Why is a point-to-volatile pointer, like “volatile int * p”, useful?

A pointer of the form

volatile int* p;

is a pointer to an int that the compiler will treat as volatile. This means that the compiler will assume that it is possible for the variable that p is pointing at to have changed even if there is nothing in the source code to suggest that this might occur. For example, if I set p to point to a regular integer, then every time I read or write *p , the compiler is aware that the value may have changed unexpectedly.

There is one more use case for a volatile int*: If you declare an int as volatile, then you should not point at it with a regular int*. For example, this is a bad idea:

volatile int myVolatileInt;
int* ptr = &myVolatileInt; // Bad idea!

The reason for this is that the C compiler no longer remembers that the variable pointed at by ptr is volatile, so it might cache the value of *ptr in a register incorrectly. In fact, in C++, the above code is an error. Instead, you should write:

volatile int myVolatileInt;
volatile int* ptr = &myVolatileInt; // Much better!

Now, the compiler remembers that ptr points at a volatile int, so it won’t (or shouldn’t!) try to optimize accesses through *ptr.

One last detail – the pointer you discussed is a pointer to a volatile int. You can also do this:

int* volatile ptr;

This says that the pointer itself is volatile, which means that the compiler shouldn’t try to cache the pointer in memory or try to optimize the pointer value because the pointer itself might get reassigned by something else (hardware, etc.) You can combine these together if you’d like to get this beast:

volatile int* volatile ptr;

This says that both the pointer and the pointee could get changed unexpectedly.The compiler can’t optimize the pointer itself, and it can’t optimize what’s being pointed at.

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