Notes on COM aggregation: Obtaining a pointer to your aggregated partner without introducing a reference cycle

Raymond Chen

COM aggregation allows multiple objects to work together so that they appear to be a single object. It is one of those advanced topics most people never deal with. It just works invisibly.

There are many other write-ups of COM aggregation, so I’ll leave you to learn the basics somewhere else. The short version is that the two parties in COM aggregation are informally called the outer and inner objects. The object that is being aggregated is the inner object, and the object that is doing the aggregating is the outer object. The outer object formally goes by the name controlling unknown, a name with a rather nefarious secret-society ring that has not gone unnoticed.

Most of the responsibility for making aggregation work lies on the inner object. The inner object exposes a special non-delegating IUnknown to the outer object. This non-delegating IUnknown is a “for your eyes only” interface exclusively for the outer object. It is how the outer object accesses the interfaces of the inner object. The non-delegating IUnknown goes like this:

  • QueryInterface for IUnknown: Return the non-delegating IUnknown and call its AddRef (which we will see below increments the reference count of the inner object).
  • QueryInterface for anything else: Obtain an interface (if supported) from the inner object as a delegating interface (see below), and call the delegating interface’s AddRef. (As we’ll see below, this delegating AddRef increments the reference count of the outer object.)
  • AddRef: Increment the reference count of the inner object.
  • Release: Decrement the reference count of the inner object, and destroy the inner object if the reference count is zero.

Whenever the inner object hands out a non-IUnknown interface from its non-delegating QueryInterface, the IUnknown methods on the resulting interface are delegating:

  • QueryInterface: Forward to the outer object.
  • AddRef: Forward to the outer object.
  • Release: Forward to the outer object.

It is this forwarding that makes the inner object appear to be part of the outer object. Whenever anybody (other than the outer object) asks for information about the inner object, the request is always forwarded to the outer object for consistent handling.

The outer object’s Query­Interface method will look at the interface being requested and classify it in one of three buckets:

  • Handled by the outer object: Return a pointer to the outer object’s interface and increment the reference count of the outer object.
  • Handled by the inner object: Query the non-delegating inner object for the requested interface. This will also increment the reference count of the outer object.
  • Handled by neither: Fail.

If the outer object needs to obtain an interface from the inner object temporarily, it can query the inner object for that interface (which will increment the outer object’s reference count), use the interface, and then release it (which will decrement the outer object’s reference count). At the end of the sequence, everything has returned to normal.

Things get weird if the outer object wants to obtain an interface from the inner object for an extended period of time. This is common if the outer object intends to use the interface a lot, so it wants to query once and just cache the result. If it followed the “temporary” usage pattern above, it would end up with a reference cycle: Querying the inner object for the interface increments the outer object’s reference count, so the object is indirectly holding a reference to itself, which means that the object will never destruct, even if all external clients release their references.

The fact that you have a circular reference is more obvious if you remember that the point of aggregation is to make two objects appear to be one, so what the outer object did was query itself for the interface, which naturally creates a reference cycle.

In order to break this reference cycle, you need to perform an artificial Release on the outer object to make the net change zero.

When you want to clean up that secret internal reference, you need to perform the steps in reverse: AddRef the outer object, and then Release the inner interface. This part of the trick requires the outer object to set an artificial reference count during destruction to avoid accidental double-destruction.

This same logic works in the other direction, too: The inner object can query its outer for an interface to use temporarily, releasing it when finished. If the inner object wants to query its outer for an interface and cache it, then it needs to perform a Release on the outer object (not on the queried interface) to counteract the reference count increment that resulted from the Query­Interface. When releasing the interface, the same reversal algorithm applies: AddRef the outer object and then release the queried interface.

The code sequence therefore goes like this:

// outer querying inner and caching the result

if (SUCCEEDED(m_inner->QueryInterface(IID_PPV_ARGS(&m_cachedInner))) {

// outer releasing cached inner interface

// inner querying outer and caching the result

if (SUCCEEDED(m_outer->QueryInterface(IID_PPV_ARGS(&m_cachedOuter))) {

// inner releasing cached outer interface


This all looks great and seems to work, until you realize that there’s a corner case you missed: Tear-offs.

