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Inside the C++ Object Model

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Inside the C++ Object Model


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  • Copyright 1996
  • Dimensions: 6-1/4x9-1/4
  • Pages: 304
  • Edition: 1st
  • Book
  • ISBN-10: 0-201-83454-5
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-201-83454-3

Inside the C++ Object Model focuses on the underlying mechanisms that support object-oriented programming within C++: constructor semantics, temporary generation, support for encapsulation, inheritance, and "the virtuals"--virtual functions and virtual inheritance. This book shows how your understanding the underlying implementation models can help you code more efficiently and with greater confidence. Lippman dispells the misinformation and myths about the overhead and complexity associated with C++, while pointing out areas in which costs and trade offs, sometimes hidden, do exist. He then explains how the various implementation models arose, points out areas in which they are likely to evolve, and why they are what they are. He covers the semantic implications of the C++ object model and how that model affects your programs.

  • Explores the program behavior implicit in the C++ Object Model's support of object-oriented programming.
  • Explains the basic implementation of the object-oriented features and the trade offs implicit in those features.
  • Examines the impact on performance in terms of program transformation.
  • Provides abundant program examples, diagrams, and performance measurements to relate object-oriented concepts to the underlying object model.

If you are a C++ programmer who desires a fuller understanding of what is going on "under the hood," then Inside the C++ Object Model is for you!

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Sample Content

Table of Contents

Object Lessons.

Layout Costs for Adding Encapsulation.

The C++ Object Model.

A Keyword Distinction.

An Object Distinction.

The Semantics of Constructors.

Default Constructor Construction.

Copy Constructor Construction.

Program Transformation Semantics.

Member Initialization List.

The Semantics of Data.

The Binding of a Data Member.

Data Member Layout.

Access of a Data Member.

Inheritance and the Data Member.

Object Member Efficiency.

Pointer to Data Members.

The Semantics of Function.

Varieties of Member Invocation.

Virtual Member Functions.

Function Efficiency.

Pointer-to-Member Functions.

Inline Functions.

Semantics of Construction, Destruction, and Copy.

Object Construction without Inheritance.

Object Construction under Inheritance.

Object Copy Semantics.

Object Efficiency.

Semantics of Destruction.

Runtime Semantics.

Object Construction and Destruction.

Operators new and delete.

Temporary Objects.

On the Cusp of the Object Model.


Exception Handling.

Runtime Type Identification.

Efficient, but Inflexible.

Index. 0201834545T04062001


For nearly a decade within Bell Laboratories, I labored at implementing C++. First it was on cfront, Bjarne Stroustrup's original C++ implementation (from Release 1.1 back in 1986 through Release 3.0, made available in September 1991). Then it was on what became known internally as the Simplifier, the C++ Object Model component of the Foundation project. It was during the Simplifier's design period that I conceived of and began working on this book.

What was the Foundation project? Under Bjarne's leadership, a small group of us within Bell Laboratories was exploring solutions to the problems of large-scale programming using C++. The Foundation was an effort to define a new development model for the construction of large systems (again, using C++ only; we weren't providing a multilingual solution). It was an exciting project, both for the work we were doing and for the people doing the work: Bjarne, Andy Koenig, Rob Murray, Martin Carroll, Judy Ward, Steve Buroff, Peter Juhl, and myself. Barbara Moo was supervising the gang of us other than Bjarne and Andy. Barbara used to say that managing a software group was like herding a pride of cats.

We thought of the Foundation as a kernel upon which others would layer an actual development environment for users, tailoring it to a UNIX or Smalltalk model as desired. Internally, we called it Grail, as in the quest for, etc. (It seems a Bell Laboratories tradition to mock one's most serious intentions.)

Grail provided for a persistent, semantic-based representation of the program using an object-oriented hierarchy Rob Murray developed and named ALF. Within Grail, the traditional compiler was factored into separate executables. The parser built up the ALF representation. Each of the other components (type checking, simplification, and code generation) and any tools, such as a browser, operated on (and possibly augmented) a centrally stored ALF representation of the program. The Simplifier is the part of the compiler between type checking and code generation. (Bjarne came up with the name Simplifier; it is a phase of the original cfront implementation.)

