PHP RFC: Reflection for references


Specialized libraries that perform operations like dumping, cloning or comparison over arbitrary value graphs require the ability to reason about PHP references. Currently PHP provides no APIs for this purpose, forcing libraries to use roundabout ways of detecting references and reference equalities.

As an example, the VarCloner, which is part of Symfony's debug dump component uses essentially the following approach to detect references:

$array2 = $array1;
$array2[$key] = $unique_cookie;
if ($array1[$key] === $unique_cookie) {
    // $array1[$key] is a reference

This works, because references are preserved when copying arrays, such that a modification of $array2[$key] will modify $array1[$key] if and only if $array1[$key] was a reference (or $array1 is $GLOBALS).

While this approach currently works, it is slow and convoluted. To make matters worse, this approach will no longer work reliably in PHP 7.4, due to the introduction of typed properties. If $array1[$key] is a reference to a property with a certain type, then the assignment of the cookie may trigger a TypeError.

This RFC proposes to introduce a first-class API for reflection of references, to solve this type of rare, but also fundamental problem.


This RFC proposes the addition of a ReflectionReference class, with the following prototypes:

final class ReflectionReference {
    /* Returns ReflectionReference if array element is a reference, null otherwise. */
    public static function fromArrayElement(array $array, int|string $key): ?ReflectionReference;
    /* Returns unique identifier for the reference. The return value format is unspecified. */
    public function getId(): int|string;
    private function __construct(); // Always throws
    private function __clone(); // Always throws

Essentially this provides the functionality of spl_object_hash(), but for references instead of objects, through an API that is amenable to extension in the future. The functionality and design is discussed in more detail in the following.

Construction of ReflectionReference

Construction of ReflectionReference instances faces the following problem: A PHP function can either accept an argument by value or by reference. This needs to be declared in the function signature, making it impossible to distinguish whether the passed value was a reference originally or not. To determine whether or not something is a reference, access to the parent structure is necessary (which might be an array, object property table or symbol table).

To start with, only the fromArrayElement($array, $key) API is provided, which covers all known use-cases. Object properties can be handled by casting the object to array. The fromArrayElement($array, $key) method will either return a ReflectionReference instance if $array[$key] is a reference, or null.

If $array is not an array or $key is not an integer or string, a TypeError is thrown. If $array[$key] does not exist, a ReflectionException is thrown.

Unique IDs for references

Detecting whether something is a reference is only part of the problem. Additionally, we need to determine whether two storage locations hold the same reference. More generally, we want to determine whether a reference is equal to some other already known reference (out of a larger set of references).

To solve both of these problems, the ReflectionProperty::getId() function is provided. The return value is an integer or string of unspecified format. The only guarantee is that the return value will be unique for a given reference for the lifetime of that reference. IDs may be reused when references are destroyed and recreated. (The same limitation applies to spl_object_hash().)

Two references may be compared for equality using $ref1->getId() === $ref2->getId(). The reference ID can also be used to maintain a map of known references:

$refs = [];
$refs[$ref1->getId()] = $ref1;
if (isset($refs[$ref2->getId()])) {
    // $ref2 is same as $refs[$ref2->getId()]

The value returned by getId() is based on the address of the zend_reference structure, which is used internally to represent references. To avoid directly leaking memory addresses, which would facilitate attacks requiring knowledge of memory layout, the address is SHA1 hashed together with a per-process 128-bit key. The raw 20 byte digest is returned (not hex encoded). In other words, the return value of getId() is sha1(address_of($ref) . $key, true).

As mentioned above, the specific scheme used here is an implementation detail and may change in the future. The length of the string may change, and the return value may be converted into an integer in the future, if it becomes technically feasible.

Backward Incompatible Changes


Future Scope

The proposed API is intentionally minimal, but may be extended in the future on an as-needed basis. Two possible additions would be:

  • Ability to fetch the reference count, or at least determine whether this is a singleton reference.
  • Ability to fetch all typed properties that are part of this reference.


Add ReflectionReference class as described? A 2/3 majority is required. The vote started 2019-01-30 and will end 2019-02-13.

Add ReflectionReference?
Real name Yes No
ashnazg (ashnazg)  
bishop (bishop)  
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carusogabriel (carusogabriel)  
colinodell (colinodell)  
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girgias (girgias)  
jpauli (jpauli)  
kalle (kalle)  
kguest (kguest)  
krakjoe (krakjoe)  
lex (lex)  
marcio (marcio)  
mariano (mariano)  
narf (narf)  
nikic (nikic)  
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peehaa (peehaa)  
petk (petk)  
pmmaga (pmmaga)  
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sebastian (sebastian)  
svpernova09 (svpernova09)  
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yunosh (yunosh)  
Final result: 30 1
This poll has been closed.
rfc/reference_reflection.txt · Last modified: 2019/02/13 11:26 by nikic