The Abseil Random Library

The Abseil Random library provides functions and utilities for generating pseudorandom data. This library is designed to be used as a replacement for the random number generators and distribution functions within the <random> library, while maintaining compatibility with that library.

The Abseil Random library provides several advantages over <random>:

  • Improved algorithms
    The Abseil Random library provides improved pseudorandom algorithms, and allows us to adopt new algorithms as they become available. Random value generation is an area of active research, and today’s algorithms initialize more quickly, generate values faster, and produce sequences that are statistically more difficult to guess.
  • Easy construction of well-seeded generators
    Abseil’s bit generators require no constructor arguments to be seeded properly. Providing the initial state for a random value generator (ie. “seeding”) is a nontrivial task which often requires knowledge of the underlying bit-generation algorithm.
  • Concise sampling syntax
    Abseil’s Random library provides a more concise syntax than <random> by representing distributions as functions rather than objects, while still decoupling bit generation from distribution sampling.

To get started, add the following #include, and analogous dependency within your build file.

#include "absl/random/random.h"

Bit Generators and Distribution Functions

The Abseil Random library provides a variety of distribution function templates, which produce randomly sampled values from particular distributions. They obtain their randomness from a user-supplied uniform random bit generator (URBG, or bit generator for short), which should be treated as an opaque object unless you’re implementing a distribution function. absl::BitGen is the preferred bit generator for most use cases.

absl::BitGen bitgen;
size_t index = absl::Uniform(bitgen, 0u, elems.size());
double fraction = absl::Uniform(bitgen, 0, 1.0);
bool coin_flip = absl::Bernoulli(bitgen, 0.5);

Never Use A Random Bit Generator Directly

Bit generators produce values with the function-call operator, but this interface should never be used directly in application code.

Properly sampling from a distribution can be surprisingly subtle; it requires knowledge of the underlying URBG algorithm, and the range of values that it produces. This range of values may or may not be the full space of values representable by the output data type. Getting these details wrong can result in biased sampling.

// Don't sample directly from a bit generator's output. If bitgen() produces
// values in the range [0,7], then this code will produce 1 and 2 twice as often
// as other values.
uint32_t die_roll = 1 + (bitgen() % 6);

// Instead, use a distribution function instead:
uint32_t die_roll = absl::Uniform(absl::IntervalClosed, gen, 1, 6);

Always use the Abseil Random library’s distribution functions instead.

Reuse Generators When Possible

Try to avoid continuously re-instantiating bit generators.

for (auto& elem : v_) {
  absl::BitGen gen;  // Newly instantiated for every element.
  elem = absl::Uniform(gen, 0, 1.0);
}

It’s better to reuse generator instances, unless those generators will be called very infrequently.

class Server {
  absl::BitGen bitgen_;
  ...

  void Method() {
    for (auto& elem : v_) {
      elem = absl::Uniform(bitgen_, 0, 1.0);
    }
  }
};

Controlling The Output Type Of absl::Uniform()

The most common use case for a random value library is also the most simple: “Give me a number between A and B”.

int digit = absl::Uniform(gen, 0, 10);  // Samples an integer from [0, 10)

or perhaps:

double less_than_1 = absl::Uniform(gen, 0, 1.0);  // Samples from [0.0, 1.0)

or if we want to explicitly specify the desired numerical type, then perhaps:

// Casts arguments to the specified type, before sampling.
auto index = absl::Uniform<size_t>(gen, 0, v.size());

In the absence of an explicitly specified return type, the absl::Uniform() function will use the more general of the two endpoints’ data types. Note that if neither of these types can represent the other without loss of precision, then the function call will not compile.

size_t index = absl::Uniform(gen, 0u, v.size());      // Both are unsigned types
auto index = absl::Uniform<size_t>(gen, 0, v.size()); // Also fine
size_t index = absl::Uniform(gen, 0, v.size());       // Error: int vs size_t

Controlling The Interval Bounds Of absl::Uniform()

You might sometimes find that sampling from the half-open distribution [a, b) isn’t a natural fit for your application. For such cases, we allow endpoint semantics to be explicitly specified, by providing one of the following identifiers as the first function call argument:

absl::IntervalClosed      // Sample from [a, b]
absl::IntervalOpen        // Sample from (a, b)
absl::IntervalOpenClosed  // Sample from (a, b]
absl::IntervalClosedOpen  // Sample from [a, b) … (Default)

Some examples might include:

int die_roll = absl::Uniform(absl::IntervalClosed, gen, 1, 6);
double jitter = absl::Uniform(absl::IntervalOpen, gen, -0.25, 0.25);

Choose whichever endpoints and semantics most naturally fit to your use case.

