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Posted 20 Apr 2004

Generic Class Factory

, 20 Apr 2004
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Template-based class factory, which can cooperate with almost all object models

A bit of theory

C/C++ is a strongly typed language. Which means, in simple words, that information about variable's type is known only at compile time, not at runtime. All type identifiers (type names, member variable names etc.) behave like "constants", in the sense, that their value must be known at compile time. Hence C/C++ doesn't provide functions like "is the variable X kind of type T?" or "create an instance of type described by (variable) identifier ID".

The advantage of this approach is performance. All the hard work with types is done by compiler. Reading and writing to non-pointer variables are done by simple reading and writing at the (constant) address of memory.

C++ has two exceptions from the strongly typed language paradigm. The first is the virtual function mechanism. Calling a virtual function can launch different routines, depending of actual type of the caller instance type. The advantage is, that the actual instance type needn't be known at compile time. The price is lower speed, because invoking virtual function causes one more dereference operation that invoking static function. The second exception is run-time type info (RTTI). It allows you to compare types of variables (via typeid) and to determine, whether the variable is derived from a desired type (via dynamic_cast). Because RTTI works properly even if the variables were statically typecasted, it is an exception from strongly typed paradigm.

Higher-level C++ descendants (Java, C# etc.) and weakly typed languages (Perl, Ruby etc.) provide more runtime features, that are directly embedded in the language. In most cases the strongly typed approach is sufficient. But, for example, serialization can't be done without any runtime information about types. Consider a collection of objects of various types and you would like to construct it from a stream. The type of the object, that you're constructing, is dependent of data from stream. So the information about types is retrieved at runtime, therefore you need any runtime type information.

The general solution of deserializing is called class factory. Class factory is a class, that creates instances of types specified by parameter. The parameter can be a variable, so you can decide at runtime, which type you want to create. The simplest model of class factory works like this:

void* create_instance(int typecode)
    case 1: return new ClassA;
    case 2: return new ClassB;
This model isn't very elegant, because if you add a new class to the project, you have to browse through the class factory source code and add a line in the switch block. Moreover, in all serializable classes you have to declare a static variable (or static function), through that you get typecode of the class. The better model uses registration, through which you pass information about classes outside of declaration of the class factory. The registration is made by various ways and often use dirty tricks with macros or templates, because strongly typed C++ isn't built to such operations.

Now here should follow the detailed theory about class factories. But Patje was faster and wrote the article Different ways of implementing factories at CodeProject :) I decided not to make duplicate work, so follow the link and enjoy.

Why use this class factory?

This class factory is useful for all developers, which wants to provide serializing independent on MFC. MFC provides quite robust class factory mechanism (via CRuntimeClass), but all serializable objects must be derived from CObject.

This class factory works quite independent on other classes and can be bound to almost any object model. You needn't to derive your classes from any root class. The information about classes is separated from the class factory declaration, but also from the classes declaration. Therefore you can register the class without modifying the class source code, even if you have the class implementation only in binary LIB/DLL.

The class factory provide a class tag, in that you can store additional data bound to the given class type. I've written this library to help to my various projects. I know, that it can be "purified" in many ways, to be more STL-compliant. So I would welcome all your suggestions.

Using the class factory

First of all, set Enable Run-Time Type Information in the project settings (C++, category C++ Language).

Next is declaring the class factory. You should declare it in a header file, which must be included in all source files, where you register the classes:

#include <span class="code-string">"factory.h"</span>
DECLARE_CLASS_FACTORY_EX(Root, Key, Tag, Factory_name)

The Root parameter is name of root class in your object model. When you create instances via the class factory, they will be casted to Root* type. If your object model doesn't have a root class, set Root to void.

The Key parameter specifies a type of class key. When you create instances via the class factory, the key specifies the type of desired instance. You can use arbitrary type of key, but it must provide operator<, because class information is stored in std::map collection sorted by the key. The Tag parameter specifies a type of class tag. Every registered class have a Tag data structure, that contains additional data shared by all instance of the class. It's similar to static members, but to the tag data you have access also via the class key. If you want not to use a class tag, use empty_tag.

Factory_name is the name of global object, which represents the class factory. You can use any C++ valid identifier. There is a shorter declaration macro DECLARE_CLASS_FACTORY(Factory_name), which is equivalent to DECLARE_CLASS_FACTORY_EX(void, int, empty_tag, Factory_name). In some cpp file you should define the class factory:

DECLARE_CLASS_FACTORY_EX(Root, Key, Tag, Factory_name)

with same parameters as in declaration. You can declare more class factories and use them all at once, but you can't declare more class factories with same Root, Key, Tag parameters.

