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Introduction to a C++ low level object model

, 7 Oct 2012
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C++ low level design

Introduction

In this article I am going to describe how does a C++ compiler interprets an objects. Also I am going to describe some interesting cases of language behaviour. For some people this article may look like trivial. But I do believe that it might be usefull for a big number of C++ developers.

What is struct ?  

First of all let's think how does compiler looks at struct. Suppose we have a struct:

struct SomeStruct
{ 
    int  field1;
    char field2 
    double field3;
    bool  field4; 
};  

And suppose we have a function 

void SomeFunction()
{
    SomeStruct someStructVariable;
    // usage of someStructVariable
   ... 
}     

How do you think what will happen if we will replace the someStructVariable into a for variables like below ?

void SomeFunction()
{ 
    int  field1;
    char field2 
    double field3;
    bool  field4;      
    // usage of 4 variables
   ... 
} 

Correct answer is: nothing ! The machine code generated for this function stays the same. So for compiler struct is just a couple variables placed one by one. So the pointer to the struct is actually a pointer to the first member of struct. So the code like this: 

someStructPtr->field1 = 123; 

will be interpreted like: 

*(int*)((void*)someStructPtr) = 123; 

and a code: 

someStructPtr->field3 = 0.123; 

will be

*((double*)((char*)someStructPtr + sizeof(int) + sizeof(char))) = 0.123; 

and so on ... 

It's true untill struct is just a simple set of fields without virtual functions. Such kind of structs are called POD structs.  

Structs's with member functions.  

Suppose we had add a member function to our struct definition:  

struct SomeStruct 
{ 
    int  field1;
    char field2 
    double field3;
    bool  field4;
    void SetAllFields(int f1, char f2, double f3, bool f4)
    { 
        field1 = f1;
        field2 = f2;
        field3 = f3;
        field4 = f4; 
    } 
};   

How do you think what is the number of arguments of SetAllFields function ? The correct answer if five. Because for all member functions we have a hidden argument "this". This hidden parameter allows compiler to have only one copy of member function code and use it for all class instances. So for compiler our member function will look like: 

void SetAllFields(SomeStruct* this, int f1, char f2, double f3, bool f4)
{ 
    this->field1 = f1;
    this->field2 = f2;
    this->field3 = f3;
    this->field4 = f4; 
}  

So calling of  member function like this: 

someStructInstance.SetAllFields(123, 'a', 0.123, true); 

will be transformed in: 

SetAllFields(&someStructInstance, 123, 'a', 0.123, true);  

By the way according to Straustrup the only difference between class and struct is that all members of struct are public by default, and class members are private by default. So we can say that all I have mentioned is true for a classes. 

Looking ahead we can take a look on a standart interview question:

Suppose we have a class SomeClass1 and class a SomeClass2  derived from SomeClass1. Both of them have a function PrintClassName wich prints a class name. 

... 
class SomeClass1
{ 
public:
    void Print() 
    { 
        std::cout <<  "SomeClass1\n"; 
    } 
};
 
class SomeClass2 : public SomeClass1
{
public:
    void Print()
    {
        std::cout << "SomeClass2\n"; 
    }  
};
... 

It's obvious that the folloving code:

... 
SomeClass1* ptr = new SomeClass2();
ptr->Print();
...   

will print "SomeClass1" and now we can explain why. Call of the print function will be interpreted like the code below. 

... 
SomeClass* ptr = new SomeClass2(); 
Print(ptr);
...    

So the compiler used the best matched function, as it does not actually knows what kind of object "ptr" points on.  

Inheritance realization.

We have already used inheritance in this article, but we did not explain the mechanisms that are covered behind it. 

Suppose we have a 2 classes: class SomeClass and class SomeDerivedClass.

...
class SomeClass
{
public:
    int field1; 
    double field2;
    char field3; 
};
 
class SomeDerivedClass : public SomeClass
{
public:
    int field1;
    double field2;
    char field3; 
}; 
...    

As we all know the instance of SomeDerrivedClass  will contain a fields both from base class and from derrived class. So The most obvious way to place all fields in memory is just place base class members, then place a derrved class members. That's actually the way how it's implemented in C++ compiler. 

someDerivedClassPtr -> 

 





int field1 
double field2 
char field3 

int field1 
double field2 
char field3 
In case when we have a deeper inheritance nothing changes. We have base class at first, then derived from base than the derived from derived from base and so on...

Multiple inheritance does not make a lot of changes in object representation. In case of inheritance from 2 classes, the fields of the first ancestor will be placed first, after that there will be a fields of the second ancestor and then the fields of derived class.  

Diamond inheritance problem. 

Suppose we have some base class "BaseClass", and two classes are derived from it: "SomeClass1" and "SomeClass2". Then we had created one more class "SomeFinalClass" which is inherited from "SomeClass1" and "SomeClass2". 

