out_ptr - a scalable output pointer abstraction

Draft Proposal,

Isabella Muerte
ISO JTC1/SC22/WG21: Programming Language C++
Current Source:
Reply To:
JeanHeyd Meneide


out_ptr is an abstraction to bring both C APIs and smart pointers back into the promised land. It is the fastest, easiest, future-proof, and no-undefined behavior specification of a pointer output parameter that works seamlessly with smart pointers!

1. Revision History

1.1. Revision 0

Initial release.

2. Motivation

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 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 to make 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.

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 <typename Pointer, typename Smart, typename... A>
	auto out_ptr(Smart& s, A&&... a) noexcept
	-> out_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, std::tuple<A...>>;
	template <typename Smart, typename... A>
	auto out_ptr(Smart& s, A&&... a) noexcept 
	-> decltype(out_ptr<PointerOf<Smart>>(s, std::forward<A>(a)...));

	template <typename Pointer, typename Smart, typename... A>
	auto inout_ptr(Smart& s, A&&... a) noexcept
	-> inout_ptr_t<Smart, Pointer, std::tuple<A...>>;
	template <typename Smart, typename... A>
	auto inout_ptr(Smart& s, A&&... a) noexcept 
	-> decltype(inout_ptr<PointerOf<Smart>>(s, std::forward<A>(a)...));

Where PointerOf is the ::pointer type, then ::element_type*, then T* in that order. The return type out_ptr_t and its sister type inout_ptr_t are a templated types and must at-minimum have the following:

template <typename Smart, typename Pointer, typename Tuple>
struct out_ptr_t {
	out_ptr_t(Smart&, Tuple);
	operator Pointer* () noexcept;
	~out_ptr_t () noexcept;

template <typename Smart, typename Pointer, typename Tuple>
struct inout_ptr_t {
	inout_ptr_t(Smart&, Tuple);
	operator Pointer* () noexcept;
	~inout_ptr_t () 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 contained in the Tuple-like Tuple. ~inout_ptr_t() does the same, but with the additional caveat that the constructor for inout_ptr_t(Smart&, Tuple) 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.

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 ) {

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)
	// 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_create_handle(
	24, std::inout_ptr(resource)
	// 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{})
	// handle errors
// resource.get() the out-value from 
// the C API function

Additional arguments past the smart pointer stored in out_ptr's implementation-defined 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. 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.

For example, consider this DirectX Graphics Infrastructure Interface (DXGI) function on IDXGIFactory6:

HRESULT EnumAdapterByGpuPreference(
	UINT Adapter, 
	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.
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.

3.5. 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 being constructed.

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.

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. 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.

The primary author of [p0468r0] 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.

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, perfect;y 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 first way is to specify both functions out_ptr and inout_ptr as factories, and then have their types named differently, such as out_ptr_t and 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 currently is that you can specify the stored pointer for the underlying implementation of out_ptr as shown in §3.4 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}).

Therefore, this proposal prefers the approach laid out in §3.1 Synopsis. An alternative would be to use the Deduction Guides approach and have a function with a more explicit name for the casting approach, such as out_ptr_cast<void*>( ... ); and inout_ptr_cast<void*>( ... );.

The authors would like feedback on this specification, in order to make a decision. Please do feel free to e-mail or twitter with discussion, or to have a discussion and link it to the authors.

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' opinion. 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. 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 starting this investigation and analysis.


Informative References

Microsoft. CComPtr::operator& Operator. 2015. URL: https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/31k6d0k7.aspx
Isabella Muerte. A Proposal to Add an Intrusive Smart Pointer to the C++ Standard Library. 15 October 2016. URL: https://wg21.link/p0468r0
Microsoft. ComPtrRef Class. November 4th, 2016. URL: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/cpp/windows/comptrref-class