For class registration use following macros:

REGISTER_CLASS(factory, class_name, key)
REGISTER_TAGGED_CLASS(factory, class_name, key, tag)

It registers the class_name class to factory class factory and assign the key and tag (if any) with it. The REGISTER_TAGGED_CLASS can be used only with class factory with nonempty tag type. These macros can be placed in any cpp file and in arbitrary order. They must be in global scope and the factory, class, key and tag type declaration must be known at this point. You can set tag member values somewhere else than the class registration macro:

SET_TAG_PROPERTY(factory, class_name, property, value)

property is a name of some member of tag class or structure and value is a constant expression, which will be assigned to property. You can set different properties at different places, but for one class, you can set every property only once. If you want to combine REGISTER_TAGGED_CLASS with SET_TAG_PROPERTY, override the Tag::operator=. In REGISTER_TAGGED_CLASS only some members will be assigned via operator=, and the rest can be set in SET_TAG_PROPERTY. If some member is set in both macros, the result is undefined.

All registration and tag setting code is executed before execution of main(). Hence the following methods of class factory can be used anywhere in the program:

const Key key(const type_info& ti);
const Tag& tag(const type_info& ti);
const Tag& tag(const Key key);
Root* create(const Key key);

The first two functions returns key and tag values assigned with the class specified by ti (see type_info class in MSDN). The third functions return tag value assigned with given key and the last function creates a instance of type specified by key and casts it to Root*. You are responsible to delete these instances properly. If the key or class with type_info ti isn't registered in the class factory, the functions throw a not_registered exception.

The demo program shows a simple example of serialization using class factory.

How it all works

The class information is stored in class_info:

template<class Root, class Key, class Tag>
class class_info
  Key key;
  Tag tag;
  Root* (*create)();

The create pointer function is taken from class class_creator (a generic class for creating an instance of type T which is casted to Root*):

template<class Root, class T>
class class_creator
  static Root* create()
    return new T;

All class_infos are collected to two std::maps - first indexed by Key and second indexed by type_info*. The second index is used, if you retrieve class info from a given class instance. Don't use type_info or type_info* as key type, because it can't be deserialized (you can't obtain type_info from any integer or string variable) and the member values are compiler-dependent. The registering and tag setting macros define empty global classes of type class_factory_wrapper, in whose constuctor parameters are the registering function calls. With this dirty trick, all registrations and tag settings are made before main() starts. However, because we construct global objects, we can't assume any order of registrations and tag settings.

The key, tag and create methods use map::find to find appropriate class info and if the find fails, they throws an exception. However tag_ref (used by SET_TAG_PROPERTY) and register_class methods use map::operator[]. Because the order of registration and tag property setting is undefined, both of these functions create a new entry in the class info map, if they doesn't find one.

Undefined order of construction causes another serious problem: some class can attempt to register in the class factory, which hasn't been constructed yet, so it ends with access violation in map::insert code. That's why the class factory has a static member initial_lock. This dirty trick uses, that global and static integers have initial value zero. See the class_factory::unlock() implementation. All class factory methods call unlock(), which construct both std::maps before any map operations, but only once within the program run.


This article is sooo young to have a history...


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About the Author

Robert A. T. Káldy
Web Developer
Czech Republic Czech Republic
Nowadays, I'm studying Econometrics and Software Systems at Charles University in Prague. Parallel to it, I work as a Windows developer in a railway interlocking company.
I consider myself as a C++ fundamentalist, simply because I haven't ever found any better language. If you know about any, please drop me a mail (and we can dispute about it Smile | :) )
Some friends say that I'm workoholic and I answer, yes, of course and what is wrong?
You can visit my homepage, but it's completely in Czech Smile | :)

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Comments and Discussions

Questionwhat if the class is templated ? Pin
fred_omnes2-Mar-10 14:31
memberfred_omnes2-Mar-10 14:31 
AnswerRe: what if the class is templated ? Pin
fred_omnes2-Mar-10 14:50
memberfred_omnes2-Mar-10 14:50 
GeneralRe: what if the class is templated ? Pin
EHomer8-Jul-11 13:35
memberEHomer8-Jul-11 13:35 
NewsNo more support Pin
Robert A. T. Káldy1-Aug-06 4:00
memberRobert A. T. Káldy1-Aug-06 4:00 
GeneralIt doesn't work... Pin
~k2-Sep-05 0:20
member~k2-Sep-05 0:20 
GeneralRe: It doesn't work... Pin
strother26-Jul-06 3:49
memberstrother26-Jul-06 3:49 

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