Introduction to the atermpp library

The atermpp library is a C++ implementation inspired by the ATerm library [M.G.T. van den Brand , H.A. de Jong, P. Klint, P.A. Olivier. Efficient annotated terms, Software - Practice & Experience, 30(3):259-291, 2000]. It allows to construct terms, where a term is a function symbol applied to a number of arguments. Terms can also be natural numbers or lists.

Important features of the atermpp library, inherited from the ATerm library, are maximal subterm sharing, automatic garbage collection, and easy ways to write terms to and from disk. The name aterm comes from the possibility in the original ATerm library to annotate a term with extra information. This has been dropped, along with some other hardly used features such as reals, blobs and placeholders. The description below restricts itself to the atermpp library as it is found as part of the mCRL2 toolset.

What is an aterm?

Aterms are hierarchical terms composed of three building blocks: number, lists and function applications. A function consists of a name, which is an arbitrary string, and an arity. Simple examples of aterms are [0,1,2] and f(x,y). Terms can be nested arbitrarily, e.g. [0,[f(1),2]] and f(g(x,[a,b]),h(z)).

Atermpp types

In the atermpp library there is a class for function symbols and 4 predefined core types for terms, as shown in the following table. The class aterm is a base class for all others.

atermpp function symbols and terms




a function symbol


a generic aterm


a function application


a list of terms


a term containing a 64 bit positive number

The types term_appl are template classes. Typedefs exist for two commonly used variants:

typedef term_list<aterm> aterm_list;
typedef term_appl<aterm> aterm_appl;

A term_list<T> models a read-only singly linked list with elements of type T. The element type should be aterm or one of its derivatives, or a user defined aterm (see User defined terms). A term_appl<T> is a function application to arguments of type T.

Besides this the library contains a few more data types in which elements derived from aterms can be stored. Indexed sets (indexed_set<T> are essentially unordered sets providing a unique index for each inserted element. They are more memory efficient than unordered_maps mapping terms to a number. Balanced trees (term_balanced_tree<T>) are used to store trees of terms. They provide an alternative way to store lists. As the atermpp library uses maximal sharing, balanced trees provided a memory efficient way to store such lists, in case there are many subtrees are the same. This is for instance the case when storing the state vectors in a state space. Contrary to an indexed set, a balanced tree is itself an aterm, and can therefore be used in other terms and lists.

additional data types




an unordered set to store aterms providing a unique number (index) for each element


a sort containing balanced trees of terms

Aterm properties

The aterms in the atermpp library have some properties that need to be understood to use the library effectively. Function symbols and aterms are essentially pointers to data structures stored internally. Copying an aterm is thus a very cheap operation.

Aterm sharing and garbage collection

The most important feature of the atermpp library is that function symbols and terms are shared in memory. Consider the terms f(x,g(y)) and h(f(x,g(y)),g(y)). The atermpp library makes sure that the subterm f(x,g(y)) will only appear once in memory. Even the term g(y) exists only once. In the case of lists, the atermpp library shares the tail parts. For example, from the lists [0,1,2,3] and [0,1,2,4,1,2,3] the tail part [1,2,3] will appear only once in memory. The front parts [0,1,2] will not be shared.

Note that the argument lists of function applications are not shared. So for the terms f(a,b,c) and g(a,b,c) the sequences of arguments a,b,c are stored in separate locations, but the individual subterms a, b and c are shared.

All terms are automatically garbage collected when not in use anymore. This is implemented using a simple reference counting mechanism. Every function symbol and term that is created or copied leads to an increase of the reference count and this reference count decreased when the object is destroyed. When the reference count becomes zero functions and terms symbols are ultimately removed from the underlying data structures.

Read-only terms

As a result of the maximal sharing, aterms have the property that they are read-only. All member functions of the atermpp classes (except the assignment operator) are constant.


All aterm objects are constant. Whenever you want to modify an attribute of an aterm, a new object has to be created.

Needless to say that this has a significant effect on the way aterms are used.

Type conversions

Data types that employ the atermpp library typically derive from term_appl<T>, and sometimes from term_list<T> and aterm_int. These are subclasses from aterm. This means that there is an automatic conversion from such classes towards aterm’s.

To convert aterm based types to derived classes explicit constructors can be used. There is a disadvantage because constructors will generally copy an aterm which will also lead to an increase and ultimately a decrease of a reference count.

