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Futures and Tasks in C++0x

Thursday, 27 March 2008

I had resigned myself to Thread Pools and Futures being punted to TR2 rather than C++0x, but it seems there is potential for some movement on this issue. At the meeting of WG21 in Kona, Hawaii in October 2007 it was agreed to include asynchronous future values in C++0x, whilst excluding thread pools and task launching.

Detlef Vollman has rekindled the effort, and drafted N2561: An Asynchronous Future Value with myself and Howard Hinnant, based on a discussion including other members of the Standards Committee. This paper proposes four templates: unique_future and shared_future, which are the asynchronous values themselves, and packaged_task and promise, which provide ways of setting the asynchronous values.

Asynchronous future values

unique_future is very much like unique_ptr: it represents exclusive ownership of the value. Ownership of a (future) value can be moved between unique_future instances, but no two unique_future instances can refer to the same asynchronous value. Once the value is ready for retrieval, it is moved out of the internal storage buffer: this allows for use with move-only types such as std::ifstream.

Similarly, shared_future is very much like shared_ptr: multiple instances can refer to the same (future) value, and shared_future instances can be copied around. In order to reduce surprises with this usage (with one thread moving the value through one instance at the same time as another tries to move it through another instance), the stored value can only be accessed via const reference, so must be copied out, or accessed in place.

Storing the future values as the return value from a function

The simplest way to calculate a future value is with a packaged_task<T>. Much like std::function<T()>, this encapsulates a callable object or function, for invoking at a later time. However, whereas std::function returns the result directly to the caller, packaged_task stores the result in a future.

    extern int some_function();
    std::packaged_task<int> task(some_function);
    std::unique_future<int> result=task.get_future();

    // later on, some thread does
    // and "result" is now ready

Making a promise to provide a future value

The other way to store a value to be picked up with a unique_future or shared_future is to use a promise, and then explicitly set the value by calling the set_value() member function.

    std::promise<int> my_promise;
    std::unique_future<int> result=my_promise.get_future();

    // later on, some thread does
    // and "result" is now ready.

Exceptional returns

Futures also support storing exceptions: when you try and retrieve the value, if there is a stored exception, that exception is thrown rather than the value being retrieved. With a packaged_task, an exception gets stored if the wrapped function throws an exception when it is invoked, and with a promise, you can explicitly store an exception with the set_exception() member function.


As the paper says, this is not a finished proposal: it is a basis for further discussion. Let me know if you have any comments.

Posted by Anthony Williams
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