Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Compile time messages in C++

At times it's desirable to give a message at compile time. Sounds cheezy, eh? Well read on and find out.

As an example of the cheezy kind, the compile-time quick sort shown here earlier contained an unnecessary run time element with a main()function, for_each() and a print template. It is possible to display all information at compile time by causing a compiler error, like this:
template <typename T>
struct print;
Use it by, for example, by referring to a member type.

Let's revisit the list and concat templates.

template <typename T, T... elems>
struct list;
template <typename ...T>
struct concat;
template <typename T, T... lh, T... rh, typename ...U>
struct concat<list<T, lh...>, list<T, rh...>, U...>
  typedef typename concat<U..., list<T, lh..., rh...> >::type type;
template <typename T, T... elems>
struct concat<list<T, elems...> >
  typedef list<T, elems...> type;

Now a simple test of how it works
typedef print<concat<list<int, 1, 2>, list<int, 3, 4> >::type>::type message; 
 The output from the compiler is:
c.cpp:72:9: error: 'type' in class 'print<list<int, 1, 2, 3, 4> >' does not name a type
Not perfect, but but it does show the resulting type list<int, 1, 2, 3, 4>.

Well, there is a caveat. The standard mandates very little indeed regarding error messages. The typical phrase used is "... a diagnostic is required". Nothing at all is said about the information in that diagnostic, and a compiler simply saying "?" can be fully standards compliant. Fortunately compiler writers likes happy users, and so usually try to help them with informative messages, so this usually works fine, just no guarantees.

Note that the technique is perfectly usable in C++ as defined by the 1998 standard. The only reason I used the C++ 2011 feature, variadic templates here, is to save space.

As shown so far, this is just silly, but this can actually come in handy. How about some unit tests for the concat template?

First a helper template:

template <typename T, typename U>
struct assert_same_type;
template <typename T>
struct assert_same_type<T, T>
  typedef T type;

The idea is that if the two parameter types are the same, the member type can be used in, for example a typedef, otherwise the compiler will emit an error message.

Now let's put concat through its pace:

typedef assert_same_type<concat<list<int> >::type,
                         list<int> >::type
typedef assert_same_type<concat<list<int, 1, 2> >::type,
                         list<int, 1, 2> >::type
typedef assert_same_type<concat<list<int, 1, 2>,
                                list<int, 3, 4> >::type,
                         list<int, 1, 2, 3, 4> >::type
typedef assert_same_type<concat<list<int, 1>,
                                list<int, 2>,
                                list<int, 3> >::type,
                         list<int, 1, 2, 3> >::type
The result of compilation is:
c.cpp:79:9: error: 'type' in class 'assert_same_type<list<int, 3, 1, 2>, list<int, 1, 2, 3> >' does not name a type
Whoaa! A bug! It seems that when three elements are concatenated, the order is changed. Hmm. Ah, look at concat above. The error is rather obvious. Glad that one was caught before any library user came complaining.

Fixing the concat template to:

template <typename T, T... lh, T... rh, typename ...U>
struct concat<list<T, lh...>, list<T, rh...>, U...>
  typedef typename concat<list<T, lh..., rh...>, U... >::type

Should take  care of it. Another attempt at compiling gives silence. It works.

So, as can be seen, the technique can be rather useful. The error message given was, in this case, rather informative and quickly pointed us in the right direction to fix the bug.

What about giving library users a little help, though? concat can only be used with list type parameters. Anything else is an error. What does the compiler emit when concat is used with mismatching types? Let's put it to the test:

typedef concat<list<int>, std::vector<std::string> >::type listvec;
The error message is:
c.cpp:69:9: error: 'type' in class 'concat<list<int>, std::vector<std::basic_string<char> > >' does not name a type
Not very helpful. The user will have to look at the sources for concat to understand what it means.

If you're lucky enough to write your programs with a compiler that supports static_assert(), officially introduced in ISO C++ 2011, but supported by many compilers for some time (gcc introduced it in version 4.3 released in March 2008,) it's simple. static_assert() requires a compile-time known boolean value and a string. The string is the error message if the boolean is false.

So, with a simple helper, concat can provide a lot better information to the user.
template <typename ...Tail>
struct all_elements_are_lists
  static const bool value = false;
template <typename T, T... elems, typename ... Tail>
struct all_elements_are_lists<list<T, elems...>,
  static const bool value = all_elements_are_lists<Tail...>::value;
template <typename T, T... elems>
struct all_elements_are_lists<list<T, elems...> >
  static const bool value = true;
template <typename ...T>
struct concat
                "All parameters to concat must be lists.");
Let's try the faulty concat invocation again. Now the error message is:
c.cpp: In instantiation of 'concat<list<int>, std::vector<std::basic_string<char> > >':
c.cpp:79:53:   instantiated from here
c.cpp:38:3: error: static assertion failed: "All parameters to concat must be lists."
c.cpp:79:9: error: 'type' in class 'concat<list<int>, std::vector<std::basic_string<char> > >' does not name a type
It would be a lie to say that it's perfect, but the information is a lot clearer and the user does not have to read the sources for concat, so it's an improvement.

So what to do if your compiler does not support static_assert()? All is not lost. Use the technique described in the beginning of the post to create a type, or a template, with a descriptive name that causes an error. The descriptive name will hopefully be shown in the error message. You may have to play around a bit to find a solution, but it's doable, although the message will never be as clear as with static_assert().

Compile time messages turned out to be pretty useful, I think.

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