Document Number: P2835R3.
Date: 2024-01-31.
Reply to: Gonzalo Brito Gadeschi <gonzalob _at_>.
Authors: Gonzalo Brito Gadeschi, Mark Hoemmen, Carter H. Edwards, Bryce Adelstein Lelbach.
Audience: LEWG.

Expose std::atomic_ref 's object address



Applications that need atomic access to an object and want to reason about contention for performance cannot use C++20 std::atomic_ref. Some applications may change the object’s storage type to std::atomic, but std::atomic_ref’s raison d’être is that many applications cannot.

This proposal extends std::atomic_ref with a member function that returns the object’s address. This enables legacy applications that updated their APIs from volatile int* to atomic_ref to become conforming with the post-C++11 memory model, to recover the optimizations they lost while doing so, while enabling applications still stuck with volatile* on their APIs to migrate to use atomic_ref.

Before-and-after (“Tony”) tables



#include <atomic>
#include <cassert>

std::atomic<int> data;

void fn(std::atomic<int>& ref) {
    auto* addr = &ref;
    assert( &data == &ref );

int main() {
    return 0;
#include <atomic>
#include <cassert>

int data;

void fn(std::atomic_ref<int> ref) {
    const void* addr = ref.address();
    assert( &data == ref.address() );

int main() {
    return 0;


std::atomic_ref<T> ensures that all accesses to an existing T object are atomic.
Unlike with std::atomic<T>, for std::atomic_ref<T>, the T object exists and its lifetime strictly includes all std::atomic_ref<T> that refer to it.

Therefore, a T object that is used with std::atomic_ref<T> could be accessed with both atomic and non-atomic operations during its lifetime (in contrast to std::atomic<T>).

However, as long as one or more live std::atomic_refs still reference the T object, the object can only be accessed through these std::atomic_refs. That is, non-atomic accesses are not allowed to be concurrent with accesses through std::atomic_ref.

Note: this enables implementations of atomic_ref<T> to, e.g., copy the value into an atomic<T> which is in a different memory location, operate on that, and once the last atomic_ref is destroyed, copy the value back (for which implementations must track the address of the original object’s location). This proposal does not recommend such an implementation, but it is legal.

The following examples illustrate atomic_ref semantics.

This example is well-defined: non-atomic accesses to data happen only while there are no live atomic_refs that reference data.

int data = 13; // Non-Atomic access { assert(data == 13); atomic_ref<int> r{data};; // Atomic access } // All atomic_refs are destroyed here // No atomic_refs are live: assert(data == 0); data = 42;

This example exhibits undefined behavior: a non-atomic access to data happens while there is still a live atomic_ref that references data.

int data = 13; // Non-Atomic access atomic_ref<int> r{data}; // atomic_ref live data = 42; // UB: object accessed during lifetime of atomic_ref that refers to it

The implementation of APIs using std::atomic<T>* may obtain the object address without breaking API changes.

void api_atomic(std::atomic<int>* ptr) {
    // can obtain address of underlying object:
    uintptr_t address = reinterpret_cast<uintptr_t>(ptr);

The implementation of APIs using std::atomic_ref<T> may not:

void api_atomic_ref(atomic_ref<int> ref) {
    // ...cannot obtain the address of underlying object
    // if constexpr(sizeof(ref) == sizeof(uintptr_t)) {
    //   uintptr_t address = reinterpret_cast<uintptr_t>(&ref); // UB
    // }

This proposal extends the atomic_ref API with a member function address() to obtain the underlying object’s address.

void api_atomic_ref_this_paper(atomic_ref<int> ref) {
    // With this proposal, one can get the underlying object's address
    uintptr_t address = reinterpret_cast<uintptr_t>(ref.address());

Intent of atomic_ref proposal

The paper that introduced atomic_ref in C++ 20 is P0019R8. The authors discussed this use case and decided the application should track &data themselves. However, APIs evolve as usage patterns emerge: SG1 reviewed this paper to address this oversight, and forwarded it with unanimous consent. Multiple authors of the original atomic_ref paper are co-authors of this paper.

Use cases

This proposal enables legacy APIs that are still using volatile* to signal concurrency, due to their implementations needing the object’s address internally (see Motivation), to finally migrate to the C++11 Memory Model.