What does a Simplifier do between type checking and code generation? It transforms the internal program representation. There are three general flavors of transformations required by any object model component:

  1. Implementation-dependent transformations. These are implementation-specific aspects and vary across compilers. Under ALF, they involved the transformations of what we called "tentative" nodes. For example, when the parser sees the expression
    it doesn't know if this is (a) an invocation of a function represented or pointed to by fct or (b) the application of an overloaded call operator on a class object fct. By default, the expression is represented as a function call. The Simplifier rewrites and replaces the call subtree when case (b) applies.
  2. Language semantics transformations. These include constructor/destructor synthesis and augmentation, memberwise initialization and memberwise copy support, and the insertion within program code of conversion operators, temporaries, and constructor/destructor calls.
  3. Code and object model transformations. These include support for virtual functions, virtual base classes and inheritance in general, operators new and delete, arrays of class objects, local static class instances, and the static initialization of global objects with nonconstant expressions. An implementation goal I aimed for in the Simplifier was to provide an Object Model hierarchy in which the object implementation was a virtual interface supporting multiple object models.

These last two categories of transformations form the basis of this book. Does this mean this book is written for compiler writers? No, absolutely not. It is written by a (former) compiler writer (that's me) for intermediate to advanced C++ programmers (ideally, that's you). The assumption behind this book is that the programmer, by understanding the underlying C++ Object Model, can write programs that are both less error prone and more efficient.

What Is the C++ Object Model?

There are two aspects to the C++ Object Model:

  1. The direct support for object-oriented programming provided within the language
  2. The underlying mechanisms by which this support is implemented

The language level support is pretty well covered in my C++ Primer and in other books on C++. The second aspect is barely touched on in any current text, with the exception of brief discussions within ELLIS90 and STROUP94. It is this second aspect of the C++ Object Model that is the primary focus of this book. (In that sense, I consider this text to form a bookend to my C++ Primer, much as my MFA and MS degrees provide a "fearful symmetry" to my education.) The language covered within the text is the draft Standard C++ as of the winter 1995 meeting of the committee. (Except for some minor details, this should reflect the final form of the language.)

The first aspect of the C++ Object Model is invariant. For example, under C++ the complete set of virtual functions available to a class is fixed at compile time; the programmer cannot add to or replace a member of that set dynamically at runtime. This allows for extremely fast dispatch of a virtual invocation, although at the cost of runtime flexibility.

The underlying mechanisms by which to implement the Object Model are not prescribed by the language, although the semantics of the Object Model itself make some implementations more natural than others. Virtual function calls, for example, are generally resolved through an indexing into a table holding the address of the virtual functions. Must such a virtual table be used? No. An implementation is free to introduce an alternative mechanism. Moreover, if a virtual table is used, its layout, method of access, time of creation, and the other hundred details that must be decided, are all decisions left to each implementation. Having said that, however, I must also say that the general pattern of virtual function implementation across all current compilation systems is to use a class-specific virtual table of a fixed size that is constructed prior to program execution.

If the underlying mechanisms by which the C++ Object Model is implemented are not standardized, then one might ask, why bother to discuss them at all? The primary reason is because my experience has shown that if a programmer understands the underlying implementation model, the programmer can code more efficiently and with greater confidence. Determining when to provide a copy constructor, and when not, is not something one should guess at or have adjudicated by some language guru. It should come from an understanding of the Object Model.

A second reason for writing this book is to dispel the various misunderstandings surrounding C++ and its support of object-oriented programming. For example, here is an excerpt from a letter I received from someone wishing to introduce C++ into his programming environment:

I work with a couple of individuals who have not written and/or are completely unfamiliar with C++ and OO. One of the engineers who has been writing C code since 1985 feels very strongly that C++ is good only for user-type applications, but not server applications. What he is saying is to have a fast and efficient database level engine that it must be written in C compared to C++. He has identified that C++ is bulky and slow.C++, of course, is not inherently bulky and slow, although I've found this to be a common assumption among many C programmers. However, just saying that is not very convincing, particularly if the person saying it is perceived as a C++ partisan. This book is partially an attempt to lay out as precisely as I can the kinds of overhead that are and are not inherent in the various Object facilities such as inheritance, virtual functions, and pointers to class members.

