Ruminations on (node-based) containers and noexcept

ISO/IEC JTC1 SC22 WG21 N4055 - 2014-07-02

Ville Voutilainen,


There are quite many standard containers that do not have noexcept move constructors required by their synopsis. Implementations can strengthen such a noexcept-specification as per [res.on.exception.handling]/1:

"Any of the functions defined in the C ++ standard library can report a failure by throwing an exception of a type described in its Throws: paragraph. An implementation may strengthen the exception-specification for a non-virtual function by adding a non-throwing noexcept-specification. "

The issue is that this means that the performance of operations such as vector<T>::push_back becomes dependent on the noexcept-specification of the move constructor of T, and if T has a container member, the noexcept-specification of that container influences the noexcept-specification of the move constructor of T in implementation-specific ways.

This paper explores the reasons of why container move constructors are not noexcept on some implementations. A very good explanation is written below.

This paper also makes some moderate suggestions on what the solution(s) should be.

Nicolai Josuttis proposes some of those moderate suggestions in his paper N4002.

Howard's benchmark

Howard Hinnant posted a benchmark in [c++std-lib-35890]. The benchmark shows the difference between a vector element that has a noexcept move constructor and a vector element that doesn't, especially in the case where the element itself has a container as a member. In the benchmark, the vector element contains a list, and the performance of vector's emplace_back is measured. Hinnant finds a 84x difference between a noexcept move constructor for list and a throwing move constructor for list.

Herb's notes on vector and noexcept

Herb Sutter wrote the following:

I stumbled (faceplant) across this over the winter when trying to update GotW #8 on exception safety, and trying to add the example of "simply implementing Stack<T> with a vector under the covers." Quoting myself from a private email in early January:

Stack's move operations should be noexcept. I darned well am going to *make* them noexcept as part of teaching how to write exception-safe code in C++11 (IMO the alternative is to say the combination of noexcept and move is broken, which I don't believe is true).

If I write Stack using a naked new'd array, this is easy.

But this is C++11, and we should be using the standard library rather than using raw pointers/new/delete, and in every other way the code is incredibly simpler, easier, and default-safer when implementing Stack in terms of std::vector... except for noexcept move. Achieving noexcept move with a std::vector implementation, today I have to do a strange, complex, and rather borderline-iffy termination-flirty dance, as Howard confirmed. I continue to view this as pure badness.

Then I stopped writing the updated GotW #8 because I didn't want to teach the status quo -- that there is currently a tension between making your move noexcept (a good thing you should do!) and implementing your state reusing standard containers, notably std::vector, instead of raw arrays and pointers (a good thing you should do!) -- and that it's either-or and the workarounds are quite unsatisfactory (e.g., one is to lie, and just make Stack<T> move be noexcept anyway; or to resort to try/catch(...)-ing and then what; ...). It's not just a performance issue... think about what you have to do in order to make Stack<T> move be noexcept and still implement reusing std::vector today, the options I know of range from rank to merely odious.

To add to the motivation, here's another email I wrote at that time:

I'm more and more interested in nonthrowing code in general -- for vector (SIMD) code execution, for writing nofail operations (which rely on things like dtors/swap/deallocation and hopefully move to be nofail), so I was surprised by vector move operations not being nothrow => not nofail.

I'm also more and more interested in promoting vector<T> in particular as a major performance and efficiency advantage over managed code, mainly because it's contiguous, but also because it's razor-thin... and then when I see things I don't expect, like move looking like it might throw, it makes me question (a) whether I understand vector and (b) how thin it is and what secret mechanics are going on down there that I wasn't expecting. C++ is great at surfacing essential details; I would have expected this kind of "secretly we're doing stuff for you under the covers" surprise from a C# or Java container.

Why do some implementations have non-noexcept moves for (node-based) containers?

In [c++std-lib-35945], Stephan T. Lavavej explains:

Here's why I prefer dynamically allocated sentinel nodes for list.

