P1132R4
out_ptr - a scalable output pointer abstraction

Published Proposal,

Authors:
Isabella Muerte
Audience:
LWG
Project:
ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG21 14882: Programming Language — C++
Latest:
https://thephd.github.io/vendor/future_cxx/papers/d1132.html
Implementation:
https://github.com/ThePhD/out_ptr
Reply To:
JeanHeyd Meneide | @thephantomderp

Abstract

out_ptr is an abstraction to bring both C APIs and smart pointers back into the promised land by creating a temporary pointer-to-pointer that updates the smart pointer when it destructs.

1. Revision History

1.1. Revision 4 - June 17th, 2019

1.2. Revision 3 - January 21st, 2019

1.3. Revision 2 - November 26th, 2018

1.4. Revision 1 - October 7th, 2018

Add wording. Incorporate wording feedback. Eliminate CTAD design. Add a few more words about implementation experience.

1.5. Revision 0

Initial release.

2. Motivation

You’re right that code shouldn’t be using shared_ptr, I was trying to make it work with as little change as possible but after that and other more recent problems I’m finding a huge refactoring less and less avoidable. I’ll make sure to turn everything into unique_ptr (there is no shared ownership anyways).

Your out_ptr will still be massively helpful. — King_DuckZ, September 25th, 2018

Shared Code
From libavformat
#include <memory>
#include <avformat.h>

struct AVFormatContextDeleter {
		void operator() (AVFormatContext* c) noexcept {
			avformat_close_input(&c);
			avformat_free_context(c);
		}
};
typedef std::unique_ptr<AVFormatContext, AVFormatContextDeleter> AVFormatContext;
// Signature from libavformat:
// int avformat_open_input(AVFormatContext **ps, const char *url, AVInputFormat *fmt, AVDictionary **options);
Current Code With Proposal
int main (int, char* argv[]) {
	AVFormatContext context(avformat_alloc_context());
	// ...
	// used, need to reopen
	AVFormatContext* raw_context = context.release();
	if (avformat_open_input(&raw_context, 
		argv[0], nullptr, nullptr) != 0) {
		std::stringstream ss;
		ss << "ffmpeg_image_loader could not open file '"
			<< path << "'";
		throw FFmpegInputException(ss.str().c_str());
	}
	context.reset(raw_context);

	// ... off to the races !

	return 0;
}
int main (int, char* argv[]) {
	AVFormatContext context(avformat_alloc_context());
	// ...
	// used, need to reopen

	if (avformat_open_input(std::inout_ptr(context), 
		argv[0], nullptr, nullptr) != 0) {
		std::stringstream ss;
		ss << "ffmpeg_image_loader could not open file '"
			<< argv[0] << "'";
		throw FFmpegInputException(ss.str().c_str());
	}


	// ... off to the races!

	return 0;
}

We have very good tools for handling unique and shared resource semantics, alongside more coming with Intrusive Smart Pointers. Independently between several different companies, studios, and shops -- from VMWare and Microsoft to small game development startups -- a common type has been implemented. It has many names: ptrptr, OutPtr, PtrToPtr, out_ptr, WRL::ComPtrRef, a proposal on std-proposals and even unary operator& on CComPtr. It is universally focused on one task: making it so a smart pointer can be passed as a parameter to a function which uses an output pointer parameter in C API functions (e.g., my_type**).

This paper is a culmination of a private survey of types from the industry to propose a common, future-proof, high-performance out_ptr type that is easy to use. It makes interop with pointer types a little bit simpler and easier for everyone who has ever wanted something like my_c_function( &my_unique ); to behave properly.

In short: it’s a thing convertible to a T** that updates the smart pointer it is created with when it goes out of scope.

3. Design Considerations

The core of out_ptr's (and inout_ptr's) design revolves around avoiding the mistakes of the past, preventing continual modification of new smart pointers and outside smart pointers’s interfaces to perform the same task, and enabling some degree of performance efficiency without having to wrap every C API function.

3.1. Synopsis

The function template’s full specification is:

namespace std {
	template <class Pointer, class Smart, class... Args>
	out_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, Args...> 
	out_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;
	
	template <class Smart, class... Args>
	out_ptr_t<Smart, POINTER_OF(Smart), Args...> 
	out_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;

	template <class Pointer, class Smart, class... Args>
	inout_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, Args...> 
	inout_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;
	
	template <class Smart, class... Args>
	inout_ptr_t<Smart, POINTER_OF(Smart), Args...> 
	inout_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;
}

Where POINTER_OF is the ::pointer type, then the ::element_type* type, then typename std::pointer_traits<Smart>::element_type* type in that order. The return type out_ptr_t and its sister type inout_ptr_t are templated types and must at-minimum have the following:

template <class Smart, class Pointer, class... Args>
class out_ptr_t {
public:
	out_ptr_t(Smart&, Args...);
	~out_ptr_t () noexcept;
	operator Pointer* () noexcept;
};

template <class Smart, class Pointer, class... Args>
class inout_ptr_t {
public:
	inout_ptr_t(Smart&, Args...);
	~inout_ptr_t () noexcept;
	operator Pointer* () noexcept;
};

We specify "at minimum" because we expect users to override this type for their own shared, unique, handle-alike, reference-counting, and etc. smart pointers. The destructor of ~out_ptr_t() calls .reset() on the stored smart pointer of type Smart with the stored pointer of type Pointer and arguments stored as Args.... ~inout_ptr_t() does the same, but with the additional caveat that the constructor for inout_ptr_t(Smart&, Args&&...) also calls .release(), so that a reset doesn’t double-delete a pointer that the expected re-allocating API used with inout_ptr already handles.

