New in Firefox 23: the length property of an array can be made non-writable (but you shouldn’t do it)

Properties and their attributes

Properties of JavaScript objects include attributes for enumerability (whether the property shows up in a for-in loop on the object) and configurability (whether the property can be deleted or changed in certain ways). Getter/setter properties also include get and set attributes storing those functions, and value properties include attributes for writability and value.

Array properties’ attributes

Arrays are objects; array properties are structurally identical to properties of all other objects. But arrays have long-standing, unusual behavior concerning their elements and their lengths. These oddities cause array properties to look like other properties but behave quite differently.

The length property

The length property of an array looks like a data property but when set acts like an accessor property.

var arr = [0, 1, 2, 3];
var desc = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor(arr, "length");
print(desc.value); // 4
print(desc.writable); // true
print("get" in desc); // false
print("set" in desc); // false

print("0" in arr); // true
arr.length = 0;
print("0" in arr); // false (!)

In ES5 terms, the length property is a data property. But arrays have a special [[DefineOwnProperty]] hook, invoked whenever a property is added, set, or modified, that imposes special behavior on array length changes.

The element properties of arrays

Arrays’ [[DefineOwnProperty]] also imposes special behavior on array elements. Array elements also look like data properties, but if you add an element beyond the length, it’s as if a setter were called — the length grows to accommodate the element.

var arr = [0, 1, 2, 3];
var desc = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor(arr, "0");
print(desc.value); // 0
print(desc.writable); // true
print("get" in desc); // false
print("set" in desc); // false

print(arr.length); // 4
arr[7] = 0;
print(arr.length); // 8 (!)

Arrays are unlike any other objects, and so JS array implementations are highly customized. These customizations allow the length and elements to act as specified when modified. They also make array element access about as fast as array element accesses in languages like C++.

Object.defineProperty implementations and arrays

Customized array representations complicate Object.defineProperty. Defining array elements isn’t a problem, as increasing the length for added elements is long-standing behavior. But defining array length is problematic: if the length can be made non-writable, every place that modifies array elements must respect that.

Most engines’ initial Object.defineProperty implementations didn’t correctly support redefining array lengths. Providing a usable implementation for non-array objects was top priority; array support was secondary. SpiderMonkey’s initial Object.defineProperty implementation threw a TypeError when redefining length, stating this was “not currently supported”. Fully-correct behavior required changes to our object representation.

Earlier this year, Brian Hackett’s work in bug 827490 changed our object representation enough to implement length redefinition. I fixed bug 858381 in April to make Object.defineProperty work for array lengths. Those changes will be in Firefox 23 tomorrow.

Should you make array lengths non-writable?

You can change an array’s length without redefining it, so the only new capability is making an array length non-writable. Compatibility aside, should you make array lengths non-writable? I don’t think so.

Non-writable array length forbids certain operations:

  • You can’t change the length.
  • You can’t add an element past that length.
  • You can’t call methods that increase (e.g. Array.prototype.push) or decrease (e.g. Array.prototype.pop) the length. (These methods do sometimes modify the array, in well-specified ways that don’t change the length, before throwing.)

But these are purely restrictions. Any operation that succeeds on an array with non-writable length, succeeds on the same array with writable length. You wouldn’t do any of these things anyway, to an array whose length you’re treating as fixed. So why mark it non-writable at all? There’s no functionality-based reason for good code to have non-writable array lengths.

Fixed-length arrays’ only value is in maybe permitting optimizations dependent on immutable length. Making length immutable permits minimizing array elements’ memory use. (Arrays usually over-allocate memory to avoid O(n2) behavior when repeatedly extending the array.) But if it saves memory (this is highly allocator-sensitive), it won’t save much. Fixed-length arrays may permit bounds-check elimination in very circumscribed situations. But these are micro-optimizations you’d be hard-pressed to notice in practice.

In conclusion: I don’t think you should use non-writable array lengths. They’re required by ES5, so we’ll support them. But there’s no good reason to use them.