Bitfield manipulation in C


The classic problem of testing and setting individual bits in an integer in C is perhaps one the most common intermediate-level programming skills. You set and test with simple bitmasks such as

unsigned int mask = 1<<11;

if (value & mask) {....} // Test for the bit
value |= mask;    // set the bit
value &= ~mask;   // clear the bit

An interesting blog post argues that this is error prone, difficult to maintain, and poor practice. The C language itself provides bit level access which is typesafe and portable:

typedef unsigned int boolean_t;
#define FALSE 0
#define TRUE !FALSE
typedef union {
        struct {
                boolean_t user:1;
                boolean_t zero:1;
                boolean_t force:1;
                int :28;                /* unused */
                boolean_t compat:1;     /* bit 31 */
        int raw;
} flags_t;

create_object(flags_t flags)
        boolean_t is_compat = flags.compat;

        if (is_compat)
                flags.force = FALSE;

        if (flags.force) {

But this makes me cringe.

The interesting argument my coworker and I had about this is still unresolved. Both styles work, and I maintain the classic bitmask method is easy, safe, and clear. My coworker agrees it's common and easy, but the bitfield union method is worth the extra few lines to make it portable and safer.

Is there any more arguments for either side? In particular is there some possible failure, perhaps with endianness, that the bitmask method may miss but where the structure method is safe?

Best Solution

Bitfields are not quite as portable as you think, as "C gives no guarantee of the ordering of fields within machine words" (The C book)

Ignoring that, used correctly, either method is safe. Both methods also allow symbolic access to integral variables. You can argue that the bitfield method is easier to write, but it also means more code to review.

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