# Common PROTECT Errors

This post presents the most common PROTECT bugs present in packages, based on manual inspection of ~100 remaining CRAN packages with reports from rchk.

# Background

Any C/C++ code interacting with R, both inside R itself and in packages, needs to inform the garbage collector about which objects on the R heap are reachable from local variables. Pointers to such objects are kept on the pointer protection stack or the precious list or multi-set, but the most common is the pointer protection stack with PROTECT/UNPROTECT macros. Failure to protect an object that is later accessed is a common error, which can lead to incorrect results or a crash, and such bugs are often very hard to find, because they can be triggered by inconsequential changes that happen to change when GC is run.

One of the tools that help to find PROTECT errors is rchk, which is run regularly for CRAN packages and if any potential problem is found, the report is available under “Additional issues” in CRAN Package Check Results. More information about the pointer protection API is available in Writing R Extensions, more advice how to use the API is here. Gctorture is a runtime tool available in R for discovery of PROTECT errors.

# Running rchk

One can install rchk natively on Linux (tested on Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora), this is how I use it and the installation procedure should be easy enough to follow for anyone programming in C. There is also a vagrant script to install rchk automatically into virtualbox with Ubuntu as guest system (which would work on host systems including Linux, Windows and macOS). Recently there is also a pre-built singularity container with rchk (the guest system is Ubuntu). See rchk documentation for details. Things can be as simple as

singularity pull --name rchk.img shub://kalibera/rchk:def
singularity run rchk.img jpeg

to check the current CRAN version of package jpeg. One can indeed provide a tarball instead. Installing system dependencies for R packages that needs them requires a singularity overlay (covered here).

# Not protecting fresh objects

It is surprisingly not uncommon to see a sequence of calls, particularly calls to coerceVector() or some macro that wraps it, without the necessary protection:

SEXP MM = coerceVector(_MM, INTSXP);
SEXP NN = coerceVector(_NN, INTSXP);

Here the second call to coerceVector() may run GC and may destroy MM, the result of the previous call to coerceVector(). One indeed needs to protect MM before the second call to prevent this from happening.

One should conservatively assume that all functions allocate, and that all functions which return an SEXP are actually returning a fresh SEXP that needs protection. The reason is that this can change, allocation or copying of an object can be introduced on a code path where it did not exist before. Also, allocation can exist in functions where one would not guess that (e.g.  reading a variable from a frame, it can run an active binding).

rchk still tries hard to find out which functions allocate and does not report errors when unprotected variables are exposed to functions that don’t allocate, as far as the tool can see. The reports for this problem say something like “unprotected variable MM while calling allocating function Rf_coerceVector”.

# Allocating argument expression with unprotected argument

The caller is always responsible for ensuring that all arguments passed to a function have been protected. Historically, some core R API functions are callee-protect, they protect their own arguments and keep them protected for the whole duration of their call. It is better not to rely on this property, but it is often done and rchk tries to detect callee-protect functions and not report an error.

The obvious reason not to rely on this property is because it could change. There is also then a subtle detail whether the argument is protected until the end of the function, or only until the last moment when it is needed by the function, and confusing these two could introduce a bug. A less obvious reason is that one can easily introduce another error:

lang3(R_BracketSymbol, lang2(R_ClassSymbol, R_NilValue), ScalarReal(cur_class_i + 1)

In this example, a callee-protect function is called with two allocating arguments. It is true that lang3 protects its arguments, but it does not help: the unprotected result of the call to ScalarInteger() can get destroyed during the allocating call to lang2(), well before lang3() is even invoked. This is a very common problem.

Another variant:

setAttrib( ans, install("class"), mkString2( "srcref", 6 ) );

Here the object allocated by mkString2() but not protected can get destroyed by the call to install(). Note that install() places symbols in the symbol table where the garbage collector can find them, so they do not have to be protected, but the function still allocates when the symbol is not yet found in the symbol table. In principle, some common symbols like “class” in this case will be in the symbol table, because class() is part of the API, but one should never rely on that.

