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Smart Pointers

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7.2 The Deal

But what's the deal with smart pointers? you might ask. What do you gain by replacing simple pointers with smart pointers? The explanation is simple. Smart pointers have value semantics, whereas some simple pointers do not.

An object with value semantics is an object that you can copy and assign to. Type int is the perfect example of a first-class object. You can create, copy, and change integer values freely. A pointer that you use to iterate in a buffer also has value semantics—you initialize it to point to the beginning of the buffer, and you bump it until you reach the end. Along the way, you can copy its value to other variables to hold temporary results.

With pointers that hold values allocated with new, however, the story is very different. Once you have written

Widget* p = new Widget;

the variable p not only points to, but also owns, the memory allocated for the Widget object. This is because later you must issue delete p to ensure that the Widget object is destroyed and its memory is released. If in the line after the line just shown you write

p = 0; // assign something else to p

you lose ownership of the object previously pointed to by p, and you have no chance at all to get a grip on it again. You have a resource leak, and resource leaks never help.

Furthermore, when you copy p into another variable, the compiler does not automatically manage the ownership of the memory to which the pointer points. All you get is two raw pointers pointing to the same object, and you have to track them even more carefully because double deletions are even more catastrophic than no deletion. Consequently, pointers to allocated objects do not have value semantics—you cannot copy and assign to them at will.

Smart pointers can be of great help in this area. Most smart pointers offer ownership management in addition to pointer-like behavior. Smart pointers can figure out how ownership evolves, and their destructors can release the memory according to a well-defined strategy. Many smart pointers hold enough information to take full initiative in releasing the pointed-to object.

Smart pointers may manage ownership in various ways, each appropriate to a category of problems. Some smart pointers transfer ownership automatically: After you copy a smart pointer to an object, the source smart pointer becomes null, and the destination points to (and holds ownership of) the object. This is the behavior implemented by the standard-provided std::auto_ptr. Other smart pointers implement reference counting: They track the total count of smart pointers that point to the same object, and when this count goes down to zero, they delete the pointed-to object. Finally, some others duplicate their pointed-to object whenever you copy them.

In short, in the smart pointers' world, ownership is an important topic. By providing ownership management, smart pointers are able to support integrity guarantees and full value semantics. Because ownership has much to do with constructing, copying, and destroying smart pointers, it's easy to figure out that these are the most vital functions of a smart pointer.

The following few sections discuss various aspects of smart pointer design and implementation. The goal is to render smart pointers as close to raw pointers as possible, but not closer. It's a contradictory goal: After all, if your smart pointers behave exactly like dumb pointers, they are dumb pointers.

In implementing compatibility between smart pointers and raw pointers, there is a thin line between nicely filling compatibility checklists and paving the way to chaos. You will find that adding seemingly worthwhile features might expose the clients to costly risks. Much of the craft of implementing good smart pointers consists of carefully balancing their set of features.

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