The space of design choices for std::function

Let’s say we were designing C++11’s std::function from scratch. For convenience, I’ll refer to our function-alike class template as F.

Assume that we aren’t messing with the core, core basics: F is parameterized by a function signature, and it type-erases its controlled object. We definitely want stuff like this to compile:

int run_twice(const F<int(int)>& callback) {
    return callback(1) + callback(1);
auto f = [a=1](int x) { return x + a; };
assert(run_twice(f) == 4);

Our design work doesn’t end there, though! We have to make a whole lot of design choices. Each choice has upsides and downsides. Let’s list all the design “knobs” we can think of.

Core semantics

Owning or non-owning?

If I put a lambda into an F, does F take ownership of the value of that lambda, or does it just take a reference or shallow copy?

F<int()> f;
    auto t = [s = std::string("hello world")]() { return s.size(); };
    f = t;
int x = f();  // defined or undefined behavior?

If f does take ownership of a copy of t, then we have something like std::function. If f just takes a non-owning reference to the lambda, then we have something like function_ref.

function_ref can be extremely lightweight — the size of two pointers, no heap allocation ever. It’s a good vocabulary type for callbacks (if you can’t afford to make a template taking const X& for some reason).

But function actually manages lifetime. There are plenty of use-cases where you need an owning function type that knows how to clean up after itself.

In fact, the phrasing “knows how to clean up after itself” is the key intuition here. “Should F be owning or non-owning?” is just an abstract way of asking, “Should F know how to destroy its controlled object t, or not?” It’s a question of affordances, which is to say, it’s a question about what belongs in F’s (notional) “vtable.” (Recall affordances from my previous post “What is Type Erasure?”, which borrows the idea from Don Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things.)

Copyable or non-copyable?

Suppose F does take ownership of its contents; so, it knows how to destroy its wrapped object t. Does it also know how to make a copy of the object? If so, we have something like std::function. If not, then we have something like std::unique_function.

The upside of unique_function is that you can use a unique_function to store a move-only lambda (such as a lambda that captures a std::promise by value). The downside, of course, is that unique_function itself is move-only, which can limit our ability to make containers full of unique_functions or use them as members of classes that do need to be copyable for some reason.


If you’re already thinking about how to implement F’s type erasure, then you might have realized that there’s a middle ground between “copyable” std::function and “move-only” std::unique_function. At the machine level, the former keeps a unique_ptr<AbstractWidget> m and its copy constructor calls m->clone() to get a new copy of the wrapped object. The latter keeps a unique_ptr<AbstractWidget> m and its copy constructor is deleted. But what if we just changed that unique_ptr into a shared_ptr?!

If we did that, then copy-constructing one F from another would result in two F objects that shared ownership of a single wrapped callback.

auto f = [i=0]() mutable { return ++i; };
F<int()> alpha = f;
F<int()> beta = alpha;
F<int()> gamma = f;
assert(alpha() == 1);
assert(beta() == 2);  // beta shares alpha's heap-managed state
assert(gamma() == 1);  // gamma's different provenance means different state

I’ve never encountered any reason to invent such a shared_function, but I must admit, it’s possible. If we expect to deal with stateless, idempotent functions (so the confusing sharing semantics won’t trip us up) that are expensive to copy and yet frequently copied, well, maybe we’d consider trying to use shared_function in that case.

Do we allow immovable objects?

One step beyond “move-only” is “not even movable.” If we plan to use our F primarily as a function parameter type, and pass it invariably by const reference, then F might not need to be copyable or even movable!

void foo(const F<int()>& callback);

void bar(const F<int()>& callback) {

int main() {
    bar([](){ return 42; });

In the above snippet, there is only ever one F<int()> object; it’s created in main and destroyed in main. It never needs a move constructor.

Alternatively, if our F stores its wrapped object on the heap, then moving an F object can be done simply by moving the unique_ptr controlling the wrapped T; the wrapped T object itself never needs to move. So we can actually implement a move-only unique_function capable of storing immovable Ts! That’s kind of neat.

SBO affects semantics

Do we have SBO at all?

Small buffer optimization (SBO), also known as small object optimization (SOO), is an optimization of the general type-erasure technique. In SBO, we don’t always heap-allocate our WrappingWidget; if it’s small enough we’ll just store it directly inline. This is very similar to the small string optimization (SSO), and in fact I personally will not get mad at all if you use the term “SSO” as a colloquial synonym for “SBO”/”SOO”.

