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Smart Pointers in C++

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7.5 Ownership-Handling Strategies

Ownership handling is often the most important raison d'âtre of smart pointers. Usually, from their clients' viewpoint, smart pointers own the objects to which they point. A smart pointer is a first-class value that takes care of deleting the pointed-to object under the covers. The client can intervene in the pointee object's lifetime by issuing calls to helper management functions.

For implementing self-ownership, smart pointers must carefully track the pointee object, especially during copying, assignment, and destruction. Such tracking brings some overhead in space, time, or both. An application should settle on the strategy that best fits the problem at hand and does not cost too much.

The following subsections discuss the most popular ownership management strategies and how SmartPtr implements them.

7.5.1 Deep Copy

The simplest strategy applicable is to copy the pointee object whenever you copy the smart pointer. If you ensure this, there is only one smart pointer for each pointee object. Therefore, the smart pointer's destructor can safely delete the pointee object. Figure 7.1 depicts the state of affairs if you use smart pointers with deep copy.

Figure 7.1Figure 7.1. Memory lay out for smart pointers with deep copy

At first glance, the deep copy strategy sounds rather dull. It seems as if the smart pointer does not add any value over regular C++ value semantics. Why would you make the effort of using a smart pointer, when simple pass by value of the pointee object works just as well?

The answer is support for polymorphism. Smart pointers are vehicles for transporting polymorphic objects safely. You hold a smart pointer to a base class, which might actually point to a derived class. When you copy the smart pointer, you want to copy its polymorphic behavior, too. It's interesting that you don't exactly know what behavior and state you are dealing with, but you certainly need to duplicate that behavior and state.

Because deep copy most often deals with polymorphic objects, the following naive implementation of the copy constructor is wrong:

template <class T>
class SmartPtr
   SmartPtr(const SmartPtr& other)
   : pointee_(new T(*other.pointee_))

Say you copy an object of type SmartPtr<Widget>. If other points to an instance of a class ExtendedWidget that derives from Widget, the copy constructor above copies only the Widget part of the ExtendedWidget object. This phenomenon is known as slicing—only the Widget “slice” of the object of the presumably larger type ExtendedWidget gets copied. Slicing is most often undesirable. It is a pity that C++ allows slicing so easily—a simple call by value slices objects without any warning.

Chapter 8 discusses cloning in depth. As shown there, the classic way of obtaining a polymorphic clone for a hierarchy is to define a virtual Clone function and implement it as follows:

class AbstractBase
   virtual Base* Clone() = 0;

class Concrete : public AbstractBase
   virtual Base* Clone()
      return new Concrete(*this);

The Clone implementation must follow the same pattern in all derived classes; in spite of its repetitive structure, there is no reasonable way to automate defining the Clone member function (beyond macros, that is).

A generic smart pointer cannot count on knowing the exact name of the cloning member function—maybe it's clone, or maybe MakeCopy. Therefore, the most flexible approach is to parameterize SmartPtr with a policy that addresses cloning.

7.5.2 Copy on Write

Copy on write (COW, as it is fondly called by its fans) is an optimization technique that avoids unnecessary object copying. The idea that underlies COW is to clone the pointee object at the first attempt of modification; until then, several pointers can share the same object.

Smart pointers, however, are not the best place to implement COW, because smart pointers cannot differentiate between calls to const and non-const member functions of the pointee object. Here is an example:

template <class T>
class SmartPtr
   T* operator->() { return pointee_; }

class Foo
   void ConstFun() const;
   void NonConstFun();

SmartPtr<Foo> sp;
sp->ConstFun(); // invokes operator->, then ConstFun
sp->NonConstFun(); // invokes operator->, then NonConstFun

The same operator-> gets invoked for both functions called; therefore, the smart pointer does not have any clue whether to make the COW or not. Function invocations for the pointee object happen somewhere beyond the reach of the smart pointer. (Section 7.11 explains how const interacts with smart pointers and the objects they point to.)

