What does "static" mean in C? – Dev

The best answers to the question “What does "static" mean in C?” in the category Dev.

QUESTION:

I’ve seen the word static used in different places in C code; is this like a static function/class in C# (where the implementation is shared across objects)?

ANSWER:

There is one more use not covered here, and that is as part of an array type declaration as an argument to a function:

int someFunction(char arg[static 10])
{
    ...
}

In this context, this specifies that arguments passed to this function must be an array of type char with at least 10 elements in it. For more info see my question here.

ANSWER:

  1. A static variable inside a function keeps its value between invocations.
  2. A static global variable or a function is “seen” only in the file it’s declared in

(1) is the more foreign topic if you’re a newbie, so here’s an example:

#include <stdio.h>

void foo()
{
    int a = 10;
    static int sa = 10;

    a += 5;
    sa += 5;

    printf("a = %d, sa = %d\n", a, sa);
}


int main()
{
    int i;

    for (i = 0; i < 10; ++i)
        foo();
}

This prints:

a = 15, sa = 15
a = 15, sa = 20
a = 15, sa = 25
a = 15, sa = 30
a = 15, sa = 35
a = 15, sa = 40
a = 15, sa = 45
a = 15, sa = 50
a = 15, sa = 55
a = 15, sa = 60

This is useful for cases where a function needs to keep some state between invocations, and you don’t want to use global variables. Beware, however, this feature should be used very sparingly – it makes your code not thread-safe and harder to understand.

(2) Is used widely as an “access control” feature. If you have a .c file implementing some functionality, it usually exposes only a few “public” functions to users. The rest of its functions should be made static, so that the user won’t be able to access them. This is encapsulation, a good practice.

Quoting Wikipedia:

In the C programming language, static
is used with global variables and
functions to set their scope to the
containing file. In local variables,
static is used to store the variable
in the statically allocated memory
instead of the automatically allocated
memory. While the language does not
dictate the implementation of either
type of memory, statically allocated
memory is typically reserved in data
segment of the program at compile
time, while the automatically
allocated memory is normally
implemented as a transient call stack.

And to answer your second question, it’s not like in C#.

In C++, however, static is also used to define class attributes (shared between all objects of the same class) and methods. In C there are no classes, so this feature is irrelevant.

ANSWER:

Multi-file variable scope example

Here I illustrate how static affects the scope of function definitions across multiple files.

a.c

#include <stdio.h>

/*
Undefined behavior: already defined in main.
Binutils 2.24 gives an error and refuses to link.
https://stackoverflow.com/questions/27667277/why-does-borland-compile-with-multiple-definitions-of-same-object-in-different-c
*/
/*int i = 0;*/

/* Works in GCC as an extension: https://stackoverflow.com/a/3692486/895245 */
/*int i;*/

/* OK: extern. Will use the one in main. */
extern int i;

/* OK: only visible to this file. */
static int si = 0;

void a() {
    i++;
    si++;
    puts("a()");
    printf("i = %d\n", i);
    printf("si = %d\n", si);
    puts("");
}

main.c

#include <stdio.h>

int i = 0;
static int si = 0;

void a();    

void m() {
    i++;
    si++;
    puts("m()");
    printf("i = %d\n", i);
    printf("si = %d\n", si);
    puts("");
}

int main() {
    m();
    m();
    a();
    a();
    return 0;
}

GitHub upstream.

Compile and run:

gcc -c a.c -o a.o
gcc -c main.c -o main.o
gcc -o main main.o a.o

Output:

m()
i = 1
si = 1

m()
i = 2
si = 2

a()
i = 3
si = 1

a()
i = 4
si = 2

Interpretation

  • there are two separate variables for si, one for each file
  • there is a single shared variable for i

As usual, the smaller the scope, the better, so always declare variables static if you can.

In C programming, files are often used to represent “classes”, and static variables represent private static members of the class.

What standards say about it

C99 N1256 draft 6.7.1 “Storage-class specifiers” says that static is a “storage-class specifier”.

6.2.2/3 “Linkages of identifiers” says static implies internal linkage:

If the declaration of a file scope identifier for an object or a function contains the storage-class specifier static, the identifier has internal linkage.

and 6.2.2/2 says that internal linkage behaves like in our example:

In the set of translation units and libraries that constitutes an entire program, each declaration of a particular identifier with external linkage denotes the same object or function. Within one translation unit, each declaration of an identifier with internal linkage denotes the same object or function.

where “translation unit is a source file after preprocessing.

How GCC implements it for ELF (Linux)?

With the STB_LOCAL binding.

If we compile:

int i = 0;
static int si = 0;

and disassemble the symbol table with:

readelf -s main.o

the output contains:

Num:    Value          Size Type    Bind   Vis      Ndx Name
  5: 0000000000000004     4 OBJECT  LOCAL  DEFAULT    4 si
 10: 0000000000000000     4 OBJECT  GLOBAL DEFAULT    4 i

so the binding is the only significant difference between them. Value is just their offset into the .bss section, so we expect it to differ.

STB_LOCAL is documented on the ELF spec at http://www.sco.com/developers/gabi/2003-12-17/ch4.symtab.html:

STB_LOCAL Local symbols are not visible outside the object file containing their definition. Local symbols of the same name may exist in multiple files without interfering with each other

which makes it a perfect choice to represent static.

Variables without static are STB_GLOBAL, and the spec says:

When the link editor combines several relocatable object files, it does not allow multiple definitions of STB_GLOBAL symbols with the same name.

which is coherent with the link errors on multiple non static definitions.

If we crank up the optimization with -O3, the si symbol is removed entirely from the symbol table: it cannot be used from outside anyways. TODO why keep static variables on the symbol table at all when there is no optimization? Can they be used for anything? Maybe for debugging.

See also

  • analogous for static functions: https://stackoverflow.com/a/30319812/895245
  • compare static with extern, which does “the opposite”: How do I use extern to share variables between source files?

C++ anonymous namespaces

In C++, you might want to use anonymous namespaces instead of static, which achieves a similar effect, but further hides type definitions: Unnamed/anonymous namespaces vs. static functions

ANSWER:

Short answer … it depends.

  1. Static defined local variables do not lose their value between function calls. In other words they are global variables, but scoped to the local function they are defined in.

  2. Static global variables are not visible outside of the C file they are defined in.

  3. Static functions are not visible outside of the C file they are defined in.