Rather than answering the individual myself, I forwarded his letter to Steve Vinoski of Hewlett-Packard, with whom I had previously corresponded regarding the efficiency of C++. Here is an excerpt from his response:

I have heard a number of people over the years voice opinions similar to those of your colleagues. In every case, those opinions could be attributed to a lack of factual knowledge about the C++ language. Just last week I was chatting with an acquaintance who happens to work for an IC testing manufacturer, and he said they don't use C++ because "it does things behind your back." When I pressed him, he said that he understood that C++ calls malloc() and free() without the programmer knowing it. This is of course not true. It is this sort of "myth and legend" that leads to opinions such as those held by your colleagues....

Finding the right balance between abstraction and pragmatism requires knowledge, experience, and above all, thought. Using C++ well requires effort, but in my experience the returns on the invested effort can be quite high.

I like to think of this book, then, as my answer to this individual, and, I hope, a repository of knowledge to help put to rest many of the myths and legends surrounding C++.If the underlying mechanisms supporting the C++ Object Model vary both across implementations and over time, how can I possibly provide a general discussion of interest to any particular individual? Static initialization provides an interesting case in point.

Given a class X with a constructor, such as the following:

class X{     friend istream&          operator>>( istream&, X& );public:X( int sz = 1024 ) { ptr = new char sz ; }...private:char *ptr;     };

and the declaration of a global object of class X, such as the following:

X buf;main(){     // buf must be constructed at this point     cin >> setw( 1024 ) >> buf;     ...}

the C++ Object Model guarantees that the X constructor is applied to buf prior to the first user statement of main(). It does not, however, prescribe how that is to get done. The solution is called static initialization; the actual implementation depends on the degree of support provided by the environment.

The original cfront implementation not only presumed no environment support. It also presumed no explicit platform target. The only presumption was that of being under some variant of UNIX. Our solution, therefore, was specific only to UNIX: the presence of the nm command. The CC command (a UNIX shell script for portability) generated an executable, ran the nm command on the executable--thereby generating a new .c file--compiled the .c file, and then relinked the executable. (This was called the munch solution.) This did the job by trading compile-time efficiency for portability. Eventually, however, users chaffed under the compile-time overhead.

The next step was to provide a platform-specific solution: a COFF-based program (referred to as the patch solution) that directly examined and threaded the program executable, thus doing away with the need to run nm, compile, and relink. (COFF was the Common Object File Format for System V pre-Release 4 UNIX systems.) Both of these solutions are program-based, that is, within each .c file requiring static initialization cfront generated an sti function to perform the required initializations. Both munch and patch solutions searched for functions bearing an sti prefix and arranged for them to be executed in some undefined order by a _main() library function inserted as the first statement of main().

In parallel with these releases of cfront, a System V COFF-specific C++ compiler was under development. Targeted for a specific platform and operating system, this compiler was able to effect a change in the System V link editor: a new initialize section that provided for the collection of objects needing static initialization. This extension of the link editor provides what I call an environment-based solution that is certainly superior to a program-based solution.

So any generalization based on the cfront program-based solution would be misleading. Why? Because as C++ has become a mainstream language, it has received more and more support for environment-based solutions. How is this book to maintain a balance, then? The book's strategy is as follows: If significantly different implementation models exist across C++ compilers, I present a discussion of at least two models. If subsequent implementation models evolved as an attempt to solve perceived problems with the original cfront model, as, for example, with support for virtual inheritance, I present a discussion of the historical evolution. Whenever I speak of the traditional implementation model, I mean, of course, Stroustrup's original design as reflected in cfront and which has provided a pattern of implementation that can still be seen today in all commercial implementations, even if only as a "reaction against."

Organization of This Book

Chapter 1, Object Lessons, provides background on the object-based and object-oriented programming paradigms supported by C++. It includes a brief tour of the Object Model, illustrating the current prevailing industry implementation without looking too closely at multiple or virtual inheritance. (This is fleshed out in Chapters 3 and 4.)