...
class BaseClass
{ 
... 
};
class SomeClass1 : public BaseClass
{
... 
};
class SomeClass2 : public BaseClass
{
... 
};
class SomeFinalClass : public SomeClass1, public SomeClass2
{
... 
};
...  

The struct of that class in memory will be the following: 

BaseClass members 
SomeClass1 members 
BaseClass members 
SomeClass2 members 
SomeFinalClass members 

As usual we will need only one copy of base class members, so we need to avoid the second copy, because it's additional memory usage and calling BaseClass constructor twice.  

To avoid that we can use a virtual inheritance. In this case we will have only one copy of base class members and only one base class constructor call.   

Virtual functions realization.    

Let's come back to the last example from the  "Structs's with member functions." chapter, but with a little modification. We will put virtual keyword before our functions definition. 

... 
class SomeClass1
{
public:
    virtual void Print()
    {
        std::cout <<  "SomeClass1\n";
    }
};
class SomeClass2 : public SomeClass1
{
public:
    virtual void Print()
    {
        std::cout << "SomeClass2\n";
    }
};
...   

The output in a following code will differ from the previous one.   

... 
SomeClass1* ptr = new SomeClass2();
ptr->Print();
...    

It will be "SomeClass2". So it's obvious that mechanism of calling virtual functions should be different.  

All classes with virtual functions has a special hidden member which is a pointer to a virtual functions table, So calls of virtual functions are calls of function by pointer with some offset. 

So lets take a look on the following code.  

... 
SomeClass1* ptr = new SomeClass1(); 
ptr->Print(); 
...    

 In machine codes we will have something like this:  

...
//class  initialization 
...  
ptr->vftbl[0](ptr); 
...   

You probably interesting why do we create an instance of SomeClass1 instead of SomeClass2 ? This is because the thing getting interesting when we are trying to call a virtual function from a derived class. In a case of inheritance a new virtual table is created on a base of an old one. All overloaded functions from the base class are overloaded with the according functions of an ancestor. Virtual functions which was not present in a parent class are append to a virtual table in order they were declared.   

Now lets take a look on a class initialization. As we know for derived classes construction starts from calling base class constructor(s) and then the derived class constructor. Base class constructor sets the vftbl pointer to a virtual table of base class. Then in an inherited class constructor vftbl pointer is reseted to a derived class table. So that's why when we called a virtual function like in an example at the begining of this paragraph we get an output "SomeClass2". vftbl pointer was pointing to another virtual table where were another function by the offset 0.  

I should mention that virtual functions mechanizm is not working in a constructor and destructor. As for the constructor it's because vftbl pointer is resetted in the end of construction. It's made like that because while constructor is now finished we should think that the fields of a class are not initialized. As an example the following code will print "SomeClass1" 

 class SomeClass1 
{
public:
    virtual void Print()
    {
        std::cout <<  "SomeClass1\n";
    }
};
class SomeClass2 : public SomeClass1
{
public:
    SomeClass2()
    {
        Print();
    }
    virtual void Print()
    {
        std::cout << "SomeClass2\n";
    }
};
...
SomeClass1* ptr = new SomeClass2();
...    

As for a destructor it also resets a vftbl but it does at the start, so the base class function will be called.

NOTE: it is not necessary to put virtual for all function definitions. If you will put virtual once all the function's with the same signature and from the same inheritance tree will be virtual. 

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Sergey Vystoropskiy
Software Developer Marmalade
Ukraine Ukraine
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Comments and Discussions

 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pinmembergndnet7-Nov-12 7:30 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pinmemberserhiy.semenyuk18-Oct-12 22:42 
Suggestionthis dos not happen on MSVC Pinmemberjmanuelexe9-Oct-12 9:06 
GeneralRe: this dos not happen on MSVC PinmemberSergey Vystoropskiy28-Oct-12 10:48 
Question[My vote of 1] My vote - bad PinmemberSergey Voropaev7-Oct-12 20:20 
AnswerRe: [My vote of 1] My vote - bad PinmemberSergey Vystoropskiy7-Oct-12 20:42 
GeneralRe: [My vote of 1] My vote - bad PinmemberSergV-SNV7-Oct-12 21:29 
GeneralRe: [My vote of 1] My vote - bad PinmemberSergey Vystoropskiy7-Oct-12 21:43 
GeneralRe: [My vote of 1] My vote - bad PinmemberSergV-SNV7-Oct-12 21:55 
GeneralRe: [My vote of 1] My vote - bad PinmvpEspen Harlinn7-Oct-12 23:31 
GeneralRe: [My vote of 1] My vote - bad PinmemberSergey Vystoropskiy7-Oct-12 23:50 
GeneralRe: [My vote of 1] My vote - bad PinmemberSergV-SNV8-Oct-12 0:32 

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