It is more efficient to use a cpp:func:`down_cast<T> <atermpp::down_cast> which allows to cast a term of a type derived from an aterm to a term of a derived type. The derived type must not have additional fields beyond the aterm from which it derived. To transform an aterm based term multiple steps through the inheritance hierarchy cpp:func:`vertical_cast<T> <atermpp::vertical_cast> can be used. When the toolset is compiled in debug mode, it is carefully checked that terms are well defined and of proper type.

using atermpp;
aterm_int x(10);
aterm y = x;   /                                // No type cast needed; aterm_int inherits from aterm.
aterm_int& z1 = down_cast<aterm_int>(x)y;       // The down_cast prevents increasing a reference count.
aterm_int z2(y);                                // The use of an explicit constructor.
assert(z1.value() == 10 and z2.value == 10);
aterm_appl f = read_term_from_string("f(x,y)"); // This term is type-checked in debug mode.

String representations

Aterms and derived terms can be transformed to strings using the pretty print function pp function. Aterms can also be used in output streams.

aterm_int x;
std::string s = pp(x);
std::out << "This is how a default aterm looks like: " << x << "\n";

In most cases this string can be converted back to an aterm using the read_term_from_string function. However, when using some control characters the resul will not be the same.

Comparing aterms

For the aterms all standard comparison operators are defined (==, !=, <=, <, > and >=). These operations are very efficient which is made possible as aterms are essentially pointers. If two terms are equal they both consist of the same pointer. As it is nondeterministic where aterms are stored, the comparison operators can yield different outcomes if terms are destructed and constructed again. The comparison operators yield consistent outcomes when the reference count of the terms never reaches 0.

Recognizing basic aterms

Using the aterm member function type_is_list, type_is_int to figure out whether an aterm is a list, a function application or an aterm_int. The aterm member function defined can be used to find out whether an aterm is equal to the default constructed aterm.

Programming with aterms

Aterm creation

All aterm types have their own appropriate constructors for creating them:

#include <atermpp::aterm_int>
#include <atermpp::aterm_appl>
#include <atermpp::aterm_list>
using atermpp;
aterm_int i(10);             // an aterm_int can be constructed from a value.
aterm x,y;
function_symbol f("f",2);    // the function symbol f of arity 2.
aterm_appl t(f, x,y);        // represents f(x,y). These constructors exist up till arity 7.
aterm_list empty_list;       // the default constructor yields the empty list.
aterm_list l(x,empty_list);  // this is the list [x].

Using iterators ranging over a term type T, aterm_appl’s with more arguments and longer lists can be constructed;

#include <vector>
#include <atermpp::aterm_appl>
#include <atermpp::aterm_list>
using atermpp;
std::vector < aterm > v;
aterm x,y;
function_symbol f("g",2);           // a function symbol with two arguments.
aterm_appl t(f,v.begin(),v.end());  // construct the term g(x,y). Vector v must have length 2.
aterm_list l(v.begin(),v.end());    // construct the list [x,y].

Both lists and term_appl’s can also be contructed from iterators while applying a conversion to all elements over which the iterator ranges. The operator () in the conversion class is applied to each term before it becomes an argument or a list element. This conversion class can also be a lambda term.

#include <vector>
#include <atermpp::aterm_appl>
#include <atermpp::aterm_list>
using atermpp;
std::vector < Term > v;             // Assume Term is some class that has been inherited form aterms and
                                    // v is the vector x1,...,xn.
function_symbol f("g",2);           // a function symbol with two arguments.
aterm_appl t(f,v.begin(),v.end(),[](const Term& t){return convertor(t);});
                                    // construct the term g(convertor(x1),...,convertor(xn)).
                                    // convertor to x respectively y.
aterm_list l(v.begin(),v.end(),conversion_class);
                                    // construct the list [conversion(x1),...,converstion(xn)]
                                    // assuming conversion_class contains a member Term operator()(const Term& t){ return conversion(t);}.

For lists it is even possible to apply a filter on the elements in the input. A filter is a class containing a function bool operator()(const Term& t). Only if this function provides true on an element it is added to the list. In the code fragment below the list of aterm_lists l is constructed by taking each aterm_list m in vector v that has a length larger than 4 with the aterm y put in front of it.

#include <vector>
#include <atermpp::aterm_list>

std::vector<aterm_list> v;          // Assume v is a vector containing aterm_lists.
aterm y;
term_list<aterm_list> l(v.begin(),
                        [](const aterm_list& m){ return aterm_list(y,m); },
                        [](const aterm_list& m){ return m.size()>4; })

Aterm manipulation

All elements of aterm and derived types can be constructed, assigned and destructed. Standard swap and hash functions are defined for aterms. Swapping aterms is more efficient than assigning aterms as it prevents adapting reference counts. All comparision operators are defined as already mentioned above.

For a function_symbol the function name() provides the name of the function as a string and the function arity() gives its arity.