In conclusion, COW is effective mostly as an implementation optimization for full-featured classes. Smart pointers are at too low a level to implement COW semantics effectively. Of course, smart pointers can be good building blocks in implementing COW for a class.

The SmartPtr implementation in this chapter does not provide support for COW.

7.5.3 Reference Counting

Reference counting is the most popular ownership strategy used with smart pointers. Reference counting tracks the number of smart pointers that point to the same object. When that number goes to zero, the pointee object is deleted. This strategy works very well if you don't break certain rules—for instance, you should not keep dumb pointers and smart pointers to the same object.

The actual counter must be shared among smart pointer objects, leading to the structure depicted in Figure 7.2. Each smart pointer holds a pointer to the reference counter (pRefCount_ in Figure 7.2) in addition to the pointer to the object itself. This usually doubles the size of the smart pointer, which may or may not be an acceptable amount of overhead, depending on your needs and constraints.

Figure 7.2Figure 7.2. Three reference counted smart pointers pointing to the same object

There is another, subtler overhead issue. Reference-counted smart pointers must store the reference counter on the free store. The problem is that in many implementations, the default C++ free store allocator is remarkably slow and wasteful of space when it comes to allocating small objects, as discussed in Chapter 4. (Obviously, the reference count, typically occupying 4 bytes, does qualify as a small object.) The overhead in speed stems from slow algorithms in finding available chunks of memory, and the overhead in size is incurred by the bookkeeping information that the allocator holds for each chunk.

The relative size overhead can be partially mitigated by holding the pointer and the reference count together, as in Figure 7.3. The structure in Figure 7.3 reduces the size of the smart pointer to that of a pointer, but at the expense of access speed: The pointee object is an extra level of indirection away. This is a considerable drawback because you typically use a smart pointer several times, whereas you obviously construct and destroy it only once.

Figure 7.3Figure 7.3. An alternate structure of reference counted pointers

The most efficient solution is to hold the reference counter in the pointee object itself, as shown in Figure 7.4. This way SmartPtr is just the size of a pointer, and there is no extra overhead at all. This technique is known as intrusive reference counting, because the reference count is an “intruder” in the pointee—it semantically belongs to the smart pointer. The name also gives a hint about the Achilles' heel of the technique: You must design up front or modify the pointee class to support reference counting.

Figure 7.4Figure 7.4. Intrusive reference counting

A generic smart pointer should use intrusive reference counting where available and implement a nonintrusive reference counting scheme as an acceptable alternative. For implementing nonintrusive reference counting, the small-object allocator presented in Chapter 4 can help a great deal. The SmartPtr implementation using nonintrusive reference counting leverages the small-object allocator, thus slashing the performance overhead caused by the reference counter.

7.5.4 Reference Linking

Reference linking relies on the observation that you don't really need the actual count of smart pointer objects pointing to one pointee object; you only need to detect when that count goes down to zero. This leads to the idea of keeping an “ownership list,” as shown in Figure 7.5.1

Figure 7.5Figure 7.5. Reference linking in action

All SmartPtr objects that point to a given pointee form a doubly linked list. When you create a new SmartPtr from an existing SmartPtr, the new object is appended to the list; SmartPtr's destructor takes care of removing the destroyed object from the list. When the list becomes empty, the pointee object is deleted.

The doubly linked list structure fits reference tracking like a glove. You cannot use a singly linked list because removals from such a list take linear time. You cannot use a vector because the SmartPtr objects are not contiguous (and removals from vectors take linear time anyway). You need a structure sporting constant-time append, constant-time remove, and constant-time empty detection. This bill is fit precisely and exclusively by doubly linked lists.

In a reference-linking implementation, each SmartPtr object holds two extra pointers—one to the next element and one to the previous element.

The advantage of reference linking over reference counting is that the former does not use extra free store, which makes it more reliable: Creating a reference-linked smart pointer cannot fail. The disadvantage is that reference linking needs more memory for its bookkeeping (three pointers versus only one pointer plus one integer). Also, reference counting should be a bit speedier—when you copy smart pointers, only an indirection and an increment are needed. The list management is slightly more elaborate. In conclusion, you should use reference linking only when the free store is scarce. Otherwise, prefer reference counting.

