Item 39: Use private inheritance judiciously

Item 32 demonstrates that C++ treats public inheritance as an is-a relationship. It does this by showing that compilers, when given a hierarchy in which a class Student publicly inherits from a class Person, implicitly convert Students to Persons when that is necessary for a function call to succeed. It's worth repeating a portion of that example using private inheritance instead of public inheritance:

 class Person { ... }; class Student: private Person { ... };     // inheritance is now private void eat(const Person& p);                 // anyone can eat void study(const Student& s);              // only students study Person p;                                  // p is a Person Student s;                                 // s is a Student eat(p);                                    // fine, p is a Person eat(s);                                    // error! a Student isn't a Person 

Clearly, private inheritance doesn't mean is-a. What does it mean then?

"Whoa!" you say. "Before we get to the meaning, let's cover the behavior. How does private inheritance behave?" Well, the first rule governing private inheritance you've just seen in action: in contrast to public inheritance, compilers will generally not convert a derived class object (such as Student) into a base class object (such as Person) if the inheritance relationship between the classes is private. That's why the call to eat fails for the object s. The second rule is that members inherited from a private base class become private members of the derived class, even if they were protected or public in the base class.

So much for behavior. That brings us to meaning. Private inheritance means is-implemented-in-terms-of. If you make a class D privately inherit from a class B, you do so because you are interested in taking advantage of some of the features available in class B, not because there is any conceptual relationship between objects of types B and D. As such, private inheritance is purely an implementation technique. (That's why everything you inherit from a private base class becomes private in your class: it's all just implementation detail.) Using the terms introduced in Item 34, private inheritance means that implementation only should be inherited; interface should be ignored. If D privately inherits from B, it means that D objects are implemented in terms of B objects, nothing more. Private inheritance means nothing during software design, only during software implementation.

The fact that private inheritance means is-implemented-in-terms-of is a little disturbing, because Item 38 points out that composition can mean the same thing. How are you supposed to choose between them? The answer is simple: use composition whenever you can, and use private inheritance whenever you must. When must you? Primarily when protected members and/or virtual functions enter the picture, though there's also an edge case where space concerns can tip the scales toward private inheritance. We'll worry about the edge case later. After all, it's an edge case.

Suppose we're working on an application involving Widgets, and we decide we need to better understand how Widgets are being used. For example, not only do we want to know things like how often Widget member functions are called, we also want to know how the call ratios change over time. Programs with distinct phases of execution can have different behavioral profiles during the different phases. For example, the functions used during the parsing phase of a compiler are largely different from the functions used during optimization and code generation.

We decide to modify the Widget class to keep track of how many times each member function is called. At runtime, we'll periodically examine that information, possibly along with the values of each Widget and whatever other data we deem useful. To make this work, we'll need to set up a timer of some kind so that we'll know when it's time to collect the usage statistics.

Preferring to reuse existing code over writing new code, we rummage around in our utility toolkit and are pleased to find the following class:

 class Timer { public:   explicit Timer(int tickFrequency);    virtual void onTick() const;          // automatically called for each tick   ... }; 

This is just what we're looking for. A Timer object can be configured to tick with whatever frequency we need, and on each tick, it calls a virtual function. We can redefine that virtual function so that it examines the current state of the Widget world. Perfect!

In order for Widget to redefine a virtual function in Timer, Widget must inherit from Timer. But public inheritance is inappropriate in this case. It's not true that a Widget is-a Timer. Widget clients shouldn't be able to call onTick on a Widget, because that's not part of the conceptual Widget interface. Allowing such a function call would make it easy for clients to use the Widget interface incorrectly, a clear violation of Item 18's advice to make interfaces easy to use correctly and hard to use incorrectly. Public inheritance is not a valid option here.

We thus inherit privately:

 class Widget: private Timer { private:   virtual void onTick() const;           // look at Widget usage data, etc.   ... }; 

By virtue of private inheritance, Timer's public onTick function becomes private in Widget, and we keep it there when we redeclare it. Again, putting onTick in the public interface would mislead clients into thinking they could call it, and that would violate Item 18.

This is a nice design, but it's worth noting that private inheritance isn't strictly necessary. If we were determined to use composition instead, we could. We'd just declare a private nested class inside Widget that would publicly inherit from Timer, redefine onTick there, and put an object of that type inside Widget. Here's a sketch of the approach:

 class Widget { private:   class WidgetTimer: public Timer {   public:     virtual void onTick() const;     ...   };    WidgetTimer timer;   ... }; 

This design is more complicated than the one using only private inheritance, because it involves both (public) inheritance and composition, as well as the introduction of a new class (WidgetTimer). To be honest, I show it primarily to remind you that there is more than one way to approach a design problem, and it's worth training yourself to consider multiple approaches (see also Item 35). Nevertheless, I can think of two reasons why you might prefer public inheritance plus composition over private inheritance.

