Nick Desaulniers

The enemy's gate is down

May 30, 2016 - 6 minute read - Comments - C data model

Data Models and Word Size

This post is a follow up to my previous blog post about word size.

Three C/C++ programmers walk into a bar. One argues that sizeof(void*) is equivalent to sizeof(long), one argues that sizeof(void*) is equivalent to sizeof(int), and the third argues it’s sizeof(long long). Simultaneously, they’re all right, but they’re also all wrong (and need a lesson about portable C code). What the hell is going on?

One of the first few programs a programmer might write after hello world is something like this:

#include <stdio.h>
int main () {
  printf("sizeof(int): %zu\n", sizeof(int));
  printf("sizeof(long): %zu\n", sizeof(long));
  printf("sizeof(long long): %zu\n", sizeof(long long));
  printf("sizeof(void*): %zu\n", sizeof(void*));

Note the use of the %zu format specifier, a C99 addition that isn’t portable to older compilers! (This post is more about considerations when porting older code to newer machines, not about porting newer code to run on older machines. Not having a standards compliant C compiler makes writing more portable C code even trickier, and is a subject for another blog post).

When I run that code on my x86-64 OSX machine, I get the following output:

sizeof(int): 4
sizeof(long): 8
sizeof(long long): 8
sizeof(void*): 8

So it looks like I would be the first programmer in the story in the first paragraph, since on my machine, it looks like sizeof(long) == sizeof(void*). Also note how sizeof(long long) is equivalent as well.

But what would happen if I compiled my code on a 32 bit machine? Luckily, my processor has backwards compatibility with 32b binaries, so I can cross compile it locally and still run it. Ex:

➜  clang sizeof.c -Wall -Wextra -Wpedantic
➜  file a.out
a.out: Mach-O 64-bit executable x86_64
➜  clang sizeof.c -Wall -Wextra -Wpedantic -m32
➜  file a.out
a.out: Mach-O executable i386
➜  ./a.out
sizeof(int): 4
sizeof(long): 4
sizeof(long long): 8
sizeof(void*): 4

Huh, suddenly sizeof(void*) == sizeof(int) == sizeof(long)! This seems to be the case of the second programmer from the story.

Both programmer 1 and programmer 2 might agree that the size of a pointer is equivalent to their machine’s respective word size, but that too would be an incorrect assumption for portable C/C++ code!

Programmer 3 goes through the hellscape that is installing a working compiler for Windows and building a 64b command line application (to be fair, installing command line tools for OSX is worse; installing a compiler for most OS’ leaves much to be desired). When they run that program, they see:

sizeof(int): 4
sizeof(long): 4
sizeof(long long): 8
sizeof(void*): 8

This is yet a third case (the third programmer from the story). In this case, only sizeof(long long) is equivalent to sizeof(void*).

Data Models

What these programmers are seeing is known as data models. Programmer 1 one on a 64b x86-64 OSX machine had an LP64 data model where longs (L), (larger long longs,) and pointers (P) are 64b, but ints were 32b. Programmer 2 on a 32b x86 OSX machine had an ILP32 data model where ints (I), longs (L), and pointers (P) were 32b, but long longs were 64b. Programmer 3 on a 64b x86-64 Windows machine had a LLP64 data model, where only long longs (LL) and pointers (P) were 64b, ints and longs being 32b.

Data modelsizeof(int)sizeof(long)sizeof(long long)sizeof(void*)example
ILP3232b32b64b32bWin32, i386 OSX & Linux
LP6432b64b64b64bx86-64 OSX & Linux

There are older data models such as LP32 (Windows 3.1, Macintosh, where ints are 16b), and more exotic ones like ILP64, and SILP64. Knowing the data model thus is important for portable C/C++ code.

Historical Perspective

Running out of address space is and will continue to be tradition in computing. Applications become bigger as computer power and memory gets cheaper. Companies want to sell chips that have larger word sizes to address more memory, but early adopters don’t want to buy a computer where there favorite application hasn’t been compiled and thus doesn’t exist on yet. Someone from the back shouts virtual machines then ducks as a chair is thrown.

This document highlights some reasons why LP64 is preferred to ILP64: ILP64 made portable C code that only needed 32b of precision harder to maintain (on ILP64 an int was 64b, but a short was 16b!). It mentions how for data structures that did not contain pointers, their size would be the same on LLP64 as ILP32, which is the direction Microsoft went. LLP64 was essentially the ILP32 model with 64b pointers.

Linux also supports an ABI called x32 which can use x86-64 ISA improvements but uses 32b pointers to reduce the size of data structures that would otherwise have 64b pointers.

For a great historical perspective on the evolution of word size and data models, as well as the “toil and trouble” caused, this paper was an excellent reference. It describes Microsoft finally abandoning support for 16b data models in Windows XP 64. It mentions that the industry was pretty split between LP64, LLP64, and ILP64 as porting code from the good old days of ILP32 would break in different ways. That the use of long was more prevalent in Windows applications vs the use of int in unix applications. It also makes the key point that a lot of programmers from the ILP32 era made assumptions that sizeof(int) == sizeof(long) == sizeof(void*) which would not hold true for the LP64/LLP64 era.

One important point the paper makes makes that’s easily missed is that typedef wasn’t added to C until 1977 when hardware manufactures still couldn’t agree on how many bits were in a char (CHAR_BITS) and some machines were using 24b addressing schemes. stdint.h and inttypes.h did not exist yet.

This article talks about two main categories of effects of switching from ILP32 to LP64 and has excellent examples of problematic code. That section near the end is worth the read alone and makes excellent points to look for during code review.


Word size or ISA doesn’t tell you anything about sizeof(int), sizeof(long), or sizeof(long long). We also saw that one machine can support multiple different data models (when I compiled and ran the same code with the -m32 flag).

The C standard tells you minimum guaranteed sizes for these types, but the data model (part of the ABI, external to but abiding by the C standard) is what tells you about the specifics sizes of standard integers and pointers.

Further Reading

What's in a Word? Setting up mutt with gmail on Ubuntu

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