Chapter 2, The Semantics of Constructors, discusses in detail how constructors work. It discusses when constructors are synthesized by the compiler and what that means in practical terms for your program's performance.

Chapters 3 through 5 contain the primary material of the book. There, the details of the C++ Object Model are discussed. Chapter 3, The Semantics of Data, looks at the handling of data members. Chapter 4, The Semantics of Function, focuses on the varieties of member functions, with a detailed look at virtual function support. Chapter 5, Semantics of Construction, Destruction, and Copy, deals with support of the class model and object lifetime. Program test data is discussed within each of these chapters, where our performance expectations are compared against actual performance as the representations move from an object-based to object-oriented solution.

Chapter 6, Runtime Semantics, looks at some of the Object Model behavior at runtime, including the life and death of temporary objects and the support of operators new and delete.

Chapter 7, On the Cusp of the Object Model, focuses on exception handling, template support, and runtime type identification.

The Intended Audience

This book is primarily a tutorial, although it is aimed at the intermediate C++ programmer rather than the novice. I have attempted to provide sufficient context to make it understandable to anyone who has had some prior exposure to C++--for example, someone who has read my C++ Primer--and some experience in C++ programming. The ideal reader, however, has been programming in C++ for a few years and wants to better understand what is actually going on "under the hood." Portions of the material should be of interest even to the advanced C++ programmer, such as the generation of temporaries and the details of the named return value optimization. At least, this has proved to be so in the various public presentations of this material I have given as it has evolved.

A Note on Program Examples and Program Execution

The use of program code in this text serves two primary purposes:

  1. To provide concrete illustrations of the various aspects of the C++ Object Model under discussion
  2. To provide test cases by which to measure the relative cost of various language features

In neither case is the code intended to represent models of production-quality programming. I am not, for example, suggesting that a real 3D graphics library represents a 3D point using a virtual inheritance hierarchy (although one can be found in POKOR94).

All the test programs in the text were compiled and executed on an SGI Indigo2xL running version 5.2 of SGI's UNIX operating system under both its CC and NCC compilers. CC is cfront Release 3.0.1 (it generates C code, which a C compiler then recompiles into an executable). NCC is version 2.19 of the Edison Design Group's C++ front-end with a code generator supplied by SGI. The times were measured as the average user time reported by the UNIX timex command and represent 10 million iterations of the test function or statement block.

While the use of these two compilers on the xL hardware might strike the reader as somewhat esoteric, I feel doing so serves the book's purposes quite well. Both cfront and now the Edison Design Group's front-end (reportedly characterized by Bjarne as the son of cfront) are not platform specific. Rather, they are generic implementations licensed to over 34 computer manufacturers (including Cray, SGI, and Intel) and producers of software environments (including Centerline and Novell, which is the former UNIX Software Laboratories). Performance measurements are intended not to provide a benchmark of current compilation systems but to provide a measure of the relative costs of the various features of the C++ Object Model. Benchmark performance numbers can be found in nearly any "compiler shoot-out" product review in the trade press.


One reason people write books is to set down and share their expertise with others. A second, more selfish reason is to enlarge on and fine tune that expertise. A third is to provide for the public acknowledgment of those who provide the foundation for one's work.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to many former colleagues at Bell Laboratories without whose encouragement and insight little or nothing of this work could have been accomplished. In particular, Barbara Moo, Andy Koenig, and Bjarne Stroustrup have challenged and supported me throughout the years. Warm appreciation also goes to the Grail gang--Steve Buroff, Martin Carroll, Rob Murray, and Judy Ward--which has been a foundation for many years.

Michael Ball, now at SunPro, generously shared his expertise both through e-mail exchanges and an in-depth review of the text. Doug Schmidt, Cay Horstmann, and Steve Clamage also provided tough, thoughtful reviews of the manuscript that were invaluable in helping me push the manuscript's development forward. Jonathan Shopiro taught me a great deal while we worked together at Bell Laboratories; nuggets of his insight are scattered throughout the text. JoseE Lajoie fielded all too many questions about Standard C++ both with astounding patience and fearful insight.

