The ‘init=’ Method


Historically the Chapel language has not supported a way for users to directly handle initialization from an arbitrary expression. Typically the compiler would first default-initialize the variable, and then assign the expression into that variable. For example, if a user wanted to initialize their own list type from an array literal they would need to implement the assignment operator:

record IntList {
  var D : domain(1);
  var A : [D] int;

operator =(ref lhs : IntList, rhs : []) {
  lhs.D = rhs.domain;
  lhs.A = rhs;

var i : IntList = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];
// becomes...
//   i.init();
//   i = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];

Though this process can work in some situations, there are some downsides to consider:

  • Error messages confusingly mention assignment instead of initialization

  • Fields used in this process could not be ‘const’ (assignment requires mutability)

  • This is not true initialization, and may have unnecessary overhead

In order to rectify these issues, a new method named “init=” has been created to replace the “init” method for copy initialization and for initialization from arbitrary expressions.

Why a New Method is Necessary

Since their introduction, initializers have served as the only mechanism for initializing types. Many existing initializers have been written for use with new-expressions. If those initializers were invoked when initializing a variable from an arbitrary expression, then the resulting initialization patterns may be surprising and unintended. For example, consider a list with an initializer that accepts an integer representing the list’s length:

proc IntList.init(len : int) { ... }

var x = new IntList(5); // creates a new IntList of length '5': x.init(5)

If this initializer were invoked for initialization from arbitrary expressions, then users could initialize this list from an integer. This is unlikely to be what the author of the type intended:

var y : IntList = 10; // becomes: y.init(10)

By creating a new method we can separate the two use-cases and allow for further control by the type’s author.

General Rules for ‘init=’

The init= method is in many ways similar to the init method, and they share the same semantic rules within the body of the method. For example, fields must be initialized in declaration order, and must be initialized unless they have a default value.

Where init= differs is in its invocation. The init= method will only be invoked in two cases: copy initialization and initializing a variable from an expression. The init= method will only be invoked with a single value.

The init= method may also invoke other initializers through this.init(...), but currently may not invoke other init= methods.

Classes do not support the init= method because classes will not be copy-initialized by the compiler.

The ‘init=’ Method for Non-Generic Types

The compiler-generated init= method for non-generic types is simple. It accepts one argument of the same type:

record R {
  var x : int;

// identical to compiler-generated implementation
proc R.init=(other : R) {
  this.x = other.x;

In order to override this compiler-generated implementation, the user must implement an init= method that can accept an argument of the same type. Other user-defined init= methods will not prevent the compiler from generating a default implementation for init=. For example:

record R {
  var x : int;

proc R.init=(other : int) {
  this.x = other;

var A = new R(10);   // compiler-generated initializer
var B = A;           // B.init=(A) , the compiler-generated ``init=``
var C : R = 10;      // C.init=(10) , user-defined ``init=``
// var D : R = "hello"; // D.init=("hello") , unresolved call!

The ‘init=’ Method for Generic Types

The compiler-generated ‘init=’

The compiler-generated init= method for generic types requires knowing the intended instantiation in order to disallow copy-initialization from different types. In the following example, there should be a compile-time error when attempting to initialize a R(int) from a R(real).

record R {
  type T;
  var x : T;

var x : R(real);
var y : R(int) = x;

This is accomplished by allowing init= to query the intended instantiation through the expression this.type. The compiler-generated init= for type R looks like:

proc R.init=(other : this.type) {
  this.T = other.T;
  this.x = other.x;

The first line of this init= may seem unnecessary, since this.type must already be known. The line this.T = other.T is currently used by the compiler to ensure that the types match. If the user attempts to initialize this.T with a type different from this.type.T the compiler will issue an error. Future releases may allow this field initialization and type check to be omitted, and instead infer the type from this.type.T.

Field-Based Constraints

The this.type query can also be used to constrain the given value based on generic fields. For example, consider the following generic record that simply wraps any given type:

record Wrapper {
  type T;
  var x : T;

A simple init= for this type may try to infer T from the given value:

proc Wrapper.init=(value : ?T) {
  this.T = T;
  this.x = value;

This only works as long as the desired instantiation of T and the type of the value match. What if a user tried to initialize a Wrapper(int(8)) from an integer literal?

var x : Wrapper(int(8)) = 5;

The type of 5 is actually int(64), and the init= would fail at the line this.T = T;. Furthermore, because value is a fully-generic argument this init= would also resolve as the copy initializer, and attempt to initialize some sort of nested Wrapper(Wrapper(int(8))) type.

A better approach is to constrain value using this.type:

proc Wrapper.init=(value : this.type.T) {
  this.T = value.type;
  this.x = value;

var x : Wrapper(int(8)) = 5; // x.init=(5)
var y = x; // compiler-generated init=

The literal 5 will now coerce from int(64) to int(8) following regular Chapel semantics, and the compiler-generated init= will be invoked when initializing variable y.

Using ‘this.type’ Inside ‘init=’

A type may be initialized from a value that represents only part (or none) of the required instantiation information. For example, consider initializing a distributed list type from an array:

record DistList {
  type DistType;
  type eltType;
  // ...

proc DistList.init=(arr : [] ?eltType) {
  this.DistType = this.type.DistType; // from variable declaration
  this.eltType = eltType; // from 'arr'
  // ... initialize data, etc. ...

// Initializing a Block-distributed list from an array literal
var x : DistList(Block(1), int) = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];

In this example snippet, this.type is used within the init= body in order to achieve the desired instantiation. Part of what was needed was available from the given value (i.e. the element type), but the rest was taken from this.type.

Note that only fully instantiated types can be initialized in this manner. Future releases may add support for fully or partially generic this.type expressions.

Initializing with a Generic Expression

If the variable declaration’s type expression is fully generic, then the value expression must be a subtype of of that generic type expression. In such cases the compiler infers the type of the variable to be the same as the value’s type:

record R {
  type T;
  var x : T;

var A = new R(int, 5);
var B : R = A; // 'B' inferred to be of type 'R(int)'

If the value is not a subtype of the generic expression, then there will be a compile-time error. This may change in future releases.

Disabling Copyability

If a user wishes to indicate that their record cannot be copied, they can do so by implementing an init= method with a false where-clause:

proc R.init=(other: R) where false {
 // method body may be empty in this case

A call to the compilerError utility function can be used for the same purpose:

proc R.init=(other: R) {
  compilerError("Cannot copy R");

Relation to Assignment Operator

In the 1.20 release users could choose to implement either the init= method or = operator for a given type, or implement both, or rely entirely on the compiler-generated implementation. This could lead to hard-to-debug problems when both functions appeared to be user-defined, but a user mistake in the function signature caused it to be ignored and the compiler-generated version to be used instead.

In the 1.21 release users are now required to implement both the init= method and = operator for a given type, or rely entirely on the compiler-generated implementations. If only one implementation is found, the compiler will issue an error and any potentially-incorrect function signatures will hopefully be exposed.