Pointer analysis

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In computer science, pointer analysis, or points-to analysis, is a static code analysis technique that establishes which pointers, or heap references, can point to which variables, or storage locations. It is often a component of more complex analyses such as escape analysis. A closely related technique is shape analysis.

(This is the most common colloquial use of the term. A secondary use has pointer analysis be the collective name for both points-to analysis, defined as above, and alias analysis. Points-to and alias analysis are closely related but not always equivalent problems.)


For the following example program, a points-to analysis would compute that the points-to set of p is {x, y}.

int x;
int y;
int* p = unknown() ? &x : &y;


Techniques range widely in performance and precision. For large programs, some tradeoffs may be necessary to make the analysis finish in reasonable time and space. Two examples of these tradeoffs are:[1]

  • Treating all references from a structured object as being from the object as a whole. This is known as field insensitivity or structure insensitivity.
  • Ignoring flow of control when analysing which objects are assigned to pointers. This is known as context-insensitive pointer analysis (when ignoring the context in which function calls are made) or flow-insensitive pointer analysis (when ignoring the control flow within a procedure).

The disadvantage of these simplifications is that the calculated set of objects pointed to may become less precise.


Pointer analysis algorithms are used to convert collected raw pointer usages (assignments of one pointer to another or assigning a pointer to point to another one) to a useful graph of what each pointer can point to [2].

The two primary algorithms are Steensgaard's algorithm and Andersen's algorithm.


  1. ^ Barbara G. Ryder (2003). "Dimensions of Precision in Reference Analysis of Object-Oriented Programming Languages". Compiler Construction, 12th International Conference, CC 2003 Held as Part of the Joint European Conferences on Theory and Practice of Software, ETAPS 2003 Warsaw, Poland, April 7–11, 2003 Proceedings. pp. 126–137. doi:10.1007/3-540-36579-6_10.
  2. ^ Zyrianov, Vlas; Newman, Christian D.; Guarnera, Drew T.; Collard, Michael L.; Maletic, Jonathan I. (2019). "srcPtr: A Framework for Implementing Static Pointer Analysis Approaches" (PDF). ICPC '19: Proceedings of the 27th IEEE International Conference on Program Comprehension. Montreal, Canada: IEEE.