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Chapter: Object Oriented Programming(OOP) : Advanced Programming

Templates - C++

1. Templates and Classes - Advantages and disadvantages 2. Template Meta-programming overview 3. Compile-time programming 4. The nature of template meta-programming - Limitations of Template Meta-programming 5. Building blocks



Templates are a way to make code more reusable. Trivial examples include creating generic data structures which can store arbitrary data types. Templates are of great utility to programmers, especially when combined with multiple inheritance and operator overloading. The Standard Template Library (STL) provides many useful functions within a framework of connected templates.


As templates are very expressive they may be used for things other than generic programming. One such use is called template metaprogramming, which is a way of pre-evaluating some of the code at compile-time rather than run-time. Further discussion here only relates to templates as a method of generic programming.


By now you should have noticed that functions that perform the same tasks tend to look similar. For example, if you wrote a function that prints an int, you would have to have the int declared first. This way, the possibility of error in your code is reduced, however, it gets somewhat annoying to have to create different versions of functions just to handle all the different data types you use. For example, you may want the function to simply print the input variable, regardless of what type that variable is. Writing a different function for every possible input type (double, char *, etc. ...) would be extremely cumbersome. That is where templates come in.


Templates solve some of the same problems as macros, generate "optimized" code at compile time, but are subject to C++'s strict type checking.


Parameterized types, better known as templates, allow the programmer to create one function that can handle many different types. Instead of having to take into account every data type, you have one arbitrary parameter name that the compiler then replaces with the different data types that you wish the function to use, manipulate, etc.


Templates are instantiated at compile-time with the source code.

Templates are type safe.

Templates allow user-defined specialization. Templates allow non-type parameters.

Templates use “lazy structural constraints”.

Templates support mix-ins.

Syntax for Templates


Templates are pretty easy to use, just look at the syntax: template <class TYPEPARAMETER>


(or, equivalently, and preferred by some) template <typename TYPEPARAMETER> Function template



There are two kinds of templates. A function template behaves like a function that can accept arguments of many different types. For example, the Standard Template Library contains the function template max(x, y) which returns either x or y, whichever is larger. max() could be defined like this:


template <typename TYPEPARAMETER>




if (x < y) return y;


return x;



This template can be called just like a function: std::cout << max(3, 7); // outputs 7

The compiler determines by examining the arguments that this is a call to max(int, int) and instantiates a version of the function where the type TYPEPARAMETER is int.


This works whether the arguments x and y are integers, strings, or any other type for which it makes sense to say "x < y". If you have defined your own data type, you can use operator overloading to define the meaning of < for your type, thus allowing you to use the max() function. While this may seem a minor benefit in this isolated example, in the context of a comprehensive library like the STL it allows the programmer to get extensive functionality for a new data type, just by defining a few operators for it. Merely defining < allows a type to be used with the standard sort(), stable_sort(), and binary_search() algorithms; data structures such as sets, heaps, and associative arrays; and more.


As a counterexample, the standard type complex does not define the < operator, because there is no strict order on complex numbers. Therefore max(x, y) will fail with a compile error if x and y are complex values. Likewise, other templates that rely on < cannot be applied to complex data. Unfortunately, compilers historically generate somewhat esoteric and unhelpful error messages for this sort of error. Ensuring that a certain object adheres to a method protocol can alleviate this issue.


{TYPEPARAMETER} is just the arbitrary TYPEPARAMETER name that you want to use in your function. Some programmers prefer using just T in place of TYPEPARAMETER. Let us say you want to create a swap function that can handle more than one data type...


something that looks like this:




template <class SOMETYPE>


void swap (SOMETYPE &x, SOMETYPE &y)



SOMETYPE temp = x; x = y;


y = temp;



The function you see above looks really similar to any other swap function, with the differences being the template <class SOMETYPE> line before the function definition and the instances of SOMETYPE in the code. Everywhere you would normally need to have the name or class of the datatype that you're using, you now replace with the arbitrary name that you used in the template <class SOMETYPE>. For example, if you had SUPERDUPERTYPE instead of SOMETYPE, the code would look something like this:


template <class SUPERDUPERTYPE>




SUPERDUPERTYPE temp = x; x = y;


y = temp;



As you can see, you can use whatever label you wish for the template TYPEPARAMETER, as long as it is not a reserved word.


