Effective Standard C++ Library: A Sophisticated Implementation of User-Defined Inserters and Extractors

IN OUR LAST column,1 we started discussing the implementation of user-defined inserters and extractors, which are operators that allow insertion of objects of a user-defined type into an output stream or extraction of such objects from an input stream. This time we aim to improve the inserters and extractors and show you a significantly more sophisticated implementation.

For implementation of user-defined inserters and extractors we studied a simple yet typical approach: decomposition of the type (for which an inserter and extractor are implemented) into its parts and use of existing input and output operations for these parts. As an example for this we used a class date* defined as class date


{
	public:
		date(int d, int m, int y);
		date(const tm& t);
		date();
		// more constructors 	// and useful member unctions
	private:
		tm tm_date;
};
and implemented its inserter and extractor as

template
basic_ostream&
operator<>& os,
 const date& dat)
{
	os < dat.tm_date.tm_mon="">< '="" ';="" os="">< dat.tm_date.tm_mday="">< '="" ';="" os="">< dat.tm_date.tm_year="" ;="" return="" os;="" }="">
basic_istream&
operator>> (basic_istream& is, date& dat)
{
	is >> dat.tm_date.tm_mday;
	is >> dat.tm_date.tm_mon;
	is >> dat.tm_date.tm_year;
	return is;
}
These definitions allow use of a date object together with any input and output stream. While this approach is sufficient in many situations, there were areas that needed improvement.

INTERNATIONALIZATION The textual representation of a date value varies among cultural areas. The inserter and extractor from the example, however, ignore this and are incapable of adjusting the formatting and parsing of dates to cultural conventions. The standard library offers solutions to some of these culture-dependent parsing and formatting issues.2 Culture-sensitive parsing and formatting is factored out into exchangeable components: locales and facets. For instance, the standard facets time_put and time_get represent the knowledge about date and time formats. In our example, we might want to make use of these culture-sensitive parsing and formatting services.

FORMAT CONTROL Our simple inserter has a problem with the field adjustment. If the field width is set to a particular value, only the first item printed would be adjusted properly, because the first inserter would reset the field width to zero. The expected result after setting the field width prior to insertion of a date object is that the entire date is adjusted, not just the first part. You might want to fix this problem and control the field width yourself. This leads us to the more general problem of format control in inserters and extractors. For the sake of consistency, format control facilities defined in IOStreams should be interpreted and manipulated by user-defined i/o operations in the same way as the predefined inserters and extractors do it.

PREFIX AND SUFFIX OPERATIONS Typical prefix activities for an extractor are flushing of a tied stream and skipping of white spaces before the real value is extracted. In our example, these activities are performed repeatedly, although they were necessary only once, before the actual output of a date.

In IOStreams, the prefix and suffix activities are encapsulated into classes called sentry, and nested into the stream class templates basic_istream (for extractors) and basic_ostream (for inserters). The constructors of these classes perform the prefix activities; the destructors carry out the suffix activities. Our example could be improved so that it performs the prefix and suffix activities once per output of a date object.

ERROR INDICATION Errors can occur during parsing or formatting of an item. Consider the extractor from the example: We might want to check the extracted date's validity and indicate failure if the date is incomplete or is February 31, for instance. Further errors can occur within functions used by the inserter or extractor and can lead to failure of the operation. Users of inserters and extractors in IOStreams expect that error situations are indicated by means of the stream state and by throwing exceptions according to the stream's exception mask. The predefined i/o operations for built-in and library types demonstrate the principle.

We implemented improved versions of the date's inserter and extractor by gradually adding refinements in those areas already discussed. So again the focus is on the formatting facilities of standard IOStreams (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Formatting facilities of standard IOStreams.

INTERNATIONALIZATION There are several steps to take to implement inserters and extractions of culture-sensitive data types:

  1. Identify the culture dependencies that are related to the respective data type;
  2. Encapsulate relevant culture-dependent rules and services into facets;
  3. Provide locales that contain such facets, or provide means for creating such extended locales;
  4. Imbue streams with such locales;
  5. Use the stream's locale and its facets for implementing your internationalized inserters and extractors.
The format of dates is clearly culture-dependent. Consequently, we need facets that represent the rules for the formatting and parsing of dates. Fortunately, the standard library already contains the facets time_put and time_get for this purpose. As a result, we need not create new facet types, but can use standard facets instead. Also, we need not care about equipping locales with the necessary facets or imbuing streams with such extended locales, because every locale object contains all standard facets. We can concentrate on step 5: use of facets for implementing an internationalized version of our date inserter and extractor.