In addition, I'd like to acknowledge my current foundation here at Walt Disney Feature Animation: Michael Blum, Nhi Casey, Shyh-Chyuan Huang, Scott Dolim, Elena Driskill, Ed Leonard, David Remba, Cary Sandvig, and Dave Tonnesen. Chyuan, Scott, and Elena provided thoughtful readings on various versions of the text. Appreciation also goes to M. J. Turner, Kiran Joshi, Scott Johnston, Marcus Hobbs, and, finally, to the Technology Division management of Dean Schiller and Paul Yanover. They have all helped to make my first year here at Disney sparkle a bit more brightly.

This material has been given at a great many public presentations during the more than two years I have worked on it. These include ACM-sponsored lectures in both Silicon Valley and Los Angeles; two presentations in Tel Aviv sponsored by Sela (with particular thanks to Anna); talks at SIGS Conferences: Object Expo London, Object Expo New York, and C++ World; a tutorial at the 1994 ACM Sigplan Conference on Compiler Construction; at the 1994 IBM-sponsored Cascon Conference; and as part of my C++ Short Course sponsored by UCLA Extension. The resultant feedback has proved of immense help in crafting and revising the material.

Deep thanks also goes to my editor, Debbie Lafferty, who provided both sound counsel and unflagging support and always showed the good sense to laugh at my jokes.Finally, I'd like to extend my appreciation to Rick Friedman, founder and President of Sigs Publications, publisher of the C++ Report, for his support and vision while I was editor of that magazine from mid-1992 through 1995. The C++ Report was and remains the best timely source of high-quality technical information on C++. Portions of this text were originally published as columns in the magazine while I was editor.


BALL92 Ball, Michael, "Inside Templates," C++ Report (September 1992).

BALL93a Ball, Michael, "What Are These Things Called Templates," C++ Report (February 1993).

BALL93b Ball, Michael, "Implementing Class Templates," C++ Report (September 1993).

BOOCH93 Booch, Grady and Michael Vilot, "Simplifying the Booch Components," C++ Report (June 1993).

BORL91 Borland Languages Open Architecture Handbook, Borland International Inc., Scotts Valley, CA.

BOX95 Box, Don, "Building C++ Components Using OLE2," C++ Report (March/April 1995).

BUDD91 Budd, Timothy, An Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, MA (1991).

BUDGE92 Budge, Kent G., James S. Peery, and Allen C. Robinson, "High Performance Scientific Computing Using C++," Usenix C++ Conference Proceedings, Portland, OR (1992).

BUDGE94 Budge, Kent G., James S. Peery, Allen C. Robinson, and Michael K. Wong, "Management of Class Temporaries in C++ Translation Systems," The Journal of C Language Translation (December 1994).

CARROLL93 Carroll, Martin, "Design of the USL Standard Components," C++ Report (June 1993).

CARROLL95 Carroll, Martin and Margaret A. Ellis, Designing and Coding Reusable C++, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, MA (1995).

CHASE94 Chase, David, "Implementation of Exception Handling, Part 1," The Journal of C Language Translation (June 1994).

CLAM93a Clamage, Stephen D., "Implementing New & Delete," C++ Report (May 1993).

CLAM93b Clamage, Stephen D., "Beginnings & Endings," C++ Report (September 1993).

ELLIS90 Ellis, Margaret A. and Bjarne Stroustrup, The Annotated C++ Reference Manual, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, MA (1990).

GOLD94 Goldstein, Theodore C. and Alan D. Sloane, "The Object Binary Interface—C++ Objects for Evolvable Shared Class Libraries," Usenix C++ Conference Proceedings, Cambridge, MA (1994).

HAM95 Hamilton, Jennifer, Robert Klarer, Mark Mendell, and Brian Thomson, "Using SOM with C++, " C++ Report (July/August 1995).

HORST95 Horstmann, Cay S., "C++ Compiler Shootout," C++ Report (July/August 1995).

KOENIG90a Koenig, Andrew and Stanley Lippman, "Optimizing Virtual Tables in C++ Release 2.0," C++ Report (March 1990).