SBO is observable by the user.

auto f = [i=0]() { printf("%p\n", &i); };
F<void()> alpha = f;
F<void()> beta = std::move(alpha);

If the managed copy of lambda f is stored out-of-line on the heap, then we’ll expect alpha() and beta() to print the same address. If it’s stored inline within alpha, and then physically moved over into beta, then we’ll see alpha() and beta() print two different addresses.

Expose the SBO buffer size and alignment?

Every standard library vendor provides a std::function that incorporates some form of SBO. But their buffer sizes differ: libc++’s buffer is 24 bytes, while libstdc++’s is only 16 bytes. This can make it hard to write portable code, or at least your code might suffer strange performance degradations if it falls into the gap between different vendors’ SBO sizes.

If we’re writing our own F from scratch, maybe we should expose the SBO size explicitly to the user!

template<class Signature, size_t Capacity = 24>
class F;

using CustomCallback = F<int(), 32>;

Any time we expose a “size,” we should also expose an “alignment,” since size and alignment are so closely intertwined in C++.

template<class Signature, size_t Capacity = 24, size_t Align = alignof(std::max_align_t)>
class F;

using SSECallback = F<int(), 32, 32>;  // suitable for lambdas that capture MMX vector types

The upside of this idea is that it gives a great deal of power to the user. The downside is that it can induce paralysis in the user — giving too many choices can be counterproductive, especially if those choices usually don’t matter in the big picture. That’s why std::function doesn’t expose this knob to the user.

On the other hand, the size and alignment knobs are an important part of the interface of inplace_function.

What do we do with objects that don’t fit in SBO?

If our F has SBO, it will try to store every controlled object in SBO, but sometimes it’ll find (at compile time, of course) that some object is too big or too highly aligned for the SBO buffer. In that case it’ll have to allocate the controlled object somewhere else.

std::function does not support the C++11 allocator model. But we could imagine a type-erased F that receives an allocator on construction and then uses that allocator every time it needs to heap-allocate a controlled object.

Do we have anything but SBO?

Alternatively, we could imagine an F whose idea of “heap-allocating” is to static_assert failure! If we give a compiler error whenever the wrapped object doesn’t fit into SBO, then we have inplace_function.

Should we store non-nothrow-move-constructible types in SBO?

Suppose we want F’s move constructor to be noexcept. (This is a very important property. We really want to have this.) Well, F’s move constructor may in general wind up calling the move constructor of any arbitrary T that we placed into the SBO buffer. If that T’s move constructor throws, then F’s move constructor will throw.

Conclusion: If we want F to be nothrow movable, then we must not use SBO for any T that is not nothrow movable.

As with the size/alignment filter, we have several possible routes for dealing with a type T that fails the nothrow-movable filter.

  • Store non-nothrow-movable objects on the heap, just as if they were too big for SBO. (This is one of two options available to a standard-conforming std::function.)

  • Store non-nothrow-movable objects in SBO anyway, and just mark our move constructor as unconditionally noexcept(false). (This is the other option available to a standard-conforming std::function. libc++ does this.)

  • Optimistically store non-nothrow-movable objects in SBO, marking our move constructor as unconditionally noexcept(true). If move-constructing a T actually does throw an exception at runtime, then we’ll std::terminate the program. We’ll document this library precondition: feel free to use non-nothrow-movable Ts with F<void()>, but your T still shall not throw exceptions from its move constructor! If your T throws, the program’s misbehavior is your own fault.

  • static_assert(std::is_nothrow_move_constructible_v<T>) inside the constructor of F.

Should we store non-trivially-relocatable types in SBO?

My previous post “What library types are trivially relocatable in practice?” (2019-02-20) indicated that libstdc++’s std::function was trivially relocatable, because it avoids placing any T into its SBO buffer unless that T is trivially copyable (which implies trivially relocatable). Non-trivially copyable Ts are heap-allocated by libstdc++, just as if they were too big for SBO.

On the other hand, libc++’s and MSVC’s std::function will happily store non-trivially-relocatable types into their SBO buffers.

The upside of libstdc++’s choice is that its std::function is trivially relocatable. The downside is that it does more heap-allocation than libc++’s std::function. For example, libc++’s std::function can store [p = std::make_shared<int>()]() { return p; } in SBO without any extra allocation; but libstdc++ will do an extra heap-allocation since that lambda type is not trivially copyable.