The interface of our date class would, however, not change in any way, and for this reason we omit these details. Here is the internationalized version of the inserter and extractor:

The extractor:


template
basic_istream&
operator>> (basic_istream& is, date& dat)
{
	ios_base::iostate err = 0;

	use_facet<><> > >(is.getloc()) .get_date(is, istreambuf_iterator(),is, err,&dat.tm_date);

	return is;
}
The inserter:

template
basic_ostream&
operator<>& os, const date& dat)
{
	use_facet<><> > >(os.getloc())
	 .put(os,os,os.fill(),&dat.tm_date,'x');
	return os;
}
Use of the time_get and time_put facets is similar to use of the other numeric and monetary parsing and formatting facets. We will not go into the details here, but will at least give you a rough idea of the time facets' interfaces. A time-formatting facet of type time_put has the following function for formatting time and date values:

iter_type put(iter_type out
		, ios_base& fmt, char_type fill
		, const tm* time
		, char fmtspec, char fmtmodifier = 0) const;
A time parsing facet of type time_get has the following parsing function for dates:

iter_type get_date(iter_type in, iter_type end
		, ios_base& fmt
		, ios_base::iostate& err
		, tm* time) const;
Here is a brief description of the function arguments:

Iterators Formatting functions such as put() take an output iterator (parameter out) that designates the destination for output. Parsing functions such as get_date() take an input iterator range (parameters in and end) that designates the begin and end iterator of the character sequence to be parsed. The operations return an iterator that points to the position after the sequence written to or read from.

The iterators used in our example are input and output stream buffer iterators. The begin iterators are created by converting the stream itself into stream buffer iterators. This is possible because the istreambuf_iterator and the ostreambuf_iterator have converting constructors that take a reference to a stream and convert it into a stream buffer iterator to the current stream position. The end iterator is created by the default constructor of class istreambuf_iterator.

Formatting information Different from other formatting facets in the locale, the time facets use neither any format information (such as the field width) from the ios_base& object that is provided as an argument (parameter fmt), nor the provided fill character (parameter fill). We provide these arguments anyway, because nonstandard time facets might be using them.

Value Naturally, parsing and formatting functions take a pointer or reference to the value to be written or read. In this case it's a pointer to a time structure (parameter time).

Format specification The time formatting function takes a format specifier, plus an optional format modifier (parameters fmtspec and fmtmodifier). These are characters as defined for the C library function strftime() (defined in header ).

Error indication Parsing functions like get_date() store error information in an ios_base::iostate object (parameter err). Formatting functions like put() do not have an error parameter. If the output iterator returned by the put() function has a failed() member function, then you can use this for checking the success or failure.

PREFIX AND SUFFIX OPERATIONS We will now add the prefix and suffix operations by means of sentries. As a reminder, here are the recommendations for use of sentry classes in inserters and extractors:

  1. Create a sentry object prior to any other activity.
  2. Check for success of the prefix operations after construction of the sentry object by means of its bool operator. Return from the function if the check after construction of the sentry object does not indicate success.
The previous example is extended by use of sentries as follows:

The extractor:


template
basic_istream&
operator>> (basic_istream& is, date& dat)
{
	ios_base::iostate err = 0;
	typename basic_istream::sentry ipfx(is);
	if(ipfx)
 {
	use_facet<><> > >(is.getloc())
	.get_date(is, istreambuf_iterator(),is,
	 err, &dat.tm_date);
	}
	return is;
}
The inserter:

template
basic_ostream&
operator<>& os,
 const date& dat)
{
	typename basic_ostream::sentry opfx(os);
	if(opfx)
	{
		use_facet<><> > >(os.getloc())
		 .put(os,os,os.fill(),&dat.tm_date,'x');
	}
	return os;
}
Compared with the original example, where all parts of the date were printed separately, and with each part the prefix and suffix operations were invoked, the improved version triggers the prefix and suffix once per output of a date value.

FORMAT CONTROL The only format control parameter that we want to add is proper use of the field width when date objects are written to output streams. This includes taking into account the stream's field width setting, but also the adjustment flags (right, left, internal) and the fill character.