Class template


A class template extends the same concept to classes. Class templates are often used to make generic containers. For example, the STL has a linked list container. To make a linked list of integers, one writes list<int>. A list of strings is denoted list<string>. A list has a set of standard functions associated with it, which work no matter what you put between the brackets.


If you want to have more than one template TYPEPARAMETER, then the syntax would be: template <class SOMETYPE1, class SOMETYPE2, ...>


1. Templates and Classes


Let us say that rather than create a simple templated function, you would like to use templates for a class, so that the class may handle more than one datatype. You may have noticed that some classes are able to accept a type as a parameter and create variations of an object based on that type (for example the classes of the STL container class hierarchy). This is because they are declared as templates using syntax not unlike the one presented below:


template <class T> class Foo




void some_function();

T some_other_function();



int member_variable;


T parametrized_variable; };


Defining member functions of a template class is somewhat like defining a function template, except for the fact, that you use the scope resolution operator to indicate that this is the template classes' member function. The one important and non-obvious detail is the requirement of using the template operator containing the parametrized type name after the class name.


The following example describes the required syntax by defining functions from the example class above.


template <class T> Foo<T>::Foo()


member_variable = 0;



template <class T> void Foo<T>::some_function()


cout << "member_variable = " << member_variable << endl;



template <class T> T Foo<T>::some_other_function()


return parametrized_variable;



As you may have noticed, if you want to declare a function that will return an object of the parametrized type, you just have to use the name of that parameter as the function's return type.


Advantages and disadvantages


Some uses of templates, such as the max() function, were previously filled by function-like preprocessor macros.


// a max() macro

#define max(a,b)  ((a) < (b) ? (b) : (a))


Both macros and templates are expanded at compile time. Macros are always expanded inline; templates can also be expanded as inline functions when the compiler deems it appropriate. Thus both function-like macros and function templates have no run-time overhead.


However, templates are generally considered an improvement over macros for these purposes. Templates are type-safe. Templates avoid some of the common errors found in code that makes heavy use of function-like macros. Perhaps most importantly, templates were designed to be applicable to much larger problems than macros. The definition of a function-like macro must fit on a single logical line of code.


There are three primary drawbacks to the use of templates. First, many compilers historically have very poor support for templates, so the use of templates can make code somewhat less portable. Second, almost all compilers produce confusing, unhelpful error messages when errors are detected in template code. This can make templates difficult to develop. Third, each use of a template may cause the compiler to generate extra code (an instantiation of the template), so the indiscriminate use of templates can lead to code bloat, resulting in excessively large executables.


The other big disadvantage of templates is that to replace a #define like max which acts identically with dissimilar types or function calls is impossible. Templates have replaced using #defines for complex functions but not for simple stuff like max(a,b). For a full discussion on trying to create a template for the #define max, see the paper "Min, Max and More" that Scott Meyer wrote for C++ Report in January 1995.


The biggest advantage of using templates, is that a complex algorithm can have a simple interface that the compiler then uses to choose the correct implementation based on the type of the arguments. For instance, a searching algorithm can take advantage of the properties of the container being searched. This technique is used throughout the C++ standard library.


Linkage problems


While linking a template-based program consisting over several modules spread over a couple files, it is a frequent and mystifying situation to find that the object code of the modules won't link due to 'unresolved reference to (insert template member function name here) in (...)'.

The offending function's implementation is there, so why is it missing from the object code? Let us stop a moment and consider how can this be possible.


