unique_ptr Type Erasure

Posted: 2017-01-28 - Link

Often when building APIs we’d like the caller to provide some information in a format, or using a protocol defined by the library. For example, we might want access to a contiguous buffer specified by a (void*, size_t) pair.

void cool_feature(void* buffer, size_t len);

An API like this is fine if the buffer will be read synchonously, but sometimes we need asynchronous access. This introduces a lifetime problem: how does the caller know when it can free the buffer?

A common way to solve this is to provide a callback that will be invoked once the processing has completed:

void cool_feature(void* buffer, size_t len, void (*done)(void*));

Here, done will be called with buffer once cool_feature has asynchonously finished its work.

This works most of the time, but has a couple of problems:

  1. You need to remember to call done in all cases.
  2. It only works if done only needs to be called with the buffer pointer. What if my buffer is part of a larger object?
struct Object {
  // ...
  std::string buffer;
  // ...

void do_stuff(std::unique_ptr<Object> obj) {
  cool_feature(obj.buffer.data(), obj.buffer.size(), ???);

There’s no obvious choice of function to pass in. We want to free obj once buffer processing is done, but we’ll be given a pointer to the string data, not obj.

A possible solution is to pass in an std::function<void()> as the callback, so that obj can be captured and destroyed as necessary. This works, but std::function has difficulty with move-only types, and there’s no guarantees that a capturing std::function won’t allocate memory.

We could, of course, define another interface (maybe call it ContiguousBufferProvider), but this also requires an extra memory allocation.

A little trick we can do to handle most of the common cases is to pass in a type-erased context to the function.

using Context = std::unique_ptr<void*, void(*)(void*)>;

void cool_feature(void* buffer, size_t len, Context context);

The context is essentially an extra piece of baggage that must be carried around until the buffer has been processed. Once processed, we just drop the context and it cleans up after itself.

We can also benefit from an extra function that converts any object into a Context through type erasure:

template <typename T>
void deleter(void* p) {
  delete static_cast<T*>(p);

template <typename T>
Context erase_type(std::unique_ptr<T> p) {
  return Context(static_cast<void*>(p.release()), &deleter<T>);

With this, the Object example is easy to solve:

void do_stuff(std::unique_ptr<Object> obj) {

This guarantees no extra memory allocations, and cool_feature just needs to drop the context once finished.

There are probably more general ways to solve this, but I like this approach as it is clean, simple, and solves all the problems I’ve encountered so far.