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Boost C++ Libraries

...one of the most highly regarded and expertly designed C++ library projects in the world. Herb Sutter and Andrei Alexandrescu, C++ Coding Standards

This is the documentation for an old version of boost. Click here for the latest Boost documentation.

Generic Programming Techniques

This is an incomplete survey of some of the generic programming techniques used in the boost libraries.

Table of Contents


Generic programming is about generalizing software components so that they can be easily reused in a wide variety of situations. In C++, class and function templates are particularly effective mechanisms for generic programming because they make the generalization possible without sacrificing efficiency.

As a simple example of generic programming, we will look at how one might generalize the memcpy() function of the C standard library. An implementation of memcpy() might look like the following:

void* memcpy(void* region1, const void* region2, size_t n)
  const char* first = (const char*)region2;
  const char* last = ((const char*)region2) + n;
  char* result = (char*)region1;
  while (first != last)
    *result++ = *first++;
  return result;
The memcpy() function is already generalized to some extent by the use of void* so that the function can be used to copy arrays of different kinds of data. But what if the data we would like to copy is not in an array? Perhaps it is in a linked list. Can we generalize the notion of copy to any sequence of elements? Looking at the body of memcpy(), the function's minimal requirements are that it needs to to traverse through the sequence using some sort of pointer, access elements pointed to, write the elements to the destination, and compare pointers to know when to stop. The C++ standard library groups requirements such as these into concepts, in this case the Input Iterator concept (for region2) and the Output Iterator concept (for region1).

If we rewrite the memcpy() as a function template, and use the Input Iterator and Output Iterator concepts to describe the requirements on the template parameters, we can implement a highly reusable copy() function in the following way:

template <typename InputIterator, typename OutputIterator>
copy(InputIterator first, InputIterator last, OutputIterator result)
  while (first != last)
    *result++ = *first++;
  return result;

Using the generic copy() function, we can now copy elements from any kind of sequence, including a linked list that exports iterators such as std::list.

#include <list>
#include <vector>
#include <iostream>

int main()
  const int N = 3;
  std::vector<int> region1(N);
  std::list<int> region2;

  std::copy(region2.begin(), region2.end(), region1.begin());

  for (int i = 0; i < N; ++i)
    std::cout << region1[i] << " ";
  std::cout << std::endl;

Anatomy of a Concept

A concept is a set requirements, where the requirements consist of valid expressions, associated types, invariants, and complexity guarantees. A type that satisfies the set of requirements is said to model the concept. A concept can extend the requirements of another concept, which is called refinement.

The concepts used in the C++ Standard Library are documented at the SGI STL site.


A traits class provides a way of associating information with a compile-time entity (a type, integral constant, or address). For example, the class template std::iterator_traits<T> looks something like this:

template <class Iterator>
struct iterator_traits {
  typedef ... iterator_category;
  typedef ... value_type;
  typedef ... difference_type;
  typedef ... pointer;
  typedef ... reference;
The traits' value_type gives generic code the type which the iterator is "pointing at", while the iterator_category can be used to select more efficient algorithms depending on the iterator's capabilities.

A key feature of traits templates is that they're non-intrusive: they allow us to associate information with arbitrary types, including built-in types and types defined in third-party libraries, Normally, traits are specified for a particular type by (partially) specializing the traits template.

For an in-depth description of std::iterator_traits, see this page provided by SGI. Another very different expression of the traits idiom in the standard is std::numeric_limits<T> which provides constants describing the range and capabilities of numeric types.

Tag Dispatching

A technique that often goes hand in hand with traits classes is tag dispatching, which is a way of using function overloading to dispatch based on properties of a type. A good example of this is the implementation of the std::advance() function in the C++ Standard Library, which increments an iterator n times. Depending on the kind of iterator, there are different optimizations that can be applied in the implementation. If the iterator is random access (can jump forward and backward arbitrary distances), then the advance() function can simply be implemented with i += n, and is very efficient: constant time. Other iterators must be advanced in steps, making the operation linear in n. If the iterator is bidirectional, then it makes sense for n to be negative, so we must decide whether to increment or decrement the iterator.