#include <atermpp::function_symbol>
using atermpp;
function_symbol f("FUNCTION",5);
std::string;              // s becomes the string "FUNCTION".
size_t n=f.arity();                  // n becomes 5.

The value in an aterm_int can be obtained using the function value().

#include <atermpp::aterm_int>
using atermpp;
aterm_int n(12);
size_t x=n.value();    // x gets the value 12.

The function symbol of a function(). The number of arguments of a term is obtained using size(). A convenience function empty() can be used to check whether the term application is a constant, i.e., has no arguments. An argument can be obtained using the subscript operator operator[]. The first argument has number 0. Using const iterators it is possible to iteratate over the arguments of a term. For this purpose the functions end() are defined.

#include <atermpp::aterm_appl.h>
using atermpp;
function_symbol f("f",3);
aterm x,y,z;
aterm_appl t(f,x,y,z));
function_symbol g=t.function();    // g becomes equal to function symbol f.
aterm u=t[1];                      // u becomes equal to y.
size_t n=t.size();                 // n becomes 3.
bool b=t.empty();                  // t has three arguments, therefore b is false.
for(aterm_appl:const_iterator i=t.begin(); t.end(); ++t)
  ...                              // iterator over the the arguments of t

There are a number of functions to manipulate with term_lists. The function front() provides the first element of a list and the function tail() give the tail of the list. The function pop_front() removes the first element from a list and push_front() is used to add an element to the front of the list. The length of a list is obtained by size() and the convenience function empty() can be used to check whether a list is empty. It is possible to iterate over the elements of a list using end().

#include <atermpp::aterm_list.h>
#include <atermpp::aterm_io.h>
using atermpp;
aterm_list l=read_term_from_string("[1,2,3,17,5]");
aterm_list m=l.tail();             // m is [2,3,17,5].
aterm_int n=l.front();             // n is the aterm_int with value 1.
l.pop_front();                     // now l is [2,3,17,5].
l.push_front(aterm_int(29));       // now l is [29,2,3,17,5].
size_t n=l.size();                 // n becomes 5.
bool b=l.empty();                  // b becomes false.
for(aterm_list::const_iterator i=l.begin(); i!=l.end(); ++i)
  // iterate over the five elements of l.

Aterms and the C++ Standard Library

Standard containers

Aterms work seamlessly with the standard containers of C++. For example:

#include <vector>
#include <atermpp::aterm_io.h>

std::vector<atermpp::aterm> v;

Iterator interfaces

The classes term_list<T> and term_appl<T> have C++ standard conforming iterator interfaces. The iterator of a term_list iterates over the elements in the list. The iterator of a term_appl iterates over the arguments of the term. They operate well with the C++ Standard Library, as illustrated by the following example:

#include <algorithm>
#include <iostream>
#include "atermpp/atermpp.h"

using namespace std;
using namespace atermpp;

struct counter
  int& m_sum;

  counter(int& sum)
    : m_sum(sum)

  void operator()(const aterm_int& t)
    m_sum += t.value();

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  term_list<aterm_int> q = read_term_from_string("[1,2,3,4]");
  int sum = 0;
  for_each(q.begin(), q.end(), counter(sum));
  assert(sum == 10);

  for (term_list<aterm_int>::iterator i = q.begin(); i != q.end(); ++i)
    cout << i->value() << " ";

User defined terms

The aterm library provides an excellent basis on top of which user defined terms can be constructed. Suppose one wants to create terms with zero, one and addition where only addition is defined explicitly below. This can be done by creating a class Expression inheriting from an aterm_appl.

using namespace atermpp;
class Expression: public aterm_appl
  Expression(const function_symbol& f)
    : aterm_appl(f);
  { }

  Expression(const function_symbol& f, const Expression& e1, const Expression& e2)
    : aterm_appl(f,e1,e2);
  { }

  // Check whether the expression is zero.
  bool is_zero(const Expression& e) const
    return e.function_symbol() == function_symbol("zero",0);

  // Check whether the expression is one.
  bool is_one(const Expression& e) const
    return e.function_symbol() == function_symbol("one",0);

  // Check whether the function is an addition.
  bool is_addition(const Expression& e) const
    return e.function_symbol() == function_symbol("add",2);

class Zero: public Expression
  // Constructor
   : Expression(function_symbol("zero"))

class One: public Expression
  // Constructor
   : Expression(function_symbol("one"))

class Addition: public Expression
  // Constructor
  Addition(const Expression& e1, const Expression e2)
   : Expression(function_symbol("add",2), e1,e2)

  // Get left argument.
  const Expression& left(const Addition& e) const
    return down_cast<Expression>((\*this)[0]);

  // Get right argument.
  const Expression& right(const Addition& e) const
    return down_cast<Expression>((\*this)[1]);


Now that we have defined Expression, we can use it in standard containers.