Alternatively, as with the previous section, we could handle non-trivially-relocatable types like this:

  • static_assert(is_trivially_relocatable_v<T> && sizeof(T) <= Capacity && alignof(T) <= Align) inside the constructor of F.

This would produce a fundamentally different kind of F. It would be incapable of storing large, overaligned, or non-trivially relocatable types. But, on the upside, F itself would be guaranteed to be small, neatly aligned, and trivially relocatable! We might give it a name like trivially_relocatable_inplace_function.

We might also find a niche use-case for trivially_copyable_inplace_function, which would be able to store only trivially copyable types, but in exchange would itself be trivially copyable.

Wide versus narrow contract

Does F need an “empty” state?

A default-constructed std::function is in an “empty” state, which compares falsey in if statements like

std::function<void()> f;  // constructed empty
if (f) {
    puts("this line is not executed");

A moved-from std::function may or may not be in the “empty” state, and in fact libc++ and libstdc++ differ on this point.

But if we’re writing F from scratch, do we even care about having a dedicated “empty” state? We could eliminate F’s operator bool() const and just trust the user not to query an uninitialized F object.

Should it be in-contract to call an “empty” F?

An empty std::function not only compares falsey, but throws std::bad_function_call when you call it. I would strenuously argue that if you’re calling an empty std::function, you’re Doing It Wrong. That’s a bug in your program; you should fix it.

Given that a correct program should never really try to call an empty F, should we bother to specify what happens in that case? Maybe we should make “calling an empty F” a contract violation, or assert(false) if it happens, or simply say that such a call is unsupported — that is, make it undefined behavior.

The upside of giving operator() a narrow contract is that it eliminates the entire reason for bad_function_call to exist, and eliminates F’s unfortunate dependency on -fexceptions. The downside is that it’s a bit of undefined behavior that wasn’t there before.

If we do have an empty state, should a moved-from F be guaranteed empty?

As mentioned above, libc++ and libstdc++ differ on this point. The upside of guaranteeing this is that it nails down some behavior that could cause portability concerns.

auto sptr = std::make_shared<Widget>();
F<void()> f = [sptr]() { };
auto g = std::move(f); // LINE A
assert(!f);  // LINE B

On LINE A, can we be confident that sptr.use_count() remains 2, or might f retain a copy of the shared_ptr even after being moved-out-of? (That is, might F implement “move F” in terms of “copy T”?)

On LINE B, can we be confident that the assertion will pass? (That is, might F implement “move F” in terms of “move T,” rather than in terms of “relocate T”?)

Should F be constructible from nullptr?

std::function<void()>(nullptr) is a valid, “empty,” std::function object. I dunno, that seems pretty crazy to me.

Should F be constructible from (void(*)())nullptr?

std::function<void()>((void(*)())nullptr) is also a valid, “empty,” std::function object. That is, every time you store a raw function pointer into a std::function, it inserts code to check whether that function pointer is null or not. If the pointer is null, you get an “empty” std::function; if it’s non-null, you get a “non-empty” std::function (of course).

The upside of this facility is that it makes std::function<void()> a little more of a drop-in replacement for void (*)() — if you put nullptr in, you get something falsey out. The downside is that it causes extra codegen for a situation (storing null function pointers) that in most codebases will never actually arise. You’re paying for something you don’t intend to use.

“Type un-erasure”

std::function provides “type un-erasure” functionality through<T>() and f.target_type(). (In my book I call<T>() a “go fish” function, because you must supply the T you think is stored. If your guess is wrong, it simply returns nullptr.)

If you provide this functionality, then for every type T you store, you must generate code to return its typeid, which means a lot of code and data bloat — and a hard dependency on <typeinfo> and RTTI, which is a dealbreaker for a lot of codebases.

Even if you do provide a target method (to retrieve a pointer to the stored object so that the object can be manipulated directly), you might follow std::function’s lead in making it a template, or you might just implement a non-templated target method that returns void *. Or maybe const void *.

Or maybe you think it’s silly that<Fruit>() == nullptr when f’s target is of type Apple, and you want target to respect class hierarchies as much as possible. You can implement that.

Implicit conversions and SFINAE

  • Can I implicitly convert F<int()> to F<void()>? std::function silently lets you do this, but anecdotally, I found a fair number of typo-bugs in HyperRogue when I wrote my own F that incidentally caught this implicit conversion.

  • Can I implicitly convert F<long()> to F<int()>?

