Archive for January, 2013

Harder to C++: Member Function Callbacks

Using a class member function as a callback is a possible source of confusion in C++, not in the least because C++11 brings considerable changes at this point. In this blog post we will see a few ways to do it well, and also mention deprecated facilities. It is not that I invented these techniques, but it seems helpful to spread the good word.

What is the Problem?

I wanted native C++ classes to report status updates to a XAML user interface. The XAML user interface has a method in its C++ code behind class that updates a TextBlock, and thus may inform the user about significant events in the program. The idea is to provide the objects of the native classes with a pointer or reference to the method in the code behind, so they can invoke that method and thus update the log.

How hard could that be??? Well, hard enough. So, I turned to the World Wide Web, and tried to find that one good solution. It turns out that C++ did not support callbacks in a very comfortable way until C++11, so easy to handle solutions are relatively new, and not easy to find on the World Wide Web. That’s why I wrote this blog post: to increase the probability that people needing to write callbacks for C++ can find a solution, if they need one. Note that if you need a systematic treatment of the subject you are probably better off by reading (parts of) an authoritative book e.g. “The C++ Standard Library”, by Nicolai M. Josuttis, 2nd ed.

This blog post will not in depth discuss the ins and outs of callbacks in general. Let’s just say that a callback is a function (or method) that is inserted into an object at runtime, such that the object may call the function whenever its logic dictates so. The object doesn’t know the definition of the injected function.

What’s the Solution?

The solution is to exploit a number of features that are new in C++11 and its Standard Template Library. Below we will see them introduced one by one, to settle in the end on a solution that seems most elegant and easy to use, to me (hopefully, you will agree with me on the conclusion). Note that the solutions presented here are simplified samples meant to demonstrate principle, not the code I use to log events to a display.

The ‘function’ Class

To conveniently create callable objects that are also easy to use, i.e. like standard C++ objects or functions, one uses the std::function class. For the samples in this blog post we will use the following function instantiation:

Variables of type WriteOutFunc are functions that take an int argument and return a string.

Below follows the definition of a simple class. Instantiations of this class will receive a function of type WriteOutFunc , and they will invoke (call) this function.

The method WriteForMe is there just for demonstration purposes. In real life the internal logic of a class dictates when the callback is invoked.

As a first use we instantiate a Caller, while injecting a lambda expression that implements a trivial roman number writer: it just writes the Roman number 3 (III). We do not yet inject a class member function, but just a lambda that is local to the _tmain function.

So what happens here is we initiate a Caller object with a simple lambda that returns “III”. Then we call the Caller’s method WriteForMe, with an argument ‘3’. Then WriteForMe invokes the lambda we injected and the result is returned by WriteForMe, and finally written to the standard out stream. The output is indeed “III” (without the quotes). All pretty standard.

The ‘bind’ Function

Next we define a Callee class that initiates a Caller object and injects a member function, so that the Caller object may invoke the method on this specific Callee object:

The important stuff is in the constructor. Since a member function is always called on a specific object, we ‘bind’ the object (this) to the member function WriteAsString, and assign the result to a WriteOutNumFunc variable m_numWriter. So, a call on m_numWriter(3) for a Callee my_callee is always my_callee ->WriteAsString(3). Once we have bound the Callee object and member function, we create a Caller object with the resulting WriteOutNumFunc object m_numWriter. The WriteForMe method is there again just to serve demonstration purposes.

The Callee class can be used as follows:

The output is 16 (not 12 🙂 ). I’ve added the offset, that gets modified when the callback is invoked by the Caller, and then added to the argument. This is to show that the Callee object can have its state changed by the Caller object by means of the callback. So, the Callee class demonstrates a solution to the problem how to create callbacks for class member functions. It’s a good solution, since it is built from STL facilities. It’s an elegant solution as well, it requires just a single extra line of code (bind) compared to the non member function case.

Let’s halt at this point for a moment, and discuss deprecated STL facilities. Point is that member function callbacks were, of course, already possible in C++ and the STL before C++11, but they were much more complex, and required much more work. See e.g. section 18.4.4.2 and 18.4.4.3 in Bjarne Stroustrup’s “The C++ programming Language, Special Edition”. Those sections lay out constructs that depend on templates as mem_fun and bind2nd. Point: these templates are now deprecated (see e.g. ‘Josuttis’, page 497).

In Comes the Lambda Expression

OK, we already have a neat solution to the problem posed. However, we can take it a bit further. We can introduce lambda expressions into the picture. With lambda expressions we can rewrite our Callee class as follows:

Well, this is considerably shorter, and works just as well. Of course, if you want to inject the same functionality into several objects, it is better to first create a named lambda expression, like so:

So, that’s it. And isn’t it a nice solution.