Compare vector's qualities against list's qualities. vector has many desirable properties, making it the best container to use by default:

Of course, vector has downsides:

Now compare list. Basically everything that's awesome about vector is worse with list:

So why would anyone use list? Well, it's strong where vector isn't:

So, what about the sentinel node? Every list needs one (end iterators must be decrementable), so you can either allocate it like a normal node (without an element), or you can store it within the list object itself. The latter is tempting, but it has a cost:

Container-internal sentinel nodes force moves/swaps to invalidate ranges involving end iterators.

I view this as a highly undesirable consequence. The primary reason to use a list is because it offers excellent invalidation guarantees. Container-internal sentinel nodes not only weaken those guarantees, they're weakened beyond what all vectors provide. And in exchange for compromising the major reason to use lists, some performance is gained - yet list is already undesirable for performance. Saving one dynamic memory allocation per list doesn't mean much when every element performs an allocation.

That said, it is certainly inconvenient that moved-from objects are forbidden from being emptier-than-empty, and it is also inconvenient that vector::push_back provides the strong guarantee when it is rarely needed by users. But I am not willing to sacrifice range invalidation guarantees in the pursuit of some extra performance for vectors of lists and other things containing node-based containers.

What's really sad is that during vector reallocation, we could truly tolerate emptier-than-empty objects, since they are destined to be immediately destroyed.

Wait, where exactly do we allow implementations to decide that a swap may or may not invalidate end iterators?

As Lavavej explains, in order to maintain end iterator validity in swap operations, a dynamically allocated sentinel node is necessary for node-based containers, and the allocation of that node may fail, so some implementations do not have noexcept move constructors especially for node-based containers. This is allowed by [container.requirements.general]/11, last bullet:

The wording says "may", and some implementations don't invalidate the end iterator, and the customers of those implementations apparently rely on the invalidation not happening. Furthermore, this leeway for implementors apparently predates move semantics, so implementors can provide that no-invalidation-guarantee as long as their dynamic sentinel nodes are allowed, which leads to container move constructors not being mandated to be noexcept.

What is an "emptier than empty state?"

To put it briefly, such a state would mean that more operations would have undefined behavior, like container begin() and end(). This would allow implementations that use dynamically-allocated sentinel nodes to not keep such a sentinel node for a container that has been moved from.


Doesn't making vector move constructor noexcept suffice?

In [c++std-lib-35883], Stephan T. Lavavej writes:

I'm OK with the Standard marking vector/basic_string default/move constructors as noexcept.

This, unfortunately, still doesn't help with vector elements that have node-based containers as members and don't explicitly declare a noexcept move constructor, since operations like push_back use move_if_noexcept and fall back to copying if necessary. An additional snag is that such a move constructor cannot be defaulted, because the language rules do not allow it. See Core Issue 1912. That issue is currently on EWG's plate, as part of EWG's Core Extension umbrella issue, 79.

What about allowing emptier-than-empty state?

The author of this paper believes that even with the current cases of non-portable performance and non-portable end iterator invalidation, allowing emptier-than-empty states would be a drastic measure. It seems to the author that various users have relied on container begin()/end() being a valid but empty range for so long that changing such an assumption would be exceedingly dangerous, even for moved-from containers.

So how DO we solve the problem?

Here's a moderate suggestion:

  1. Make vector/string move constructors noexcept. Lavavej has agreed that this is feasible, although it means that in some cases failed allocation will terminate the program.
  2. Don't make the move constructors of node-based containers noexcept. There are implementation vendors whose customers rely on (and have relied on before move semantics) end iterators not being invalidated on swap.
  3. Do NOT adopt emptier-than-empty states.
  4. Resolve Core Issue 1912, in Evolution first, then in Core. It's not going to help people who rely on implicit definitions, but at least it gives a relatively easy alternative for users who can accept termination on allocation failure inside a move operation. Howard Hinnant points out that there are other existing tools that can help people detect throwing moves at compile-time and act accordingly, for example static_assert on std::is_nothrow_move_constructible<list<T>>.
  5. And finally, if we ever get to specify a new standard library (a potentially conceptified one), make sure to tackle this sort of portability issues!

Why so moderate? A couple of reasons, mentioned already earlier:

In other words, apply the small fixes that we can, and perform larger fixes if/when we don't have issues with backwards-compatibility.