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strong_typedef - Create distinct types for distinct purposes

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

One common problem in C++ code is the use of simple types for many things: a std::string might be a filename, a person's name, a SQL query string or a piece of JSON; an int could be a count, an index, an ID number, or even a file handle. In his 1999 book "Refactoring" (which has a second edition as of January 2019), Martin Fowler called this phenomenon "Primitive Obsession", and recommended that we use dedicated classes for each purpose rather than built-in or library types.

The difficulty with doing so is that built-in types and library types have predefined sets of operations that can be done with them from simple operations like incrementing/decrementing and comparing, to more complex ones such as replacing substrings. Creating a new class each time means that we have to write implementations for all these functions every time. This duplication of effort raises the barrier to doing this, and means that we often decide that it isn't worthwhile.

However, by sticking to the built-in and library types, we can end up in a scenario where a function takes multiple parameters of the same type, with distinct meanings, and no clear reason for any specific ordering. In such a scenario, it is easy to get the parameters in the wrong order and not notice until something breaks. By wrapping the primitive type in a unique type for each usage we can eliminate this class of problem.

My strong_typedef class template aims to make this easier. It wraps an existing type, and associates it with a tag type to define the purpose, and which can therefore be used to make it unique. Crucially, it then allows you to specify which sets of operations you want to enable: it might not make sense to add ID numbers, but it might make perfect sense to add counters, even if both are represented by integers. You might therefore using jss::strong_typedef<struct IdTag,unsigned,jss::strong_typedef_properties::equality_comparable> for an ID number, but jss::strong_typedef<struct IndexTag,unsigned,jss::strong_typedef_properties::comparable | jss::strong_typedef_properties::incrementable | jss::strong_typedef_properties::decrementable> for an index type.

I've implemented something similar to this class for various clients over the years, so I decided it was about time to make it publicly available. The implementation on github condenses all of the solutions to this problem that I've written over the years to provide a generic implementation.

Basic Usage

jss::strong_typedef takes three template parameters: Tag, ValueType and Properties.

The first (Tag) is a tag type. This is not used for anything other than to make the type unique, and can be incomplete. Most commonly, this is a class or struct declared directly in the template parameter, and nowhere else, as in the examples struct IdTag and struct IndexTag above.

The second (ValueType) is the underlying type of the strong typedef. This is the basic type that you would otherwise be using.

The third (Properties) is an optional parameter that specifies the operations you wish the strong typedef to support. By default it is jss::strong_typedef_properties::none — no operations are supported. See below for a full list.

Declaring Types

You create a typedef by specifying these parameters:

using type1=jss::strong_typedef<struct type1_tag,int>;
using type2=jss::strong_typedef<struct type2_tag,int>;
using type3=jss::strong_typedef<struct type3_tag,std::string,

type1, type2 and type3 are now separate types. They cannot be implicitly converted to or from each other or anything else.

Creating Values

If the underlying type is default-constructible, then so is the new type. You can also construct the objects from an object of the wrapped type:

type1 t1;
type2 t2(42);
// type2 e2(t1); // error, type1 cannot be converted to type2

Accessing the Value

strong_typedef can wrap built-in or class type, but that's only useful if you can access the value. There are two ways to access the value:

  • Cast to the stored type: static_cast<unsigned>(my_channel_index)
  • Use the underlying_value member function: my_channel_index.underlying_value()

Using the underlying_value member function returns a reference to the stored value, which can thus be used to modify non-const values, or to call member functions on the stored value without taking a copy. This makes it particularly useful for class types such as std::string.

using transaction_id=jss::strong_typedef<struct transaction_tag,std::string>;

bool is_a_foo(transaction_id id){
    auto& s=id.underlying_value();
    return s.find("foo")!=s.end();

Other Operations

Depending on the properties you've assigned to your type you may be able to do other operations on that type, such as compare a == b or a < b, increment with ++a, or add two values with a + b. You might also be able to hash the values with std::hash<my_typedef>, or write them to a std::ostream with os << a. Only the behaviours enabled by the Properties template parameter will be available on any given type. For anything else, you need to extract the wrapped value and use that.



