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panmanio
panmanio

Posted on • Updated on • Originally published at burnicki.pl

Initializing with std::initializer_list involves copying

A convenient way to initialize STL containers is to use a initializer list, like this:

auto data = std::vector<std::string>{"example", "input", "data"};
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There’s a caveat: the arguments of the vector constructor are first constructed and then copied. It’s a trait of std::initializer_list. It may become an issue when the parameters are not trivially copyable because they handle some resources etc. Short strings are not an issue as they should be handled with small-string optimization, but long ones (it depends on the standard library implementation which ones are small and which aren’t) will need three memory allocations: one during string creation, the second one for the vector item and the third one for the copy.

auto data = std::vector<std::string>{
    "long string that will likely be allocated on the heap"
}; // three memory allocations
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Let’s write a test program that traces the number of memory allocations:

void* operator new (std::size_t count) {
    std::cout << "new " << count << " bytes\n";
    return std::malloc(count);
}

int main() {
    std::cout << "Vector with small string:\n";
    auto data = std::vector<std::string>{"small string"};
    std::cout << "\nVector with long string:\n";
    data = std::vector<std::string>{
        "long string that will likely be allocated on the heap"
    };
}
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I’ve compiled it with g++ 9.4.0 with the optimizations on: g++ test.cpp --std=c++17 -O2 -o test. The output of the program execution is:

./test
Vector with small string:
new 32 bytes

Vector with long string:
new 56 bytes
new 32 bytes
new 56 bytes
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We can see here that for the small string std::vector has allocated 32 bytes, which is the size of std::string. Creating the vector that handles long string involves 3 memory allocations: the first one comes from the construction of the parameter, the second one is the allocation of the memory for std::string inside the vector and the last one is the copy of our parameter.

To get rid of the copy we have to avoid std::initializer_list. Let’s write a make_vector function instead. My draft looks like this:

template <typename T, typename... U>
std::vector<std::decay_t<T>> make_vector(T&& arg, U&&... args) {
    auto result = std::vector<std::decay_t<T>>{};
    result.reserve(1 + sizeof...(args));
    result.emplace_back(std::forward<T>(arg));
    (result.emplace_back(std::forward<U>(args)), ...);
    return result;
}
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Now the parameters won’t be copied because they are forwarded to the emplace_back method which constructs them in place. An important thing is to allocate the memory for all the parameters at once using reserve method, otherwise we save the copy allocations but add redundant allocations for vector items.

Let’s tweak the test program:

int main() {
    std::cout << "String size: " << sizeof(std::string) << "\n";
    std::cout << "\nVector with small string:\n";
    auto data = std::vector<std::string>{"short vector"};
    std::cout << "\nVector with a long string:\n";
    data = std::vector<std::string>{
        "a long string that will likely be allocated on the heap"};
    using namespace std::literals;
    std::cout << "\nmake_vector with a long string:\n";
    data = make_vector(
        "a long string that will likely be allocated on the heap"s);
    std::cout << "\nVector with two long strings:\n";
    data = std::vector<std::string>{
        "a long string that will likely be allocated on the heap",
        "another long string that will likely be allocated on the heap"};
    std::cout << "\nmake_vector, two long strings:\n";
    data = make_vector(
        "a long string that will likely be allocated on the heap"s,
        "another long string that will likely be allocated on the heap"s);
}
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The output looks better now, I’ve added comments for the explanation:

String size: 32

Vector with small string:
new 32 bytes # vector item (sizeof std::string)

Vector with a long string:
new 56 bytes # the argument
new 32 bytes # the vector item
new 56 bytes # argument copy

make_vector with a long string:
new 56 bytes # the string argument
new 32 bytes # the vector item

Vector with two long strings:
new 56 bytes # the first argument
new 62 bytes # the second argument
new 64 bytes # memory for two vector items
new 56 bytes # copy of the 1st argument
new 62 bytes # copy of the 2nd argument

make_vector, two long strings:
new 62 bytes # the second argument
new 56 bytes # the first argument
new 64 bytes # memory for two vector items
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The strings are not copied anymore when make_vector is used and using it is also convenient.

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