We chose this extension point because the other options (ADL extension, friend ADL extension) have proven to not be very feasible in the long run of maintainability. While we are wary that users open up namespace std we also recognize that it is essentially the best way that someone can extend this type to pointers and handles that are _not_ part of the standard. If this only works with standard types -- and only standard types that are explicitly sanctioned -- then this type is almost certainly not worth it. See §3.8 Extension Points for more details.

3.2. Overview

out_ptr/inout_ptr are free functions meant to be used for C APIs:

error_num c_api_create_handle(int seed_value, int** p_handle);
error_num c_api_re_create_handle(int seed_value, int** p_handle);
void c_api_delete_handle(int* handle);

struct resource_deleter {
	void operator()( int* handle ) {
		c_api_delete_handle(handle);
	}
};

Given a smart pointer, it can be used like so:

std::unique_ptr<int, resource_deleter> resource(nullptr);
error_num err = c_api_create_handle(
	24, std::out_ptr(resource)
);
if (err == C_API_ERROR_CONDITION) {
	// handle errors
}
// resource.get() the out-value from the C API function

Or, in the re-create (reallocation) case:

std::unique_ptr<int, resource_deleter> resource(nullptr);
error_num err = c_api_re_create_handle(
	24, std::inout_ptr(resource)
);
if (err == C_API_ERROR_CONDITION) {
	// handle errors
}
// resource.get() the out-value from the C API function

3.3. Safety

This implementation uses a pack of ...Args in the signature of out_ptr to allow it to be used with other types whose .reset() functions may require more than just the pointer value to form a valid and proper smart pointer. This is the case with std::shared_ptr and boost::shared_ptr:

std::shared_ptr<int> resource(nullptr);
error_num err = c_api_create_handle(
	24, std::out_ptr(resource, resource_deleter{})
);
if (err == C_API_ERROR_CONDITION) {
	// handle errors
}
// resource.get() the out-value from 
// the C API function

Additional arguments past the smart pointer stored in out_ptr's return type will perfectly forward these to whatever .reset() or equivalent implementation requires them. If the underlying pointer does not require such things, it may be ignored or discarded (optionally, with a compiler error using a static assert that the argument will be ignored for the given type of smart pointer).

Of importance here is to note that std::shared_ptr can and will overwrite any custom deleter present when called with just .reset(some_pointer);. Therefore, we make it a compiler error to not pass in a second argument when using std::shared_ptr without a deleter:

std::shared_ptr<int> resource(nullptr);
error_num err = c_api_create_handle(
	42, std::out_ptr(resource)
); // ERROR: deleter was changed 
   // to an equivalent of 
   // std::default_delete!

It is likely the intent of the programmer to also pass the fictional c_api_delete_handle function to this: the above constraint allows us to avoid such programmer mistakes.

3.4. Safety: Exceptions

This is two-fold. First, by placing the .reset() call into the destructor of out_ptr/inout_ptr, we can guarantee safety that trivial code does not have. For example, consider this abstracted form of the production code shown in the Tony Table:

std::unique_ptr<int> num(new int());
// use, then have to prepare for some 
// c_api call
int* raw_num = num.release();
if (my_c_api_call(&raw_num) != 0) {
	// leak if the c api call does nothing!!
	throw std::runtime_error("leaking memory!");
}
num.reset(raw_num);

If the user used std::inout_ptr, the value would be guaranteed to put back into the unique pointer, and then subsequently destroyed as the stack continued to be unwound.

Secondly, the destructor for out_ptr calls to .reset(). The only case where this is questionable is with std::shared_ptr: the creation of the passed-in deleter might throw, and thusly the call cannot be noexcept. This means that the destructor might throw if std::shared_ptr's .reset() throws: in this case, std::terminate would be called.

3.5. Casting Support

There are also many APIs (COM-style APIs, base-class handle APIs, type-erasure APIs) where the initialization requires that the type passed to the function is of some fundamental (void**) or base type that does not reflect what is stored exactly in the pointer. Therefore, it is necessary to sometimes specify what the underlying type out_ptr uses is stored as.

It is also important to note that going in the opposite direction is also highly desirable, especially in the case of doing API-hiding behind an e.g. void* implementation. out_ptr supports both scenarios with an optional template argument to the function call.

