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5.4 Data Structures

The data structuring capabilities of Ada are a powerful resource; therefore, use them to model the data as closely as possible. It is possible to group logically related data and let the language control the abstraction and operations on the data rather than requiring the programmer or maintainer to do so. Data can also be organized in a building block fashion. In addition to showing how a data structure is organized (and possibly giving the reader an indication as to why it was organized that way), creating the data structure from smaller components allows those components to be reused. Using the features that Ada provides can increase the maintainability of your code.

Discriminated Records


  • When declaring a discriminant, use as constrained a subtype as possible (i.e., subtype with as specific a range constraint as possible).
  • Use a discriminated record rather than a constrained array to represent an array whose actual values are unconstrained.


An object of type Name_Holder_1 could potentially hold a string whose length is Natural'Last:

type Number_List is array (Integer range <>) of Integer;

type Number_Holder_1 (Current_Length : Natural := 0) is
Numbers : Number_List (1 .. Current_Length);
end record;

An object of type Name_Holder_2 imposes a more reasonable restriction on the length of its string component:

type    Number_List is array (Integer range <>) of Integer;
subtype Max_Numbers is Natural range 0 .. 42;

type Number_Holder_2 (Current_Length : Max_Numbers := 0) is
Numbers : Number_List (1 .. Current_Length);
end record;


When you use the discriminant to constrain an array inside a discriminated record, the larger the range of values the discriminant can assume, the more space an object of the type might require. Although your program may compile and link, it will fail at execution when the run-time system is unable to create an object of the potential size required.

The discriminated record captures the intent of an array whose bounds may vary at run-time. A simple constrained array definition (e.g., type Number_List is array (1 .. 42) of Integer;) does not capture the intent that there are at most 42 possible numbers in the list.


  • Use records to group heterogeneous but related data.
  • Consider records to map to I/O device data.


type Propulsion_Method is (Sail, Diesel, Nuclear);
type Craft is
Name : Common_Name;
Plant : Propulsion_Method;
Length : Feet;
Beam : Feet;
Draft : Feet;
end record;
type Fleet is array (1 .. Fleet_Size) of Craft;


You help the maintainer find all of the related data by gathering it into the same construct, simplifying any modifications that apply to all rather than part. This, in turn, increases reliability. Neither you nor an unknown maintainer is liable to forget to deal with all the pieces of information in the executable statements, especially if updates are done with aggregate assignments whenever possible.

The idea is to put the information a maintainer needs to know where it can be found with the minimum of effort. For example, if all information relating to a given Craft is in the same place, the relationship is clear both in the declarations and especially in the code accessing and updating that information. But, if it is scattered among several data structures, it is less obvious that this is an intended relationship as opposed to a coincidental one. In the latter case, the declarations may be grouped together to imply intent, but it may not be possible to group the accessing and updating code that way. Ensuring the use of the same index to access the corresponding element in each of several parallel arrays is difficult if the accesses are at all scattered.

If the application must interface directly to hardware, the use of records, especially in conjunction with record representation clauses, could be useful to map onto the layout of the hardware in question.


It may seem desirable to store heterogeneous data in parallel arrays in what amounts to a FORTRAN-like style. This style is an artifact of FORTRAN's data structuring limitations. FORTRAN only has facilities for constructing homogeneous arrays.


If the application must interface directly to hardware, and the hardware requires that information be distributed among various locations, then it may not be possible to use records.

Heterogeneous Polymorphic Data


  • Use access types to class-wide types to implement heterogeneous polymorphic data structures.
  • Use tagged types and type extension rather than variant records (in combination with enumeration types and case statements).


An array of type Employee_List can contain pointers to part-time and full-time employees (and possibly other kinds of employees in the future):

package Personnel is
type Employee is tagged limited private;
type Reference is access all Employee'Class;
end Personnel;
with Personnel;
package Part_Time_Staff is
type Part_Time_Employee is new Personnel.Employee with
end record;
end Part_Time_Staff;
with Personnel;
package Full_Time_Staff is
type Full_Time_Employee is new Personnel.Employee with
end record;
end Full_Time_Staff;


type Employee_List is array (Positive range <>) of Personnel.Reference;

Current_Employees : Employee_List (1..10);


Current_Employees(1) := new Full_Time_Staff.Full_Time_Employee;
Current_Employees(2) := new Part_Time_Staff.Part_Time_Employee;


Polymorphism is a means of factoring out the differences among a collection of abstractions so that programs may be written in terms of the common properties. Polymorphism allows the different objects in a heterogeneous data structure to be treated the same way, based on dispatching operations defined on the root tagged type. This eliminates the need for case statements to select the processing required for each specific type. Guideline 5.6.3 discusses the maintenance impact of using case statements.

