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RFC-0052 - Type aliasing and new types

RFC-0052: Type aliasing and new types
  • FIDL

This proposal aims to formally evolve FIDL's type aliasing and new type declaration mechanisms and their effects on bindings. More specifically, this proposes refinements to the type alias grammar, exposition of type aliases to bindings, and a new feature known as new types.

Date submitted (year-month-day)2020-01-07
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2020-01-23

"Call me by another name"


Portions of RFC-0019 introduced the notion of type aliasing into FIDL. This proposal aims to formally evolve FIDL's type aliasing and new type declaration mechanisms and their effects on bindings. More specifically, this proposes refinements to the type alias grammar, exposition of type aliases to bindings, and a new feature known as new types.


Type aliasing is already a feature in FIDL today, and this RFC aims to expand its scope and usefulness. With type aliasing, declarations will have an impact in bindings and thus will be helpful for API name transitions.

In addition to type aliasing, this RFC also introduces a sister concept -- new type declarations. New types, much like aliases, declare a new name in the local scope that wraps another type, but are considered distinct to the type checker (named type semantics). This would allow FIDL authors to better leverage the type systems of their binding languages.


Type alias

For full context on type aliasing, RFC-0019 (which proposes the current using style aliases) highlights the original design, motivation, and precedence. This RFC aims to pave a path forward for exposing type aliases in language bindings and refine some of the language grammar decisions in RFC-0019. Much like using aliases, the new type aliases are purely nominal and will not affect the ABI. This section will primarily outline the changes and improvements to the original feature.


alias-declaration = ( attribute-list ) , "alias" , IDENTIFIER , "=" , type-constructor;

type-constructor should resolve to a fully-formed type reference that exists in the current scope. In other words, for a type like vector, it must contain both the inner type and size constraint.

For example, this would be valid: fidl alias SmallBytes = vector<uint8>:SMALL_NUM;

But his would not (partial type reference on the right hand side of the equals): fidl alias SmallVec = vector:SMALL_NUM;

While FIDL today supports partial type references (illustrated by the SmallVec example) with a using alias, this feature will be removed. The reasoning of this deprecation is threefold: 1. Type generics have not been fully defined or reviewed for FIDL. In a future where type generics exist, the language would have a better and more formal way to describe types and type aliases that can be parameterized. 2. The FIDL language has not undergone a formal decision on how generics would translate to languages that don't support generics (i.e. Go [1], C). 3. The current syntax creates scenarios where type parameters may be implicitly required to create a fully-formed type. Furthermore, the specifics of how to parse and parameterize a nested partial type alias (i.e. using SmallVecOfVecs = vector<vector:SMALL_NUM>:SMALL_NUM) are unclear.

Aliases of protocols will not be supported, as a protocol cannot be fully classified as a type, either in FIDL or binding languages. The goal is to revisit this decision in the future, if or when protocols become more type-like (i.e. client_end:ProtocolName and server_end:ProtocolName).


Language Code
FIDL alias SmallBytes = vector<uint8>:SMALL_NUM;
C (vectors do not exist in simple C bindings)
typedef small_bytes uint8_t*;
C++ using SmallBytes = std::vector<uint8_t>;
Rust type SmallBytes = Vec<u8>;
Dart [2] typedef SmallBytes = List<int>;
Go type SmallBytes = []uint8;

New Type

A new type is a type that wraps an underlying type but is considered distinct from the underlying type in a language's type system. This may be useful if two values possess the same type size and shape (and possibly characteristics) but have different semantic meaning. For example, a zx_vaddr_t and a zx_paddr_t are represented by the same underlying uintptr_t type but have different (yet easily confusable) meanings.

A new type allows for these semantic differences to be expressed in the type system. In strongly-typed languages, this means that logic bugs can be caught via type-checking and/or static analysis at compile-time.

This comes at no change or cost in the wire format.


newtype-declaration = ( attribute-list ), "type", IDENTIFIER, "=", type-constructor;

This syntax was chosen to align with the introduction of top-level types as specified in RFC-0050: Syntax Revamp.

Because a new type should translate to a concrete type in the bindings, type-constructor should resolve to a fully-formed type reference. This may look like:

type MyBytes = vector<uint8>:MAX;

New types of protocols will not be supported as a protocol cannot be fully classified as a type, either in FIDL or binding languages. Furthermore, there is currently no compelling use case for named type semantics on protocol-derived entities in generated bindings.

