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C++ concepts in real life

Sandor Dargo
Happy father. Blogger. Developer. Creator of dailycppinterview.com
Originally published at sandordargo.com Updated on ・6 min read

During the last month or so, we examined the ins and outs of C++ concepts. We checked their main motivations, we saw how we can use them and what kind of concepts are shipped with the standard library. Then during the last two weeks, we discovered how to write our own ones.

To conclude this series, let's see two real-world examples of useful concepts.

Numbers finally

We've been playing with a concept called Number for weeks. I've always said it's incomplete. Let's have a quick reminder of why:

#include <concepts>
#include <iostream>

template <typename T>
concept Number = std::integral<T> || std::floating_point<T>;

auto add(Number auto a, Number auto b) {
  return a+b;
}

int main() {
    std::cout << "add(1, 2): " << add(1, 2) << '\n';
    std::cout << "add(1, 2.14): " << add(1, 2.14) << '\n';
    // std::cout << "add(\"one\", \"two\"): " << add("one", "two") << '\n'; // error: invalid operands of types 'const char*' and 'const char*' to binary 'operator+'
    std::cout << "add(true, false): " << add(true, false) << '\n';
}

/*
add(1, 2): 3
add(1, 2.14): 3.14
add(true, false): 1
*/
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Our problem is that even though we only want to accept integrals and floating-point numbers, bools are also accepted. bools are accepted because bool is an integral type.

There is even worse! add(0, 'a') returns 97 as a is a character and as such it's considered an integral type. The ASCII code of a is 97 and if you add that to 0, you get the result of this call.

But let's say, we really want to accept numbers and let's say in the constrained world of real numbers.

We have to limit the types we accept. As std::is_floating_point returns true only for float, double and long double, there is no problem there. But floating-point numbers are not enough and as we already saw, std::is_integral returns true for some types that we might not want to accept as numbers.

The following types and their const and/or unsgined versions are considered integral:

  • bool,
  • char, char8_t, char16_t, char32_t, wchar_t,
  • short, int, long, long long

But we only want to accept the types from the third line, booleans and characters are not our cups of tea.

Before C++20, we'd have to either disallow certain overloads or use static assertions with templates to make sure that only certain types would be accepted.

template<typename T>
T addPreCpp20(T a, T b) {
    static_assert(std::is_integral_v<T>, "addPreCpp20 requires integral types");
    return a+b;
}

// ...
std::cout << addPreCpp20(1,2) << '\n'; // valid
std::cout << addPreCpp20(1,2.14) << '\n'; // woulnd't compile, static assertion fails
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The main problem with these that we'd have to do the same steps for each function, for each parameter.

With overloads, we might end up with a too-long list of combinations (when you have 3 numeric parameters that you want to constrain), or your templates are either too repetitive or just too complex for most working on the codebase.

C++20 brought us concepts and we have to define our Number concept only once, and then it's easy to use it.

Just repeat our requirements:

  • we want to accept floating-point numbers
  • we want to accept integral numbers
  • we don't want to accept integral types that can be converted to ints such as bools and chars.

As the first trial, you might try something like this

#include <concepts>

template <typename T>
concept Number = (std::integral<T> || std::floating_point<T>) 
                 && !std::same_as<T, bool>
                 && !std::same_as<T, char>
                 && !std::same_as<T, char8_t>
                 && !std::same_as<T, char16_t>
                 && !std::same_as<T, char32_t>
                 && !std::same_as<T, wchar_t>;

auto add(Number auto a, Number auto b) {
  return a+b;
}              
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But we are not done yet. The following compiles and prints 139!

unsigned char a = 'a';
std::cout << add(a, 42);
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We have to include all the unsigned versions! Luckily only char has an unsigned eversion. consts we don't have to permit as those as a const char would be automatically considered a char and therefore it wouldn't compile.

