Contra P0339 "`polymorphic_allocator<>` as a vocabulary type"

Published Proposal,

ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG21 14882: Programming Language — C++
Current Source:


[P0339R6] "polymorphic_allocator<> as a vocabulary type" (February 2019) went through LWG wording review in Kona this February and has been merged into the C++2a Working Draft [N4810]. It should be reverted; or, if not reverted, we propose some improvements to its usability and safety.

(For WG21 members, LWG’s notes on P0339R6 are here.)

This paper condenses arguments from [Contra].

1. P0339’s example code

Okay, so, what does [P0339R6] propose to allow us to write? From the paper: Here is the "before" code, and here is the "after" code. P0339 shows a dramatic difference between the "before" version of allocating a linked-list node:

    using node_alloc = typename alloc_traits::template rebind_alloc<node>;
    node_alloc m_alloc = ...;

    using alloc_node_traits = typename alloc_traits::template rebind_traits<node>;
    node *n = alloc_node_traits::allocate(m_alloc, 1);
    alloc_node_traits::construct(m_alloc, &n->m_value, v);
    n->m_next = m_head;

and the "after" version:

    using allocator_type = std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator<>;
    allocator_type m_alloc = ...;

    node *n = m_alloc.allocate_object<node>();
    m_alloc.construct(&n->m_value, v);
    n->m_next = m_head;

However, notice that the "before" version was an STL-style class template taking an allocator parameter, whereas the "after" version is a concrete class type restricted to dealing with only a single allocator type —std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator.

So the main difference is that StringList2 removes the allocator template parameter. Removing template parameters does indeed dramatically simplify code, but you don’t need to modify polymorphic_allocator to get that benefit! Let’s compare how the non-parameterized StringList2 would look in pure vanilla C++17: here.

    using node_alloc = std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator<node>;
    node_alloc m_alloc = ...;

    node *n = m_alloc.allocate(1);
    m_alloc.construct(&n->m_value, v);
    n->m_next = m_head;

The vanilla C++17 version of StringList2 is actually simpler than P0339’s proposed C++2a version!

Notice that because StringList2 is not aware of allocator types other than its hard-coded one, we don’t have to go through allocator_traits to get at construct. We know that polymorphic_allocator<node> provides allocate and construct methods that fit our needs exactly.

2. The new_object<T> API

P0339 adds the following member function to all specializations of polymorphic_allocator<Tp>:

    template<class T, class... CtorArgs> T* new_object(CtorArgs&&... ctor_args);

It is unfortunate that this new API is being proposed only for std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator, and not for other concrete allocator types such as std::allocator at the same time. Programmers of properly C++11-allocator-aware containers will not be able to take advantage of the new_object API at all.

P0339’s motivating example can’t use the new_object API, because struct node is not allocator-aware. struct node deliberately lacks the constructors that would be needed to pipe the allocator from m_alloc down into node::m_value. That’s why P0339’s example code explicitly calls construct on the n->m_value object, instead of letting it be recursively constructed by node's constructor or by new_object.

Earlier revisions of P0339 proposed to add the new_object API only to polymorphic_allocator<std::byte>. Therefore it needed the caller to supply template parameter T in every case:

    std::polymorphic_allocator<node2> m_alloc = ...;
    m_head = m_alloc.new_object<node2>(v, m_head);

But since polymorphic_allocator<Tp> is already associated with a fixed Tp, it would be more concise to write simply

    std::polymorphic_allocator<node2> m_alloc = ...;
    m_head = m_alloc.new_object(v, m_head);

This is the motivation for one of our proposed changes to the P0339 new_object and allocate_object interfaces: that they should default their template parameter T to the allocator’s value type Tp.

3. The interaction with CTAD and common typos

Earlier revisions of P0339 proposed to add the new_object API only to polymorphic_allocator<std::byte>. Threfore it needed a "convenient" alias for the specialization polymorphic_allocator<std::byte> (as opposed to other specializations, which would not have had the new API).

The merged version of P0339 attaches the new API to all specializations of polymorphic_allocator<Tp>, yet still proposes to slightly shorten the name of polymorphic_allocator<std::byte> by giving polymorphic_allocator a defaulted template parameter.

Before P0339, the following code snippet would be a syntax error. (You forgot the <T>!)

    template<class T>
    void *allocate_space_for_n_Ts_with_the_default_resource(int n) {
        std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator alloc;
        return alloc.allocate(n);

After P0339, thanks to the defaulted template parameter, and partly thanks to CTAD, that code snippet compiles quietly and allocates n bytes of memory, rather than the intended n*sizeof(T) bytes.