Type Traits and Operators

Without new types, the effects of a new type can roughly be accomplished with a new single-field struct type in FIDL. For example:

struct MyBytes {
    vector<uint8>:MAX value;

However, new types indicate to backends and bindings a narrower semantic space and allow them to generate language-specific features that may map to a native language feature or make the new type ergonomic to use. For example:

Language Explanation
C Unfortunately, C's type system has no good representation. Fallback to typedef.
C++ The new type can be translated to a class that may expose the functionality of the following from the underlying type: (1) explicit conversion constructor, (2) explicit assignment operator, (3) arithmetic & bitwise operations, and (4) misc operators ([], *, ->, etc.)
Rust The new type can be translated to a singleton struct that derives traits such as From<UnderlyingType>, Into<UnderlyingType>, Hash, PartialEq, Copy, Clone, std::ops::*, etc. that the underlying type implements.
Dart From conversations with the Dart team, there is currently no way to map new type semantics to the language, though there have been discussions of supporting such a use case [3].
A new type can be downgraded to a type alias, pending #65 [2].
Go A new type maps directly to a type definition.
type <NewType> <UnderlyingType>

The set of innate functionality of the underlying type are henceforth referred to as type traits (a concept that is not yet formally defined in the language).

Unless/until type traits are defined in FIDL, the new type shall inherit the underlying type's traits by default. By doing so, new types will still be useful in the same ways the underlying type would be, without needing to unwrap the underlying type and potentially undoing the type safety benefits of a new type. It may be useful in the future to be able to define custom trait behavior of a new type and the design of this does not prevent an evolution towards such a path in the future. However, trait inheritance by default does make the migration path towards opt-in inheritance of traits a large, breaking change.



// This example uses C++20 concepts for readability but this can be translated to a
// template approach in C++14.
template<typename T>
concept Addable = requires(T a) {
  { a + a } -> T;

template<typename T>
concept Multipliable = requires(T a) {
  { a * a } -> T;

template <typename T>
concept Copyable = std::is_copy_constructible_v<T> || std::is_copy_assignable_v<T>;

template <typename T>
concept Movable = std::is_move_constructible_v<T> || std::is_move_assignable_v<T>;

class MyNumber {
  using UnderlyingType = uint32_t;

  explicit MyNumber() = default;

  explicit MyNumber(const UnderlyingType& value)
      requires Copyable<UnderlyingType>
    : value_(value) {}

  explicit MyNumber(UnderlyingType&& value) requires Movable<UnderlyingType>
    : value_(std::move(value)) {}

  MyNumber& operator=(const MyNumber&) = default;
  MyNumber& operator=(MyNumber&&) = default;

  [[nodiscard]] MyNumber operator+(const MyNumber& other) const
      requires Addable<UnderlyingType> && Copyable<UnderlyingType> {
    return MyNumber(value_ + other.value_);

  [[nodiscard]] MyNumber operator+(MyNumber&& other)
      requires Addable<UnderlyingType> && Movable<UnderlyingType> {
    return MyNumber(value_ + other.value_);

  [[nodiscard]] MyNumber operator*(const MyNumber& other) const
      requires Multipliable<UnderlyingType> && Copyable<UnderlyingType> {
    return MyNumber(value_ * other.value_);

  [[nodiscard]] MyNumber operator*(MyNumber&& other)
      requires Multipliable<UnderlyingType> {
    return MyNumber(value_ + other.value_);

  // ...other operators defined here...

  [[nodiscard]] UnderlyingType value() const
      requires Copyable<UnderlyingType> {
    return value_;

  UnderlyingType take_value() requires Movable<UnderlyingType> {
    return std::move(value_);

  UnderlyingType value_;

Rust ```rust

[derive(Copy, Clone, Hash, Eq, PartialEq, Ord, PartialOrd)]

struct MyNumber(u32);

impl From for MyNumber { fn from(value: u32) -> Self { MyNumber(value) } }

impl Into for MyNumber { fn into(self) -> u32 { self.0 } }

impl Add for MyNumber { type Output = Self;

fn add(self, rhs: Self) -> Self::Output {
    Self(self.0 + rhs.0)


impl Mul for MyNumber { type Output = Self;

fn mul(self, rhs: Self) -> Self::Output {
    Self(self.0 * rhs.0)


// ...implement other traits here... ```


Go will have generics in the near future:


Pending Dart's introduction of typedefs for non-function types (#65).


See comment at Dart's issue #42.