  • If SBO size is exposed, can I implicitly convert F<int(), 24> to F<int(), 32>? What about vice versa (yikes!)?

And going all the way back to our earlier discussion of static_asserts, suppose I write

void f(F<int()> f) {

void f(...) {

int main() {
    f([](){ return; });

Should this program be required to print “NO”, or is the convertibility of [](){ return; } to F<int()> something crazy enough that we don’t need to support SFINAE’ing on it, and it’s okay if this program simply refuses to compile thanks to ambiguity and/or a hard static_assert?

If SBO size is exposed, should I be able to SFINAE on the convertibility of [some, captures](){} to F<void(), 24>? (This open question is the subject of SG14 inplace_function issue #149.)

The upside is that proper SFINAE-ability enables all sorts of clever metaprogramming tricks. The downside is that proper SFINAE-ability… enables all sorts of clever metaprogramming tricks.


These are just the “knobs” I thought of on the first pass. I bet there are more!

When you see all these little design decisions together — and especially when you realize that std::function got most of them “wrong” — maybe it’s easier to understand why it’s taken 20 years to get std::unique_function and std::function_ref on track for C++2a; and why the bikeshedding in committee will probably continue for a while longer before either of those types is merged; and (most importantly, I say!) why I think it’s important for every serious C++ programmer to be able to write their own type-erasing wrapper. There are just too many knobs for any single library solution to perfectly solve your codebase’s needs. If you care about micro-optimization — and what C++ programmer doesn’t? ;) — then you will probably end up writing two or three type-erased function types in your career.

UPDATE, 2019-03-31: I forgot about some knobs I meant to include! And Reddit suggested one more, too.

What about (varargs) ellipses?

Does it make sense to support F<int(const char *, ...)>? That would neatly communicate “anything callable with the same signature as printf.” However, C++ perfect forwarding and old-school C varargs do not mix; you’re not going to be able to implement the guts of F<int(const char *, ...)> so that it can forward to printf. The impossibility of forwarding old-school varargs is the reason va_list and vprintf exist!

So F<int(const char *, ...)> is a non-starter.

What about const-correctness?

Type-erased function types must deal with const in much the same way as they deal with copyability. When you call an arbitrary callable type (such as a lambda), sometimes it’ll be “const callable” and sometimes it won’t be. (Just like sometimes a lambda is copyable and sometimes it’s not.)

template<class T>
void use(const T& some_lambda) {

auto cc = [i=0]() { return i+1; };
auto ncc = [j=0]() mutable { return ++j; };

use(cc);  // OK
use(ncc);  // ERROR

So, when we wrap up a lambda into our type-erased F, we must decide whether F::operator() is going to be const-qualified or not. (Just as we must decide whether F is going to have a copy constructor or not.)

There are at least three alternatives here. First, we could make F const-callable, which naturally requires that every wrapped T be const-callable. This would mean that we couldn’t wrap ncc into an F object (because it’s not const-callable).

Second, we could make F::operator() not const-qualified. This would let us wrap up ncc into an F object; and it would also let us wrap cc (for the same reason that unique_function can easily hold a lambda whose move-constructor is tantamount to its copy-constructor). However, non-const-callable types interact pretty annoyingly with the rest of C++:

const auto& cc = [i=0]() { return i+1; };
cc();  // OK
const F<int()>& fcc = cc;  // OK
fcc();  // ERROR

Here, there is no way to call operator() on a const F<int()> object, because its operator() is not const-qualified.

A third alternative is to do as std::function does: make F const-callable, but have it internally cast away the const from the wrapped T object, so that it ends up calling T’s non-const-qualified operator() (if T has one). This produces the most ergonomic experience for the user —

auto cc = [i=0]() { return i+1; };
const F<void()> f1 = cc;  // OK
f1();  // OK

auto ncc = [j=0]() mutable { return ++j; };
F<void()> f2 = ncc;  // OK
f2();  // OK

— but at the cost of const-correctness and therefore at the cost of thread-safety. In the code below, we end up invoking f2’s operator() const from two threads concurrently, which should be fine; but in reality it’s not fine, because f2’s operator() const invokes operator() (non-const) on the wrapped copy of ncc, and so our two modifications to the captured j will race with each other.

auto ncc = [j=0]() mutable { return ++j; };
F<void()> f2 = ncc;  // OK
auto thread_body = [](const auto& f) { return f(); };
return std::async(thread_body, f2).get() + std::async(thread_body, f2).get();

Yet a fourth alternative would be for our F to provide both signatures — both operator() and operator() const — and require T to be callable as both const and non-const. But this is almost indistinguishable in practice from our first alternative. Such an F cannot wrap any T which is not const-callable.

