offsetof For the Modern Era

Published Proposal,

This version:
Isabella Muerte
ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG21 14882: Programming Language — C++
Current Render:
Current Source:


`offsetof()` needs a modern take for C++.

1. Revision History

1.1. Revision 0

Initial Release 🎉

2. Motivation

offsetof() is a relic of its time. It’s a macro, works only on standard layout types, and by its very definition requires a compiler to either implement it via an intrinsic or to use undefined behavior.

While it would be nice to assume that offsetof and similar tools are no longer needed, this is unfortunately not the case. When working with some C APIs, or older C++ APIs, knowing the offset of a type is necessary for a library to remain "ABI" safe. A good example of this is the Python scripting language. Python’s C API allows users to "bind" C and C++ types to the Python API. Of important note is that data members can be bound to a Python class directly via the PyMemberDef struct. This struct requires type information about the "reflected" member in the form of a constant (such as T_OBJECT or T_LONG), and the offset to the given member. As using offsetof() can in some cases cause undefined behavior, it means that fully valid code is technically speaking not safe to work in a portable manner, thus upending Python’s C API which is designed for portable use across platforms.

An example of this problem can be found below (actual final binding code has been removed for clarity):

#include <Python.h>
#include "structmember.h"

struct  CustomObject {
    PyObject *first;
    PyObject *last;
    int number;

static PyMemberDef Custom_members[] = {
    {"first", T_OBJECT_EX, offsetof(CustomObject, first), 0, "first name"},
    {"last", T_OBJECT_EX, offsetof(CustomObject, last), 0, "last name"},
    {"number", T_INT, offsetof(CustomObject, number), 0, "custom number"},
    { }  /* Sentinel */

As we can see above, offsets for first, last, and number are all obtained via the offsetof() macro. However, this also places us into the predicament that we are unable to write a generic function to handle all of this work for us. Specifically, under standard C++, we cannot implement something equivalent to the following:

template <class T>
PyMemberDef readonly (PyObject* (T::*member), char const* name, char const* docs=nullptr) {
  return { name, T_OBJECT_EX, offsetof(T, member), READONLY, docs };

template <class T>
PyMemberDef member (PyObject* (T::*member), char const* name, char const* docs=nullptr) {
  return { name, T_OBJECT_EX, offsetof(T, member), 0, docs };

This paper attempts to fix this by creating a new function named std::offset that can take pointer to member data as a parameter directly, without needing to know the name of the actual member. std::offset is intended to be similar to offsetof() in the same way that std::bit_cast is similar to std::memcpy.

3. Design Considerations

The design for std::offset is simple. Given any pointer to member data for a Standard Layout class, vendors will return the offset to said member according to the current target environment. In theory this sounds wild and unwiedly, however in practice, all current vendors simply place the offset to said member inside its pointer to member as either a ptrdiff_t or an int.

There is, however, one interesting caveat. std::offset can be implemented entirely via std::bit_cast. Doing so means that std::offset cannot be constexpr. This paper is not tackling changing the constraints found on std::bit_cast, but a discussion is needed on whether std::offset should be constexpr, and whether std::bit_cast should permit constexpr casting of pointer to member data from Standard Layout classes to a ptrdiff_t.

To match offsetof, it is the author’s recommendation that std::offset be placed into the <cstddef> header.

4. Wording

The following is working for the library section.

namespace std {
  template <class T>
  ptrdiff_t offset (T const& pmd) noexcept;
  1. Constraints This function shall not participate in overload resolution unless:
    • std::is_member_object_pointer_v<T> is true

    • std::is_standard_layout_v<class-of<T>> is true

    Note: There is not std::class_of_t<T> type trait available in standard C++. The above is shown for exposition purposes only.

  2. Returns

    An object of type std::ptrdiff_t, the value of which is the offset in bytes from the beginning of an object of the class-of T to the member specified by T including padding if any.

  3. Remarks

    While offsetof is conditionally supported for non-standard layout types, offset is intended to be more tightly constrained and only for standard layout types.

4.1. Feature Testing

The __cpp_lib_offset feature test macro should be added.