3.5.1. Casting Support: easy void** support

Consider this DirectX Graphics Infrastructure Interface (DXGI) function on IDXGIFactory6:

HRESULT EnumAdapterByGpuPreference(
	UINT Adapter, 
	DXGI_GPU_PREFERENCE GpuPreference, 
	REFIID riid, 
	void** ppvAdapter
);

Using out_ptr, it becomes trivial to interface with it using an exemplary std::unique_ptr<IDXGIAdapter, ComDeleter> adapter:

HRESULT result = dxgi_factory.
EnumAdapterByGpuPreference(0, 
	DXGI_GPU_PREFERENCE_MINIMUM_POWER, 
	IID_IDXGIAdapter, 
	std::out_ptr<void*>(adapter)
);
if (FAILED(result)) {
	// handle errors
}
// adapter.get() contains strongly-typed pointer

No manual casting, .release() fiddling, or .reset() is required: the returned type from out_ptr handles that. This is because the out_ptr_t and inout_ptr_t types have conversion operations to not only the detected ::pointer or ::element_type* of the smart pointer, but a reinterpret_cast conversion to void* as well. While the size of void* is not required by the C++ standard to be the same as the size of any other types pointer (except const/volatile qualified char*), most C APIs that use this technique have already sanctioned the conversion from whatever type the API works with to void* and, subsequently, void**.

This idiom is also useful for the QueryInterface base function for COM’s IUnknown, and for Vulkan’s vkMapMemory.

3.5.2. Casting Support: to arbitrary T

In many cases, there is a typical C structure or similar that C++ users are sanctioned to derive and extend with their own data, with the promise that as long as the pointed passed to the function has a base class or matching type. It also happens that someone needs to cast from a type-erased void* to a more-derived type. There are also cases where the type stored in std::unique_ptr<T, Deleter> uses Deleter to override the ::pointer type, making std::unique_ptr store the (fat, offset) ::pointer that is convertible to T*.

For example, one technique detailed by a graphics develop helped them make an agnostic graphics_handle type: a type-erased pointer for DirectX or a regular integer for OpenGL. This requires casting from a chunk of type-erased storage to a more concrete ID3D11Texture* or similar. Allowing for out_ptr to work on that level was critical for its usage in these cases.

It is imperative that the user be allowed to specify a casting parameter that the out_ptr_t/inout_ptr_t, and that is done by simply adding a type when calling the desired function. Consider a specialized std::unique_ptr<int, fd_deleter> where ::pointer is a typedef to a special fd type:

struct fd {
	int handle;

	fd()
	: fd(nullptr) {}
	fd(std::nullptr_t)
	: handle(static_cast<intptr_t>(-1)) {}
	fd(FILE* f)
#ifdef _WIN32
	: handle(f ? _fileno(f) : static_cast<intptr_t>(-1)){
#else
	: handle(f ? fileno(f) : static_cast<intptr_t>(-1)) {
#endif // Windows
	}

	explicit operator bool() const;

	bool operator==(std::nullptr_t) const;
	bool operator!=(std::nullptr_t) const;
	bool operator==(const fd& fd) const;
	bool operator!=(const fd& fd) const;
};

struct fd_deleter {
	using pointer = fd;
	void operator()(fd des) const;
};

Casting in this case is cumbersome and often error-prone to do properly when interfacing with C or C++ standard library facilities. It becomes trivial with std::out_ptr:

std::unique_ptr<int, fd_deleter> my_unique_fd;
auto err = fopen_s( std::out_ptr<FILE*>(my_unique_fd), "prod.csv", "rb" );
// check err, then work with raw fd

This is an example of a codebase which works primarily off of file descriptors, but wants to interop with the standard C and C++ libraries. The cast here is valid and properly opens the file, while the fd type handles converting in and out of the type safely and seamlessly, without going through extra effort or having to interact more closely with the POSIX API. This makes it easy to perform interop with a "high-level" or "convertible" type, while still working with the desired "low-level" or "native" type.

This also demonstrates out_ptr's ability to work with offset/fat/not-quite-exactly pointers, which are allowed by std::unique_ptr and the upcoming std::retain_ptr.

The full example code for Windows and *Nix platforms is available as a compilable example.

3.6. Reallocation Support

In some cases, a function given a valid handle/pointer will delete that pointer on your behalf before performing an allocation in the same pointer. In these cases, just .reset() is entirely redundant and dangerous because it will delete a pointer that it does not own. Therefore, there is a second abstraction called inout_ptr, so aptly named because it is both an input (to be deleted) and an output (to be allocated post-delete). inout_ptr's semantics are exactly like out_ptr's, just with the additional requirement that it calls .release() on the smart pointer upon constructing the temporary inout_ptr_t.

This can be heavily optimized in the case of unique_ptr, but to do so from the outside requires Undefined Behavior or modification of the standard library. See §5.2 For std::inout_ptr for further explication.

3.7. Footguns?

As far as we know and have designed this specification, std::out_ptr and std::inout_ptr have no hidden or easy-to-access footguns for its intended usage. Originally, std::out_ptr was going to potentially include a runtime parameter to encapsulate the behavior of std::inout_ptr: however, it was deemed much better design to separate the two out into separate functions. This also matched VMWare’s implementation experience with the type and generated far superior code. It also made it easier to know when to pick out_ptr versus inout_ptr: one is for regular allocations that just create something new, the other is for the case when you need to reallocate into the pointer and thusly can save some instructions.

