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Sept 98 Factory Floor

Volume Number: 14 (1998)
Issue Number: 9
Column Tag: From The Factory Floor

The New C++ Standard:
Partial Template Specialization

by Howard Hinnant and Dave Mark, ©1998 by Metrowerks, Inc., all rights reserved.

In last month's column, we continued our exploration of the new C++ standard, specifically taking a look at the subject of locales. In this month's column, Howard Hinnant is back once again, and will take us through partial template specialization.

Howard Hinnant is a software engineer on the MSL team at Metrowerks, and is responsible for the C++ and EC++ libraries. Howard is a refugee from the aerospace industry where FORTRAN still rules. He has extensive experience in scientific computing including C++ implementations of linear algebra, finite difference and finite element solvers.

Dave: What exactly is partial template specialization?

Howard: In order to explain partial template specialization, it might first be easier to describe full template specialization. Consider:

template <class T>
class vector

This works well for most items that we might want to keep a list of. However, if we wanted to keep a vector<bool>, then an obvious optimization would be store each value in one bit, instead of actually storing a list of bools. This could be neatly accomplished by defining a specialization of our vector class:

template <>
class vector<bool>

This is known as template specialization.

Now consider a class template with two type parameters. I'll keep picking on vector:

template <class T, class Allocator>
class vector {

And let's say we still want to optimize for when T == bool. We can do this by:

template <class Allocator>
class vector<bool, Allocator> {

Since not all template parameters have been nailed down, this is known as partial template specialization. So now when I say:

vector<bool, myAllocator> a;

I get the optimized implementation for bool.

Dave: Cool. Any other useful optimizations you could do?

Howard: You can do some really cool things with this concept. For example, let's say you wanted to make a special vector for holding pointers. Here is a possibility:

template <class T, class Allocator>
class vector<T*, Allocator>

This might come in handy if you wanted some special behavior for when the element type was a pointer to something. For instance, one might want to treat vectors of pointers as pointing to heap based objects, and manage those pointers with new and delete. The standard library, of course, does not do this.

Dave: So how does partial template specialization affect the standard library?

Howard: MSL does use partial template specialization to implement vector<bool> as alluded to earlier. Additionally, there is a struct in <iterator> that looks like:

template <class Iterator>
struct iterator_traits
  typedef typename Iterator::difference_type  difference_type;
  typedef typename Iterator::value_type  value_type;
  typedef typename Iterator::pointer    pointer;
  typedef typename Iterator::reference    reference;
  typedef typename Iterator::iterator_category  iterator_category;

The purpose of this class is to help code that takes iterators find out valuable things about the iterator that it's working on. For example, consider the standard algorithm iter_swap that takes two iterators, and swaps the values that the iterators point to:

template <class ForwardIterator1, class ForwardIterator2>
iter_swap(ForwardIterator1 a, ForwardIterator2 b)
  typedef typename                               iterator_traits<ForwardIterator1>::value_type Value;
  Value tmp(*a);
  *a = *b;
  *b = tmp;

The routine iter_swap must create a temporary variable in order to accomplish the swap. But what is the type of the temporary? It queries the iterator to find out the proper type.

Thus all valid iterators (at least those that want to be used in standard algorithms and containers) must create the typedefs referred to above so that they can be queried via iterator_traits. This can be easily accomplished by deriving your custom iterators from the standard iterator struct:

In <iterator>:

template <class Category, class T, class Distance = ptrdiff_t,
     class Pointer = T*, class Reference = T&>  
struct iterator
   typedef Distance    difference_type;
   typedef T        value_type;
   typedef Pointer    pointer;
   typedef Reference  reference;
   typedef Category    iterator_category;

In your code:

class MyIterator
  : public std::iterator<random_access_iterator_tag, MyClass>

Dave: I see. But if I remember right, an iterator is just a generalization of a built-in pointer. In fact, built-in pointers can be used in all the standard algorithms. So how does iter_swap query a built-in pointer for its value_type? You can't derive int* from std::iterator.

Howard: Ahh... Exactly! This is where partial template specialization rides in to save the day. The standard library defines a specialization of iterator_traits for a pointer to anything:

template <class T>
struct iterator_traits<T*>
  typedef ptrdiff_t    difference_type;
  typedef T          value_type;
  typedef T*        pointer;
  typedef T&        reference;
  typedef random_access_iterator_tag  iterator_category;

So now when iter_swap tries to define Value:

typedef typename iterator_traits<ForwardIterator1>::value_type Value;

And ForwardIterator1 has the type int*, iterator_traits<int*> picks up the partial specialization and answers back with int. This is really a pretty slick design.

Dave: That is neat. But partial template specialization is a relatively new feature of CodeWarrior. How did MSL handle this problem before this feature was available?

Howard: Oh, yes... The Dark Time. We took advantage of the fact that we did have full template specialization available to us. So we created full specializations for iterator_traits for every type we could think of: char*, int*, bool*, short*, long* ... plus all combinations of unsigned and const modifiers. This worked pretty well except for one minor little detail. We could not create a specialization for myType*. Here myType represents all of the classes which the customer created.

In order to combat this last problem, we (actually Dennis C. De Mars) created a macro which defined a full specialization of iterator_traits for its argument myType:

#define __MSL_FIX_ITERATORS__(myType) \
 template<> \
 struct std::iterator_traits  <myType*> { \
   typedef ptrdiff_t      difference_type; \
   typedef myType        value_type; \
   typedef myType*        pointer; \
   typedef myType&        reference; \
   typedef random_access_iterator_tag  iterator_category; \

Yes, everyone knows about __MSL_FIX_ITERATORS__. And you now know the full story behind this macro. It is a macro that no one liked, but we could not live without it.

Even if you didn't use the standard algorithms, you got bit by this when you used the standard containers, because they used it. We had plans to reduce MSL's dependence on iterator_traits, but Andreas (our C++ compiler guru) came out with partial specialization before we could implement those plans. This was really best as we could have only reduced the dependence, not eliminated it.


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