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Core C++ - Destructors and RAII

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Though I love many features of C++, the feature that I think is probably the most important for writing robust code is deterministic destruction and destructors.

The destructor for an object is called when that object is destroyed, whether explicitly with the delete operator, or implicitly when it goes out of scope. This provides an opportunity to clean up any resources held by that object, thus making it easy to avoid leaking memory, or indeed any kind of resource.

This has led to the idiom commonly known as Resource Acquisition Is Initialization (RAII) — a class acquires some resource when it is initialised (in its constructor), and then releases it in its destructor. A better acronym would be DIRR — Destruction Is Resource Release — as the release in the destructor is the important part, but RAII is what has stuck.

The power of RAII

This is incredibly powerful, and makes it so much easier to write robust code. It doesn't matter how the object goes out of scope, whether it is due to just reaching the end of the block, or due to a control transfer statement such as goto, break or continue, or because the function has returned, or because an exception is thrown. However the object is destroyed, the destructor is run.

This means you don't have to litter your code with calls to cleanup functions. You just write a class to manage a resource and have the destructor call the cleanup function. Then you can just create objects of that type and know that the resource will be correctly cleaned up when the object is destroyed.

No more leaks

If you don't use resource management classes, it can be hard to ensure that your resources are correctly released on all code paths, especially in the presence of exceptions. Even without exceptions, it's easy to fail to release a resource on a rarely-executed code path. How many programs have you seen with memory leaks?

Writing a resource management class for a particular resource is really easy, and there are many already written for you. The C++ standard is full of them. There are the obvious ones like std::unique_ptr and std::shared_ptr for managing heap-allocated objects, and std::lock_guard for managing lock ownership, but also std::fstream and std::file_buf for managing file handles, and of course all the container types.

I like to use std::vector<char> as a generic buffer-management class for handling buffers for legacy C-style APIs. The always-contiguous guarantee means that it's great for anything that needs a char buffer, and there is no messing around with reallocor the potential for buffer overrun you get with fixed-size buffers.

For example, many Windows API calls take a buffer in which they return the result, as well as a length parameter to specify how big the buffer is. If the buffer isn't big enough, they return the required buffer size. We can use this with std::vector<char> to ensure that our buffer is big enough. For example, the following code retrieves the full path name for a given relative path, without requiring any knowledge about how much space is required beforehand:

std::string get_full_path_name(std::string const& relative_path){
    DWORD const required_size=GetFullPathName(relative_path.c_str(),0,NULL,&filePart);
    std::vector<char> buffer(required_size);
        throw std::runtime_error("Unable to retrieve full path name");
    return std::string(buffer.data());

Nowhere do we need to explicitly free the buffer: the destructor takes care of that for us, whether we return successfully or throw. Writing resource management classes enables us to extend this to every type of resource: no more leaks!

Writing resource management classes

A basic resource management class needs just two things: a constructor that takes ownership of the resource, and a destructor that releases ownership. Unless you need to transfer ownership of your resource between scopes you will also want to prevent copying or moving of your class.

class my_resource_handle{
        // acquire resource
        // release resource
    my_resource_handle(my_resource_handle const&)=delete;
    my_resource_handle& operator=(my_resource_handle const&)=delete;

Sometimes the resource ownership might be represented by some kind of token, such as a file handle, whereas in other cases it might be more conceptual, like a mutex lock. Whatever the case, you need to store enough data in your class to ensure that you can release the resource in the destructor. Sometimes you might want your class to take ownership of a resource acquired elsewhere. In this case, you can provide a constructor to do that. std::lock_guard is a nice example of a resource-ownership class that manages an ephemeral resource, and can optionally take ownership of a resource acquired elsewhere. It just holds a reference to the lockable object being locked and unlocked; the ownership of the lock is implicit. The first constructor always acquires the lock itself, whereas the second constructor taking an adopt_lock_t parameter allows it to take ownership of a lock acquired elsewhere.

template<typename Lockable>
class lock_guard{
    Lockable& lockable;
    explicit lock_guard(Lockable& lockable_):
    explicit lock_guard(Lockable& lockable_,adopt_lock_t):
    lock_guard(lock_guard const&)=delete;
    lock_guard& operator=(lock_guard const&)=delete;

Using std::lock_guard to manage your mutex locks means you no longer have to worry about ensuring that your mutexes are unlocked when you exit a function: this just happens automatically, which is not only easy to manage conceptually, but less typing too.

