# Deep C: Integer Promotion

Almost every programmer has learned about C, and a lot of them use it for their career. It is certainly one of the most popular programming languages on TIOBE (first place in November 2012). Yet, C can be really tricky and behave unexpectedly sometimes. One of those dodgy side of C is integer promotion. See the following example that illustrate the issue:

You might think the output is 1, yet the answer is 0. Oops.

## C99 SPEC

In the prior implementation of K&R and C89, arithmetic operands on short and char fell into two major camps and may produce different results from the above C snippet. In C99, integer promotion is clearly defined in following rule (6.3.1.1):

If an int can represent all values of the original type, the value is converted to an int; otherwise, it is converted to an unsigned int. These are called the integer promotions. All other types are unchanged by the integer promotions.

Recall that the range of integer types:

• signed char: -127 to 127
• unsigned char: 0 to 255
• signed short: -32767 to 32767
• unsigned short: 0 to 65535
• signed int: -2147483647 to 2147483647

You can see that signed and unsigned char, short all can be represented in signed int, so they are all converted to signed int when doing arithmetic operations.

In the previous example, unsigned char a = 0xff is presenting 255. However, char b = 0xff is presenting -1. When both converted to int type, a remains 255, or 0x000000ff; b will be 0xffffffff which is -1 represented in int type. You can see how it works in this C snippet:

The output would be:

A: 000000ff, B: ffffffff


This is why the result of expression a==b is 0.

## Understand it at assembly level

When I first understood integer promotion rules, I got even more confused: why is this rule so awkward? To understand why it is designed like so, you must dig into compiled assembly code.

The compiled assembly is:

If you are not familiar with GAS syntax, you can check out X86 Assembly/GAS Syntax. GAS assembly instructions are generally suffixed with the letters “b”, “s”, “w”, “l”, “q” or “t” to determine what size operand is being manipulated.

• b = byte (8 bit)
• s = short (16 bit integer) or single (32-bit floating point)
• w = word (16 bit)
• l = long (32 bit integer or 64-bit floating point)
• q = quad (64 bit)
• t = ten bytes (80-bit floating point)

GAS convention is to push parameter from left-to-right. For instance, movl \$0, -4(%rbp) means to move 0x00000000 to address -4(%rbp).

The instruction movzbl means moving a byte to long (32 bit int) with zero fill. movzbl -5(%rbp), %eax take 0xff to %eax and fill the rest with zero. %eax is now 0x000000ff.

The instruction movsbl means moving a byte to long with signed fill. movsbl -6(%rbp), %ecx take 0xff to %eax and fill the rest with signed value, which will cause %ecx to be 0xffffffff. Finally, addl %eax, %ecx do the add operation, and movl %ecx, -12(%rbp) store the result onto the stack.

Now, you understand that integer promotion is a rule how C types being mapped directly to machine instructions. All arithmetics operands are applied to smaller integers after they are transformed into int with signed or unsigned fill. You can think it this way: though short and char are stored in one or two byte, they are treated as int when you use it with arithmetic operations. The rule how they are transformed to int is called integer promotion.

## Summary

Typically, CPUs are fastest at operating on integers of their native integer size. On x86, 32-bit arithmetics are can be twice as fast compare to 16-bit operands. C is a language focused on performance, so it will do the integer promotion to make the program as fast as possible. Though, you need to keep the integer promotion rule in mind to prevent some integer overflow vulnerability issues.