The relation between tag dispatching and traits classes is that the property used for dispatching (in this case the iterator_category) is often accessed through a traits class. The main advance() function uses the iterator_traits class to get the iterator_category. It then makes a call the the overloaded advance_dispatch() function. The appropriate advance_dispatch() is selected by the compiler based on whatever type the iterator_category resolves to, either input_iterator_tag, bidirectional_iterator_tag, or random_access_iterator_tag. A tag is simply a class whose only purpose is to convey some property for use in tag dispatching and similar techniques. Refer to this page for a more detailed description of iterator tags.

namespace std {
  struct input_iterator_tag { };
  struct bidirectional_iterator_tag { };
  struct random_access_iterator_tag { };

  namespace detail {
    template <class InputIterator, class Distance>
    void advance_dispatch(InputIterator& i, Distance n, input_iterator_tag) {
      while (n--) ++i;

    template <class BidirectionalIterator, class Distance>
    void advance_dispatch(BidirectionalIterator& i, Distance n, 
       bidirectional_iterator_tag) {
      if (n >= 0)
        while (n--) ++i;
        while (n++) --i;

    template <class RandomAccessIterator, class Distance>
    void advance_dispatch(RandomAccessIterator& i, Distance n, 
       random_access_iterator_tag) {
      i += n;

  template <class InputIterator, class Distance>
  void advance(InputIterator& i, Distance n) {
    typename iterator_traits<InputIterator>::iterator_category category;
    detail::advance_dispatch(i, n, category);


An adaptor is a class template which builds on another type or types to provide a new interface or behavioral variant. Examples of standard adaptors are std::reverse_iterator, which adapts an iterator type by reversing its motion upon increment/decrement, and std::stack, which adapts a container to provide a simple stack interface.

A more comprehensive review of the adaptors in the standard can be found here.

Type Generators

A type generator is a template whose only purpose is to synthesize a new type or types based on its template argument(s)[1]. The generated type is usually expressed as a nested typedef named, appropriately type. A type generator is usually used to consolidate a complicated type expression into a simple one, as in boost::filter_iterator_generator, which looks something like this:

template <class Predicate, class Iterator, 
    class Value = complicated default,
    class Reference = complicated default,
    class Pointer = complicated default,
    class Category = complicated default,
    class Distance = complicated default
struct filter_iterator_generator {
    typedef iterator_adaptor<
        Value,Reference,Pointer,Category,Distance> type;

Now, that's complicated, but producing an adapted filter iterator is much easier. You can usually just write:


Object Generators

An object generator is a function template whose only purpose is to construct a new object out of its arguments. Think of it as a kind of generic constructor. An object generator may be more useful than a plain constructor when the exact type to be generated is difficult or impossible to express and the result of the generator can be passed directly to a function rather than stored in a variable. Most Boost object generators are named with the prefix "make_", after std::make_pair(const T&, const U&).

For example, given:

struct widget {
  void tweak(int);
std::vector<widget *> widget_ptrs;
By chaining two standard object generators, std::bind2nd() and std::mem_fun(), we can easily tweak all widgets:
void tweak_all_widgets1(int arg)
   for_each(widget_ptrs.begin(), widget_ptrs.end(),
      bind2nd(std::mem_fun(&widget::tweak), arg));

Without using object generators the example above would look like this:

void tweak_all_widgets2(int arg)
   for_each(struct_ptrs.begin(), struct_ptrs.end(),
      std::binder2nd<std::mem_fun1_t<void, widget, int> >(
          std::mem_fun1_t<void, widget, int>(&widget::tweak), arg));

As expressions get more complicated the need to reduce the verbosity of type specification gets more compelling.

Policy Classes

A policy class is a template parameter used to transmit behavior. An example from the standard library is std::allocator, which supplies memory management behaviors to standard containers.

Policy classes have been explored in detail by Andrei Alexandrescu in this paper. He writes:

Policy classes are implementations of punctual design choices. They are inherited from, or contained within, other classes. They provide different strategies under the same syntactic interface. A class using policies is templated having one template parameter for each policy it uses. This allows the user to select the policies needed.

The power of policy classes comes from their ability to combine freely. By combining several policy classes in a template class with multiple parameters, one achieves combinatorial behaviors with a linear amount of code.

Andrei's description of policy classes describe their power as being derived from their granularity and orthogonality. Boost has probably diluted the distinction in the Iterator Adaptors library, where we transmit all of an adapted iterator's behavior in a single policy class. There is precedent for this, however: std::char_traits, despite its name, acts as a policies class that determines the behaviors of std::basic_string.


[1] Type generators are a workaround for the lack of ``templated typedefs'' in C++.

Revised 14 Mar 2001

© Copyright David Abrahams 2001. Permission to copy, use, modify, sell and distribute this document is granted provided this copyright notice appears in all copies. This document is provided "as is" without express or implied warranty, and with no claim as to its suitability for any purpose.