Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A case when FreeAndNil is your enemy

It seems that my previous post about FreeAndNil sparked a little controversy. Some of you jumped right on board and flat agreed with my assertion. Others took a very defensive approach. Still others, kept an “arms-length” view. Actually, the whole discussion in the comments was very enjoyable to read. There were some very excellent cases on both sides. Whether or not you agreed with my assertion, it was very clear that an example of why I felt the need to make that post was in order.

I wanted to include an example in my first draft of the original post, but I felt that it would come across as too contrived. This time, instead of including some contrived hunk of code that only serves to cloud the issue at hand, I’m going to try a narrative approach and let the reader decide if this is something they need to consider. I may fall flat on my face with this, but I want to try and be as descriptive as I can without the code itself getting in the way. It’s an experiment. Since many of my readers are, presumably, Delphi or C++Builder developers and have some working knowledge of the VCL framework, I will try and present some of the problems and potential solutions in terms of the services that VCL provides.

To start off, the most common case I’ve seen where FreeAndNil can lead to strange behaviors or even memory leaks is when you have a component with a object reference field that is allocated “lazily.” What I mean is that you decide you don’t need burn the memory this object takes up all the time so you leave the field nil and don’t create the instance in the constructor. You rely on the fact that it is nil to know that you need to allocate it. This may seem like the perfect case where you should use FreeAndNil! That is in-fact the very problem. There are cases where you should FreeAndNil in this scenario. The scenario I’m about to describe is not such a case.

If you recall from the previous post, I was specifically referring to using FreeAndNil in the destructor. This is where a very careful dance has to happen. A common scenario in VCL code is to hold references to other component from a given component. Because you are holding a reference there is a built-in mechanism that allows you coordinate the interactions between the components by knowing when a given component is being destroyed. There is the Notification virtual method you can override to know if the component being destroyed is the one to which you have a reference. The general pattern here is to simply nil out your reference.

The problem comes in when you decide that you need to grab some more information out of the object while it is in the throes of destruction. This is where things get dangerous. Just the act of referencing the instance can have dire consequences. Where this can actually cause a memory leak was if the field, property, or method accessed caused the object to lazily allocate that instance I just talked about above. What if the code to destroy that instance was already run in the destructor by the time the Notification method was called? Now you’ve just allocated an instance which has no way to be freed. It’s a leak. It’s also a case where a nil field will never actually cause a crash because you were sooo careful to check for nil and allocate the field if needed. You’ve traded a crash for a memory leak. I’ll let you decide whether or not that is right for your case. My opinion is that leak or crash, it is simply not good design to access an instance that is in the process of being destroyed.

“Oh, I never do that!” That’s probably true, however what about the user’s of your component? Do they understand the internal workings of your component and know that accessing the instance while it is in the throes of destruction is bad? What if it “worked” in v1 of your component and v2 changed some of the internals? Do they even know that the the instance is being destroyed? Luckily, VCL has provided a solution to this by way of the ComponentState. Before the destructor is called that starts the whole destruction process, the virtual method, BeforeDestruction is called which sets the csDestroying flag. This can now be used as a cue for any given component instance whether or not it is being destroyed.

While my post indicting FreeAndNil as not being your friend may have come across as a blanket statement decrying its wanton use, I was clearly not articulating as well as I should that blindly using FreeAndNil without understanding the consequences of its effect on the system as a whole, is likely to bite you. My above example is but one case where you should be very careful about accessing an object in the process of destruction. My point was that using FreeAndNil can sometimes appear to solve the actual problem, when in fact if has merely traded it for another, more insidious, hard to find problem. A problem that doesn’t bite immediately.