# Why do I get a linker error with static const and value_or?

In my Back to Basics talk on “Algebraic Data Types,” I cut some slides at the last minute. (I still ended up going over time a bit.) Once you’re able to download the slides from CppCon’s slides repository, you’ll see three bonus slides at the end. One was on the fact that you can (but shouldn’t!) use std::variant<T,E> as a poor man’s version of Expected<T>. The other two were on a minor pitfall that seems to bite me every time I update a piece of legacy code to use std::optional.

Consider the following C++ class (Godbolt):

struct Connection {
static const int DefaultTimeoutMs = 100;
int timeoutMs() const {
return hasTimeoutMs_ ? timeoutMs_ : DefaultTimeoutMs;
}
private:
bool hasTimeoutMs_;
int timeoutMs_;
};


When you upgrade this codebase to C++17, you should update this particular class to use an optional; it’ll be just as performant, and significantly more type-safe (because you’ll never be able to use the integer value of timeoutMs_ when it isn’t meant to be valid). Godbolt:

struct Connection {
static const int DefaultTimeoutMs = 100;
int timeoutMs() const {
return timeoutMs_.has_value() ? *timeoutMs_ : DefaultTimeoutMs;
}
private:
std::optional<int> timeoutMs_;
};


And then you should change that ternary operator to use the convenience method .value_or():

struct Connection {
static const int DefaultTimeoutMs = 100;
int timeoutMs() const {
return timeoutMs_.value_or(DefaultTimeoutMs);
}
private:
std::optional<int> timeoutMs_;
};

/bin/ld: test.o: in function Connection::timeoutMs() const':
test.cpp:6: undefined reference to Connection::DefaultTimeoutMs'


The root cause here doesn’t really have anything to do with optional, but I can’t recall any time I’ve run into this problem except when updating a piece of legacy code to use .value_or() (and then it’s happened multiple times).

## What’s going on here?

The trick here is that when you use the ternary operator x ? y : DefaultTimeoutMs, it needs only the value of static const Connection::DefaultTimeoutMs. The compiler’s optimizer can see that the value of DefaultTimeoutMs is 100 and rewrite the expression as x ? y : 100. But when you say x.value_or(DefaultTimeoutMs), you’re calling a member function defined as

template<class U>
constexpr T value_or(U&& default_value) const&;


which takes its argument by reference. If you compile with optimizations, then again the compiler’s optimizer will inline value_or and your code will link fine; but in debug mode, the compiler assumes that you might want to set a breakpoint inside value_or, and therefore it outputs a call to the function. As the argument to the call, it passes a reference to DefaultTimeoutMs — which requires that variable’s address!

In C++, ever since C++98 and still today in C++20, when you have a static data member of a class, it works the same way as any other global variable. You must not only declare it (inside the body of the class, which goes in a header file and ends up duplicated in many places) but also define it (in some .cpp file that will be compiled only once).

// in connection.hpp
struct Connection {
static const int DefaultTimeoutMs;
};

// in connection.cpp
const int Connection::DefaultTimeoutMs = 100;


Just like any other global variable, if you define it as constexpr or inline then you can put the definition in the header file and don’t have to give it any out-of-line definition.

The weird thing about static const member variables of integral type is that you are allowed to move their initializing expression from the definition to the declaration! The out-of-line definition is still required, because some .o file needs to reserve space for the variable itself, but moving the initializer into the header file allows inlining the value, like we saw at the beginning of this post.

// in connection.hpp
struct Connection {
static const int DefaultTimeoutMs = 100;
};

// in connection.cpp
const int Connection::DefaultTimeoutMs;


In legacy code, it is very common for people to write static const members like this, and then simply never write the connection.cpp part. As long as you never pass DefaultTimeoutMs by reference, you’ll never notice the problem.

Only when you start using optional::value_or(), which takes its parameter by reference, does the linker force you to notice this quirk of the language!

## How do I fix it?

The appropriate fix, almost certainly, is to replace static const with static constexpr.

struct Connection {
static constexpr int DefaultTimeoutMs = 100;
int timeoutMs() const {
return timeoutMs_.value_or(DefaultTimeoutMs);
}
private:
std::optional<int> timeoutMs_;
};


Since C++17 (not coincidentally, the same release which introduced optional), static constexpr data members are implicitly inline and do not need redundant out-of-line definitions. cppreference has a good page on the subject.

So there you are: A pitfall of C++’s overly complicated static const rules, which in my experience everyone runs into when upgrading old code to use optional::value_or. Find this whole blog post recapitulated in two slides at the end of my “Back to Basics: Algebraic Data Types” when it arrives in the CppCon 2020 GitHub repository later this month.

Posted 2020-09-19