Enumeration types, variant records, and case statements are hard to maintain because the expertise on a given variant of the data type tends to be spread all over the program. When you create a tagged type hierarchy (tagged types and type extension), you can avoid the variant records, case statement, and single enumeration type that only supports the variant record discriminant. Moreover, you localize the "expertise" about the variant within the data structure by having all the corresponding primitives for a single operation call common "operation-specific" code.

See also Guideline 9.2.1 for a more detailed discussion of tagged types.


In some instances, you may want to use a variant record approach to organize modularity around operations. For graphic output, for example, you may find it more maintainable to use variant records. You must make the tradeoff of whether adding a new operation will be less work than adding a new variant.

Nested Records


  • Record structures should not always be flat. Factor out common parts.
  • For a large record structure, group related components into smaller subrecords.
  • For nested records, pick element names that read well when inner elements are referenced.
  • Consider using type extension to organize large data structures.


type Coordinate is
Row : Local_Float;
Column : Local_Float;
end record;
type Window is
Top_Left : Coordinate;
Bottom_Right : Coordinate;
end record;


You can make complex data structures understandable and comprehensible by composing them of familiar building blocks. This technique works especially well for large record types with parts that fall into natural groupings. The components factored into separately declared records, based on a common quality or purpose, correspond to a lower level of abstraction than that represented by the larger record.

When designing a complex data structure, you must consider whether type composition or type extension is the best suited technique. Type composition refers to creating a record component whose type is itself a record. You will often need a hybrid of these techniques, that is, some components you include through type composition and others you create through type extension. Type extension may provide a cleaner design if the "intermediate" records are all instances of the same abstraction family. See also Guidelines 5.4.2 and 9.2.1 .


A carefully chosen name for the component of the larger record that is used to select the smaller enhances readability, for example:

if Window1.Bottom_Right.Row > Window2.Top_Left.Row then . . .

Dynamic Data


  • Differentiate between static and dynamic data. Use dynamically allocated objects with caution.
  • Use dynamically allocated data structures only when it is necessary to create and destroy them dynamically or to be able to reference them by different names.
  • Do not drop pointers to undeallocated objects.
  • Do not leave dangling references to deallocated objects.
  • Initialize all access variables and components within a record.
  • Do not rely on memory deallocation.
  • Deallocate explicitly.
  • Use length clauses to specify total allocation size.
  • Provide handlers for Storage_Error.
  • Use controlled types to implement private types that manipulate dynamic data.
  • Avoid unconstrained record objects unless your run-time environment reliably reclaims dynamic heap storage.
  • Unless your run-time environment reliably reclaims dynamic heap storage, declare the following items only in the outermost, unnested declarative part of either a library package, a main subprogram, or a permanent task:
    • Access types
    • Constrained composite objects with nonstatic bounds
    • Objects of an unconstrained composite type other than unconstrained records
    • Composite objects large enough (at compile time) for the compiler to allocate implicitly on the heap
  • Unless your run-time environment reliably reclaims dynamic heap storage or you are creating permanent, dynamically allocated tasks, avoid declaring tasks in the following situations:
    • Unconstrained array subtypes whose components are tasks
    • Discriminated record subtypes containing a component that is an array of tasks, where the array size depends on the value of the discriminant
    • Any declarative region other than the outermost, unnested declarative part of either a library package or a main subprogram
    • Arrays of tasks that are not statically constrained


These lines show how a dangling reference might be created:

P1 := new Object;
P2 := P1;

This line can raise an exception due to referencing the deallocated object:

X := P1.all;

In the following three lines, if there is no intervening assignment of the value of P1 to any other pointer, the object created on the first line is no longer accessible after the third line. The only pointer to the allocated object has been dropped:

P1 := new Object;
P1 := P2;

The following code shows an example of using Finalize to make sure that when an object is finalized (i.e., goes out of scope), the dynamically allocated elements are chained on a free list:

with Ada.Finalization;
package List is
type Object is private;
function &quot;=&quot; (Left, Right : Object) return Boolean; -- element-by-element comparison
... -- Operations go here
type Handle is access List.Object;
type Object is new Ada.Finalization.Controlled with
Next : List.Handle;
... -- Useful information go here
end record;
procedure Adjust (L : in out List.Object);
procedure Finalize (L : in out List.Object);
end List;
package body List is
Free_List : List.Handle;
procedure Adjust (L : in out List.Object) is
L := Deep_Copy (L);
end Adjust;
procedure Finalize (L : in out List.Object) is
-- Chain L to Free_List
end Finalize;
end List;


See also 6.3.2 for variations on these problems. A dynamically allocated object is an object created by the execution of an allocator (new). Allocated objects referenced by access variables allow you to generate aliases , which are multiple references to the same object. Anomalous behavior can arise when you reference a deallocated object by another name. This is called a dangling reference. Totally disassociating a still-valid object from all names is called dropping a pointer. A dynamically allocated object that is not associated with a name cannot be referenced or explicitly deallocated.