Less obvious variant:

setAttrib( ans, install("srcfile"), srcfile );

This is still wrong if srcfile is unprotected. It can be destroyed by the call to install(). Note that the order of evaluation of function arguments in C is undefined, so one should not write code that would be correct only in say the reverse order.

rchk reports these errors typically as “Suspicious call (two or more unprotected arguments) to”, this is from the maacheck tool (part of rchk). These reports in particular should be taken seriously as they are very rarely wrong (still, the tool may sometimes conservatively assume that some complicated function is allocating when it is in fact not).

# Premature unprotection

Several packages have unprotected an object too soon. I am not sure how it happened, but perhaps it is less error-prone wrt to future code changes to just unprotect all objects at the end of a function unless there is a real danger that too much memory would be blocked from re-use for too long.

PROTECT(destVector = allocVector(REALSXP,ssize));
for (i = 0; i < ssize; i++){
REAL(destVector)[i] = working_space[shift+i];
}
UNPROTECT(1);
PROTECT(f = allocVector(INTSXP,fNPeaks));

In this example, destVector has been properly protected before being filled in, but then unprotected, then allocVector() was called, and later (not shown here) destVector was read again.

A less obvious but common example is when a function assumed not to allocate is called just before returning from a function:

PROTECT(myint = NEW_INTEGER(len));
p_myint = INTEGER_POINTER(myint);
for(int i=0;i<n;i++) p_myint[i] = sigma_0[i];
UNPROTECT(2);
PutRNGstate();
return myint;

Function PutRNGstate() allocates. I know I am repeating myself, but package writers should not assume for any function that it does not allocate. These things can be very surprising and they can change, and change out of their control.

# Passing unprotected argument to a normal function

Arguments have to be protected by the caller. A common error is to pass an unprotected argument to a function, which then destroys the argument before using it

PROTECT( ret = NEW_OBJECT(MAKE_CLASS( TIME_CLASS_NAME )));

Here, the argument to NEW_OBJECT() allocated by MAKE_CLASS() can be destroyed by NEW_OBJECT() before it is read. It has to be protected.

Rf_eval(Rf_lang3(symbols::new_env, Rf_ScalarLogical(TRUE), parent), R_BaseEnv);

Here the argument allocated by Rf_lang3() can be destroyed by Rf_eval() before being used, it has to be protected before being passed to Rf_eval().

These rules indeed also apply to functions defined in a package: functions taking a number of SEXP arguments should be able to assume that these arguments are protected.

# Protection imbalance on a return branch

Each function should keep pointer protection balance: when it exits normally (not via a long jump), the pointer protection stack size should be the same as when the function has been invoked (and the protection stack should be the same even wrt to content).

  SEXP sBC = PROTECT(allocVector(REALSXP, rank==0 ? n : 0));
if (rank == 0) {
if (REAL(sBC) == NULL) {
REprintf("Rank %d: error!\n", rank);
return NULL;
}
}

In this example, on the return path ending with return NULL the function kept (at least) one extra pointer on the pointer protection stack (in this example, the branch is actually dead because REAL(sBC) would never be NULL, but it still illustrates the problem).

Forgetting to unprotect along paths that call return is a common error. rchk reports pointer protection imbalance in the function (“has possible protection stack imbalance”), but one needs to find manually where it is caused (looking for return statements and checking for UNPROTECT around usually works).

# Summary

Writing C code, and specifically C code for R, comes with responsibilities. One of them is ensuring that R objects are properly PROTECTed (when programming in R directly, one does not have to worry).

rchk results have been available from CRAN for almost two years, and the CRAN team has been tirelessly reminding package maintainers to check their reports. The tool cannot find all PROTECT bugs, and particularly so as it has been tuned to report fewer false alarms. As a result, almost all of the remaining reports for the CRAN packages now are true errors, and most of them can be fixed trivially (the hard part is to find where they are, but that work has already been done).

Many of the remaining false alarms are things that would be good to fix anyway (e.g. the tool assumes that getAttrib(x, R_NamesSymbol) returns a fresh object, even though x is of a type that current version of R would return some object indirectly protected through x).

This post has been written based on manual inspection of all of the remaining rchk reports for CRAN packages (and obvious bugs were reported to the package maintainers), in hope that this could make the number of packages with PROTECT bugs detectable by rchk drop further and stay low.