Furthermore, all examples of out_ptr/inout_ptr include usage as a temporary to a function call. Let us assume someone wanted to get sufficiently clever:

std::unique_ptr<int> u_ptr;
auto op = std::out_ptr(u_ptr);
int err = c_function_call(op);
if (err != 0) {
	throw std::runtime_error()
}

This still behaves the same: but, .reset() will be called before the unique_ptr goes out of scope. Unless the user performs extraordinary gymnastics to circumvent the typical lifetime of the factory-generated out_ptr, there are no footguns in regular and general usage.

The only other place where someone could be sufficiently clever is with a function call _and_ a flow control statement. For example, an if statement that initializes something and also tests the smart pointer in that same if statement will extend lifetimes in a very poor order:

std::unique_ptr<foo_handle, foo_deleter> my_unique(nullptr);

if (get_some_pointer(std::out_ptr(my_unique)); my_unique)) {
	std::cout << "yay" << std::endl;
}
else {
	std::cout << "oh no" << std::endl;
}

This happens whether the expression is chained with multiple comma/conditional expressions or if someone uses the new flow-control initializer statements. This is an unfortunately holdover of how temporaries are treated, and rather being fixed with flow control initializer statements the same quirky rules for the old if were carried over.

This was pointed out as strange, but we feel this is not much of a blocker for this proposal. All RAII-based, action-on-destroy resources suffer from this problem: it is neither a new nor novel problem. One does not use a std::lock_guard in similar fashion to the snippet above; neither should std::out_ptr be used to that effect.

3.8. Extension Points

A number of extension points were considered for this proposal. We have purposefully selected the ability to specialize the class template because it is the most flexible approach that allows library authors outside of the std:: namespace customize their types to work properly. This proposal rose primarily out of seeing many _different_ kinds of smart pointers handled in many codebases, from hobby to industry, that are currently not covered (and likely not to be covered in the near future) by the standard. Therefore, an extension mechanism that is available to library authors and users seems to be the most efficient.

It is also important that we limit the surface area in which the user can harm themselves and their users. ADL, for example, can cause supreme danger because the overloads of std::out_ptr and std::inout_ptr are variadic forwarding templates which handle when a user might want to pass additional arguments to offset_ptr or similar. This can be quite dangerous as it is ripe territory for ambiguities.

Class template specialization requires exactly matching arguments and does not suffer from potential convertibility in which other solutions might pick wrong overloads or select the wrong extension call because of mixed-namespace arguments. It also prevents build breaks from being introduced in subtle and hard-to-catch ways. It is also much less likely for someone to try to apply std::enable_if_t or Concept constraints on their template class specializations to resolve ambiguities because of the exact-matching feature, as opposed to functions where partial and full specialization are hazardous and error-prone to get right.

Below are catalogued some explored and ultimately rejected customization points.

3.8.1. Rejected: just adding get_ref to related non-shared pointers

This solution seeks to resolve performance problems and reseating issues by having std::unique_ptr add a T*& get_ref(); function on itself that an inout_ptr solution or C function user might take advantage of. The problem is this breaks encapsulation over its knee and destroys and integrity the pointer value has from unique_ptr's invariant. Additionally, it means that all libraries have to provide a function on their types that they currently do not provide (and for very good reason). While tempting as low-hanging fruit, this is an extraordinary example of a simple design which has far-reaching, poor consequences.

3.8.2. Rejected: adding &operator to this type

This is the same sin committed by Microsoft with CComPtr that ushered in the age of std::addressof with all due experience for Windows users. While proposed a few times throughout history (including in the early incubation tank of std-proposals), this is not a mistake the community should make twice.

3.8.3. Rejected: unrestricted ADL

std::swap works out fairly nicely as an extension point. Coming up with a fairly expansive name that is not as common as swap and designating that to be the ADL extension point could be worth doing. Also creating callable Customization Point Objects that using std::the_func before calling the_func in an unqualified manner is similar to the design decision ranges made.

Unfortunately, ADL is also entirely unconstrained once opened up in this manner. It takes careful programming and perhaps a bit of SFINAE to ensure there are no collisions, especially in the "base cases" users might want to specialize for. This can lead to brittle code that breaks when we ship updates to the desired ADL extension point, or users that under or over-constrain their version of the function. It exposes too much surface area for the programmer to load not a footgun but a landmine that either their future selves, coworkers, or left-behind future colleagues might get lost on.

It is a considerable contender but for the above reasons -- especially since out_ptr/inout_ptr need to have unconstrained variadic arguments to pass additional extra arguments to pointers like boost::/std::shared_ptr or boost::intrusive_ptr or the upcoming std::retain_ptr -- it is rejected.