KOENIG90b Koenig, Andrew and Bjarne Stroustrup, "Exception Handling for C++ (Revised)," Usenix C++ Conference Proceedings (April 1990).

KOENIG93 Koenig, Andrew, "Combining C and C++," C++ Report (July/August 1993).

ISO-C++95 C++ International Standard, Draft (April 28, 1995).

LAJOIE94a Lajoie, Josee, "Exception Handling: Supporting the Runtime Mechanism," C++ Report (March/April 1994).

LAJOIE94b Lajoie, JoseE, "Exception Handling: Behind the Scenes," C++ Report (June 1994).

LENKOV92 Lenkov, Dmitry, Don Cameron, Paul Faust, and Michey Mehta, "A Portable Implementation of C++ Exception Handling," Usenix C++ Conference Proceedings, Portland, OR (1992).

LEA93 Lea, Doug, "The GNU C++ Library," C++ Report (June 1993).

LIPP88 Lippman, Stanley and Bjarne Stroustrup, "Pointers to Class Members in C++," Implementor's Workshop, Usenix C++ Conference Proceedings (October 1988).

LIPP91a Lippman, Stanley, "Touring Cfront," C++ Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1991).

LIPP91b Lippman, Stanley, "Touring Cfront: From Minutiae to Migraine," C++ Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4 (1991).

LIPP91c Lippman, Stanley, C++ Primer, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, MA (1991).

LIPP94a Lippman, Stanley, "Default Constructor Synthesis," C++ Report (January 1994).

LIPP94b Lippman, Stanley, "Applying the Copy Constructor, Part 1: Synthesis," C++ Report (February 1994).

LIPP94c Lippman, Stanley, "Applying the Copy Constructor, Part 2," C++ Report (March/April 1994).

LIPP94d Lippman, Stanley, "Objects and Datum," C++ Report (June 1994).

MICRO92 Jones, David and Martin J. O'Riordan, The Microsoft Object Mapping, Microsoft Corporation, 1992.

MOWBRAY95 Mowbray, Thomas J. and Ron Zahavi, The Essential Corba, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (1995).

NACK94 Nackman, Lee R., and John J. Barton Scientific and Engineering C++, An Introduction with Advanced Techniques and Examples, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, MA (1994).

PALAY92 Palay, Andrew J., "C++ in a Changing Environment," Usenix C++ Conference Proceedings, Portland, OR (1992).

POKOR94 Pokorny, Cornel, Computer Graphics, Franklin, Beedle & Associates, Inc. (1994).

PUGH90 Pugh, William and Grant Weddell, "Two-directional Record Layout for Multiple Inheritance," ACM SIGPLAN '90 Conference, White Plains, New York (1990).

SCHMIDT94a Schmidt, Douglas C., "A Domain Analysis of Network Daemon Design Dimensions," C++ Report (March/April 1994).

SCHMIDT94b Schmidt, Douglas C., "A Case Study of C++ Design Evolution," C++ Report (July/August 1994).

SCHWARZ89 Schwarz, Jerry, "Initializing Static Variables in C++ Libraries," C++ Report (February 1989).

STROUP82 Stroustrup, Bjarne, "Adding Classes to C: An Exercise in Language Evolution," Software: Practices & Experience, Vol. 13 (1983).

STROUP94 Stroustrup, Bjarne, The Design and Evolution of C++, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, MA (1994).

SUN94a The C++ Application Binary Interface, SunPro, Sun Microsystems, Inc.

SUN94b The C++ Application Binary Interface Rationale, SunPro, Sun Microsystems, Inc.

VELD95 Veldhuizen, Todd, "Using C++ Template Metaprograms," C++ Report (May 1995).

VINOS93 Vinoski, Steve, "Distributed Object Computing with CORBA," C++ Report (July/August 1993).

VINOS94 Vinoski, Steve, "Mapping CORBA IDL into C++," C++ Report (September 1994).

YOUNG95 Young, Douglas, Object-Oriented Programming with C++ and OSF/Motif, 2d ed., Prentice-Hall (1995).



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