Assume you have created a template based class called Foo and put its declaration in the file Util.hpp along with some other regular class called Bar:


template <class T> Foo




T some_function();

T some_other_function();


T some_yet_other_function(); T member;



class Bar




void do_something(); };


Now, to adhere to all the rules of the art, you create a file called Util.cc, where you put all the function definitions, template or otherwise:


#include "Util.hpp"


template <class T> T Foo<T>::some_function()





template <class T> T Foo<T>::some_other_function()





template <class T> T Foo<T>::some_yet_other_function()






and, finally:

void Bar::do_something()


Foo<int> my_foo;

int x = my_foo.some_function();

int y = my_foo.some_other_function();



Next, you compile the module, there are no errors, you are happy. But suppose there is an another (main) module in the program, which resides in MyProg.cc:


#include "Util.hpp"     // imports our utility classes' declarations, including the template


int main()


Foo<int> main_foo;


int z = main_foo.some_yet_other_function(); return 0;




This also compiles clean to the object code. Yet when you try to link the two modules together, you get an error saying there is an undefined reference to Foo<int>::some_yet_other function() in MyProg.cc. You defined the template member function correctly, so what is the problem?


As you remember, templates are instantiated at compile-time. This helps avoid code bloat, which would be the result of generating all the template class and function variants for all possible types as its parameters. So, when the compiler processed the Util.cc code, it saw that the only variant of the Foo class was Foo<int>, and the only needed functions were:


int Foo<int>::some_function();

int Foo<int>::some_other_function();


No code in Util.cc required any other variants of Foo or its methods to exist, so the compiler generated no code other than that. There is no implementation of some_yet_other_function() in the object code, just as there is no implementation for


double Foo<double>::some_function(); or


string Foo<string>::some_function();


The MyProg.cc code compiled without errors, because the member function of Foo it uses is correctly declared in the Util.hpp header, and it is expected that it will be available upon linking. But it is not and hence the error, and a lot of nuisance if you are new to templates and start looking for errors in your code, which ironically is perfectly correct.


The solution is somewhat compiler dependent. For the GNU compiler, try experimenting with the -frepo flag, and also reading the template-related section of 'info gcc' (node "Template Instantiation": "Where is the Template?") may prove enlightening. In Borland, supposedly, there is a selection in the linker options, which activates 'smart' templates just for this kind of problem.


The other thing you may try is called explicit instantiation. What you do is create some dummy code in the module with the templates, which creates all variants of the template class and calls all variants of its member functions, which you know are needed elsewhere. Obviously, this requires you to know a lot about what variants you need throughout your code. In our simple example this would go like this:


1. Add the following class declaration to Util.hpp: class Instantiations





void Instantiate(); };


2. Add the following member function definition to Util.cc: void Instantiations::Instantiate()





Foo<int> my_foo; my_foo.some_yet_other_function();

// other explicit instantiations may follow




we never need to actually instantiate the Instantiations class, or call any of its methods. The fact that they just exist in the code makes the compiler generate all the template variations which are required. Now the object code will link without problems.


There is still one, if not elegant, solution. Just move all the template functions' definition code to the Util.hpp header file. This is not pretty, because header files are for declarations, and the implementation is supposed to be defined elsewhere, but it does the trick in this situation. While compiling the MyProg.cc (and any other modules which include Util.hpp) code, the compiler will generate all the template variants which are needed, because the definitions are readily available.


2. Template Meta-programming overview


Template meta-programming (TMP) refers to uses of the C++ template system to perform computation at compile-time within the code. It can, for the most part, be considered to be "programming with types" — in that, largely, the "values" that TMP works with are specific C++ types. Using types as the basic objects of calculation allows the full power of the type-inference rules to be used for general-purpose computing.


3. Compile-time programming


The preprocessor allows certain calculations to be carried out at compile time, meaning that by the time the code has finished compiling the decision has already been taken, and can be left out of the compiled executable. The following is a very contrived example:


#define myvar 17 #if myvar % 2


cout << "Constant is odd" << endl; #else


cout << "Constant is even" << endl; #endif


This kind of construction does not have much application beyond conditional inclusion of platform-specific code. In particular there's no way to iterate, so it can not be used for general computing. Compile-time programming with templates works in a similar way but is much more powerful, indeed it is actually Turing complete.


