What is the “as-if” rule?
The “as-if” rule basically defines what transformations an implementation is allowed to perform on a legal C++ program. In short, all transformations that do not affect a program’s “observable behavior” (see below for a precise definition) are allowed.
The goal is to give implementations freedom to perform optimizations as long as the behavior of the program remains compliant with the semantics specified by the C++ Standard in terms of an abstract machine.
Where does the Standard introduce this rule?
The C++11 Standard introduces the “as-if” rule in Paragraph 1.9/1:
The semantic descriptions in this International Standard define a parameterized nondeterministic abstract
machine. This International Standard places no requirement on the structure of conforming implementations.
In particular, they need not copy or emulate the structure of the abstract machine. Rather, conforming
implementations are required to emulate (only) the observable behavior of the abstract machine as explained
Also, an explanatory footnote adds:
This provision is sometimes called the “as-if” rule, because an implementation is free to disregard any requirement of this
International Standard as long as the result is as if the requirement had been obeyed, as far as can be determined from the
observable behavior of the program. For instance, an actual implementation need not evaluate part of an expression if it can
deduce that its value is not used and that no side effects affecting the observable behavior of the program are produced.
What does the rule mandate exactly?
Paragraph 1.9/5 further specifies:
A conforming implementation executing a well-formed program shall produce the same observable behavior
as one of the possible executions of the corresponding instance of the abstract machine with the same program
and the same input. However, if any such execution contains an undefined operation, this International
Standard places no requirement on the implementation executing that program with that input (not even
with regard to operations preceding the first undefined operation).
It is worth stressing that this constraint applies when “executing a well-formed program” only, and that the possible outcomes of executing a program which contains undefined behavior are unconstrained. This is made explicit in Paragraph 1.9/4 as well:
Certain other operations are described in this International Standard as undefined (for example, the effect
of attempting to modify a const object). [ Note: This International Standard imposes no requirements on
the behavior of programs that contain undefined behavior. —end note ]
Finally, concerning the definition of “observable behavior“, Paragraph 1.9/8 goes as follows:
The least requirements on a conforming implementation are:
— Access to volatile objects are evaluated strictly according to the rules of the abstract machine.
— At program termination, all data written into files shall be identical to one of the possible results that
execution of the program according to the abstract semantics would have produced.
— The input and output dynamics of interactive devices shall take place in such a fashion that prompting
output is actually delivered before a program waits for input. What constitutes an interactive device
These collectively are referred to as the observable behavior of the program. [ Note: More stringent
correspondences between abstract and actual semantics may be defined by each implementation. —end
Are there situations where this rule does not apply?
To the best of my knowledge, the only exception to the “as-if” rule is copy/move elision, which is allowed even though the copy constructor, move constructor, or destructor of a class have side effects. The exact conditions for this are specified in Paragraph 12.8/31:
When certain criteria are met, an implementation is allowed to omit the copy/move construction of a class
object, even if the constructor selected for the copy/move operation and/or the destructor for the object
have side effects. […]