Here is another simple example: a class that saves the state of a Windows GDI DC, such as the current pen, font and colours.

class dc_saver{
    HDC dc;
    int state;
    dc_saver(HDC dc_):
            throw std::runtime_error("Unable to save DC state");


    dc_saver(dc_saver const&)=delete;
    dc_saver& operator=(dc_saver const&)=delete;

You could use this as part of some drawing to save the state of the DC before changing it for local use, such as setting a new font or new pen colour. This way, you know that whatever the state of the DC was when you started your function, it will be safely restored when you exit, even if you exit via an exception, or you have multiple return points in your code.

void draw_something(HDC dc){
    dc_saver guard(dc);
    // set pen, font etc.
    // do drawing
} // DC properties are always restored here

As you can see from these examples, the resource being managed could be anything: a file handle, a database connection handle, a lock, a saved graphics state, anything.

Transfer season

Sometimes you want to transfer ownership of the resource between scopes. The classical use case for this is you have some kind of factory function that acquires the resource and then returns a handle to the caller. If you make your resource management class movable then you can still benefit from the guaranteed leak protection. Indeed, you can build it in at the source: if your factory returns an instance of your resource management rather than a raw handle then you are protected from the start. If you never expose the raw handle, but instead provide additional functions in the resource management class to interact with it, then you are guaranteed that your resource will not leak.

std::async provides us with a nice example of this in action. When you start a task with std::async, then you get back a std::future object that references the shared state. If your task is running asynchronously, then the destructor for the future object will wait for the task to complete. You can, however, wait explicitly beforehand, or return the std::future to the caller of your function in order to transfer ownership of the "resource": the running asynchronous task.

You can add such ownership-transfer facilities to your own resource management classes without much hassle, but you need to ensure that you don't end up with multiple objects thinking they own the same resource, or resources not being released due to mistakes in the transfer code. This is why we start with non-copyable and non-movable classes by deleting the copy operations: then you can't accidentally end up with botched ownership transfer, you have to write it explicitly, so you can ensure you get it right.

The key part is to ensure that not only does the new instance that is taking ownership of the resource hold the proper details to release it, but the old instance will no longer try and release the resource: double-frees can be just as bad as leaks.

std::unique_lock is the big brother of std::lock_guard that allows transfer of ownership. It also has a bunch of additional member functions for acquiring and releasing locks, but we're going to focus on just the move semantics. Note: it is still not copyable: only one object can own a given lock, but we can change which object that is.

template<typename Lockable>
class unique_lock{
    Lockable* lockable;
    explicit unique_lock(Lockable& lockable_):
    explicit unique_lock(Lockable& lockable_,adopt_lock_t):

    unique_lock(unique_lock && other):

    unique_lock& operator=(unique_lock && other){
        unique_lock temp(std::move(other));
        return *this;

    unique_lock(unique_lock const&)=delete;
    unique_lock& operator=(unique_lock const&)=delete;

Firstly, see how in order to allow the assignment, we have to hold a pointer to the Lockable object rather than a reference, and in the destructor we have to check whether or not the pointer is nullptr. Secondly, see that in the move constructor we explicitly set the pointer to nullptrfor the source of our move, so that the source will no longer try and release the lock in its destructor.

Finally, look at the move-assignment operator. We have explicitly transferred ownership from the source object into a new temporary object, and then swapped the resources owned by the target object and our temporary. This ensures that when the temporary goes out of scope, its destructor will release the lock owned by our target beforehand, if there was one. This is a common pattern among resource management classes that allow ownership transfer, as it keeps everything tidy without having to explicitly write the resource cleanup code in more than one place. If you've written a swap function for your class then you might well use that here rather than directly exchanging the members, to avoid duplication.

Wrapping up

Using resource management classes can simplify your code, and reduce the need for debugging, so use RAII for all your resources to avoid leaks and other resource management issues. There are many classes already provided in the C++ Standard Library or third-party libraries, but it is trivial to write your own resource management wrapper for any resource if there is a well-defined API for acquiring and releasing the resource.

Posted by Anthony Williams
[/ cplusplus /] permanent link
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Better acronym (and correct) is CADRe - Constructor Acquires Destructor Releases

by Artur77 at 14:21:07 on Friday, 25 September 2015

Acquisition in constructors is no trifle either, class invariants go a long way.

by Cubbi at 22:01:12 on Tuesday, 06 October 2015

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