memset() or value initialization to zero out a struct?


Question

In Win32 API programming it's typical to use C structs with multiple fields. Usually only a couple of them have meaningful values and all others have to be zeroed out. This can be achieved in either of the two ways:

STRUCT theStruct;
memset( &theStruct, 0, sizeof( STRUCT ) );

or

STRUCT theStruct = {};

The second variant looks cleaner - it's a one-liner, it doesn't have any parameters that could be mistyped and lead to an error being planted.

Does it have any drawbacks compared to the first variant? Which variant to use and why?

1
61
8/12/2015 6:51:48 AM

Accepted Answer

Those two constructs a very different in their meaning. The first one uses a memset function, which is intended to set a buffer of memory to certain value. The second to initialize an object. Let me explain it with a bit of code:

Lets assume you have a structure that has members only of POD types

struct POD_OnlyStruct
{
    int a;
    char b;
};

POD_OnlyStruct t = {};  // OK

POD_OnlyStruct t;
memset(&t, 0, sizeof t);  // OK as well

In this case writing a POD_OnlyStruct t = {} or POD_OnlyStruct t; memset(&t, 0, sizeof t) doesn't make much difference, as the only difference we have here is the alignment bytes being set to zero-value in case of memset used. Since you don't have access to those bytes normally, there's no difference for you.

On the other hand, since you've tagged your question as C++, let's try another example, with member types different from POD:

struct TestStruct
{
    int a;
    std::string b;
};

TestStruct t = {};  // OK

{
    TestStruct t1;
    memset(&t1, 0, sizeof t1);  // ruins member 'b' of our struct
}  // Application crashes here

In this case using an expression like TestStruct t = {} is good, and using a memset on it will lead to crash. Here's what happens if you use memset - an object of type TestStruct is created, thus creating an object of type std::string, since it's a member of our structure. Next, memset sets the memory where the object b was located to certain value, say zero. Now, once our TestStruct object goes out of scope, it is going to be destroyed and when the turn comes to it's member std::string b you'll see a crash, as all of that object's internal structures were ruined by the memset.

So, the reality is, those things are very different, and although you sometimes need to memset a whole structure to zeroes in certain cases, it's always important to make sure you understand what you're doing, and not make a mistake as in our second example.

My vote - use memset on objects only if it is required, and use the default initialization x = {} in all other cases.

83
1/4/2010 4:57:08 PM

Depending on the structure members, the two variants are not necessarily equivalent. memset will set the structure to all-bits-zero whereas value initialization will initialize all members to the value zero. The C standard guarantees these to be the same only for integral types, not for floating-point values or pointers.

Also, some APIs require that the structure really be set to all-bits-zero. For instance, the Berkeley socket API uses structures polymorphically, and there it is important to really set the whole structure to zero, not just the values that are apparent. The API documentation should say whether the structure really needs to be all-bits-zero, but it might be deficient.

But if neither of these, or a similar case, applies, then it's up to you. I would, when defining the structure, prefer value initialization, as that communicates the intent more clearly. Of course, if you need to zeroize an existing structure, memset is the only choice (well, apart from initializing each member to zero by hand, but that wouldn't normally be done, especially for large structures).


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