Tackling Functions
Aug 26, 2013
7 minutes read

Recently I’ve found this post, which describes a better implementation of std::functions. Since I had severe problems with understanding how this code works, I decided to write down my adventures in it step by step.


The code in question provides an alternate implementation of std::function, so at least it should make such code work:

int foo(int a) {};
func::function<int(int)> f(foo);

I started analyzing this code by searching for a definition of function. After skipping compiler specific workarounds and macro definitions we arrive at first meaningful statement:

class function;

Great, we have a forward declaration of template class function which takes one parameter. For the time being lets skip the namespace detail and arrive at a partial instantiation of this template:

template<typename Result, typename... Arguments>
class function<Result (Arguments...)>

Now this is something I did not know before: You may define a partial template instantiation, by using a template. Here function<template T> type T is specialized as Result (Arguments...), where Result and Arguments... are both template types. Why? Well You get this nice syntax support (function<void(int)>) where compiler fills the Result and Arguments... with appropriate types.

Since we skipped the detail, lets ignore the parent class too, we will come back to it later. Next thing I jumped to is the initialization:

function();                             //[1]
function(std::nullptr_t);               //[2]
function(function && other);            //[3]
function(const function & other);       //[4]

template<typename T>
function(T functor,
  typename std::enable_if<detail::is_valid_function_argument<T, Result (Arguments...)>::value, detail::empty_struct>::type = detail::empty_struct());   //[5]

Later constructors are the same as these, only they take user defined allocator as a parameter. First constructor is obvious, it creates an empty function. Second overload is a new feature of cpp11, this constructor is called if user passes nullptr as the argument. Note: standard define NULL 0 will not trigger it. Third constructor is also a new feature – move constructor, which works as copy constructor, but avoids allocating any resources by ‘stealing’ them from given argument (which always should be a temporary rvalue). Fourth – simple copy constructor.

Now the most interesting is the fifth constructor. It is triggered by func::function<int(int)> f(foo) initialization, note that the second parameter has a default value detail::empty_struct() and as far as I can tell You will never explicitly specify it with any other value. But why should it have another parameter in the first place? The construct typename std::enable_if<...>::type should deny template instantiation by raising a compile time error (the specialization std::enable_if<false, T> has no field type) if given type T does not match some sort of requirements. This works partially because of function precedence, since compiler when resolving overloaded functions will prefer non-template functions to template ones, but if an implicit cast must be made to the argument, template functions are considered before doing the casts. So the template constructor is considered only if all above constructors fail to match, so in case std::enable_if<>::type does not exist, raised error means that function can not be binded (template argument mismatch or given argument can not be converted to a functor).

Lets look at requirements imposed on template constructor: detail::is_valid_function_argument<T, Result (Arguments...)>::value. As the name implies – this code should check if T is a function-like type, which can take Arguments... and return Result. This check is quite complicated since type T may be a struct or a member function, so that compiler is unable to match it to Result (Arguments...) pattern implicitly. Check is declared in namespace detail as follows:

template<typename, typename>
struct is_valid_function_argument
  static const bool value = false;

template<typename Result, typename... Arguments>
struct is_valid_function_argument<function<Result (Arguments...)>, Result (Arguments...)>
  static const bool value = false;

template<typename T, typename Result, typename... Arguments>
struct is_valid_function_argument<T, Result (Arguments...)>
#ifdef _MSC_VER
  // as of january 2013 visual studio doesn't support the SFINAE below
  static const bool value = true;
  template<typename U>
  static decltype(to_functor(std::declval<U>())(std::declval<Arguments>()...)) check(U *);
  static empty_struct check(...);

  static const bool value = std::is_convertible<decltype(check<T>(nullptr)), Result>::value;

Compiler (as far as I know) always matches the strictest definition first, so the first definition works as a trap for everything that is not a valid function argument. Second specialization is aimed at ruling out template instantiation for function object. I am not sure why this template should ever be picked, since copy constructor should pick out functions that have the same type signature.

