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Best Practices and Examples (SAL)

Here are some ways to get the most out of the Source Code Annotation Language (SAL) and avoid some common problems.

If the function is supposed to write to the element, use _Inout_ instead of _In_. This is particularly relevant in cases of automated conversion from older macros to SAL. Prior to SAL, many programmers used macros as comments—macros that were named IN, OUT, IN_OUT, or variants of these names. Although we recommend that you convert these macros to SAL, we also urge you to be careful when you convert them because the code might have changed since the original prototype was written and the old macro might no longer reflect what the code does. Be especially careful about the OPTIONAL comment macro because it is frequently placed incorrectly—for example, on the wrong side of a comma.

// Incorrect
void Func1(_In_ int *p1)
{
    if (p1 == NULL) 
        return;

    *p1 = 1;
}

// Correct
void Func2(_Inout_ PCHAR p1)
{
    if (p1 == NULL) 
        return;

    *p1 = 1;
}

If the caller is not allowed to pass in a null pointer, use _In_ or _Out_ instead of _In_opt_ or _Out_opt_. This applies even to a function that checks its parameters and returns an error if it is NULL when it should not be. Although having a function check its parameter for unexpected NULL and return gracefully is a good defensive coding practice, it does not mean that the parameter annotation can be of an optional type (_Xxx_opt_).

// Incorrect
void Func1(_Out_opt_ int *p1)
{
    *p = 1;
}

// Correct
void Func2(_Out_ int *p1)
{
    *p = 1;
}

If a function appears at a trust boundary, we recommend that you use the _Pre_defensive_ annotation. The "defensive" modifier modifies certain annotations to indicate that, at the point of call, the interface should be checked strictly, but in the implementation body it should assume that incorrect parameters might be passed. In that case, _In_ _Pre_defensive_ is preferred at a trust boundary to indicate that although a caller will get an error if it attempts to pass NULL, the function body will be analyzed as if the parameter might be NULL, and any attempts to de-reference the pointer without first checking it for NULL will be flagged. A _Post_defensive_ annotation is also available, for use in callbacks where the trusted party is assumed to be the caller and the untrusted code is the called code.

The following example demonstrates a common misuse of _Out_writes_.

// Incorrect
void Func1(_Out_writes_(size) CHAR *pb, 
    DWORD size
);

The annotation _Out_writes_ signifies that you have a buffer. It has cb bytes allocated, with the first byte initialized on exit. This annotation is not strictly wrong and it is helpful to express the allocated size. However, it does not tell how many elements are initialized by the function.

The next example shows three correct ways to fully specify the exact size of the initialized portion of the buffer.

// Correct
void Func1(_Out_writes_to_(size, *pCount) CHAR *pb, 
    DWORD size,
    PDWORD pCount
);

void Func2(_Out_writes_all_(size) CHAR *pb, 
    DWORD size
);

void Func3(_Out_writes_(size) PSTR pb, 
    DWORD size
);

The use of _Out_ PSTR is almost always wrong. This is interpreted as having an output parameter that points to a character buffer and it is NULL-terminated.

// Incorrect
void Func1(_Out_ PSTR pFileName, size_t n);

// Correct
void Func2(_Out_writes_(n) PSTR wszFileName, size_t n);

An annotation like _In_ PCSTR is common and useful. It points to an input string that has NULL termination because the precondition of _In_ allows the recognition of a NULL-terminated string.

_In_ WCHAR* p says that there is an input pointer p that points to one character. However, in most cases, this is probably not the specification that is intended. Instead, what is probably intended is the specification of a NULL-terminated array; to do that, use _In_ PWSTR.

// Incorrect
void Func1(_In_ WCHAR* wszFileName);

// Correct
void Func2(_In_ PWSTR wszFileName);

Missing the proper specification of NULL termination is common. Use the appropriate STR version to replace the type, as shown in the following example.

// Incorrect
BOOL StrEquals1(_In_ PCHAR p1, _In_ PCHAR p2)
{
    return strcmp(p1, p2) == 0;
}

// Correct
BOOL StrEquals2(_In_ PSTR p1, _In_ PSTR p2)
{
    return strcmp(p1, p2) == 0;
}

If the parameter is a pointer and you want to express the range of the value of the element that is pointed to by the pointer, use _Deref_out_range_ instead of _Out_range_. In the following example, the range of *pcbFilled is expressed, not pcbFilled.

// Incorrect
void Func1(
    _Out_writes_bytes_to_(cbSize, *pcbFilled) BYTE *pb, 
    DWORD cbSize, 
    _Out_range_(0, cbSize) DWORD *pcbFilled
);

// Correct
void Func2(
    _Out_writes_bytes_to_(cbSize, *pcbFilled) BYTE *pb, 
    DWORD cbSize, 
    _Deref_out_range_(0, cbSize) _Out_ DWORD *pcbFilled 
);

_Deref_out_range_(0, cbSize) is not strictly required for some tools because it can be inferred from _Out_writes_to_(cbSize,*pcbFilled), but it is shown here for completeness.

Another common mistake is to use post-state evaluation for preconditions. In the following example, _Requires_lock_held_ is a precondition.

// Incorrect
_When_(return == 0, _Requires_lock_held_(p->cs))
int Func1(_In_ MyData *p, int flag);

// Correct
_When_(flag == 0, _Requires_lock_held_(p->cs))
int Func2(_In_ MyData *p, int flag);

The expression result refers to a post-state value that is not available in pre-state.

If the function succeeds when the return value is nonzero, use return != 0 as the success condition instead of return == TRUE. Nonzero does not necessarily mean equivalence to the actual value that the compiler provides for TRUE. The parameter to _Success_ is an expression, and the following expressions are evaluated as equivalent: return != 0, return != false, return != FALSE, and return with no parameters or comparisons.

// Incorrect
_Success_(return == TRUE, _Acquires_lock_(*lpCriticalSection))
BOOL WINAPI TryEnterCriticalSection(
  _Inout_ LPCRITICAL_SECTION lpCriticalSection
);

// Correct
_Success_(return != 0, _Acquires_lock_(*lpCriticalSection))
BOOL WINAPI TryEnterCriticalSection(
  _Inout_ LPCRITICAL_SECTION lpCriticalSection
);

For a reference variable, the previous version of SAL used the implied pointer as the annotation target and required the addition of a __deref to annotations that attached to a reference variable. This version uses the object itself and does not require the additional _Deref_.

// Incorrect
void Func1(
    _Out_writes_bytes_all_(cbSize) BYTE *pb, 
    _Deref_ _Out_range_(0, 2) _Out_ DWORD &cbSize
);

// Correct
void Func2(
    _Out_writes_bytes_all_(cbSize) BYTE *pb, 
    _Out_range_(0, 2) _Out_ DWORD &cbSize
);

The following example shows a common problem in return value annotations.

// Incorrect
_Out_opt_ void *MightReturnNullPtr1();

// Correct
_Ret_maybenull_ void *MightReturnNullPtr2();

In this example, _Out_opt_ says that the pointer might be NULL as part of the precondition. However, preconditions cannot be applied to the return value. In this case, the correct annotation is _Ret_maybenull_.

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