time. You might say the laws of physics forbid that! How could we possibly use at compile time, and encode into the data section, a numeric value that won’t be known until runtime?

Note that when I say “value,” what the C++ compiler hears is “object representation” — the sequence of bytes that actually gets stored, even if that’s not the object’s “value” in the Platonic sense. This will become important later.

The second constraint is that C++ forbids certain data to flow “forward” from compile-time into runtime. This constraint is slightly less obvious. Let’s look at it:

Constexpr allocation is fake allocation

Constexpr evaluation, ever since C++11, has always allowed us to do “stack allocation” at compile time. This naïve fib function asks the compiler to allocate four bytes of “stack memory” for each of a and b at the top level, and then again at the first level of recursion, and again at the second level, and so on.

constexpr int fib(int n) {
  if (n <= 1) return n;
  int a = fib(n - 1);
  int b = fib(n - 2);
  return a + b;
static_assert(fib(10) == 55);

If this were a runtime function, it would just generate code to bump the stack pointer at runtime. But at compile time, there is no actual stack; the compiler is just pretending to run this code. The compiler somehow pretends to have access to a stack segment at compile time. This little lie goes undetected, as long as we confine our use of that “fake” stack segment to compile time. But it goes bad if a fake-stack address “escapes” out into the actual runtime program (Godbolt):

constexpr int *f() {
  int i = 42;
  return &i;
constexpr int *p = f(); // Error!
int main() {
  printf("%p\n", (void*)p);

This program tries to print out f’s return value (as evaluated at constexpr time), but that would be a pointer into the constexpr evaluator’s “fake” stack segment, which doesn’t actually exist at runtime. The compiler rejects this program: the variable p (which is accessible by main at runtime) can’t be initialized with a fake pointer value that doesn’t actually exist at runtime.

C++20 extends this same “fake memory” allocation mechanism to include heap allocation.

The compiler’s constexpr evaluator has no more access to the actual runtime heap than it has to the actual runtime stack. It’s still just pretending. But again its lies go undetected, as long as we confine our use of the fake heap segment to compile time. Godbolt:

constexpr auto g() {
  return std::make_unique<int>(42);
static_assert(*g() == 42); // OK
constexpr int i = *g(); // OK
constexpr bool gt = (g() != nullptr); // OK
constexpr auto p = g(); // Error!

On the last line, we attempt to “escape” the fake-heap pointer result of g into a variable p that has a real existence at runtime. That’s not allowed; we get a compiler error instead.

Subtleties of string and vector

Observe that merely having a runtime variable of type string or vector counts as “escaping” a pointer to its data. We can’t write something like

constexpr std::vector<int> v = {1, 2, 3};

because then we could try to print out the value of (void*)v.data() at runtime, and it would be a pointer into the fake compile-time heap, and that’s not allowed. But we can say

constexpr std::vector<int> v = {};

because an empty vector doesn’t hold a pointer to a heap-allocation. There’s nothing wrong with “escaping” a null pointer from constexpr time into runtime!

SSO matters

libstdc++ and Microsoft STL both reject

constexpr std::string author = "William Shakespeare"; // 19 chars: Error!

but accept

constexpr std::string author = "Shakespeare"; // 11 chars: OK

The former string contains a pointer to an allocated buffer of chars on the fake compile-time heap. The latter string, being short enough to fit in SSO, doesn’t.

Pointer-into-self matters

libstdc++ rejects the following code (Godbolt), while Microsoft accepts.

int main() {
  static constexpr std::string abc = "abc"; // OK
  constexpr std::string def = "def";        // Error!

Both are correct! The trick here is that libstdc++’s std::string (unlike Microsoft’s) always contains a pointer to its data, roughly like this:

struct string {
  char *data_ = &sso_buffer_[0];
  union {
    char sso_buffer_[16];
    struct {
      size_t size_;
      size_t capacity_;

So def’s object representation contains a pointer to the memory address of def.sso_buffer_, which is located inside object def on the actual runtime stack frame of main. We’re asking for def’s value to be computed at compile time; but that value (which the compiler hears as “object representation”) depends on def’s runtime address. That’s not a compile-time constant. Thus, failure.

On the other hand, abc’s object representation depends merely on abc’s runtime address, which is statically known (as far as C++ is concerned) because abc is in static storage. The compiler just generates a relocation to the address of abc (plus eight or whatever) and we’re good to go.

libc++’s SSO size changes at compile time

Trivial relocatability fans will be asking, “What about libc++, whose string (like Microsoft’s) involves no pointer-to-self? Can libc++ handle an example like def?”

Sadly, no. libc++ makes a decision here that probably seemed like a good idea back in 2020 when constexpr std::string was first being implemented and nobody really knew how it was going to develop, but which seems indefensible in hindsight. libc++ uses if consteval to change the SSO buffer capacity of string in constant-evaluation contexts from 23 chars down to zero chars. So libc++ is physically able to store short strings in a position-independent and thus constexpr-able object representation; it just chooses never to do so. This means that on libc++ (only), you aren’t even allowed to write

constinit std::string s = "";

at global scope. libc++ implements that empty string as a fake heap allocation of one byte (for the null terminator), and that’s not constinit-able because it’d escape the fake pointer to runtime.

Bottom line

The intended use of constexpr string and vector is as local variables or return types of constexpr or consteval functions, not as constexpr or constinit variables. Marking a string or vector variable with the constexpr keyword is probably a bad idea. It can be done, but the exact boundaries of what’s accepted will vary among STL vendors.

Posted 2023-09-08