Traits classes are a familiar example of a simple form of template meta-programming: given input of a type, they compute as output properties associated with that type (for example, std::iterator_traits<> takes an iterator type as input, and computes properties such as the iterator's difference_type, value_type and so on).


4. The nature of template meta-programming


Template meta-programming is much closer to functional programming than ordinary idiomatic C++ is. This is because 'variables' are all immutable, and hence it is necessary to use recursion rather than iteration to process elements of a set. This adds another layer of challenge for C++ programmers learning TMP: as well as learning the mechanics of it, they must learn to think in a different way.


Limitations of Template Meta-programming


Because template meta-programming evolved from an unintended use of the template system, it is frequently cumbersome. Often it is very hard to make the intent of the code clear to a maintainer, since the natural meaning of the code being used is very different from the purpose to which it is being put. The most effective way to deal with this is through reliance on idiom; if you want to be a productive template meta-programmer you will have to learn to recognize the common idioms.


It also challenges the capabilities of older compilers; generally speaking, compilers from around the year 2000 and later are able to deal with much practical TMP code. Even when the compiler supports it, the compile times can be extremely large and in the case of a compile failure the error messages are frequently impenetrable.


Some coding standards may even forbid template meta-programming, at least outside of third-party libraries like Boost.


History of TMP


Historically TMP is something of an accident; it was discovered during the process of standardizing the C++ language that its template system happens to be Turing-complete, i.e., capable in principle of computing anything that is computable. The first concrete demonstration of this was a program written by Erwin Unruh which computed prime numbers although it did not actually finish compiling: the list of prime numbers was part of an error message generated by the compiler on attempting to compile the code.[1] TMP has since advanced considerably, and is now a practical tool for library builders in C++, though its complexities mean that it is not generally appropriate for the majority of applications or systems programming contexts.


#include <iostream>

template <int p, int i>

class is_prime { public:


enum { prim = ( (p % i) && is_prime<p, i - 1>::prim ) };



template <int p>


class is_prime<p, 1>




enum { prim = 1 };



template <int i>


class Prime_print { // primary template for loop to print prime numbers public:


Prime_print<i - 1> a;


enum { prim = is_prime<i, i - 1>::prim }; void f() {



if (prim)


std::cout << "prime number:" << i << std::endl;









class Prime_print<1> { // full specialization to end the loop public:


enum { prim = 0 }; void f() {}




#ifndef LAST

#define LAST 18



int main()



Prime_print<LAST> a; a.f();




5. Building blocks



The 'variables' in TMP are not really variables since their values cannot be altered, but you can have named values that you use rather like you would variables in ordinary programming. When programming with types, named values are typedefs:


struct ValueHolder



typedef int value; };


You can think of this as 'storing' the int type so that it can be accessed under the value name. Integer values are usually stored as members in an enum:


struct ValueHolder



enum { value = 2 }; };


This again stores the value so that it can be accessed under the name value. Neither of these examples is any use on its own, but they form the basis of most other TMP, so they are vital patterns to be aware of.




A function maps one or more input parameters into an output value. The TMP analogue to this is a template class:


template<int X, int Y> struct Adder




enum { result = X + Y }; };


This is a function that adds its two parameters and stores the result in the result enum member. You can call this at compile time with something like Adder<1, 2>::result, which will be expanded at compile time and act exactly like a literal 3 in your program.