We’ll look more closely at the interaction between aggregation and tear-offs next time.

Bonus chatter: Weak Query­Interface in COM aggregation was the topic I was referring to when I mentioned that Don Box told me that it was too advanced even for his advanced book on COM.


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  • Henry Skoglund 0

    Wasn’t COM Tear-offs just an implementation detail to save RAM and CPU time?
    I remember experiencing COM Nirvana (on a beautiful spring day around the turn of the century) without ever using those ATL macros for creating Tear-offs.

    • GL 0

      Yes, tear-offs are an implementation detail. However, due to that possibility, COM denies the identity of differently obtained interfaces of the same object for reference-counting purposes. So

      IUnknown *pUnk; // initialized somewhere else
      IFoo *pFoo;
      pUnk->QueryInterface(IID_IFoo, (void **)&pFoo); // S_OK
      pUnk->Release(); // Oops!

      is incorrect as far as COM is concerned. That it sometimes works is an implementation detail.

      Side question: Are tear-offs are just aggregation of things written by the same group of people?

  • Dennis Mabrey 0

    I thought COM had an IWeakReference interface for solving reference cycles. You have to forgive me it has been over 20 some years since I’ve seen any COM in my life.

    • Raymond ChenMicrosoft employee 0

      IWeakReference is used by the Windows Runtime to represent weak references to objects derived from IInspectable. But classic COM objects don’t derive from IInspectable. Furthermore, it always produces a weak reference to the outer object (because that is the point of aggregation: the outer object is the only identity the outside world sees), so it doesn’t help the case where the outer object wants a weak reference to the inner object. And even if it worked for aggregated inner objects, it is not an improvement. You “optimized out” a QueryInterface but replaced it with a Resolve+QueryInterface.

  • Ivan K 0

    punknownouter. just what i needed. You’re just what i needed, sang… someone??

  • Felix Kasza 0

    Never mind COM aggregation — I am deeply grateful for the illuminating link you provided! Having read this valuable treatise, I must confess that I am still unsure whether my ex-boss is an “unknown superior” or indeed a direct descendant of Yog-Sothoth, but that surely is a failing of mine.

    More importantly, the existence of Building 7 has been proven! “The twenty-third building, or Building 7 […]” states quite clearly that the building exists and that only five people (as of 1996) knew where it is. Apparently the controlling thingummies also offed the construction workers in job lots, and since nobody ever complained, they must all have been single, unemployed orphans …

    Thanks again for the link, the text is hilarious!
    Recommendation: Would laugh again, 9/10

  • Sigge Mannen 0

    Is it allowed to have nested aggregation? Ie, the inner object itself aggregates other objects and exposes interfaces that outer object doesn’t know about?
    In that case, wouldn’t it require the most outer IUnknown to send all interface-requests to the non-delegating unknown?

    • Raymond ChenMicrosoft employee 0

      Yes it is allowed. The rule is the same for single and nested aggregation: The outer IUnknown decides which interfaces of the inner object it wants to aggregate.

      • Sigge Mannen 0

        So, let’s say we have a following Object hierarchy: IOuterObject aggregates IInnerObject, and IInnerObject aggregates IInnerstObject.

        Would it be correct behaviour that asking for IInnerstObject interface from IOuterObject fail and asking for IInnerstObject from IInnerObject succeed?

        • Raymond ChenMicrosoft employee 0

          You’re confusing objects and interfaces. Say we have an outer object Outer that implements IOuter. It aggregates an inner object Inner that implements IInner, and the inner object in turn aggregates Innerst which implements IInnerst. The Outer object chooses which interfaces it wants to expose, and it could decide “I want to expose IOuter (from myself) and IInner (from my Inner), but nothing else.” On the other hand Inner might say “I want to expose both IInner (from myself) and IInnerst (from Innerst).” This is all legal. The only object that has access to Inner is Outer. (Not even Innerst has access to Inner, because the controlling unknown for Innerst is Outer.)

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