What Is Volatile Data Type in C?


Larry Thompson

What Is Volatile Data Type in C?

In the C programming language, the volatile keyword is used to indicate that a variable’s value may change unexpectedly without any explicit modification by the program itself. This means that the value can be altered by external factors such as hardware, operating system, or other threads.

When a variable is declared as volatile, the compiler is informed that it should not apply certain optimizations to that variable. These optimizations may include caching the value of the variable or reordering code execution in a way that assumes the variable will not change.

Volatile Variables and Optimization

The purpose of using volatile variables is mainly to ensure that their values are always read from memory and not from any cached copies. This is particularly useful when dealing with hardware registers or memory-mapped I/O.

The compiler’s optimization techniques aim to improve program efficiency by reducing memory access and minimizing unnecessary operations. However, these optimizations can lead to incorrect behavior when applied to variables that are subject to external changes.

Consider a scenario where a program reads data from a hardware register into a non-volatile variable:

int data = *hardware_register;

If the value of the hardware register changes unexpectedly due to external events, but the compiler assumes that data remains unchanged between subsequent reads, it may optimize this code snippet as follows:

int data = *hardware_register;
// Some unrelated code
int result = data + 5;

This optimization could lead to incorrect results if *hardware_register changes between these two statements. By declaring data as volatile, we can instruct the compiler to always read the value from memory, ensuring that any changes to *hardware_register are reflected in data.

Creating Volatile Variables

To create a volatile variable in C, simply add the volatile keyword before the variable’s type:

volatile int x;

The volatile keyword can also be used with other data types such as float, double, or even user-defined structures. It instructs the compiler to treat these variables as volatile and avoid applying certain optimizations.

Volatile Pointers and Multithreading

In addition to volatile variables, C also supports declaring pointers as volatile. This is particularly relevant in multithreaded environments where multiple threads may access or modify shared memory locations.

A volatile pointer indicates that the memory location being pointed to may change unexpectedly. This helps prevent caching of pointer values and ensures that any changes made by other threads are immediately visible.

Example: Volatile Pointer Usage

volatile int* shared_memory;

void* thread_function(void* arg) {
    // Continuously read from shared memory
    while (1) {
        int value = *shared_memory;
        // Perform some operations with value

int main() {
    // Create a thread that modifies shared memory
    // ..

In this example, declaring shared_memory as a volatile int* ensures that the compiler does not cache the pointer value and always reads from the actual memory location. This guarantees that any modifications made by other threads are immediately visible to the thread accessing the shared memory.


The volatile keyword in C is used to indicate that a variable’s value may change unexpectedly due to external factors. By declaring a variable as volatile, you instruct the compiler not to apply certain optimizations that could lead to incorrect behavior.

Volatile variables are particularly useful when dealing with hardware registers, memory-mapped I/O, or in multithreaded environments where shared memory is accessed by multiple threads. They help ensure that changes made by external factors or other threads are immediately visible and prevent the compiler from making incorrect assumptions about their values.

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