A conditional branch can be constructed by writing two alternative specialisations of a template class. The compiler will choose the one that fits the types provided, and a value defined in the instantiated class can then be accessed. For example, consider the following partial specialisation:


template<typename X, typename Y>

struct SameType




enum { result = 0 }; };


template<typename T>

struct SameType<T, T>



enum { result = 1 }; };


This tells us if the two types it is instantiated with are the same. This might not seem very useful, but it can see through typedefs that might otherwise obscure whether types are the same, and it can be used on template arguments in template code. You can use it like this:


if (SameType<SomeThirdPartyType, int>::result)


// ... Use some optimised code that can assume the type is an int




// ... Use defensive code that doesn't make any assumptions about the type



The above code isn't very idiomatic: since the types can be identified at compile-time, the if() block will always have a trivial condition (it'll always resolve to either if (1) { ... } or if (0) {


... }). However, this does illustrate the kind of thing that can be achieved. Recursion


Since you don't have mutable variables available when you're programming with templates, it's impossible to iterate over a sequence of values. Tasks that might be achieved with iteration in standard C++ have to be redefined in terms of recursion, i.e. a function that calls itself. This usually takes the shape of a template class whose output value recursively refers to itself, and one or more specialisations that give fixed values to prevent infinite recursion. You can think of this as a combination of the function and conditional branch ideas described above.


Calculating factorials is naturally done recursively: 0!=1, and for n>0, n!=n(n−1)!. In TMP, this corresponds to a class template "factorial" whose general form uses the recurrence relation, and a specialization of which terminates the recursion.


First, the general (unspecialized) template says that factorial<n>::value is given by n*factorial<n-1>::value:


template <unsigned n>

struct factorial




enum { value = n * factorial<n-1>::value }; };



Next, the specialization for zero says that factorial<0>::value evaluates to 1: template <>


struct factorial<0>



enum { value = 1 }; };


And now some code that "calls" the factorial template at compile-time:


int main() {

//  Because calculations are done at compile-time, they can be

//  used for things such as array sizes.

int array[ factorial<7>::value ];



Observe that the factorial<N>::value member is expressed in terms of the factorial<N> template, but this can't continue infinitely: each time it is evaluated, it calls itself with a progressively smaller (but non-negative) number. This must eventually hit zero, at which point the specialisation kicks in and evaluation doesn't recurse any further.


Example: Compile-time "If"


The following code defines a meta-function called "if_"; this is a class template that can be used to choose between two types based on a compile-time constant, as demonstrated in main below:


template <bool Condition, typename TrueResult, typename FalseResult> class if_;


template <typename TrueResult, typename FalseResult> struct if_<true, TrueResult, FalseResult>




typedef TrueResult result; };


template <typename TrueResult, typename FalseResult> struct if_<false, TrueResult, FalseResult>




typedef FalseResult result; };


int main()



typename if_<true, int, void*>::result number(3); typename if_<false, int, void*>::result pointer(&number);


typedef typename if_<(sizeof(void *) > sizeof(uint32_t)), uint64_t, uint32_t>::result integral_ptr_t;


integral_ptr_t converted_pointer = reinterpret_cast<integral_ptr_t>(pointer);



On line 18, we evaluate the if_ template with a true value, so the type used is the first of the provided values. Thus the entire expression if_<true, int, void*>::result evaluates to int.

Similarly, on line 19 the template code evaluates to void *. These expressions act exactly the same as if the types had been written as literal values in the source code.


Line 21 is where it starts to get clever: we define a type that depends on the value of a platform-dependent sizeof expression. On platforms where pointers are either 32 or 64 bits, this will choose the correct type at compile time without any modification, and without preprocessor macros. Once the type has been chosen, it can then be used like any other type.


For comparison, this problem is best attacked in C90 as follows


# include <stddef.h> typedef size_t integral_ptr_t;


typedef int the_correct_size_was_chosen [sizeof (integral_ptr_t) >= sizeof (void *)? 1: -1]; 1.


As it happens, the library-defined type size_t should be the correct choice for this particular problem on any platform. To ensure this, line 3 is used as a compile time check to see if the selected type is actually large enough; if not, the array type the_correct_size_was_chosen will be defined with a negative length, causing a compile-time error. In C99, <stdint.h> may define the types intptr_h and uintptr_h.


Conventions for "Structured" TMP

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