15.3 — Introduction to move semantics

Now that we know how to use smart pointers and how to allocate memory by hand, let’s put the two together to see how smart pointers are implemented.

Consider a class whose sole job was to hold and “own” a pointer passed to it, and then deallocate that pointer when the class object went out of scope. This is a std::unique_ptr. As long as objects of that class were only created as local variables, we could guarantee that the instance of the class would properly go out of scope (regardless of when or how our functions terminate) and the owned pointer would get destroyed.

Here’s a first draft of the idea:

This program prints:

Resource acquired
Resource destroyed

Consider how this program and class work. First, we dynamically create a Resource, and pass it as a parameter to our templated Auto_ptr1 class. From that point forward, our Auto_ptr1 variable res owns that Resource object (Auto_ptr1 has a composition relationship with m_ptr). Because res is declared as a local variable and has block scope, it will go out of scope when the block ends, and be destroyed (no worries about forgetting to deallocate it). And because it is a class, when it is destroyed, the Auto_ptr1 destructor will be called. That destructor will ensure that the Resource pointer it is holding gets deleted!

As long as Auto_ptr1 is defined as a local variable (with automatic duration, hence the “Auto” part of the class name), the Resource will be guaranteed to be destroyed at the end of the block it is declared in, regardless of how the function terminates (even if it terminates early).

Such a class is called a smart pointer. A smart pointer is a composition class that is designed to manage dynamically allocated memory and ensure that memory gets deleted when the smart pointer object goes out of scope. (Relatedly, built-in pointers are sometimes called “dumb pointers” because they can’t clean up after themselves).

Now let’s go back to our someFunction() example above, and show how a smart pointer class can solve our challenge:

If the user enters a non-zero integer, the above program will print:

Resource acquired
Resource destroyed

If the user enters zero, the above program will terminate early, printing:

Resource acquired
Resource destroyed

Note that even in the case where the user enters zero and the function terminates early, the Resource is still properly deallocated.

Because the ptr variable is a local variable, ptr will be destroyed when the function terminates (regardless of how it terminates). And because the Auto_ptr1 destructor will clean up the Resource, we are assured that the Resource will be properly cleaned up.

A critical flaw

The Auto_ptr1 class has a critical flaw lurking behind some auto-generated code. Before reading further, see if you can identify what it is. We’ll wait…

(Hint: consider what parts of a class get auto-generated if you don’t supply them)

(Jeopardy music)

Okay, time’s up.

Rather than tell you, we’ll show you. Consider the following program:

This program prints:

Resource acquired
Resource destroyed
Resource destroyed

Very likely (but not necessarily) your program will crash at this point. See the problem now? Because we haven’t supplied a copy constructor or an assignment operator, C++ provides one for us. And the functions it provides do shallow copies. So when we initialize res2 with res1, both Auto_ptr1 variables are pointed at the same Resource. When res2 goes out of the scope, it deletes the resource, leaving res1 with a dangling pointer. When res1 goes to delete its (already deleted) Resource, crash!

You’d run into a similar problem with a function like this:

In this program, res1 will be copied by value into passByValue’s parameter res, leading to duplication of the Resource pointer. Crash!

So clearly this isn’t good. How can we address this?

Well, one thing we could do would be to explicitly define and delete the copy constructor and assignment operator, thereby preventing any copies from being made in the first place. That would prevent the pass by value case (which is good, we probably shouldn’t be passing these by value anyway).

But then how would we return an Auto_ptr1 from a function back to the caller?

For advanced readers

We’re intentionally using a temporary variable rather than returning immediately. If we returned immediately, copy elision would prevent what we’re trying to show.

We can’t return our Auto_ptr1 by reference, because the local Auto_ptr1 will be destroyed at the end of the function, and the caller will be left with a dangling reference. Return by address has the same problem. Returning the Auto_ptr1 by value is the only option that makes sense -- but then we end up with shallow copies, duplicated pointers, and crashes.

Another option would be to override the copy constructor and assignment operator to make deep copies. In this way, we’d at least guarantee to avoid duplicate pointers to the same object. But copying can be expensive (and may not be desirable or even possible), and we don’t want to make needless copies of objects just to return an Auto_ptr1 from a function. Plus assigning or initializing a dumb pointer doesn’t copy the object being pointed to, so why would we expect smart pointers to behave differently?

What do we do?

Move semantics

What if, instead of having our copy constructor and assignment operator copy the pointer (“copy semantics”), we instead transfer/move ownership of the pointer from the source to the destination object? This is the core idea behind move semantics. Move semantics means the class will transfer ownership of the object rather than making a copy.

Let’s update our Auto_ptr1 class to show how this can be done:

This program prints:

Resource acquired
res1 is not null
res2 is null
Ownership transferred
res1 is null
res2 is not null
Resource destroyed

Note that our overloaded operator= gave ownership of m_ptr from res1 to res2! Consequently, we don’t end up with duplicate copies of the pointer, and everything gets tidily cleaned up.

Moving forward

Making the copy assignment operator steal the resource solved our problem, but we wouldn’t usually expect as assignment operator to modify the right-hand-side operand.

Because of this, in C++11, the concept of “move” was formally defined, and “move semantics” were added to the language to properly differentiate copying from moving. Now that we’ve set the stage for why move semantics can be useful, we’ll explore the topic of move semantics throughout the rest of this chapter. We’ll also fix our Auto_ptr2 class using move semantics.

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