Even in a world without CTAD, accidentally writing polymorphic_allocator<> instead of polymorphic_allocator<T> is not unthinkable. I have personally observed Reddit commenters writing polymorphic_allocator<> and memory_resource<> instead of polymorphic_allocator<T> and memory_resource.

A significant number of C++ developers are already confused about which of polymorphic_allocator and memory_resource are templates, which are type-erased, and which are classically polymorphic. Allowing these developers to write std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator a; as if it were a concrete class type does them a grave disservice.

Consider the difference between

    std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator a1 = std::pmr::new_delete_resource();
    std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator a2 = std::pmr::vector<int>().get_allocator();

Above, a1::value_type is std::byte but a2::value_type is int.

4. Summary of objections to P0339

5. What might a convenience interface look like?

To get the benefits of P0339’s "convenience interface" without the downsides, one might introduce a non-templated std::pmr::handle which can be used without messing with the allocator model at all. Using the "handle" model instead of the "allocator" model, we could write a StringList3 that looks like this:

    handle m_res = ...;
    node *n = m_res.allocate<node>(1);
    m_res.construct(&n->m_value, v);
    n->m_next = m_head;

Here, m_res is a data member of type std::pmr::handle. It doesn’t pretend to be an Allocator, because it doesn’t need to. All accesses to its underlying resource go through the new convenience API, never through the C++11 allocator API. The one place where the old allocator API is needed, StringList3::get_allocator(), simply returns StringList3::allocator_type{m_res.resource()}.

This idea can be implemented in vanilla C++17, entirely in user code. No changes to std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator are needed. For this reason, my first preference is that P0339’s changes to std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator should be completely reverted.

6. If P0339 is not reverted, at least remove the defaulted parameter

Modify [mem.poly.allocator.class] as follows:

namespace std::pmr {
    template<class Tp = byte> class polymorphic_allocator {
        memory_resource* memory_rsrc; // exposition only

This stops polymorphic_allocator from being usable without angle brackets.

Further proposals might then be entertained to introduce a "convenience alias" for std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator<std::byte>, or std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator<char>, or std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator<int>, or any other "representative" specialization of polymorphic_allocator. However, since all specializations of polymorphic_allocator have access to P0339’s new API, and all specializations of polymorphic_allocator are implicitly interconvertible, there is no reason to privilege any one specialization above the others. Furthermore, std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator<> is a particularly cumbersome spelling of the "convenience" alias; it could be a proper (non-template) alias such as using std::pmr::handle = std::pmr::polymorphic_allocator<std::byte> instead.

7. If P0339 is not reverted, default the first template parameters of allocate_object and new_object

Modify [mem.poly.allocator.class] as follows:

void* allocate_bytes(size_t nbytes, size_t alignment = alignof(max_align_t));
void deallocate_bytes(void* p, size_t nbytes, size_t alignment = alignof(max_align_t));
template<class T = Tp> T* allocate_object(size_t n = 1);
template<class T> void deallocate_object(T* p, size_t n = 1);
template<class T = Tp, class... CtorArgs> T* new_object(CtorArgs&&... ctor_args);
template<class T> void delete_object(T* p);

template<class T, class... Args>
  void construct(T* p, Args&&... args);

template<class T>
  void destroy(T* p);

This allows polymorphic_allocator<Tp>::new_object(args...) to be used without angle brackets.

Because the value type of the allocator depends on its template argument, this change should not be taken unless the default template argument is removed from polymorphic_allocator. If this change were taken without that one, then the following line of code would accidentally construct a std::byte instead of the desired int:

    auto *p = std::polymorphic_allocator{}.construct(42);

Appendix A: Proposed straw polls

Revert P0339; send these concerns back to the author of P0339. _ _ _ _ _
Apply the proposed change to remove the default template argument from polymorphic_allocator. _ _ _ _ _
Apply the proposed changes to remove the default template argument from polymorphic_allocator and to add a default template argument to allocate_object and new_object. _ _ _ _ _


Normative References

Richard Smith. Working Draft, Standard for Programming Language C++. 15 March 2019. URL: https://wg21.link/n4810

Informative References

Arthur O'Dwyer. Contra P0339 “polymorphic_allocator<> as a vocabulary type”. July 2019. URL: https://quuxplusone.github.io/blog/2019/07/02/contra-p0339/
Pablo Halpern; Dietmar Kühl. polymorphic_allocator<> as a vocabulary type. February 2019. URL: http://www.open-std.org/jtc1/sc22/wg21/docs/papers/2019/p0339r6.pdf