Inside std::function, part 1: The basic idea

Raymond Chen

The C++ language standard library comes with a std::function template type which represents a “thing you can invoke”. It can hold any callable, such as

  • Function pointer.
  • Lambda.
  • Other object with operator().

The way this is done is with the assistance of a polymorphic helper object that understands the specific callable it is wrapping.

Here’s a sketch. For concreteness, let’s say we’re implementing std::function<bool(int, char*)>. For readability, I’ve de-uglified¹ the identifiers.

struct callable_base
  callable_base() = default;
  virtual ~callable_base() { }
  virtual bool invoke(int, char*) = 0;
  virtual unique_ptr<callable_base> clone() = 0;

template<typename T>
struct callable : callable_base
  T m_t;

  callable(T const& t) : m_t(t) {}
  callable(T&& t) : m_t(move(t)) {}

  bool invoke(int a, char* b) override
    return m_t(a, b);

  unique_ptr<callable_base> clone() override
    return make_unique<callable>(m_t);

struct function
  std::unique_ptr<callable_base> m_callable;

  template<typename T>
  function(T&& t) :
    m_callable(new callable<decay_t<T>>

  function(const function& other) :
    m_callable(other.m_callable ?
               other.m_callable->clone() : nullptr)

  function(function&& other) = default;

  bool operator()(int a, char* b)
    // TODO: bad_function_call exception
    return m_callable->invoke(a, b);

The idea is that each function has a callable_base, which is an interface that allows us to perform basic operations on callable objects: Create a copy, invoke it, and destroy it. Invoking the function forwards the invoke to the callable_base. Copying the function requires a special clone method on the callable_base, because unique_ptr is not copyable.

Constructing the function is a matter of creating a custom callable for the specific functor. It’s conceptually simple, but the C++ language makes us write out a bunch of stuff to get it to work. We just want a callable that wraps the thing that was passed to the constructor.

The std::function in the standard library is basically like this, but with additional optimizations to avoid an allocation in the case of a small callable. Said optimizations are in fact mandatory by the standard if the callable is a plain function pointer or a reference_wrapper.

We’ll look at that optimization next time, because it gives us some insight into how we can do similar things with our own types.

¹ Uglification is the process of taking readable names and transforming them into names that are reserved for the implementation. Different libraries have different uglification conventions. For the Microsoft Visual C++ implementation of the standard library, the uglifications tend to be

  • _My prefix for member variables.
  • _Ty prefix for type names.
  • _Fn prefix for functors.
  • _P prefix for pointers.
  • _ (and capital first letter) for most other things.


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  • Piotr Siódmak 1

    Uglification: when you have printf, which calls _vfprintf_l (what’s _l?), which calls __stdio_common_vfprintf (where did _l go?).

    • skSdnW 0

      I don’t find it to be ugly.

      The _l version is a bonus function that takes a locale parameter. Without looking at the code, I would imagine printf just calls a “getcurrentlocale()” style function and passes that along as the locale. The final function is the actual implementation and not part of the public API. Could printf call __stdio_common_vfprintf directly? Sure but it means more maintenance work if __stdio_common_vfprintf gains a new flag etc.

  • 紅樓鍮 0

    I think this is also how std::any can work without RTTI. Sy Brand gave a talk about this way of doing runtime polymorphism at Pure Virtual C++ Conference. His talk illustrates the fact that when you have a good framework for static polymorphism and metaprogramming in a language, efficient dynamic polymorphism becomes very easy to implement as a library. Either of which I still do not see the sign of coming to C# at any time soon.

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