Make call_once mandatory

Jens Gustedt, INRIA, France

org: ISO/IEC JCT1/SC22/WG14 document: N2840
target: IS 9899:2023 version: 1
date: 2021-10-12 license: CC BY


C offers several possibilities to attach callbacks to termination events (atexit, at_quick_exit, tss destructors) but only one for initialization, call_once. This function entered C11 with the threads option and is very usefull in that context, for example for the initialization of static objects with mtx_t and cnd_t types.

Nevertheless, this function is also very useful in other contexts that have nothing to do with threads, namely for any types that need dynamic initialization to take for example some properties of the platform into account.

Therefore we propose to make this function (and the type and macro) accessible even without threads and to make it mandatory.

Changes and additions

Change the beginning of 7.22 (General utilities <stdlib.h>) p3

3 The types declared are size_t and wchar_t (both described in 7.19); once_flag (described in 7.26)

Change the beginning of 7.22 (General utilities <stdlib.h>) p4

4 The macros defined are NULL (described in 7.19); ONCE_FLAG_INIT (described in 7.26)

Add a new paragraph 7.22 (General utilities <stdlib.h>) p5

5 The function

is described in 7.26.2


These changes do not invalidate user code besides that they add the types once_flag and the macro ONCE_FLAG_INIT to the header <stdlib.h>, which previously had only be reserved if the TU included <threads.h>. Otherwise it only adds functionality; the indentifier call_once had already been reserved as external since C11.

Changes for implementations are minimal. Those that already have the threads option and a monolithic C library have just to add the features to the <stdlib.h>. Others that have a separate binary for threads, probably have to do some code movement or add some weak symbol to extend the use to programs that don’t use threads.

In a context that does not have threads, implementation of a version that is based on a static integer for once_flag objects and polling for its value is straight forward.

Reference implementation for platforms without threads

Note that call_once, as most C library functions, is not guaranteed to be reentrant, see 7.1.4 p4. So for systems that do not have the notition of threads, we also don’t have to make provisions for signal handlers.

typedef bool once_flag;
#define ONCE_FLAG_INIT false
void call_once(once_flag *flag, void (*func)(void)) {
    if (!*flag) {
        flag = true;

Reference implementation for platforms with C17 atomics and proprietary threads

A version that minimally conforms to the synchronization properties of call_once could look as follows:

typedef _Atomic(unsigned) once_flag;
#define ONCE_FLAG_INIT 0u
void call_once(once_flag *flag, void (*func)(void)) {
  unsigned actual = atomic_load_explicit(flag, memory_order_acquire);
  if (actual < 2u) {
    switch (actual) {
    case 0u:
      // The very first sets this to 1 and then to 2 to indicate that the function has been run.
      if (atomic_compare_exchange_strong_explicit(flag, &(unsigned){ 0 }, 1u, memory_order_relaxed, memory_order_relaxed)) {
        atomic_store_explicit(flag, 2u, memory_order_release);
      // we lose and fall through
    case 1u:
      while (atomic_load_explicit(flag, memory_order_acquire) < 2u) {
        // active polling or some sleep if supported

If a platform does not have C17 atomics but provides atomic extensions (for example in form of low-level atomic instructions) they can easily replace the calls appropriately. The main performance bottleneck for this function is on the “fast path”, namely a call where the value had already been set to 2, one atomic load and a conditional jump.

Question for WG14

Shall we integrate the proposed changes and additions into C23?