A dropped pointer depends on an implicit memory manager for reclamation of space. It also raises questions for the reader as to whether the loss of access to the object was intended or accidental.

An Ada environment is not required to provide deallocation of dynamically allocated objects. If provided, it may be provided implicitly (objects are deallocated when their access type goes out of scope), explicitly (objects are deallocated when Ada.Unchecked_Deallocation is called), or both. To increase the likelihood of the storage space being reclaimed, it is best to call Ada.Unchecked_Deallocation explicitly for each dynamically created object when you are finished using it. Calls to Ada.Unchecked_Deallocation also document a deliberate decision to abandon an object, making the code easier to read and understand. To be absolutely certain that space is reclaimed and reused, manage your own

"free list." Keep track of which objects you are finished with, and reuse them instead of dynamically allocating new objects later.

The dangers of dangling references are that you may attempt to use them, thereby accessing memory that you have released to the memory manager and that may have been subsequently allocated for another purpose in another part of your program. When you read from such memory, unexpected errors may occur because the other part of your program may have previously written totally unrelated data there. Even worse, when you write to such memory you can cause errors in an apparently unrelated part of the code by changing values of variables dynamically allocated by that code. This type of error can be very difficult to find. Finally, such errors may be triggered in parts of your environment that you did not write, for example, in the memory management system itself, which may dynamically allocate memory to keep records about your dynamically allocated memory.

Keep in mind that any unreset component of a record or array can also be a dangling reference or carry a bit pattern representing inconsistent data. Components of an access type are always initialized by default to null; however, you should not rely on this default initialization. To enhance readability and maintainability, you should include explicit initialization.

Whenever you use dynamic allocation, it is possible to run out of space. Ada provides a facility (a length clause) for requesting the size of the pool of allocation space at compile time. Anticipate that you can still run out at run time. Prepare handlers for the exception Storage_Error, and consider carefully what alternatives you may be able to include in the program for each such situation.

There is a school of thought that dictates avoidance of all dynamic allocation. It is largely based on the fear of running out of memory during execution. Facilities, such as length clauses and exception handlers for Storage_Error, provide explicit control over memory partitioning and error recovery, making this fear unfounded.

When implementing a complex data structure (tree, list, sparse matrices, etc.), you often use access types. If you are not careful, you can consume all your storage with these dynamically allocated objects. You could export a deallocate operation, but it is impossible to ensure that it is called at the proper places; you are, in effect, trusting the clients. If you derive from controlled types (see 8.3.3 , and 9.2.3 for more information), you can use finalization to deal with deallocation of dynamic data, thus avoiding storage exhaustion. User-defined storage pools give better control over the allocation policy.

A related but distinct issue is that of shared versus copy semantics: even if the data structure is implemented using access types, you do not necessarily want shared semantics. In some instances you really want:= to create a copy, not a new reference, and you really want = to compare the contents, not the reference. You should implement your structure as a controlled type. If you want copy semantics, you can redefine Adjust to perform a deep copy and = to perform a comparison on the contents. You can also redefine Finalize to make sure that when an object is finalized (i.e., goes out of scope) the dynamically allocated elements are chained on a free list (or deallocated by Ada.Unchecked_Deallocation).

The implicit use of dynamic (heap) storage by an Ada program during execution poses significant risks that software failures may occur. An Ada run-time environment may use implicit dynamic (heap) storage in association with composite objects, dynamically created tasks, and catenation. Often, the algorithms used to manage the dynamic allocation and reclamation of heap storage cause fragmentation or leakage, which can lead to storage exhaustion. It is usually very difficult or impossible to recover from storage exhaustion or Storage_Error without reloading and restarting the Ada program. It would be very restrictive to avoid all uses of implicit allocation. On the other hand, preventing both explicit and implicit deallocation significantly reduces the risks of fragmentation and leakage without overly restricting your use of composite objects, access values, task objects, and catenation.


If a composite object is large enough to be allocated on the heap, you can still declare it as an in or in out formal parameter. The guideline is meant to discourage declaring the object in an object declaration, a formal out parameter, or the value returned by a function.

You should monitor the leakage and/or fragmentation from the heap. If they become steady-state and do not continually increase during program or partition execution, you can use the constructs described in the guidelines.