An ID of some description might essentially be a number, but it makes no sense to perform much in the way of operations on it. You probably want to be able to compare IDs, possibly with an ordering so you can use them as keys in a std::map, or with hashing so you can use them as keys in std::unordered_map, and maybe you want to be able to write them to a stream. Such an ID type might be declared as follows:

using widget_id=jss::strong_typedef<struct widget_id_tag,unsigned long long,
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::comparable |
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::hashable |

using froob_id=jss::strong_typedef<struct froob_id_tag,unsigned long long,
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::comparable |
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::hashable |

Note that froob_id and widget_id are now different types due to the different tags used, even though they are both based on unsigned long long. Therefore any attempt to use a widget_id as a froob_id or vice-versa will lead to a compiler error. It also means you can overload on them:

void do_stuff(widget_id my_widget);
void do_stuff(froob_id my_froob);

widget_id some_widget(421982);

Alternatively, an ID might be a string, such as a purchase order number of transaction ID:

using transaction_id=jss::strong_typedef<struct transaction_id_tag,std::string,
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::comparable |
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::hashable |

transaction_id some_transaction("GBA283-HT9X");

That works too, since strong_typedef can wrap any built-in or class type.


Suppose you have a device that supports a number of channels, so you want to be able to retrieve the data for a given channel. Each channel yields a number of data items, so you also want to access the data items by index. You could use strong_typedef to wrap the channel index and the data item index, so they can't be confused. You can also make the index types incrementable and decrementable so they can be used in a for loop:

using channel_index=jss::strong_typedef<struct channel_index_tag,unsigned,
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::comparable |
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::incrementable |

using data_index=jss::strong_typedef<struct data_index_tag,unsigned,
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::comparable |
    jss::strong_typedef_properties::incrementable |

Data get_data_item(channel_index channel,data_index item);
data_index get_num_items(channel_index channel);
void process_data(Data data);

void foo(){
    channel_index const num_channels(99);
    for(channel_index channel(0);channel<num_channels;++channel){
        data_index const num_data_items(get_num_items(channel));
        for(data_index item(0);item<num_data_items;++item){

The compiler will complain if you pass the wrong parameters, or compare the channel against the item.

Behaviour Properties

The Properties parameter specifies behavioural properties for the new type. It must be one of the values of jss::strong_typedef_properties, or a value obtained by or-ing them together (e.g. jss::strong_typedef_properties::hashable | jss::strong_typedef_properties::streamable | jss::strong_typedef_properties::comparable). Each property adds some behaviour. The available properties are:

  • equality_comparable => Can be compared for equality (st==st2) and inequality (st!=st2)
  • pre_incrementable => Supports preincrement (++st)
  • post_incrementable => Supports postincrement (st++)
  • pre_decrementable => Supports predecrement (--st)
  • post_decrementable => Supports postdecrement (st--)
  • addable => Supports addition (st+value, value+st, st+st2) where the result is convertible to the underlying type. The result is a new instance of the strong typedef.
  • subtractable => Supports subtraction (st-value, value-st, st-st2) where the result is convertible to the underlying type. The result is a new instance of the strong typedef.
  • ordered => Supports ordering comparisons (st<st2, st>st2, st<=st2, st>=st2)
  • mixed_ordered => Supports ordering comparisons where only one of the values is a strong typedef
  • hashable => Supports hashing with std::hash
  • streamable => Can be written to a std::ostream with operator<<
  • incrementable => pre_incrementable | post_incrementable
  • decrementable => pre_decrementable | post_decrementable
  • comparable => ordered | equality_comparable

Guideline and Implementation

I strongly recommend using strong_typedef or an equivalent implementation anywhere you would otherwise reach for a built-in or library type such as int or std::string when designing an interface.

My strong_typedef implementation is available on github under the Boost Software License.

Posted by Anthony Williams
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