#include <vector>

std::vector<Expression> v;
Zero x;
One y;

Aterm algorithms

For the atermpp library a couple of algorithms are defined. Most of these algorithms have template parameters for the terms that they operate on. These algorithms work on every class for which an aterm_traits specialization exists.

Find algorithms

There are a couple of find algorithms, including find_if for searching a subterm that matches a given predicate, and find_all_if for finding all subterms that match a predicate. The program fragment below illustrates this:

#include "mcrl2/atermpp/algorithm.h"

// function object to test if it is an aterm_appl with function symbol "f"
struct is_f
  bool operator()(aterm t) const
    return (t.type_is_appl()) && aterm_appl(t).function().name() == "f";

aterm_appl a = read_term_from_string("h(g(x),f(y),p(a(x,y),q(f(z))))");
aterm t = find_if(a, is_f());
assert(t == read_term_from_string("f(y)"));

find_all_if(a, is_f(), std::back_inserter(v));
assert(v.size() == 2);
assert(v.front() == read_term_from_string("f(y)"));
assert(v.back() == read_term_from_string("f(z)"));

The find algorithms also work on user defined types. So if t is of type Expression, then it is possible to call find_if(t, is_f()) as well.

Replace algorithms

There are several algorithms for replacing subterms. The replace algorithm replaces a subterm with another term, bottom_up_replace does the same but with a different traversal order. The latter function also contains a version that maintains a cache of replaced terms, which may improve the performance if the same subterms occur often. The algorithm ~atermpp::partial_replace has the option to abort further replacements based on a predicate.

#include "atermpp/algorithm.h"

// function object to test if it is an aterm_appl with function symbol "a" or "b"
struct is_a_or_b
  bool operator()(aterm t) const
    return (t.type() == AT_APPL) &&
    (aterm_appl(t).function().name() == "a" || aterm_appl(t).function().name() == "b");

aterm_appl a = read_term_from_string("f(f(x))");
aterm_appl b = replace(a, read_term_from_string("f(x)"), read_term_from_string("x"));
assert(b == read_term_from_string("f(x)"));
aterm_appl c = replace(a, read_term_from_string("f(x)"), read_term_from_string("x"), true);
assert(c == read_term_from_string("x"));

Miscellaneous algorithms

The algorithm ~atermpp::apply applies an operation to the elements of a list, and returns the result. The ~atermpp::for_each algorithm applies an operation to each subterm of a term.

#include "atermpp/algorithm.h"

// Applies a function f to the given argument t.
struct apply_f
  aterm_appl operator()(aterm_appl t) const
    return aterm_appl(function_symbol("f", 1), t);

bool print(aterm_appl t) // The return value true indicates that for_each
                           // should recurse into the children of t.
  std::cout << t.function().name() << " ";
  return true;

aterm_appl t = read_term_from_string("h(g(x),f(y))");
atermpp::for_each(t, print);             // prints "h g x f y"

aterm_list l = read_term_from_string("[0,1,2,3]");
l = atermpp::apply(l, apply_f());        // results in [f(0),f(1),f(2),f(3)]


The classes atermpp::traverser and atermpp::builder are visitors that can be used as building blocks of other algorithms. They have the following interface:

template <typename Derived>
struct traverser
  void apply(const aterm_int& x);
  void apply(const aterm_list& x);
  void apply(const aterm_appl& x);
  void apply(const aterm& x);

template <typename Derived>
struct builder
  aterm apply(const aterm_int& x);
  aterm apply(const aterm_list& x);
  aterm apply(const aterm_appl& x);
  aterm apply(const aterm& x);

The function traverser::apply by default visits all subterms of a term, and the function builder::apply rebuilds a term by reassembling it from the bottom up. By overriding the apply member functions, the default behaviour can be changed. For example, the following is enough to modify all subterms x by y.

struct xy_replacer: public builder<xy_replacer>
  typedef builder<xy_replacer> super;
  using super::apply;

  aterm apply(const aterm_appl& x)
    if (x == atermpp::read_term_from_string("x"))
      return atermpp::read_term_from_string("y");
    return super::apply(x);

atermpp::aterm t = atermpp::read_term_from_string("h(g(f(x),x))");
xy_replacer f;
atermpp::aterm t1 = f.apply(t);
std::cout << "t1 == " << t1 << std::endl;
assert(t1 == atermpp::read_term_from_string("h(g(f(y),y))"));

Note that static polymorphism using the Curiously recurring template pattern is applied in the visitor classes. The call to super::apply triggers the default behaviour of apply(aterm_appl), which is to recurse into the subterms.