3.8.4. Rejected: restricted ADL using in-class friend functions

At first, this idea is tempting. It is used in abseil to e.g. provide hash customization and allows the implementer to access the internals of the pointer they are adding it to. Having a static friend function seems to cover the biggest risks (asides from template footguns in the previous section). In a world where building from source and owning your dependencies is ideal, or being able to freeze versions at will and edit code that you know is abandon-ware, this seems like the ideal solution that covers most use cases. It also seems to prevent the more naughty use cases of ADL.

Unfortunately, this requires opt-in from every author of a library type. This means that either you fork the library to your own version and patch it, maintain a patch in the case of an author who does not deem you adding that extension point useful, or just own the library and stay up to date. While feasible for large teams that have bandwidth to spend on this problem, this is problematic for smaller teams and hobby developers. It is a good way to do extension, but it is a novel idea and only tested within a few libraries. There are also issues of legality when performing modification to headers and compiled code directly to support this idiom: out_ptr as currently designed does not fall prey to such problems.

Already, users have sent me tweets and e-mails about extending this for their own types that they do not own. It would defeat the purpose of this type to require explicit opt-in.

4. Implementation Experience

This library has been brewed at many companies in their private implementations, and implementations in the wild are scattered throughout code bases with no unifying type. As noted in §2 Motivation, Microsoft has implemented this in WRL::ComPtrRef. Its earlier iteration -- CComPtr -- simply overrode operator&. We assume they prefer the former after having forced the need with CComPtr for std::addressof. the WRL is a public library used in thousands of applications, and has an interface similar to the proposed std::out_ptr/std::inout_ptr.

VMWare has a type that much more closely matches the specification in this paper, titled Vtl::OutPtr. The primary author of this paper wrote and used out_ptr for over 5 years in their code base working primarily with graphics APIs such as DirectX and OpenGL, and more recently Vulkan. They have also seen a similar abstraction in the places they have interned at.

Similarly, Adobe’s Chromium project has its own version of out_ptr.

The primary author of [p0468] in pre-r0 days also implemented an overloaded operator& to handle interfacing with C APIs, but was quickly talked out of actually proposing it when doing the proposal. That author has joined in on this paper to continue to voice the need to make it easier to work with C APIs without having to wrap the function.

Given that many companies, studios and individuals have all invented the same type independently of one another, we believe this is a strong indicator of agreement on an existing practice that should see a proposal to the standard.

A full implementation with UB and friendly optimizations is available in the repository. The type has been privately used in many projects over the last four years, and this public implementation is already seeing use at companies today. It has been particularly helpful with many COM APIs, and the re-allocation support in inout_ptr has been useful for FFMPEG’s functions which feature reallocation support in their functions (e.g., avformat_open_input).

A version of this library is going to be available in Boost in time for 1.70, which should roll out in April. It has been extensively proofed and checked over by Peter Dimov and Glen Fernandes in initial vetting for the Boost.SmartPtr repository at this issue.

4.1. Why Not Wrap It?

A common point raised while using this abstraction is to simply "wrap the target function". We believe this to be a non-starter in many cases: there are thousands of C API functions and even the most dedicated of tools have trouble producing lean wrappers around them. This tends to work for one-off functions, but suffers scalability problems very quickly.

Templated intermediate wrapper functions which take a function, perfectly forwards arguments, and attempts to generate e.g. a unique_ptr for the first argument and contain the boiler plate within itself also causes problems. Asides from the (perhaps minor) concern that such a wrapping function disrupts any auto-completion or tooling, the issue arises that C libraries -- even within themselves -- do not agree on where to place the some_c_type** parameter and detecting it properly to write a generic function to automagically do it is hard. Even within the C standard library, some functions have output parameters in the beginning and others have it at the end. The disparity grows when users pick up libraries outside the standard.

5. Performance

Many C programmers in our various engineering shops and companies have taken note that manually re-initializing a unique_ptr when internally the pointer value is already present has a measurable performance impact.

Teams eager to squeeze out performance realize they can only do this by relying on type-punning shenanigans to extract the actual value out of unique_ptr: this is expressly undefined behavior. However, if an implementation of out_ptr could be friended or shipped by the standard library, it can be implemented without performance penalty.

Below are some graphs indicating the performance metrics of the code. 5 categories were measured:

The full JSON data for these benchmarks is available in the repository, as well as all of the code necessary to run the benchmarks across all platforms with a simple CMake build system.

5.1. For std::out_ptr

You can observe two graphs for two common unique_ptr usage scenarios, which are using the pointer locally and discarding it ("local"), and resetting a pre-existing pointer ("reset") for just an output pointer:

5.2. For std::inout_ptr

The speed increase here is even more dramatic: reseating the pointer through .release() and .reset() is much more expensive than simply aliasing a std::unique_ptr directly. Places such as VMWare have to perform Undefined Behavior to get this level of performance with inout_ptr: it would be much more prudent to allow both standard library vendors and users to be able to achieve this performance without hacks, tricks, and other I-promise-it-works-I-swear pledges.

6. Bikeshed

As with every proposal, naming, conventions and other tidbits not related to implementation are important. This section is for pinning down all the little details to make it suitable for the standard.

6.1. Alternative Specification

The authors of this proposal know of two ways to specify this proposal’s goals.