Naturally, we intend to follow the recommendations that we previously explained:

  1. Because the field width is not permanent, but is reset to 0 each time it is used, we need to reset the field width to 0 at the end of our inserter.
  2. The adjustfield need not be initialized, so we stick to the rule that all inserters behave as though the field were set to right unless the adjustfield is set to any other value.
The field width adjustment is added to the inserter from the previous example:

The inserter:


template
basic_ostream&
operator<>& os, const date& dat)
{
	if (!os.good()) return os;

	typename basic_ostream::sentry opfx(os);
	if(opfx)
	{
		basic_stringbuf sb;

		use_facet<><> > >(os.getloc())
		 .put(&sb,os,os.fill(),&dat.tm_date,'x');

		basic_string s = sb.str();
		streamsize charToPad = os.width() - s.length();
		ostreambuf_iterator sink(os);
		if (charToPad <= 0)="" {="" sink="copy(s.begin()," s.end(),="" sink);="" }="" else="" {="" if="" (os.flags()="" &="" ios_base::left)="" {="" sink="copy(s.begin()," s.end(),="" sink);="" sink="fill_n(sink,charToPad,os.fill());" }="" else="" {="" sink="fill_n(sink,charToPad,os.fill());" sink="copy(s.begin()," s.end(),="" sink);="" }="" }="" }="" os.width(0);="" return="" os;="" }="">
ERROR INDICATION To add error handling, we recommend the following to detect error situations:

  • Catch exceptions;
  • Check return codes, the stream state, or other error indications; and
  • Check the validity of extracted objects and determine other potential errors.
To indicate error situations, have your inserter and extractor report errors according to the IOStreams principles:

  1. Set the stream state flags as follows:
    • ios_base::badbit to indicate loss of integrity of the stream.
    • ios_base::failbit if the formatting or parsing itself fails due to the internal logic of your operation.
    • ios_base::eofbit when the end of the input is reached.
  2. Raise an exception if the exception mask asks for it. If any of the invoked operations raises an exception, catch the exception and rethrow it, if the exception mask allows it.
First, we extend the date class and add a bool operator to the date class, which checks the validity of the date. This way we can also demonstrate error situations that are due to extraction of invalid objects. Here is the complete declaration of the extended date class:

class date {
public:
	date(int d, int m, int y);
	date(tm t);
	date();
	bool operator!();      // check for the date's validity

private:
	tm tm_date;

template
friend basic_istream&
operator>> (basic_istream& is, date& dat);

template
friend basic_ostream&
operator<>& os,
	const date& dat);
};
The bool operator is used in the following extractor to check whether the extracted date is valid. Here are the inserter and extractor, this time with error handling and error indication added:

The extractor:


template
basic_istream&
operator>> (basic_istream& is, date& dat)
{
	ios_base::iostate err = 0;
	try
	{
		typename basic_istream::sentry ipfx(is);
		if(ipfx)
		{
		 use_facet<><>
			> >
			(is.getloc()).get_date
				(is, istreambuf_iterator(),is, err,
				&dat.tm_date);

		 // check for the date's validity
		 if (!dat) err |= ios_base::failbit;

		}
}
catch(bad_alloc& )
{
 err |= ios_base::badbit;
 ios_base::iostate exception_mask = is.exceptions();

 if (    (exception_mask & ios_base::failbit)
	 &&  !(exception_mask & ios_base::badbit ))
  {
	is.setstate(err);
  }
  else if (exception_mask & ios_base::badbit)
  {
		try { is.setstate(err); }
		catch( ios_base::failure& ) { }
		throw;
  }
 }
 catch(...)
 {
	err |= ios_base::failbit;
	ios_base::iostate exception_mask = is.exceptions();

	if (  (exception_mask & ios_base::badbit)
		&& (err & ios_base::badbit))
	{
		is.setstate(err);
	}
	else if(exception_mask & ios_base::failbit)
	{
		try { is.setstate(err); }
		catch( ios_base::failure& ) { }
		throw;
	}
}
if ( err ) is.setstate(err);
return is;
}
The inserter:

template
basic_ostream&
operator<>& os, const date& dat)
{
	ios_base::iostate err = 0;
	try
{
	typename basic_ostream::sentry opfx(os);
	if(opfx)
	{
		basic_stringbuf sb;

		// formatting the date
		if (use_facet<> > >
				(os.getloc()).put(&sb,os,os.fill(),&dat.tm_date,'x').failed()
			)
			// set the stream state after checking the return iterator
			err = ios_base::badbit;