F<int()> could be different from F<int() const>

Perhaps the cleanest way out of the const-correctness mess is to put the choice back on the user. C++ lets us name both int() and int() const; the latter is an abominable function type. So it is tempting for us to say that F<int()> should be non-const-callable (and not require const-callability of its T), whereas F<int() const> should be const-callable (and require const-callability of its T). Most users will probably get by just fine with F<int()>, and then the few who really need const-callability can just slap some consts inside their angle brackets and continue on their way.

This is the solution preferred by folly::Function, by fu2::function, and (currently) by the proposed std::unique_function.

What about ref-qualifiers?

Once we open the Pandora’s box of abominable function types, we must ask: What is the meaning of F<int() volatile>? What is the meaning of F<int()&>? What is the meaning of F<int()&&>?

F<int()&&> is particularly interesting because it’s been historically attractive to armchair library designers.

Should F<int()&&> be rvalue-callable?

If F<int() const> is const-callable with the signature operator()(...) const, then surely it’s only logical that F<int()&&> (if it is well-formed at all) should be rvalue-callable with the signature operator()(...) &&. That is, the user would write something like

void foo(F<int()&&> callback) {

Because we’ve been trained not to do anything with a moved-from object, we intuit that callback will be called only once along any given codepath. We might use the signature F<int()&&> to communicate a little extra information about a callback that was going to be used to satisfy a future, or was going to be sent off to a thread pool.

However, is this another case of foisting unnecessary complication on the user? I’m not aware of any rvalue-callable objects already existing in real-world code, so the difference between F<int()> and F<int()&&> seems purely cosmetic, so far.

Notice that std::function<int()> is rvalue-callable only because it is const-callable; and std::function<int()&&> is ill-formed.

Should F<int()&&> be “one-shot”?

If we did implement an rvalue-callable F, then we might wonder whether calling F should put it into the “moved-from” state. If we say yes, then this choice interacts with our previous choices about the behavior of that moved-from state. If the moved-from state is visibly “empty,” then we support code like this:

void use(int x, F<int()&&> callback) {
    if (x == 0) {
    if (callback) {
        puts("I guess x wasn't 0");

What about noexcept qualifiers?

Now that noexcept is part of the typesystem in C++17, we have a new postfix qualifier that can appear in a function type. In C++17 and later, F<int() noexcept> is a different type from F<int()>, although it is not abominable.

std::function<int() noexcept> is ill-formed. Should F<int() noexcept> be well-formed?

If so, clearly F<int() noexcept>::operator() should itself be noexcept. And then we have the same situation with noexcept that we had with const — or for that matter with non-nothrow-movable types. Either we rigidly enforce that F<int() noexcept> can wrap only nothrow-callable types, or else we break “noexcept-correctness” and risk a call to std::terminate.

auto lam = []() { puts("hello world"); };

F<void() noexcept> wrapped = lam;  // OK?

What about multiple overloaded signatures?

Reddit commenter NotAYakk points out that David Krauss’s cxx_function supports overloaded signatures. So we can imagine an F that permits something like this:

F<void(int), void(std::string)> visitor = ...;
std::variant<int, std::string> visitee = ...;
std::visit(visitor, visitee);

Here std::visit will dynamically call either visitor(42) or visitor("hello"), depending on the active member of visitee. So F<void(int), void(std::string)> needs to have two different overloads of operator(), and each wrapped type T must afford both behaviors:

void operator()(int x) { return ptr_->callme_with_int(x); }
void operator()(std::string s) { return ptr_->callme_with_string(s); }

So for example

auto alpha = [](int x) { std::cout << x; };
visitor = alpha;  // ERROR

would be an error because alpha does not afford calling-with-a-string-argument; but

auto beta = [](const auto& x) { std::cout << x; };
visitor = beta;  // OK!

would be okay, because beta affords both calling-with-an-int and calling-with-a-string.

Since type erasure requires an explicitly enumerated list of affordances, there is no way to make a type-erased function type that can take any parameter at all. That is, there’s no way to make an “F<void(auto)>,” even if that syntax were grammatically available, which it’s not.

Posted 2019-03-27