Pointer to raw memory? T*.

In my talk “The Best Type Traits C++ Doesn’t Have”, I present a design for tombstone_traits, whose primary template looks like this:

template<class T>
struct tombstone_traits {
    static constexpr size_t spare_representations = 0;
    static constexpr size_t index(const T *p) { return size_t(-1); }
    static constexpr void set_spare_representation(T *p, size_t i) = delete;

The idea is that you can hook this up to optimize the memory layout of std::optional<T>. Many details omitted from this sample code; this is merely to help you get the idea if you haven’t seen the talk. (Thanks to Nicole Mazzuca for the suggestion that as long as we’re breaking ABI anyway, tombstone_traits should be a defaulted template type parameter instead of hard-coded.)

    class T,
    class Traits = std::tombstone_traits<T>,
    class = std::enable_if_t<Traits::spare_representations >= 1>
class optional_base {
    union {
        char dummy_;
        T value_;
    optional_base() {
        Traits::set_spare_representation(&value_, 0);
    ~optional_base() {
        if (Traits::index(&value_) == 0) {

Notice that when we call index, the parameter T *p points to an actual T object if and only if the optional happens to be engaged. The implementation of index must rely on type-punning to examine the bitwise contents of that memory, to figure out whether there’s a T object actually present or not.

Both times I’ve presented this (so far), somebody has asked, “Why do you use T* as the parameter type of index? If index needs to look at the raw contents of memory, shouldn’t you be passing in something like std::span<std::byte> instead?”

I answer “No.”

T* before byte*

First of all, std::span<std::byte> would be crazy heavyweight (both in object size and in header weight) compared to T*. And it would require C++2a, since std::span isn’t in C++17.

Okay, so what about std::byte*? That still drags in some header weight (because C++17 std::byte for whatever reason is not a core-language type; it’s an enum defined in <cstddef>), and requires C++17. Also, we’re likely going to be type-punning the contents of memory anyway, so passing std::byte* instead of T* doesn’t stop us from needing to write reinterpret_casts. (Unless we’re satisfied with reading memory as an array of std::bytes, of course. But notice that you can’t do arithmetic on std::byte values; they support & and < but not + or -.)

“Okay, so what about void*?” asks my interrogator. That doesn’t have any header weight; it’s portable back to C++11 and even older; it doesn’t pretend to be a type that it’s not, because it doesn’t pretend to be any type in particular. So why not void *p?

Well, void* doesn’t provide any benefits over T*; see the argument above about needing to write reinterpret_casts (or in void*’s case, static_casts) either way. And it loses something in the self-documentation department.

“But doesn’t T* imply that it actually points to a T object, or else is null? In your case, it might be that neither is true.”

No. Consider:

  • destroy_n takes an input iterator range [first, last) which points to a range of T objects which the algorithm will destroy. (After the call, the range contains raw memory.) In practice, the iterator type we pass in is usually T*.

  • uninitialized_copy takes an output iterator d_first which points to raw memory in which the algorithm will construct T objects. In practice this iterator type is usually T*.

  • allocator::construct takes a T* pointing to raw memory, and constructs a T object there.

  • allocator::allocate returns a T* pointing to raw memory. (Notice specifically that it does not return void*!)

  • The deprecated get_temporary_buffer returns a pair<T*, ptrdiff_t> where the T* points to raw memory.

In all cases, the significant factor is that the T* parameter (or return value) points to a place in memory where a T object might plausibly be stored, now or in the future; even if there happens to be no T object there right now.

So, a parameter of type T* tells us that this parameter expects a pointer value that is, or could be, the address of a T object. Most notably, we know that it must be suitably aligned for a T object.

When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.

Naturally, all this “or could be” business applies only to APIs that are known to deal specifically in raw or uninitialized memory. In general, for the average API, you should confidently assume that when a library API asks for a T*, it’s asking for the address of a T object (or maybe null, depending on the API); and when a library API asks for a T&, it’s asking for the address of a T object, period. Don’t get all paranoid about T* now!

But, suppose you’re designing an API for one of these rare “zebras” that deals in pointers to memory that might not contain T objects right now, but is nevertheless known to be suitably sized and aligned for T. What vocabulary type should you use in your API to pass and return those pointers to memory suitably sized and aligned for T?

You should use T*.

But sometimes void*

If at compile time you don’t know anything about the memory’s alignment, you should use void*. Avoid std::byte* (header weight, portability). Also avoid char*, signed char*, unsigned char*, or uint8_t*. APIs actually concerned with character data should of course use char* (for example, strcpy).

Good examples, using void*:

Poor example, failing to use void*:

Posted 2018-06-08