Angus Comber Angus Comber - 3 months ago 15
C++ Question

Reference member variables as class members

In my place of work I see this style used extensively:-

#include <iostream>

using namespace std;

class A
{
public:
A(int& thing) : m_thing(thing) {}
void printit() { cout << m_thing << endl; }

protected:
const int& m_thing; //usually would be more complex object
};


int main(int argc, char* argv[])
{
int myint = 5;
A myA(myint);
myA.printit();
return 0;
}


Is there a name to describe this idiom? I am assuming it is to prevent the possibly large overhead of copying a big complex object?

Is this generally good practice? Are there any pitfalls to this approach?

Answer

Is there a name to describe this idiom?

In UML it is called aggregation. It differs from composition in that the member object is not owned by the referring class. In C++ you can implement aggregation in two different ways, through references or pointers.

I am assuming it is to prevent the possibly large overhead of copying a big complex object?

No, that would be a really bad reason to use this. The main reason for aggregation is that the contained object is not owned by the containing object and thus their lifetimes are not bound. In particular the referenced object lifetime must outlive the referring one. It might have been created much earlier and might live beyond the end of the lifetime of the container. Besides that, the state of the referenced object is not controlled by the class, but can change externally. If the reference is not const, then the class can change the state of an object that lives outside of it.

Is this generally good practice? Are there any pitfalls to this approach?

It is a design tool. In some cases it will be a good idea, in some it won't. The most common pitfall is that the lifetime of the object holding the reference must never exceed the lifetime of the referenced object. If the enclosing object uses the reference after the referenced object was destroyed, you will have undefined behavior. In general it is better to prefer composition to aggregation, but if you need it, it is as good a tool as any other.