		// field width adjustment
		if (err == ios_base::goodbit)
		{
			basic_string s = sb.str();
			streamsize charToPad = os.width() - s.length();
			ostreambuf_iterator sink(os);

			if (charToPad <= 0)="" {="" sink="copy(s.begin()," s.end(),="" sink);="" }="" else="" {="" if="" (os.flags()="" &="" ios_base::left)="" {="" sink="copy(s.begin()," s.end(),="" sink);="" sink="fill_n(sink,charToPad,os.fill());" }="" else="" {="" sink="fill_n(sink,charToPad,os.fill());" sink="copy(s.begin()," s.end(),="" sink);="" }="" }="" if="" (sink.failed())="" err="ios_base::failbit;" }="" os.width(0);="" }="" }="" catch(bad_alloc&="" )="" {="" err="" |="ios_base::badbit;" ios_base::iostate="" exception_mask="os.exceptions();" if="" (="" (exception_mask="" &="" ios_base::failbit)="" &&="" !(exception_mask="" &="" ios_base::badbit)="" )="" {="" os.setstate(err);="" }="" else="" if="" (exception_mask="" &="" ios_base::badbit)="" {="" try="" {="" os.setstate(err);="" }="" catch(="" ios_base::failure&="" )="" {="" }="" throw;="" }="" }="" catch(...)="" {="" err="" |="ios_base::failbit;" ios_base::iostate="" exception_mask="os.exceptions();" if="" (="" (exception_mask="" &="" ios_base::badbit)="" &&="" (err="" &="" ios_base::badbit))="" {="" os.setstate(err);="" }="" else="" if(exception_mask="" &="" ios_base::failbit)="" {="" try="" {="" os.setstate(err);="" }="" catch(="" ios_base::failure&="" )="" {="" }="" throw;="" }="" }="" if="" (="" err="" )="" os.setstate(err);="" return="" os;="" }="">
We keep track of all error situations by catching all exceptions, checking the stream state and other error indications, and detecting invalid dates. We then set the stream state and raise exceptions.

SETTING THE STREAM STATE The inserter and the extractor maintain a local stream state object err. The failure of any invoked operation is accumulated in this temporary stream state. (Note that accumulation of errors is not required by the IOStreams framework. You can alternatively stop when the first error is detected.) Eventually, the temporary stream state replaces the current stream state. Let us see how the various activities contribute to the stream state.

Extractor In the extractor, the parsing operation of the time_get facet uses the stream state object for reporting its success or failure. The parsing operation might set any of the state flags as appropriate. We then check the extracted date's validity by means of its bool operator and add failbit to this stream state object if the date is invalid. We set failbit instead of badbit because we consider extraction of an invalid date a recoverable parsing failure (hence failbit), rather than a loss of the stream's integrity (which would have required setting badbit).

Inserter In the inserter, the result of the formatting operation of the time_put facet is checked by calling the returned iterator's failed() function. In case of failure, we set the temporary stream state object to badbit instead of failbit, because a failed formatting operation indicates a broken stream rather than a recoverable formatting failure.

The local stream state object is eventually used to adjust the stream's state if no exceptions have been raised so far. The stream state is set via the setstate() function, which takes a new stream state value, replaces the current stream state with the new value, and automatically raises an ios_base::failure exception if the exception mask requires it.

CATCHING AND THROWING EXCEPTIONS Compared with the original solution, all relevant statements are now wrapped into a try block. We must catch all exceptions that are thrown by any invoked operation because we cannot simply let exceptions propagate out of an i/o operation. We must first check whether the exception mask permits the caught exception to be propagated outside the inserter or extractor. Only if the exception mask allows it do we rethrow the exception, otherwise we suppress it. Additionally, we must set the stream state appropriately to reflect the error situation that was detected by catching an exception.

Exceptions caught in an i/o operation are best handled as follows:

  1. The caught exception is qualified as an indication of failure (equivalent to failbit) or loss of integrity (equivalent to badbit).
  2. The exception mask is checked to find out whether an exception must be thrown.
  3. The stream state must be set and, if required, an exception is raised.
In our example, the inserter and extractor handle caught exceptions exactly the same way. They both have two catch clauses: We qualify memory shortage indicated by a bad_alloc exception as a loss of the stream's integrity (badbit) and all other exceptions as failure of the operation (failbit). The respective error flag is added to the local stream state object.

By examining the exception mask and the local stream state object, we determine whether an exception must be raised at all and if so, which exception it must be—either ios_base::failure or the originally caught exception.

Because of the accumulation of errors, it can happen that both badbit and failbit are set in the local stream state object. In case both flags are also set in the exception mask, we would have to raise two exceptions, so to speak. Because only one exception can be thrown, we decide to throw the exception that belongs to the badbit, because we consider a badbit situation the more severe error situation. The exception associated to the badbit is bad_alloc, if such an exception was caught, or ios_base::failure otherwise.