#include <concepts>
#include <iostream>

template <typename T>
concept Number = (std::integral<T> || std::floating_point<T>) 
                 && !std::same_as<T, bool>
                 && !std::same_as<T, char>
                 && !std::same_as<T, unsigned char>                 
                 && !std::same_as<T, char8_t>
                 && !std::same_as<T, char16_t>
                 && !std::same_as<T, char32_t>
                 && !std::same_as<T, wchar_t>;

auto add(Number auto a, Number auto b) {
  return a+b;
}

int main() {
    std::cout << "add(1, 2): " << add(1, 2) << '\n';
    std::cout << "add(1, 2.14): " << add(1, 2.14) << '\n';
    // std::cout << "add(\"one\", \"two\"): " << add("one", "two") << '\n'; // error: invalid operands of types 'const char*' and 'const char*' to binary 'operator+'
    // std::cout << "add(true, false): " << add(true, false) << '\n'; // unsatisfied constraints
    // const char c = 'a';
    // std::cout << add(c, 42); // unsatisfied constraints
    // unsigned char uc = 'a';
    // std::cout << add(uc, 42); // unsatisfied constraints
}
/*
add(1, 2): 3
add(1, 2.14): 3.14
*/
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Utility functions constrained

Utility functions are most often not used in the enclosing class - if there is any - but with other types.

Usually using them doesn't make sense but only with certain types. If the number of types is limited enough, or maybe they are even tied to a class hierarchy, it's straightforward how or at least with what you can use the utilities.

But if the available types are broad enough, often they are templatized. In such cases, documentation and (template) parameter names can come to the rescue. It's better than nothing, but not optimal.

As we all learned, the best documentation is code. The best way to document behaviour is through unit tests and through code that expresses its own intentions. If it can make unintended usage impossible, even better! Preferably by compilation errors, or at worst with runtime failures. (Watch this video by Matt Godbolt on the topic!)

Concepts provide a concise and readable way to tell the reader about the types that are supposed to be used.

By checking a codebase I often work with, I found some helper functions encoding messages by taking the values from some data objects. The data objects these helper functions can deal with are nowhere listed and the parameter names offer very little help. As the business object taken are also templatized, you'll end up either with a try-and-fail approach our you have to dig deep in the code to understand what it does with the passed-in objects, how they are accessed, etc.

template <typename BusinessObject>
void encodeSomeStuff(BusinessObject iBusinessObject) {
  doStuff();
  // ...
}
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With concepts, we could make this simpler by creating a concept that lists all the characteristics of the business objects this encoder is designed to deal with and that's it!

template <typename BusinessObjectWithEncodeableStuff_t>
concept BusinessObjectWithEncodeableStuff = requires (BusinessObjectWithEncodeableStuff_t bo) {
  bo.interfaceA();
  bo.interfaceB();
  { bo.interfaceC() } -> std::same_as<int>;
};


void encodeSomeStuff(BusinessObjectWithEncodeableStuff auto iBusinessObject) {
  doStuff();
  // ...
}
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Or if the concept would not be used in other places, you might not want to name it, just use it like you would use an immediately invoked lambda function without attaching any name to it.

template <typename BusinessObjectWithEncodeableStuff>
requires requires (BusinessObjectWithEncodeableStuff bo) {
  bo.interfaceA();
  bo.interfaceB();
  { bo.interfaceC() } -> std::same_as<int>;
}
void encodeSomeStuff(BusinessObjectWithEncodeableStuff iBusinessObject) {
  doStuff();
  // ...
}
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Do you see that requires is written twice written twice? It's not a typo! This is finally a good place to use nested constraints. We cannot directly use a parameter in a template function with a requires clause, but it's possible to use an unnamed constraint, or if you prefer to say so a nested constraint.

With the demonstrated ways, we won't simplify our utilities, but we'll make them self-documenting. By using concepts they reveal with kind of types they were meant to be used. Should you try to compile them with any different parameter, you'll receive quite decent error messages from the compiler.

Conclusion

Today, in the last part of the C++20 concepts series we saw two real-life examples of how concepts can make our code more expressive, how they can increase the understandability and maintainability of our code.

I hope you enjoyed this series as much as I did, let me know in the comments if you feel that I should have covered some topics more deeply.

If you want to learn more details about C++ concepts, check out my book on Leanpub!

Discussion (2)

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albertopdrf profile image
Alberto Pérez de Rada Fiol

This has been such a great series Sandor, thanks for it! I'm looking forward to start using concepts myself!

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sandordargo profile image
Sandor Dargo Author

Thank you for your kind words and for following through the articles!

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