One final note - Omitting the endpoints when sampling an unsigned integer provides a shorthand syntax for sampling from the entire type.

auto byte = absl::Uniform<uint8_t>(bitgen);  // From [0, 255]

BitGenRef: A Type-Erased URBG Interface

An instance of the BitGenRef class can be thought of as a type-agnostic “reference” to an URBG instance. Functions which accept an absl::BitGenRef can be invoked using any type of URBG, such as absl::BitGen, absl::InsecureBitGen, etc.

int TakesBitGenRef(absl::BitGenRef bitgen){
  int v = absl::Uniform<int>(bitgen, 0, 1000);
}

absl::BitGenRef has implicit conversion constructors from any URBG&. A absl::BitGenRef does not copy or own the underlying URBG, to which it points, and so the underlying URBG must outlive the BitGenRef instance.

Testing Random Behavior with MockingBitGen

Importantly, absl::BitGenRef allows mocking through the compatible absl::MockingBitGen type. When testing we might want to mock to provide deterministic results. The MockingBitGen provides such a mock for URBG objects:

absl::MockingBitGen bitgen;

ON_CALL(absl::MockUniform<int>(), Call(bitgen, 1, 10000))
    .WillByDefault(Return(20));
EXPECT_EQ(absl::Uniform<int>(bitgen, 1, 10000), 20);

EXPECT_CALL(absl::MockUniform<double>(), Call(bitgen, 0.0, 100.0))
    .WillOnce(Return(5.0))
    .WillOnce(Return(6.5));
EXPECT_EQ(absl::Uniform(bitgen, 0.0, 100.0), 5.0);
EXPECT_EQ(absl::Uniform(bitgen, 0.0, 100.0), 6.5);

MockingBitGen has full support for Googletest matchers and actions.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Are The Abseil Random Generator Types Seeded?

absl::BitGen acquires seed data from an an underlying entropy pool managed by the Randen pseudorandom generator, initially seeded from /dev/urandom.

Why Do You Recommend absl::BitGen Over absl::InsecureBitGen?

The use of values produced by insecure bit generators in security-sensitive contexts may introduce occasional (but dangerous) security issues. Although absl::BitGen is not suitable for cryptographic applications such as key generation, it provides guarantees strong enough to be resilient to misuse.

Can I Use Abseil’s Distribution Functions With Other Bit Generator Types?

Yes - the distribution functions are compatible with any type conforming to the UniformRandomBitGenerator concept, as defined by C++11. This includes std:: types (eg. std::minstd_rand0 and std::mt19937_64).

I Need My Variate Sequences To Be The Same Every Time!

We recognize that there are use cases which inherently require universally stable (ie. seed-stable) variate generation, but this represents a narrow class of applications within Google. Such use cases require stability of both generator algorithms and distribution algorithms; in some cases, they require this stability across multiple platforms, as well. Providing this would completely freeze our ability to update and improve the Abseil Random library for the (much larger) class of applications which neither require nor benefit from these constraints. We hope to revisit the question of how to provide for these use cases in the future, but for now, we (by design) offer no API that indefinitely provides the same Seed→SequenceVariate mappings.

Stability of Generated Sequences

Most applications and unit tests do not need to explicitly depend on the sequence of variates generated by a given seed. If you believe that your binary is an exceptional use case, Abseil Random may not be the right library for you. That said, there is method to our “nondeterminstic-seed” madness, and it’s worth outlining.

Motivation

Our experience has taught us that random value generators are the ultimate victims to Hyrum’s Law. The details of a generator’s implementation (i.e. the algorithm for generating values) is effectively equivalent to its interface (i.e. the values generated). There have been instances in which attempts to improve existing algorithms, such as the routine for sampling pseudorandom floating-point values, have been foiled by thousands of unit tests throughout Google which have become dependent on the sequences of values generated. Thus, the API and implementation for previous iterations of generators within Google is, in many respects, effectively frozen in place and cannot be improved.

Classes of Generator Stability

In order to prevent this from befalling the Abseil Random library, we have implemented a scheme whereby the seed material used to derive the initial state of a generator (absl::BitGen, absl::InsecureBitGen) is mixed with nondeterministic data. We refer to the conditions under which a generator promises to produce the same variates from a fixed seed sequence, as the stability of the generator.

In the course of our discussions, we found it useful to define the following categories of generator stability:

  • Process Stability: Given a fixed seed sequence S, and a collection of generator-instances g1(S), …, gn(S) constructed within the same process execution, all generators gk will produce the same sequences of variates.
  • Seed Stability: Given a fixed seed sequence S, and a collection of generator instances g1(S), …, gn(S), all generators gk will produce the same sequence of variates, across all instances of any binaries.

Guarantees provided by the Abseil Random library

Our generator types provide Process Stability. There is currently no generator type in the Abseil Random library which provides Seed Stability. The motivation for this decision is as much philosophical as it is practical: The legitimate use cases for an eternally unchanging pseudorandom sequence are uncommon within Google.

The Abseil family of distribution classes and distribution functions (eg. absl::Uniform()) should be considered to have Process Stability. We hope to provide support for seed-stable distributions in the future, but at the moment, no API from the Abseil Random library guarantees this contract.