C++ Metaprogramming::Typelist::Definitions and basic implementations

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Author: prototype

Copyright (C) 2004 prototype
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Abstract

The typelist and relevant concepts are introduced, together with a basic typelist implementation. An elegant, easy-to-use, and macro-free typelist generator is shown.


Introduction

Typelist, as its name suggests, refers to a (singly-) linked-list "data" structure with the data or elements being types. Like the conventional and more familiar singly-linked list data structure, typelist consists of a number of nodes that are arranged in a logically-linear fashion; specifically, each node conprises two fields: one, referred to as the "data field", holds the data (a type); the other one, referred to as the "pointer field", stores the information for finding the next node. The pointer field of the last node normally has a singular "value" indicating the end of the list. Typelist is as fundamental and important for C++ template metaprograming, which is becoming a crucial paradigm in moden C++ design and programming, as plain array for conventional programming. Examples of applications of typelist can be found in Andrei Alexandrescu's book: Modern C++ Design, and also in future installments of this C++ Metaprogramming series. Here I focus on a basic implementation of typelist and a solution to the interesting question: how to generate a typelist without C-type macros?

A basic implementation of typelist

Implementation of typelist can be amazingly simple as long as one knows how to store a data and how to represent a pointer in C++ template metaprogramming. The solutions to the two problems turn out to be the same -- use typedef. Let us take a look at an example to see how it works.

typedef int  type;    // Stores `int' to `type'.
type i;               // `i' is of type `int'.

This simple example illustrates that after the typedef, `type' is remembered by the compiler to stand for `int' and thereafter wherever `type' is used, it will work as if it was literally replaced by `int'. This effect is exactly what we want -- using a symbol to represent a data (a type). With this understood, storing a data in C++ template programming is straightforward; while the pointer used in typelist can be considered as an alias to the next node, therefore it can also be implemented using a typedef.

A basic implementation of typelist can be something like

template <typename T, typename SL>
struct typelist
{
   typedef T   type;
   typedef SL  sublist;
};

Obviously, with this implementation, we want to use `type' to store the data in this node and `sublist' to store the pointer to the next node. To construct a typelist would be something like

typedef typelist<int, typelist<bool, ?> >  tl2;

`tl2' here is a typelist with two nodes. In the first node, we store `int'; in the second node, `bool'. The `sublist' of the first node is `typelist<bool, ?>' -- the second node; but what about the `sublist' of the second node?

As I mentioned above we need a "singular" value for the pointer of the last node. So the `?' should be replaced by a type that is not used except for marking the end of a typelist. This type is easy to obtain, for example:

class null_type;

so the above `tl2' can be defined as:

typedef typelist<int, typelist<bool, null_type> >  tl2;

This works. But it turns out the best value is actually something like `typelist<null_type, null_type>'. This value is much more convenient to use as will illustrated in future installments. Here I would like to rationalize it a little bit through an analogy to the singular value for a pointer in normal programs.

It is known that 0 is used as the singular value for pointers in normal C++ programs. This value has two basic characteristics: first, it is a legal pointer value, which means it can be assigned to any pointer object; second, it semantically means “nowhere” in the memory. In analogy, what are needed for a singular value for the pointer in typelist are the following: first, it is a legal typelist value, which means that itself has to be a typelist; second, it semantically means there is no node after itself. Obviously, `typelist<null_type, null_type>' satisifies these two requirements much better than `null_type'.


A macro-free typelist generator

Generating a typelist as the example shown above is tedious and error-prone. Easier ways are definitely wanted. In some libraries, such as the famous LOKI, this task relies on the (evil) C macro with ugly interface. We want to do it in a much better way especially without all the hassle of C macros. More specifically, the challege is to implement the most clean and easy-to-use generator with an interface like:

typedef gen_typelist<T0, T1, T2, T3>::type  tl0;
// tl0 == typelist<T0, <typelist<T1, typelist<T2, typelist<T3, null_typelist> > > > >

typedef gen_typelist<T0, T1>::type  tl1;
// tl1 == typelist<T0, <typelist<T1, null_typelist> > >

This challenge comes with two problems to be solved: First, how to let the `gen_typelist' accept variable number of template arguments? Second, how to get the wanted typelist?

The C++ language supports default values for template parameters. Employing this, we can make a template to behave as if it can accept variable number of template arguments. For example,

template <typename T0, typename T1 = null_type, typename T2 = null_type>
struct gen_typelist
{
};

typedef gen_typelist<int>  t1;    // OK.
typedef gen_typelist<int, bool>  t2;    // OK.
typedef gen_typelist<int, bool, char>  v3;    // OK

This language feature can really be used to solve the first problem. Of course, there is an upper bound for the number of template arguments, but it is not a big problem if the template has a large number of parameters.
 
Now we get all the types for constructing the typelist in `gen_typelist'. The least thing we can do is to construct a typelist from the given types in a bruteforce way. To continue the above `gen_typelist' example, we get:

template <typename T0, typename T1 = null_type, typename T2 = null_type>
struct gen_typelist
{
    private:
        typedef typelist<T0, typelist<T1, typelist<T2, null_typelist> > >  crude_tl_;

    public:
};

This typelist is crude in the way that some `null_type' are possibly included. Next, we need to further refine it to remove all `null_type' except for the `null_typelist'. To do this, we process `crude_tl_' with a meta-program defined as follows:

template <typename T0, typename T1 = null_type, typename T2 = null_type>
struct gen_typelist
{
    private:
        typedef typelist<T0, typelist<T1, typelist<T2, null_typelist> > >  crude_tl_;

   template <typename T, typename L, int DUMMY = 0>
   struct refine1_
   {
      typedef typelist<T, L>  type;
   };

   template <int DUMMY>
   struct refine1_<null_type, null_typelist, DUMMY>
   {
      typedef null_typelist  type;
   };


   template <typename TL, int DUMMY = 0>
   struct refine_
   {
      typedef typename refine1_<typename TL::type, typename refine_<typename TL::sublist>::type>::type  type;
   };

   template <int DUMMY>
   struct refine_<typelist<null_type, null_typelist>, DUMMY>
   {
      typedef null_typelist  type;
   };
  
 public:
   typedef typename refine_<crude_tl_>::type  type;
};

typedef gen_typelist<int, int>::type  t2;    // t2 is `typelist<int, typelist<int> >'.

The magic is within the inner classes `refine_' and `refine1_'. How they acheive the functionality is an interesting problem left for the readers. :-)

Another way for refining the `crude_tl_' is using a recursive method, as follows:

template <typename T0, typename T1 = null_type, typename T2 = null_type>
struct gen_typelist
{
    typedef typelist<T0, gen_typelist<T1, T2> >  type;
};

template < >
struct gen_typelist<null_type, null_type, null_type>
{
    typedef null_typelist  type;
};

The specialization is for terminating the recursion.

Now, we have the facility for easy generation of typelist and can go ahead to have some fun in meta-programing. Before we go, some meta-functions for manipulating typelists are needed. I will show those in the next installment.

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