The authors have settled on the approach in §3.1 Synopsis. We believe this is the most robust and easiest to use: singular names tend to be easier to teach and use for both programmers and tools. We discuss the older techniques to uphold thorough discussion and inspection of the solution space.

The first way is to specify both functions out_ptr and inout_ptr as factories, and then have their types named differently, such as std::out_ptr_t and std::inout_ptr_t. The factory functions and their implementation will be fixed in place, and users would be able to (partially) specialize and customize std::out_ptr_t and std::inout_ptr_t for types external to the stdlib for maximum performance tweaking and interop with types like boost::shared_ptr, my_lib::local_shared_ptr, and others. This is the direction this proposal takes.

The second way is to specify the class names to be std::out_ptr / std::inout_ptr, and then used Template Argument Deduction for Class Templates from C++17 to give a function-like appearance to their usage. Users can still specialize for types external to the standard library. This approach is more Modern C++-like, but contains a caveat.

Part of this specification is that you can specify the stored pointer for the underlying implementation of out_ptr as shown in §3.5 Casting Support. Template Argument Deduction for Class Templates does not allow partial specialization (and for good reason, see the interesting example of std::tuple<int, int>{1, 2, 3}). The "Deduction Guides" (or CTAD) approach would accommodate §3.5 Casting Support using functions with a more explicit names, such as out_ptr_cast<void*>( ... ); and inout_ptr_cast<void*>( ... );.

6.2. Naming

Naming is hard, and therefore we provide a few names to duke it out in the Bikeshed Arena:

For the out_ptr part:

For the inout_ptr part:

As a pairing, out_ptr and inout_ptr are the most cromulent and descriptive in the authors' opinions. The type names would follow suit as out_ptr_t and inout_ptr_t. However, there is an argument for having a name that more appropriately captures the purpose of these abstractions. Therefore, c_out_ptr and c_inout_ptr would be even better, and the shortest would be c_ptr and c_in_ptr.

7. Proposed Changes

The following wording is for the Library section, relative to [n4778]. This feature will go in the <memory> header, and is added to §20.11 [utilities.smartptr], at the end as subsection 9.

7.1. Proposed Feature Test Macro and Header

This should be available with the rest of the smart pointers, and thusly be included by simply including <memory>. If there is a desire for more fine-grained control, then we recommend the header <out_ptr> (subject to change based on bikeshed painting above). There has been some expressed desire for wanting to provide more fine-grained control of what entities the standard library produces when including headers: this paper does not explicitly propose adding such headers or doing such work, merely making a recommendation if this direction is desired by WG21.

The proposed feature test macro for this is __cpp_lib_out_ptr. The exposure of __cpp_lib_out_ptr denotes the existence of both inout_ptr and out_ptr, as well as its customization points out_ptr_t and inout_ptr_t.

7.2. Intent

The intent of this wording is to allow implementers the freedom to implement the return type from out_ptr as they so choose, so long as the following criteria is met:

The goals of the wording are to not restrict implementation strategies (e.g., a friend implementation as benchmarked above for unique_ptr, or maybe a UB/IB implementation as also documented above). It is also explicitly meant to error for smart pointers whose .reset() call may reset the stored deleter (á la boost::shared_ptr/std::shared_ptr) and to catch programmer errors.

7.3. Proposed Wording

Append to §16.3.1 General [support.limits.general]'s Table 35 one additional entry:

Macro name Value Header(s)
__cpp_lib_out_ptr 201811L
<memory>

Modify §20.10.1 In general [memory.general] as follows:

1 The header defines several types and function templates that describe properties of pointers and pointer-like types, manage memory for containers and other template types, destroy objects, and construct multiple objects in uninitialized memory buffers (20.10.3–19.10.11). The header also defines the templates unique_ptr, shared_ptr, weak_ptr, out_ptr_t, inout_ptr_t, and various function templates that operate on objects of these types (20.11).

Add §20.10.2 Definitions [memory.defns] as follows:

1 Definition: Let POINTER_OF_OR(T, U) denote a type that is:

T::pointer if the qualified-id T::pointer is valid and denotes a type, or
— otherwise, typename T::element_type* if the qualified-id T::element_type is valid and denotes a type,
— otherwise, U.

2 Definition: Let POINTER_OF(T) denote a type that is defined as POINTER_OF_OR(T, typename std::pointer_traits<T>::element_type*)

Add to §20.10.3 (previously §20.10.2) Header <memory> synopsis [memory.syn] the out_ptr, inout_ptr, out_ptr_t and inout_ptr_t functions and types:

// 20.11.9, out_ptr_t
template <class Smart, class Pointer, class... Args>
  class out_ptr_t;

// 20.11.10, out_ptr
template <class Pointer, class Smart, class... Args>
  out_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, Args...> out_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;
	
template <class Smart, class... Args>
  out_ptr_t<Smart, POINTER_OF(Smart), Args...> out_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;

// 20.11.11, inout_ptr_t
template <class Smart, class Pointer, class... Args>
  class inout_ptr_t;
	
// 20.11.12, inout_ptr
template <class Pointer, class Smart, class... Args>
  inout_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, Args...> inout_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;
	
template <class Smart, class... Args>
  inout_ptr_t<Smart, POINTER_OF(SMART), Args...> inout_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept 

Insert §20.11.9 [out_ptr.class]:

20.11.9 Class Template out_ptr_t [out_ptr.class]

1 out_ptr_t is a type used with smart pointers (20.11) and types which are designed on the same principles to interoperate easily with functions that use output pointer parameters. [ Note — For example, a function of the form void foo(void**)end note ].

