Initializing derived polymorphic objects -

Initializing derived polymorphic objects


Each class in a hierarchy of polymorphic objects should have a function that initializes its vptr properly.

For much of this year, I've been discussing polymorphic types and virtual functions. I showed how to implement virtual functions in C in a way that generates machine code similar to what you get with virtual function in C++.1 More specifically, I showed how to emulate a polymorphic C++ class (a class with at least one virtual function) as a C structure that has an additional member commonly called a vptr (VEE-pointer). The vptr points to a table of function pointers called a vtbl (VEE-table).

Last month, I showed how to initialize the vptr in base class objects. This month, I'll look at initializing derived class objects.2

As in my prior articles, my sample classes represent an assortment of two-dimensional geometric shapes such as circle , rectangle , and triangle , all derived from a common base class called shape . The C++ definition for the shape base class looks in part like:

 class shape {public:    shape(color o, color f);        // constructor    virtual double area() const;    virtual double perimeter() const;private:    color outline, fill;};

In C, the comparable declarations look like:

// shape.h - a C base class for shapes#ifndef SHAPE_H_INCLUDED#define SHAPE_H_INCLUDEDtypedef struct shape shape;typedef struct shape_vtbl shape_vtbl;struct shape_vtbl {    double (*area)(shape const *s);    double (*perimeter)(shape const *s);};struct shape {    shape_vtbl *vptr;    color outline, fill;};void shape_construct(shape *s, color o, color f);double shape_area(shape const *s);double shape_perimeter(shape const *s);#endif

As I showed last month, you can define the shape vtbl object in a source file that also defines the member functions of the shape “class”:

 // shape.c - a C base class for shapes#include "shape.h"~~~static shape_vtbl the_shape_vtbl = {    shape_area,    shape_perimeter};void shape_construct(shape *s, color o, color f) {    s->vptr = &the_shape_vtbl;    s->outline = o;    s->fill = f;}

In C++, the definition for a circle class derived from shape looks like:

 class circle: public shape {public:    circle(double r, color o, color f); // constructor    virtual double area() const;    virtual double perimeter() const;    ~~~private:    double radius;};

Derivation defines an “is a” or “is a kind of” relationship between the derived and base class. That is, it lets you substitute a derived class object, such as a circle or rectangle , for a base class shape object. For example, given a C++ function such as:

 void f(shape *p) {    ~~~    p->perimeter(); // virtual call to shape's perimeter    ~~~}

you can pass it a derived class object, as in:

 circle c;~~~f(&c);              // pass a circle as a shape

and it computes the circle 's perimeter correctly.With a little more effort, you can emulate this behavior in C. In C, you have to explicitly mention the vptr in virtual function calls, as in:

 void f(shape *p) {    ~~~    p->vptr->perimeter(p);  virtual call to shape's perimeter    ~~~}

You also need an explicit cast to convert a “pointer to derived” into “pointer to base”, as in:

 circle c;~~~f((shape *)&c); // pass a circle as a shape

This substitution works (f will compute the circle 's perimeter correctly) only if the vptr has the same offset in the derived class object as it does in a base class object. The easiest way to satisfy this requirement is to implement each derived class type in C as a structure whose first member has the base class type, as in:

 // circle.h – a C class for circle derived from shape#ifndef CIRCLE_H_INCLUDED#define CIRCLE_H_INCLUDED#include "shape.h"typedef struct circle circle;struct circle {    shape base;     // the base class subobject    double radius;};void circle_construct(circle *c, double r, color o, color f);#endif

The base member of the circle structure above includes all the members inherited from the shape base class, including vptr . The definition for the circle_construct function appears, along with the circle vtbl object, in a separate source file:

 // circle.c - circle implementation~~~#include "circle.h"double circle_area(circle const *c) {    return PI * c->radius * c->radius;}double circle_perimeter(circle const *c) {    return 2 * PI * c->radius;}typedef struct circle_vtbl circle_vtbl;struct circle_vtbl {    double (*area)(circle const *);    double (*perimeter)(circle const *);};static circle_vtbl the_circle_vtbl = {    circle_area,    circle_perimeter};void circle_construct(circle *c, double r, color o, color f) {    shape_construct(&c->base, o, f);    c->base.vptr = (shape_vtbl *)&the_circle_vtbl;    c->radius = r;}

The circle_construct function implements behavior comparable to a C++ constructor. It calls the shape_construct function to initialize the base class part. However, shape_construct sets the vptr to point to shape 's vtbl, which is correct for the base class shape , but not for the derived class circle . Thus, circle_construct needs to reassign the vptr to point to circle 's vtbl.This assignment requires a cast because circle_vtbl isn't exactly the same type as shape_vtbl . The two structures have the same memory layout, but the corresponding pointers in the different structures point to functions with slightly different types.

Thus, the derived class constructor contains two assignments to the vptr. The second assignment completely overwrites the value assigned by the first. Ideally, the compiler will “optimize away” the first assignment. However, the compiler can do this optimization only if it can see both assignments in the context of the derived class constructor, which it can do only if the base class constructor is an inline function.

If you define the shape_construct function as inline, you should move the function definition to the shape.h header file. When you do that, you must also give the_shape_vtbl external linkage by removing the keyword static from its definition, as in:

 // shape.c - a C base class for shapes~~~shape_vtbl the_shape_vtbl = { // used to be static    shape_area,    shape_perimeter};~~~

If your C compiler supports the inline keyword (from C99), then the shape.h header would look in part like:

 // shape.h - a C base class for shapes~~~typedef struct shape shape;~~~typedef struct shape_vtbl shape_vtbl;struct shape_vtbl {    double (*area)(shape const *s);    double (*perimeter)(shape const *s);};extern shape_vtbl the_shape_vtbl;struct shape {    shape_vtbl *vptr;    color outline, fill;};inlinevoid shape_construct(shape *s, color o, color f) {    s->vptr = &the_shape_vtbl;    s->outline = o;    s->fill = f;}

If your compiler doesn't support the keyword inline , then you can implement the constructor as a macro:

 #define shape_construct(s, o, f) (     (s)->vptr = &the_shape_vtbl,     (s)->outline = (o),     (s)->fill = (f) )

Either way, a compiler with a decent optimizer should eliminate the redundant assignment to the vptr .

Once again, you don't have to worry about any of this in C++. With C++, the compiler automatically generates code to initialize the vptr properly.

Dan Saks is president of Saks & Associates, a C/C++ training and consulting company. For more information about Dan Saks, visit his website at Dan also welcomes your feedback: e-mail him at . .

4 thoughts on “Initializing derived polymorphic objects

  1. This article very nicely rounds up a great series of articles about object-oriented programming in C (OOP in C). Dan Saks kills here at least two birds with one stone. First, he presents techniques that are immediately usable in everyday embedded projects.

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  2. As far as v-tables are concerned, I don't quite understand why Dan's article repeats the superclass' vtable instead of using inheritance. For example, I would define the Circle vtable using the already established inheritance pattern, as follows:


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  3. I have used the “Shape const * This” with GCC “C” compilers. Might not work with a GCC C++ compiler. And l like the “T const *” rather than “T * const”.

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  4. I think you might be confusing the semantics of “const *” with “* const”, and perhaps also with “const * const”

    The “me” pointer in C corresponds directly to the “this” pointer in C++. In the C++ Standard, the “this” pointer is implicitly declared “* con

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