To wrap up the discussion on reference count management strategies, let's note a significant disadvantage that they have. Reference management—be it counting or linking—is a victim of the resource leak known as cyclic reference. Imagine an object A holds a smart pointer to an object B. Also, object B holds a smart pointer to A. These two objects form a cyclic reference; even though you don't use any of them anymore, they use each other. The reference management strategy cannot detect such cyclic references, and the two objects remain allocated forever. The cycles can span multiple objects, closing circles that often reveal unexpected dependencies that are very hard to debug.

In spite of this, reference management is a robust, speedy ownership-handling strategy. If used with precaution, reference management makes application development significantly easier.

7.5.5 Destructive Copy

Destructive copy does exactly what you think it does: During copying, it destroys the object being copied. In the case of smart pointers, destructive copy destroys the source smart pointer by taking its pointee object and passing it to the destination smart pointer. The std::auto_ptr class template features destructive copy.

In addition to being suggestive about the action taken, “destructive” also vividly describes the dangers associated with this strategy. Misusing destructive copy may have destructive effects on your program data, your program correctness, and your brain cells.

Smart pointers may use destructive copy to ensure that at any time there is only one smart pointer pointing to a given object. During the copying or assignment of one smart pointer to another, the “living” pointer is passed to the destination of the copy, and the source's pointee_ becomes zero. The following code illustrates a copy constructor and an assignment operator of a simple SmartPtr featuring destructive copy.

template <class T>
class SmartPtr
   SmartPtr(SmartPtr& src)
      pointee_ = src.pointee_;
      src.pointee_ = 0;
   SmartPtr& operator=(SmartPtr& src)
      if (this != &src)
         delete pointee_;
         pointee_ = src.pointee_;
         src.pointee_ = 0;
      return *this;

C++ etiquette calls for the right-hand side of the copy constructor and the assignment operator to be a reference to a const object. Classes that foster destructive copy break this convention for obvious reasons. Because etiquette exists for a reason, you should expect negative consequences if you break it. Indeed, here they are:

void Display(SmartPtr<Something> sp);
SmartPtr<Something> sp(new Something);
Display(sp);  // sinks sp

Although Display means no harm to its argument (accepts it by value), it acts like a maelstrom of smart pointers: It sinks any smart pointer passed to it. After Display(sp) is called, sp holds the null pointer.

Because they do not support value semantics, smart pointers with destructive copy cannot be stored in containers and in general must be handled with almost as much care as raw pointers.

The ability to store smart pointers in a container is very important. Containers of raw pointers make manual ownership management tricky, so many containers of pointers can use smart pointers to good advantage. Smart pointers with destructive copy, however, do not mix with containers.

On the bright side, smart pointers with destructive copy have significant advantages:

  • They incur almost no overhead.

  • They are good at enforcing ownership transfer semantics. In this case, you use the “maelstrom effect” described earlier to your advantage: You make it clear that your function takes over the passed-in pointer.

  • They are good as return values from functions. If the smart pointer implementation uses a certain trick,2 you can return smart pointers with destructive copy from functions. This way, you can be sure that the pointee object gets destroyed if the caller doesn't use the return value.

  • They are excellent as stack variables in functions that have multiple return paths. You don't have to remember to delete the pointee object manually—the smart pointer takes care of this for you.

The destructive copy strategy is used by the standard-provided std::auto_ptr. This brings destructive copy another important advantage:

  • Smart pointers with destructive copy semantics are the only smart pointers that the standard provides, which means that many programmers will get used to their behavior sooner or later.

For these reasons, the SmartPtr implementation should provide optional support for destructive copy semantics.

Smart pointers use various ownership semantics, each having its own trade-offs. The most important techniques are deep copy, reference counting, reference linking, and destructive copy. SmartPtr implements all these strategies through an Ownership policy, allowing its users to choose the one that best fits an application's needs. The default strategy is reference counting.

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