Now the final specialization (again, note the templates in specialization) actually does some checking:

static const bool value = std::is_convertible<decltype(check<T>(nullptr)), Result>::value;

First, a quick detour to wikipedia for meaning of SFINAE: If compiler encounters a substitution error while resolving a template instantiation, it does not stop with an error and continues to search for a valid candidate. In this case it means that in case of error in first instantiation of check function, compiler will choose second overload. Also note the ... in the second template definition. As wiki says: An ellipsis is used not only because it will accept any argument, but also because its conversion rank is lowest, so a call to the first function will be preferred if it is possible; this removes ambiguity. So it simply reassures that compiler will apply any tricks, implicit conversions, or things I have no idea about in order to match the first definition. The checking is done in two parts – one that checks if given object is a functor of some sorts, and another, which checks if return type is valid and can be treated as Result. Lets start with the latter (even if the compiler goes the other way around). Call to decltype(check<T>(nullptr)) evaluates the type of the expression without actually evaluating the expression. So when the function check<T>(nullptr) is matched with first definition – this evaluates to whatever the type T may return on when evaluating code t(arguments...), where t is an instance of T and arguments is the list of instances of types Arguments. The constrain for return value is set as std::is_convertible<> which can be really useful when dealing with polymorphic overloads (class members, which return different polymorphic objects) like such:

class A {
  virtual A * me();

class B : public A {
  virtual B * me();

Obviously if the second definition of check is chosen – decltype(check<T>(nullptr) will be resolved as func::detail::empty_struct which is pretty much not convertible to anything else than itself and it is meaningless to have a function which returns this specific struct, unless You explicitly want to break something.

One thing remains – why the first definition uses to_functor(std::declval<U>())(std::declval<Arguments>()...) instead of plain std::declval<U>()(std::declval<Arguments>()...)? Unfortunately I have no idea. Here is the definition of to_functor, perhaps later I or someone else will explain this.

template<typename T>
T to_functor(T && func)
  return FUNC_FORWARD(T, func);
template<typename Result, typename Class, typename... Arguments>
auto to_functor(Result (Class::*func)(Arguments...)) -> decltype(std::mem_fn(func))
  return std::mem_fn(func);
template<typename Result, typename Class, typename... Arguments>
auto to_functor(Result (Class::*func)(Arguments...) const) -> decltype(std::mem_fn(func))
  return std::mem_fn(func);

Now if we try such code:

int goo() {}
func::function<void(void)> g(goo);

It fails with abundance of errors, one of which actually is induced by our explored snippet:

function.h:420:5: error: no type named ‘type’ in ‘struct std::enable_if<false, func::detail::empty_struct>’

So far so good, basically all the code I have analyzed up to this point is used to enforce type safety of this final constructor, but we haven’t even touched the real code behind this implementation.


Body of the constructor brings us to another topic: How function object is saved within func::function?

  detail::manager_storage_type manager_storage;
  Result (*call)(const detail::functor_padding &, Arguments...);
  template<typename T, typename Allocator>
  void initialize(T functor, Allocator && allocator)
    call = &detail::function_manager_inplace_specialization<T, Allocator>::template call<Result, Arguments...>;
    detail::create_manager<T, Allocator>(manager_storage, FUNC_FORWARD(Allocator, allocator));
    detail::function_manager_inplace_specialization<T, Allocator>::store_functor(manager_storage, FUNC_FORWARD(T, functor));
  typedef Result(*Empty_Function_Type)(Arguments...);
  void initialize_empty() FUNC_NOEXCEPT
    typedef std::allocator<Empty_Function_Type> Allocator;
    static_assert(detail::is_inplace_allocated<Empty_Function_Type, Allocator>::value, "The empty function should benefit from small functor optimization");
    detail::create_manager<Empty_Function_Type, Allocator>(manager_storage, Allocator());
    detail::function_manager_inplace_specialization<Empty_Function_Type, Allocator>::store_functor(manager_storage, nullptr);
    #               ifdef FUNC_NO_EXCEPTIONS
    call = nullptr;
    #               else
    call = &detail::empty_call<Result, Arguments...>;
    #               endif

This class has only two private members: manager_storage – some sort of object, which is defined in detail namespace and call – function pointer which takes additional parameter function_padding.

If we look at both initializations we clearly see that call always points to a separate template instantiation of a function, dependent on T – the parameter obtained on initialization and Result and Arguments... – signature of this function. Unless it points to dummy function empty_call, which is self explanatory. The actual code executed by call is a static member function, which casts given argument of functor_padding to type T &, tries to use () operator on it with forwarded arguments and returns Result type object. This little trick with specific template instantiation binds the types during compile time at a cost of code bloat.

The call function is triggered by operator () with an argument of manager_storage.functor. Presumably a pointer could be stored in this field. But it gets more interesting here, because of ‘small functor optimization’.

*** To be continued… ***

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