First, you might want to design Widget to allow for derived classes, but you might also want to prevent derived classes from redefining onTick. If Widget inherits from Timer, that's not possible, not even if the inheritance is private. (Recall from Item 35 that derived classes may redefine virtual functions even if they are not permitted to call them.) But if WidgetTimer is private in Widget and inherits from Timer, Widget's derived classes have no access to WidgetTimer, hence can't inherit from it or redefine its virtual functions. If you've programmed in Java or C# and miss the ability to prevent derived classes from redefining virtual functions (i.e., Java's final methods and C#'s sealed ones), now you have an idea how to approximate that behavior in C++.

Second, you might want to minimize Widget's compilation dependencies. If Widget inherits from Timer, Timer's definition must be available when Widget is compiled, so the file defining Widget probably has to #include Timer.h. On the other hand, if WidgetTimer is moved out of Widget and Widget contains only a pointer to a WidgetTimer, Widget can get by with a simple declaration for the WidgetTimer class; it need not #include anything to do with Timer. For large systems, such decouplings can be important. (For details on minimizing compilation dependencies, consult Item 31.)

I remarked earlier that private inheritance is useful primarily when a would-be derived class wants access to the protected parts of a would-be base class or would like to redefine one or more of its virtual functions, but the conceptual relationship between the classes is is-implemented-in-terms-of instead of is-a. However, I also said that there was an edge case involving space optimization that could nudge you to prefer private inheritance over composition.

The edge case is edgy indeed: it applies only when you're dealing with a class that has no data in it. Such classes have no non-static data members; no virtual functions (because the existence of such functions adds a vptr to each object see Item 7); and no virtual base classes (because such base classes also incur a size overhead see Item 40). Conceptually, objects of such empty classes should use no space, because there is no per-object data to be stored. However, there are technical reasons for C++ decreeing that freestanding objects must have non-zero size, so if you do this,

 class Empty {};                      // has no data, so objects should                                      // use no memory class HoldsAnInt {                   // should need only space for an int private:   int x;   Empty e;                           // should require no memory }; 

you'll find that sizeof(HoldsAnInt) > sizeof(int); an Empty data member requires memory. With most compilers, sizeof(Empty) is 1, because C++'s edict against zero-size freestanding objects is typically satisfied by the silent insertion of a char into "empty" objects. However, alignment requirements (see Item 50) may cause compilers to add padding to classes like HoldsAnInt, so it's likely that HoldsAnInt objects wouldn't gain just the size of a char, they would actually enlarge enough to hold a second int. (On all the compilers I tested, that's exactly what happened.)

But perhaps you've noticed that I've been careful to say that "freestanding" objects mustn't have zero size. This constraint doesn't apply to base class parts of derived class objects, because they're not freestanding. If you inherit from Empty instead of containing an object of that type,

 class HoldsAnInt: private Empty { private:   int x; }; 

you're almost sure to find that sizeof(HoldsAnInt) == sizeof(int). This is known as the empty base optimization (EBO), and it's implemented by all the compilers I tested. If you're a library developer whose clients care about space, the EBO is worth knowing about. Also worth knowing is that the EBO is generally viable only under single inheritance. The rules governing C++ object layout generally mean that the EBO can't be applied to derived classes that have more than one base.

In practice, "empty" classes aren't truly empty. Though they never have non-static data members, they often contain typedefs, enums, static data members, or non-virtual functions. The STL has many technically empty classes that contain useful members (usually typedefs), including the base classes unary_function and binary_function, from which classes for user-defined function objects typically inherit. Thanks to widespread implementation of the EBO, such inheritance rarely increases the size of the inheriting classes.

Still, let's get back to basics. Most classes aren't empty, so the EBO is rarely a legitimate justification for private inheritance. Furthermore, most inheritance corresponds to is-a, and that's a job for public inheritance, not private. Both composition and private inheritance mean is-implemented-in-terms-of, but composition is easier to understand, so you should use it whenever you can.

Private inheritance is most likely to be a legitimate design strategy when you're dealing with two classes not related by is-a where one either needs access to the protected members of another or needs to redefine one or more of its virtual functions. Even in that case, we've seen that a mixture of public inheritance and containment can often yield the behavior you want, albeit with greater design complexity. Using private inheritance judiciously means employing it when, having considered all the alternatives, it's the best way to express the relationship between two classes in your software.

Things to Remember

  • Private inheritance means is-implemented-in-terms of. It's usually inferior to composition, but it makes sense when a derived class needs access to protected base class members or needs to redefine inherited virtual functions.

  • Unlike composition, private inheritance can enable the empty base optimization. This can be important for library developers who strive to minimize object sizes.

Effective C++ Third Edition 55 Specific Ways to Improve Your Programs and Designs
Effective C++ Third Edition 55 Specific Ways to Improve Your Programs and Designs
ISBN: 321334876
Year: 2006
Pages: 102 © 2008-2017.
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