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Template madness

Templates are a feature in C++ where you can create functions and class types that are parameterized on other types and values. An example is the min() function. Without templates, your choices in C++ would be a macro, which has problems with side effects; a single function, which locks you down to a single type; or multiple overloads, which drives you nuts. Templates allow you to declare a min() that works with any type that has a less-than predicate without having to write all of the variants explicitly.

The problem with templates is that they're (a) awful to use and (b) very powerful. The C++ template syntax is horrible, with all sorts of notorious problems with angle brackets and typename and other issues, and anyone who used VC6 still shudders at the mention of STL errors. The thing is, I still like templates, because they're compile-time and extremely versatile. The last time I had to use generics in C#, I ran into so many limitations that I really wished I'd had templates instead. C# generics are a mixture of both compile-time and run-time instantiation, which means they're more constrained. In particular, the inability to use constructors with parameters or to cast to the generic type is crippling, especially if you're working with enums. In C++, you can pretty much do anything with T that you could with using an explicit type.

Function template instantiation is one of the areas that I have the most problem with. The idea is simple: you specify the function you want, and the compiler finds the best template to fit. In reality, you're in a role-playing game where you wish for the function you want and the compiler GM does whatever it can to do precisely what you ask and still screw you, like implicitly convert a double through type bool. I got burned by this tonight when I tried to port VirtualDub to Visual Studio 2010 beta 1. I had expected this to be quick since everything just worked in the CTP, but with beta 1 it took hours due to several nasty bugs in the project system. The first time I was able to run the program it asserted before it even opened the main window. The problem was in this code:

int nItems = std::min<int>(mMaxCount, s.length());

mMaxCount was 4, s.length() was 2, and I ended up with min(4, 2) == 4. WTF?

First, I should note the reason for the explicit call. I often end up with situations where I need to do a min() or a max() against mixed signed and unsigned types, and usually I know that the value ranges are such that it's OK to force to one type, such as if I've already done some clamping. To do this, I force the template type. Well, it turns out that specifying min<int>() doesn't do what I had expected. It doesn't force a call to the version of min() with one template parameter of type int -- it forces a call to any template with int as the first type parameter. This used to be OK because std::min() only had one overload that took two parameters, so no other template could match. However, VS2010 beta 1 adds this evil overload:

template<class T, class Pred>
inline const T& min(const T&, Pred);

Why you would ever want a min() that takes a single value and a predicate is beyond me. However, since I was calling min() with an int and an unsigned int, the compiler decided that min<int, unsigned>(int, unsigned) was a better match than min<int>(int, int). The odd result is that 2 got turned into an ignored predicate and min(2, 4) == 4. Joy. I hacked the build into working by writing my own min() and max() and doing a massive Replace In Files.

I love templates, but I wish they didn't have so many gotchas.


This blog was originally open for comments when this entry was first posted, but was later closed and then removed due to spam and after a migration away from the original blog software. Unfortunately, it would have been a lot of work to reformat the comments to republish them. The author thanks everyone who posted comments and added to the discussion.