2 out_ptr_t may be specialized (12.6.5) for program-defined types and shall meet the observable behavior in the rest of this section.

namespace std {

  template <class Smart, class Pointer, class... Args>
  class out_ptr_t {
  public:
    // 20.11.9.1, constructors
    out_ptr_t(Smart&, Args...) noexcept;
    out_ptr_t(out_ptr_t&&) noexcept;

    // 20.11.9.2, assignment
    out_ptr_t& operator=(out_ptr_t&&) noexcept;

    // 20.11.9.3, destructors
    ~out_ptr_t();

    // 20.11.9.4, conversion operators
    operator Pointer*() noexcept;

  private:
    Smart* s; // exposition only
    tuple<Args...> a; // exposition only
    Pointer p; // exposition only
  };

}

2 If Smart is a specialization of shared_ptr and sizeof...(Args) == 0, the program is ill-formed. Pointer shall meet the Cpp17NullablePointer requirements ((15.5.3.3 [nullablepointer.requirements])).

3 [ Note: It is typically a user error to reset a shared_ptr without specifying a deleter, as std::shared_ptr will replace a custom deleter with the default deleter upon usage of .reset(), as specified in 20.11.3.4. — end note ]

20.11.9.1 Constructors [out_ptr.class.ctor]

out_ptr_t(Smart& smart, Args&&... args) noexcept;

1 Effects: initializes s with addressof(smart), a with std::forward<Args>(args)..., and initializes p to

— an unspecified value of either smart or its value initialization if std::is_pointer_v<Smart> is true,
— otherwise, an unspecified value of either smart.get() or its value initialization.

2 [ Note: An unspecified value allows an implementation and subsequent program-defined specializations to use values meaningful to the smart pointer and implementation. The program may not be able to depend on or observe the value of p through the conversion operator defined below. — end note ].

out_ptr_t(out_ptr&& rhs) noexcept;

2 Effects: initializes s with std::move(rhs.s), a with std::move(args)..., and p with std::move(rhs.p). Then sets rhs.p to nullptr.

20.11.9.2 Assignment [out_ptr.class.assign]

out_ptr_t& operator=(out_ptr&& rhs) noexcept;

1Effects: Equivalent to:

s = std::move(rhs.s); 
a = std::move(rhs.a); 
p = std::move(rhs.p);
rhs.p = nullptr;
return *this;

20.11.9.3 Destructors [out_ptr.class.dtor]

~out_ptr_t();

1 Let SP be POINTER_OF_OR(Smart, Pointer) (20.10.2).

2 Effects: Equivalent to:

if (p != nullptr) { s->reset( static_cast<SP>(p), std::forward<Args>(args)... ); } if reset is a valid member function on Smart,
— otherwise if (p != nullptr) { *s = Smart( static_cast<SP>(p), std::forward<Args>(args)... ); };
where Args are the arguments stored in a.

20.11.9.4 Conversions [out_ptr.class.conv]

operator Pointer*() noexcept;

1 Effects: returns a pointer to p.

Insert §20.11.10 [out_ptr]:

20.11.10 Function Template out_ptr [out_ptr]

1 out_ptr is a function template that produces an object of type out_ptr_t (20.11.9).

namespace std {

  template <class Pointer, class Smart, class... Args>
  out_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, Args...> out_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;

  template <class Smart, class... Args>
  out_ptr_t<Smart, POINTER_OF(Smart), Args...> out_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;

}

2 Effects: The first overload is Equivalent to: return out_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, Args...>(s, std::forward<Args>(args)...);

3 Effects: The second overload is Equivalent to: return out_ptr_t<Smart, POINTER_OF(Smart), Args...>(s, std::forward<Args>(args)...);

Insert §20.11.11 [inout_ptr.class]:

20.11.11 Class Template inout_ptr_t [inout_ptr.class]

1 inout_ptr_t is a type used with smart pointers (20.11) and types which are designed on the same principles to interoperate easily with functions that use output pointer parameters. [ Note: For example, a function of the form void foo_realloc(void**)end note ].