Aliased Objects


  • Minimize the use of aliased variables.
  • Use aliasing for statically created, ragged arrays (Rationale 1995, §3.7.1 ).
  • Use aliasing to refer to part of a data structure when you want to hide the internal connections and bookkeeping information.


package Message_Services is
type Message_Code_Type is range 0 .. 100;
subtype Message is String;
function Get_Message (Message_Code: Message_Code_Type)
return Message;
pragma Inline (Get_Message);
end Message_Services;
package body Message_Services is
type Message_Handle is access constant Message;
Message_0 : aliased constant Message := &quot;OK&quot;;
Message_1 : aliased constant Message := &quot;Up&quot;;
Message_2 : aliased constant Message := &quot;Shutdown&quot;;
Message_3 : aliased constant Message := &quot;Shutup&quot;;
. . .
type Message_Table_Type is array (Message_Code_Type) of Message_Handle;

Message_Table : Message_Table_Type :=
(0 => Message_0'Access,
1 => Message_1'Access,
2 => Message_2'Access,
3 => Message_3'Access,
-- etc.
function Get_Message (Message_Code : Message_Code_Type)
return Message is
return Message_Table (Message_Code).all;
end Get_Message;
end Message_Services;

The following code fragment shows a use of aliased objects, using the attribute 'Access to implement a generic component that manages hashed collections of objects:

type Hash_Index is mod <>;
type Object is tagged private;
type Handle is access all Object;
with function Hash (The_Object : in Object) return Hash_Index;
package Collection is
function Insert (Object : in Collection.Object) return Collection.Handle;
function Find (Object : in Collection.Object) return Collection.Handle;
Object_Not_Found : exception;

type Cell;
type Access_Cell is access Cell;
end Collection;
package body Collection is
type Cell is
Value : aliased Collection.Object;
Link : Access_Cell;
end record;
type Table_Type is array (Hash_Index) of Access_Cell;

Table : Table_Type;
-- Go through the collision chain and return an access to the useful data.
function Find (Object : in Collection.Object;
Index : in Hash_Index) return Handle is
Current : Access_Cell := Table (Index);
while Current /= null loop
if Current.Value = Object then
return Current.Value'Access;
Current := Current.Link;
end if;
end loop;
raise Object_Not_Found;
end Find;
-- The exported one
function Find (Object : in Collection.Object) return Collection.Handle is
Index : constant Hash_Index := Hash (Object);
return Find (Object, Index);
end Find;
end Collection;


Aliasing allows the programmer to have indirect access to declared objects. Because you can update aliased objects through more than one path, you must exercise caution to avoid unintended updates. When you restrict the aliased objects to being constant, you avoid having the object unintentionally modified. In the example above, the individual message objects are aliased constant message strings so their values cannot be changed. The ragged array is then initialized with references to each of these constant strings.

Aliasing allows you to manipulate objects using indirection while avoiding dynamic allocation. For example, you can insert an object onto a linked list without dynamically allocating the space for that object (Rationale 1995, §3.7.1 ).

Another use of aliasing is in a linked data structure in which you try to hide the enclosing container. This is essentially the inverse of a self-referential data structure (see Guideline 5.4.7 ). If a package manages some data using a linked data structure, you may only want to export access values that denote the "useful" data. You can use an access-to-object to return an access to the useful data, excluding the pointers used to chain objects.

Access Discriminants


  • Use access discriminants to create self-referential data structures, i.e., a data structure one of whose components points to the enclosing structure.


See the examples in Guidelines 8.3.6 (using access discriminants to build an iterator) and 9.5.1 (using access discriminants in multiple inheritance).


The access discriminant is essentially a pointer of an anonymous type being used as a discriminant. Because the access discriminant is of an anonymous access type, you cannot declare other objects of the type. Thus, once you initialize the discriminant, you create a "permanent" (for the lifetime of the object) association between the discriminant and the object it accesses. When you create a self-referential structure, that is, a component of the structure is initialized to point to the enclosing object, the "constant" behavior of the access discriminant provides the right behavior to help you maintain the integrity of the structure.

See also Rationale (1995, §4.6.3) for a discussion of access discriminants to achieve multiple views of an object.

See also Guideline 6.1.3 for an example of an access discriminant for a task type.

Modular Types


  • Use modular types rather than Boolean arrays when you create data structures that need bit-wise operations, such as and and or.


with Interfaces;
procedure Main is
type Unsigned_Byte is mod 255;

X : Unsigned_Byte;
Y : Unsigned_Byte;
Z : Unsigned_Byte;
X1 : Interfaces.Unsigned_16;
begin -- Main
Z := X or Y; -- does not cause overflow

-- Show example of left shift
X1 := 16#FFFF#;
for Counter in 1 .. 16 loop
X1 := Interfaces.Shift_Left (Value => X1, Amount => 1);
end loop;
end Main;


Modular types are preferred when the number of bits is known to be fewer than the number of bits in a word and/or performance is a serious concern. Boolean arrays are appropriate when the number of bits is not particularly known in advance and performance is not a serious issue. See also Guideline 10.6.3 .