Tuesday, 19 February 2013

C++ 11 Experiences

I've recently been developing a lot of code in C++ 11. I find it a huge and useful improvement over previous version of C++; here's some observations on some of the features in it that I've found rather valuable.


This simple, easily-overlooked addition to the STL has to be one of the most practically useful features of C++ 11. In itself, it does very little: it constructs a new object in-place inside a container. This in itself is very useful for optimisation purposes. However, the real advantage lies in semantics, rather than optimisation.

emplace() means that you are no longer forced to include copy semantics into classes that really, really do not want them in order to place (copy) them into a container type. If the container implements some emplace() functionality, you are free to then delete all copy assignment and copy construction operations, only providing move assignment and construction instead.

This is a huge boon for classes such as resource classes, where assignment or copy can sometimes be a very unnatural and dangerous operation. With emplace() and move semantics, you are then free to create resource classes that make extensive use of const and RAII, ensuring that only one class ever binds to a particular resource.

Lambdas for Complex Initialisation

How often have you written code such as:

SomeType blah = unwantedDefaultValue;
    blah = a; // In reality this would be much more complex

else if(y)
    blah = b;

    blah = c;

Which means that "blah" is not const, when it really needs to be, and you have a big chunk of complex code polluting the flow of some code. Typically, you even have the same thing near-duplicated.

You can always factor the big initialisation statement into a function, and assign it to a const variable... but often to do so artificially externalises details you may prefer not to.

With lambdas, you can now factor all that into a lambda expression, capturing nearby variables or passing different values as a parameter:

const auto initialiser = []()

        return a;

    else if(y)
        return b;

        return c;



const SomeType blah = initialiser();
const SomeType blah2 = initialiser2(x, y);
const SomeType blah3 = initialiser3({1, 2, 3, 4});
const SomeType blah4 = initialiser3({});

And so on. This can make the code a little more focused, more const-safe, less duplicated and easier to step through and debug.

Avoid Ternary Expressions Using Lambdas

A simple one. Ternary expressions can be a little difficult to debug, especially when they are nested:

const int a = d < e ? f :
              g < h ?: i :
              j < k  ? m : n;

And so on. Whilst I don't advocate it, it does occur. Along the lines of the above point, using a lambda creates code you can place breakpoints on and debug easily, at no performance loss.

Reduction of Code Duplication Using Lambdas

Lambdas are very useful to reduce internal code duplication within a function. This perhaps seems a little excessive... but it can help because it factors out the details of a particular operation into one place, leaving the rest of the code simpler. Again, this avoids the problem of artifical external functions that reduce encapsulation... though I do not propose that everything be written as giant functions containing lambdas!

What's more, I've found that the compiler is generally smart enough to inline the expansion of these lambas as appropriate. So there is no performance penalty!

Move Semantics For Resource Assignment

A common issue I face with code is in creation code, where one function creates a resource, passes it to another object which is assumed to take responsibility for its lifetime management and destruction. However, often the constructor just takes a pointer to an object - this declaration is less than clear on what it will do with that resource. This doesn't tell you whether it'll just hold that reference, or manage it.

I find move semantics can help here, a little. A constructor which has an rvalue reference to some resource declares that it will acquire the resource, hold a reference to it, but also divest the calling code of that object. This perhaps makes it a little clearer that ownership of the resource is being transferred, not simply passed.

Adding the secret sauce of std::unique_ptr<> makes lifetime management even more painless.


Auto seems one of the potentially more divisive additions to C++ 11. At first, I was unsure. I can see how it can avoid template craziness... but would the lack of explicit type names make things harder to debug?

So far, I generally use auto by default as much as I possibly can. I find that if your code is making good use of functions and constructors, they tend to make it fairly clear what types are being constructed. Furthermore, it makes the code much more amenable to change and refactoring, as it reduces the number of times you have to name a particular type. This seems to be a good thing.

The main downsides of it are that you have to be extremely careful to remember to include & to make some types a reference. If you do not, then you end up implicitly copying objects around, which can lead to performance, correctness or compilation issues.

Range-based for

This one's not such a big deal. It can be useful, as it can save on code verbosity... but so often, you need to iterate over multiple containers simultaneously, and that's where range-based for ceases to be useful.


This is a nice simple win. This at least means you don't have to start making trivial functions into templates to get some compile-time optimisations. It's unfortunate that it insists on the single-line return statements, as this can mean things such as data tables spill out of the scope of the function.

Class Member Initialisation

I find that being able to assign values to class instance members inside the class declaration to be enormously useful. This allows you to vastly simplify your constructors, especially when you have multiple constructors. This removes a lot of duplication, and allows you to instead implement only the specialisations. This seems to be the right way round to me.

Promises, and Futures

By and large, these are quite nice facilities. The big thing they lack though is the ability to poll a future. This seems like quite a major omission, and can make them difficult to use for some algorithms. As such, I tend to find myself rolling my own cut-down variants for many purposes.

In summary, it's very agreeable. No real change is mandated, so you simply opt in or opt out of as many or as few new features you'd like to employ. I'm a convert.

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