Some of the reasons why these APIs need the object address are covered in this section. Others, like “C Foreign Function Interface (FFI),” are not currently covered in this document.

Atomic access to elements of a data structure

Applications that want to perform atomic access to the elements of a data structure need to make the data structure’s element type atomic,

std::array<std::atomic<int>, N> array;

and use pointers to atomic objects to access the elements.

int fetch_add_idx(std::atomic<int>* base, size_t i, int value) { return base[i].fetch_add(value); }

When the array is provided externally, e.g., from a third-party C API,
it is typically an array of T, not an array of atomic<T>.

extern int array[N];

Before atomic_ref was introduced in C++20, it was common practice for applications to create APIs that drop the “atomicity” semantics. Such applications would use volatile (with nonstandard meaning) to express their intent.

int fetch_add_idx(/* not atomic */ int volatile* base, size_t i, int value) { return std::atomic_ref{base[i]}.fetch_add(value); }

However, it is not possible for applications written in Standard C++ to encode “atomicity” semantics as part of their API without a way to extract the underlying’s object address. This proposal provides that way: the address member function.

int fetch_add_idx(std::atomic_ref<int> base, size_t i, int value) { auto p = reinterpret_cast<int*>(base.address()); return std::atomic_ref{*(p+i)}.fetch_add(value); }

This matches the original intended use case of std::atomic_ref<T>, namely accessing the elements of an existing array of T atomically.

In fact, for the partiular case of contiguous data structures, like the array above, std::atomic_ref was specifically designed to be a proxy reference type for mdspan accessors. The atomic_accessor class in P2689 has an access(T* p, size_t i) member function that returns std::atomic_ref{*(p+i)}. The mdspan proposal P0009 used atomic_ref and its corresponding accessor as justification for mdspan permitting custom accessors. (See e.g., the “Why custom accessors?” section of P0009.)

Contention-aware data-structures

Contention-aware data-structures rely on the object’s address to tell different objects apart. The addresses are then used to, e.g., index into global lock tables.

Feedback during LEWG mailing review suggested that examples that were too advanced were unapproachable. R2 of the paper provided a fully working implementation of one such example in compiler-explorer, demonstrating a 1.25x performance improvement from this API. Similar algorithms are part of, e.g., C++ standard library implementations (e.g., here).

The following example (godbolt) illustrate how concurrent algorithms and data structures typically detect and react to contention in practice. First, they obtain the object’s address to tell it apart from other objects. They often hash it. Then, they use the (possibly hashed) address to index into global data structures (e.g., lock tables or timer tables) to improve contention. Without this proposal, an API-breaking change would be required in order to apply these optimizations to an API that only accepts an atomic_ref.

constexpr std::size_t nary = 3; std::array<std::atomic<std::size_t>, nary> contention; // Adds one to v (waits until contention is low): void add_one(std::atomic_ref<int> v) { // NEEDS P2835: Get atomic_ref object address: auto a = (std::uintptr_t)v.address(); // Hash address (or cache line address, etc.) by truncating // to 32-bit and multiplying by Golden Ratio: auto h = ((std::uint32_t)a) * 2654435761; // Check for potential contention: auto k = h % nary; auto l = contention[k].fetch_add(1); // Wait until contention is low (<2 contending threads): while (contention[k].load() > 2); // Modify object and drop from contention table: v.fetch_add(1); contention[k].fetch_sub(1); }


The name and return type should prevent accidental misuse that could result from accessing the object through the address while there are still live atomic_ref that reference it.

We considered the following options.

This design proposes using void const* as the return type, and address as the name.

Impact on implementations

This proposal does not impact any implementation we are aware of. We surveyed libc++, libstdc++, Microsoft STL, and libcu++.


Add the following to [atomics.ref.generic.general].

namespace std {
  template<class T> struct atomic_ref {
    // ...
    const void* address() const noexcept;
    // ...

Add the following to [atomic.ref.ops]:

const void* address() const noexcept;

Returns: ptr.

Update __cpp_lib_atomic_ref version macro in <version> synopsis [version.syn] to the C++ version this feature is introduced in:

#define __cpp_lib_atomic_ref 201806______L // freestanding, also in <atomic>