2 inout_ptr_t may be specialized (12.6.5) for program-defined types and shall meet the observable behavior in the rest of this section.

namespace std {

  template <class Smart, class Pointer, class... Args>
  class inout_ptr_t {
  public:
    // 20.11.11.1, constructors
    inout_ptr_t(Smart&, Args...) noexcept;
    inout_ptr_t(inout_ptr_t&&) noexcept;

    // 20.11.11.2, assignment
    inout_ptr_t& operator=(inout_ptr_t&&) noexcept;

    // 20.11.11.3, destructors
    ~inout_ptr_t();

    // 20.11.11.4, conversion operators
    operator Pointer*() noexcept;

  private:
    Smart* s; // exposition only
    tuple<Args...> a; // exposition only
    Pointer p; // exposition only
  };

}

2 If Smart is a specialization of shared_ptr, the program is ill-formed. Pointer shall meet the Cpp17NullablePointer requirements (15.5.3.3 [nullablepointer.requirements]).

3 [ Note: It is impossible to properly release the managed resource from a shared_ptr given its shared ownership model. — end note ]

20.11.11.1 Constructors [inout_ptr.class.ctor]

inout_ptr_t(Smart& smart, Args... args) noexcept;

1 Effects: initializes s with addressof(smart), a with std::forward<Args>(args)..., and p to either

smart if std::is_pointer_v<Smart> is true,
— otherwise, an unspecified value of either smart.get() or its value initialization.

2 [ Note: An unspecified value allows an implementation and subsequent program-defined specializations to pick an option which fits an implementation’s purpose and potential implementation-specific optimizations. — end note ].

3 Remarks: if an implementation calls smart.release(), then it shall not call s->release() in the destructor.

inout_ptr_t(inout_ptr&& rhs) noexcept;

4 Effects: initializes s with std::move(rhs.s), a with std::move(args)..., and p with std::move(rhs.p). Then sets rhs.p to nullptr.

20.11.11.2 Assignment [inout_ptr.class.assign]

inout_ptr_t& operator=(inout_ptr&& rhs) noexcept;

1 Effects: Equivalent to:

s = std::move(rhs.s); 
a = std::move(rhs.a); 
p = std::move(rhs.p);
rhs.p = nullptr;
return *this;

20.11.11.3 Destructors [inout_ptr.class.dtor]

~inout_ptr_t();

1 Constraints: Either std::is_pointer_v<Smart> is true or the expression smart.release() is well-formed.

2 Let SP be POINTER_OF_OR(Smart, Pointer) (20.10.2).

3 Effects: Equivalent to:

if (p != nullptr) { *s = Smart( static_cast<SP>(p), std::forward<Args>(args)... ); } if std::is_pointer_v<Smart> is true,
s->release(); if (p != nullptr) { s->reset( static_cast<SP>(p), std::forward<Args>(args)... ); } if the expression s->reset(...) is well-formed,
— otherwise, s->release(); if (p != nullptr) { *s = Smart( static_cast<SP>(p), std::forward<Args>(args)... ); }.
where Args are the arguments stored in a.

20.11.11.4 Conversions [inout_ptr.class.conv]

operator Pointer*() noexcept;

1 Effects: returns a pointer to p.

Insert §20.11.12 [inout_ptr]:

20.11.12 Function Template inout_ptr [inout_ptr]

1 inout_ptr is a function template that produces an object of type inout_ptr_t (20.11.11).

namespace std {

  template <class Pointer, class Smart, class... Args>
  inout_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, Args...> inout_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept

  template <class Smart, class... Args>
  inout_ptr<Smart, POINTER_OF(Smart), Args...> inout_ptr(Smart& s, Args&&... args) noexcept;

}

2 Effects: The first overload is Equivalent to: return inout_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, Args...>(s, std::forward<Args>(args)...);

3 Effects: The second overload is Equivalent to: return inout_ptr_t<Smart, POINTER_OF(Smart), Args...>(s, std::forward<Args>(args)...);

8. Acknowledgements

Thank you to Lounge<C++>'s Cicada, melak47, rmf, and Puppy for reporting their initial experiences with such an abstraction nearly 5 years ago and helping JeanHeyd Meneide implement the first version of this.

Thank you to Mark Zeren for help in this investigation and analysis of the performance of smart pointers.

Thank you to Tim Song for reviewing the wording for this paper and vastly improving it.

References

Informative References

[ADOBE-OUT-PTR]
Adobe. Adobe Chromium: scoped_comptr. November 25th, 2018. URL: https://github.com/adobe/chromium/blob/master/base/win/scoped_comptr.h#L80
[CCOMPTR]
Microsoft. CComPtr::operator& Operator. 2015. URL: https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/31k6d0k7.aspx
[N4778]
ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG21 - The C++ Standards Committee; Richard Smith. N4778 - Working Draft, Standard for Programming Language C++. November 26th, 2018. URL: http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2018/n4778.pdf
[P0468]
Isabella Muerte. A Proposal to Add an Intrusive Smart Pointer to the C++ Standard Library. October 15th, 2016. URL: http://wg21.link/p0468
[STD-PROPOSALS-OVERLOAD-OPERATOR]
isocpp.org Forums. Add operator&() to std::unique_ptr to get internal pointer. April 15th, 2018. URL: https://groups.google.com/a/isocpp.org/forum/#!topic/std-proposals/8MQhnL9rXBI
[WRL-COMPTRREF]
Microsoft. ComPtrRef Class. November 4th, 2016. URL: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/cpp/windows/comptrref-class