In computing, a null pointer or null reference is a value saved for indicating that the pointer or reference does not refer to a valid object. Programs routinely use null pointers to represent conditions such as the end of a list of unknown length or the failure to perform some action; this use of null pointers can be compared to nullable types and to the Nothing value in an option type.
A null pointer should not be confused with an uninitialized pointer: a null pointer is guaranteed to compare unequal to any pointer that points to a valid object. However, depending on the language and implementation, an uninitialized pointer may not have any such guarantee. It might compare equal to other, valid pointers; or it might compare equal to null pointers. It might do both at different times; or the comparison might be undefined behaviour.
In C, two null pointers of any type are guaranteed to compare equal. The preprocessor macro
NULL is defined as an implementation-defined null pointer constant, which in C99 can be portably expressed as
((void *)0) which means that the integer value
0 converted to the type
void* (pointer to void). The C standard does not say that the null pointer is the same as the pointer to memory address 0, though that may be the case in practice. Dereferencing a null pointer is undefined behavior in C, and a conforming implementation is allowed to assume that any pointer that is dereferenced is not null.
In practice, dereferencing a null pointer may result in an attempted read or write from memory that is not mapped, triggering a segmentation fault or memory access violation. This may manifest itself as a program crash, or be transformed into a software exception that can be caught by program code. There are, however, certain circumstances where this is not the case. For example, in x86 real mode, the address
0000:0000 is readable and also usually writable, and dereferencing a pointer to that address is a perfectly valid but typically unwanted action that may lead to undefined but non-crashing behavior in the application. There are occasions when dereferencing the pointer to address zero is intentional and well-defined; for example, BIOS code written in C for 16-bit real-mode x86 devices may write the IDT at physical address 0 of the machine by dereferencing a null pointer for writing. It is also possible for the compiler to optimize away the null pointer dereference, avoiding a segmentation fault but causing other undesired behavior.
In C++, while the
NULL macro was inherited from C, the integer literal for zero has been traditionally preferred to represent a null pointer constant. However, C++11 has introduced the explicit null pointer constant
nullptr to be used instead.
In some programming language environments (at least one proprietary Lisp implementation, for example), the value used as the null pointer (called
nil in Lisp) may actually be a pointer to a block of internal data useful to the implementation (but not explicitly reachable from user programs), thus allowing the same register to be used as a useful constant and a quick way of accessing implementation internals. This is known as the
In languages with a tagged architecture, a possibly null pointer can be replaced with a tagged union which enforces explicit handling of the exceptional case; in fact, a possibly null pointer can be seen as a tagged pointer with a computed tag.
Programming languages use different literals for the null pointer. In Python, for example, a null value is called
None. In Pascal and Swift, a null pointer is called
nil. In Eiffel, it is called a
Because a null pointer does not point to a meaningful object, an attempt to dereference (i.e., access the data stored at that memory location) a null pointer usually (but not always) causes a run-time error or immediate program crash.
- In C, dereferencing a null pointer is undefined behavior. Many implementations cause such code to result in the program being halted with an access violation, because the null pointer representation is chosen to be an address that is never allocated by the system for storing objects. However, this behavior is not universal. It's also not guaranteed, since compilers are permitted to optimize programs under the assumption that they're free of undefined behaviour.
- In Delphi and many other Pascal implementations, the constant
nilrepresents a null pointer to the first address in memory which is also used to initialize managed variables. Dereferencing it raises an external OS exception which is being mapped onto a Pascal EAccessViolation exception instance if the System.SysUtils unit is linked in the uses clause.
- In Java, access to a null reference triggers a
NullPointerException(NPE), which can be caught by error handling code, but the preferred practice is to ensure that such exceptions never occur.
- In Lisp, nil is a first class object. So
(first nil)is nil, and
(rest nil)is nil. So dereferencing nil will not cause an error, but poorly written code can get into an infinite loop.
- In .NET, access to null reference triggers a NullReferenceException to be thrown. Although catching these is generally considered bad practice, this exception type can be caught and handled by the program.