After examination of the exception mask and the local stream state object, we now know whether we must update the stream state and raise an exception. This is done as follows:

The setstate() function is invoked with the accumulated local stream state as an argument. This call sets the stream state and might raise an ios_base::failure exception if the exception mask asks for it. In our case, we do not want to throw an ios_base::failure exception, but the originally caught exception, so we must suppress the exception thrown by the setstate() function. For this reason, the setstate() function is called in a try block with an empty corresponding catch block. As a result, the stream state is set to the accumulated local stream state, as intended, and the automatically raised ios_base::failure exception is caught and discarded. Then, the originally caught exception is rethrown.

SIMPLE VERSUS REFINED APPROACH The implementation of the refined inserter and extractor is significantly more complex than the initial simple approach where we just decomposed the date object into its parts and used existing inserters and extractors for the parts. Let's spend a moment on the tradeoff between the simple, straightforward implementation and the more complex, refined one.

There is no carved-in-stone rule for the "right" level of refinement for inserters and extractors. The degree of sophistication that must be implemented depends on the situation where these operators will be used. For instance, if the inserter is predominantly used for writing trace output to a log file, then the simple approach might be sufficient. Conversely, the inserters might be intended to be used for formatting of objects by means of string streams, that is, for conversion between the object's binary representation and a human-readable string representation. If these string representations are to be displayed in an application that is designed for worldwide use, then obviously, more sophisticated operators are needed.

When we compare the simple inserter and extractor with the refined one, it is evident that these refinements do not come free. Besides the greater effort for implementation of the refined inserter and the extractor, the refined approach needs significantly more time during the design stage. For the simple approach, you just have to identify the parts that the user-defined type consists of and reuse existing operators. For the refined approach, on the other hand, each of the areas of refinement needs a sound design. Take, for example, the error handling. You have to decide which error can occur; then you have to determine to which error states (bad or failure) each error should be mapped. An equivalent number of considerations is necessary, if format control or internationalization will be added.

As in our example, both approaches differ significantly in the amount of code that is needed for their implementation. Accordingly, both approaches differ in the amount of time needed for the implementation and the performance of the resulting implementation.

Runtime performance Operators for built-in types, which are defined in the standard IOStreams library for basic_istream and basic_ostream, are implemented in pretty much the same way that we suggested in our refined date inserter and extractor.

Almost everything in the standard C++ library is designed for efficiency and optimal runtime performance, and indeed, the more sophisticated inserters and extractors can have better performance than the simple ones. If the simple approach is taken, then the user-defined type is decomposed into its parts, and for each of the parts an existing inserter or extractor is invoked. Inevitably, certain functionality, for instance the prefix and postfix operations, are executed redundantly.

Implementation effort Regarding the amount of time needed for implementation of a sophisticated inserter or extractor, the refined approach requires a greater effort. The implementation effort can, however, be reduced substantially if the IOStreams-specific refinements are implemented once, as a generic inserter and extractor, and the i/o functionality for each user-defined type is just hooked into the generic operators.

References

  1. Kreft, K. and A. Langer. "User-Defined Inserters and Extractors," C++ Report, 11(8): 48–53, Sept. 1999.
  2. Kreft, K. and A. Langer. "The Standard Facets," C++ Report, 9(10): 64–70, Nov./Dec., 1997.
FOOTNOTES
* The type tm used for the private data member of date is a structure defined in the C library (in header file ). It is a type suitable for representing date values and consists of a number of integral values, among them the day of a month, the month of a year, and the year. Note that the way tm is used by the simple inserter and extractor does not conform to tm conventions imposed by the C library. The conventions, for instance, require that the number representing the month must be between 0 and 11; otherwise the functions working on tm structures do not work properly. We can simply ignore these rules in our example, because we use the tm structure just as a data store, but not in any tm-typical way.

Note that by the time we will be using the standard time facets, we must adjust our date class so that it uses the tm structure according to the C library conventions. We would, for instance, reimplement the constructor as follows:


date(int d, int m, int y)
	{ tm_date.tm_mday = d; tm_date.tm_mon = m-1;
		tm_date.tm_year = y-1900;
		tm_date.tm_sec = tm_date.tm_min =
		tm_date.tm_hour = 0;
		tm_date.tm_wday = tm_date.tm_yday = 0;
		tm_date.tm_isdst = 0;
	}

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