Networking Primitives: std::experimental::network::htonl Considered Harmful

ISO/IEC JTC1 SC22 WG21 N4249 - 2014.10.09

James Craig Burley           (
ADAM David Alan Martin   (
David Chisnall            (
Justin Erenkrantz      (
Justin R. Hibbits         (
Alisdair Meredith       (
George Neville-Neil            (
Alfred Perlstein            (
Glenn Strauss             (

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Issue
  3. Analysis
  4. Scope of the Problem
  5. Proposed Solution


The C++ Library Fundamentals TS, N4023 specifies a set of functions htonl and friends, which perform in a similar manner to the ubiquitous htonl and friends of the Berkeley Sockets API. The problem is that many existing deployments of this API specify htonl as a macro, on some or all compilation modes. The basic definitions are found in section 10.1 of the paper, titled [].

The Issue

The following code examples illustrate the problems which may occur, in production, due to the proposed 'htonl' and friends named functions.

--- System Header, such as `sys/network.h` ---
// ...
#define htonl( x ) /* Implementation specific way to convert ... */
// ...

--- End of System Header, such as `network.h` ---

--- Example impl for `experimental/net` ---
// ...

namespace std {
namespace experimental {
inline namespace fundamentals_v1 {
namespace net {
    // ...
    constexpr uint32_t htonl(uint32_t host) noexcept;
    // ...
} // net
} // fundamentals_v1
} // experimental
} // std
--- End of TS impl for `experimental/net` ---

--- My program `main.cpp` ---
#include <sys/network.h>
#include <experimental/net>   // XXX: Parse error may occur in here

--- End of My program `main.cpp` ---

--- My other program `main2.cpp` ---
#include <experimental/net>
#include <sys/network.h>

    namespace TS= std::experimental;
    TS::net::htonl(42); // XXX: Syntax error if `htonl` is a macro.
    using TS::net::htonl; // XXX: Syntax error if `htonl` is a macro.
    using namespace std::experimental::net; // Okay.

    // XXX: This line will fail to compile if `htonl` is a function -- it's
    // an ambiguous overload.  This line will succeed if `htonl` is a macro,
    // but invoke the macro, not the C++-TS implementation.
    htonl( 42 );
--- End of My other program `main2.cpp` ---

This then would give rise to a mandate that <experimental/net> be included before all inclusions of sys/network.h, or some similar rule, but usage of std::experimental::net::htonl would cause a syntax error, upon macro expansion of the token htonl.


The conflict with existing Berkeley Sockets API implementations is significantly compounded by the hazards of transitive include in large bodies of existing code. Note that the Berkeley Sockets API is the de facto networking standard for all C-based languages. At best, the <experimental/net> implementations of htonl and friends become unusable... at worst, there are myriad, subtle parse and syntax errors which will arise under different inclusion order (sometimes sparked by changes to headers outside of the author's control.)

This TS places a severe burden upon OS vendors (and authors) to change their existing practices (often mostly written in C), to accommodate this new C++ feature. Such changes may be impossible, or unduly hard in exchange for what these vendors and authors might consider a questionable benefit to the users of their systems. This TS introduces further incompatibilities between C and C++ -- a situation which we should strive to avoid, if we can.

In the C language, many functions are permitted to be defined as macros, at an implementation's discretion. POSIX itself permits an implementation to define htonl and friends as macros. The Linux kernel, the FreeBSD system, and several others all conditionally define htonl as a macro, depending upon availability of compiler primitives, and system target. We feel that a mandate to forbid htonl from being a macro would be unnecessarily difficult to effect, and would be an inappropriate suggestion from the C++ committee at this time.

We feel that it is a mistake to define names in the standard library that might conflict with existing popular implementations which define the same names as macros. Doing so will cause otherwise avoidable headache for numerous POSIX oriented systems.

Scope of the Problem

There are numerous open source projects, implemented wholly, or partially in C++, which are mission-critical for numerous organizations, businesses, projects, and people. Examples include Clang, GCC (>=4.8), Firefox, Chromium, KDE, QT, JVM, Audacity, DOSBox, and VLC. As many (or most) of these have some form of networking support, a C++ standard (or soon-to-be-standard) header which defines these names could potentially jeopardize the future compilation of these projects out-of-the-box on many open source operating systems.

The situation is compounded by the existence of numerous libraries in C and C++, open source or otherwise which either declare their own or transitively include implementations of htonl and friends. Therefore, mandating that <experimental/net> be included either before or after would not be a workable solution.

Proposed Solution

We strongly encourage the Committee to strike the htonl, ntohl, htons, and ntohs functions in the std::experimental::network namespace, in the Library Fundamentals TS (N4023).