- In Objective-C, messages may be sent to a
nilobject (which is a null pointer) without causing the program to be interrupted; the message is simply ignored, and the return value (if any) is
0, depending on the type.
- Before the introduction of SMAP, a null pointer dereference bug could be exploited by mapping pagezero into the attacker's address space and hence causing the null pointer to point to that region. This could lead to code execution in some cases.
There are techniques to facilitate debugging null pointer dereferences. Bond et al. suggest to modify the JVM in order to keep track of null propagation. The idea of the Casper system is to use source code transformation in order to track this propagation, without modifying the JVM. In some cases, it is possible to automatically generate a patch to fix null pointer exceptions.
Pure functional languages, and user code run in many interpreted or virtual-machine languages do not suffer the problem of null pointer dereferencing, since no direct access is provided to pointers and, in the case of pure functional languages, all code and data is immutable.
Where a language does provide or utilise pointers which could otherwise become void, it may be possible to mitigate or avoid runtime null dereferences by providing compilation-time checking via static analysis or other techniques, with a burgeoning movement toward syntactic assistance from language features such as those seen in modern versions of the Eiffel programming language, D, and Rust.
Similar analysis can be performed using external tools, in some languages.
I call it my billion-dollar mistake. It was the invention of the null reference in 1965. At that time, I was designing the first comprehensive type system for references in an object oriented language (ALGOL W). My goal was to ensure that all use of references should be absolutely safe, with checking performed automatically by the compiler. But I couldn't resist the temptation to put in a null reference, simply because it was so easy to implement. This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty years.
- ISO/IEC 9899, clause 18.104.22.168, paragraph 4.
- ISO/IEC 9899, clause 7.17, paragraph 3: NULL... which expands to an implementation-defined null pointer constant...
- ISO/IEC 9899, clause 22.214.171.124, paragraph 3.
- ISO/IEC 9899, clause 126.96.36.199, paragraph 4, esp. footnote 87.
- Stroustrup, Bjarne (March 2001). "Chapter 5:
constqualifier (§5.4) prevents accidental redefinition of
NULLand ensures that
NULLcan be used where a constant is required.". The C++ Programming Language (14th printing of 3rd ed.). United States and Canada: Addison–Wesley. p. 88. ISBN 0-201-88954-4.
- The Objective-C 2.0 Programming Language, section "Sending Messages to nil".
- OS X exploitable kernel NULL pointer dereference in AppleGraphicsDeviceControl
- Bond, Michael D.; Nethercote, Nicholas; Kent, Stephen W.; Guyer, Samuel Z.; McKinley, Kathryn S. (2007). "Tracking bad apples". Proceedings of the 22nd annual ACM SIGPLAN conference on Object oriented programming systems and applications - OOPSLA '07. p. 405. doi:10.1145/1297027.1297057. ISBN 9781595937865. S2CID 2832749.
- Cornu, Benoit; Barr, Earl T.; Seinturier, Lionel; Monperrus, Martin (2016). "Casper: Automatic tracking of null dereferences to inception with causality traces". Journal of Systems and Software. 122: 52–62. arXiv:1502.02004. doi:10.1016/j.jss.2016.08.062. ISSN 0164-1212.
- Durieux, Thomas; Cornu, Benoit; Seinturier, Lionel; Monperrus, Martin (2017). "Dynamic patch generation for null pointer exceptions using metaprogramming" (PDF). 2017 IEEE 24th International Conference on Software Analysis, Evolution and Reengineering (SANER). IEEE: 349–358. arXiv:1812.00409. doi:10.1109/SANER.2017.7884635. ISBN 978-1-5090-5501-2. S2CID 2736203.
- "Void-safety: Background, definition, and tools". Retrieved 2021-11-24.
- Bartosz Milewski. "SafeD – D Programming Language". Retrieved 17 July 2014.
- "Fearless Security: Memory Safety". Archived from the original on 8 November 2020. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
- Tony Hoare (2009-08-25). "Null References: The Billion Dollar Mistake". InfoQ.com.