Using RawAllocators in STL containers, smart pointers, etc.

1. Using Containers with RawAllocators

The following listing shows how to use a memory_pool with a std::list container:

#include <memory/container.hpp> // for list, list_node_size
#include <memory/memory_pool.hpp> // for memory_pool
int main()
memory::list<int, decltype(pool)> list(pool);
// use list as normal
Alias template for an STL container that uses a certain RawAllocator.
Definition: container.hpp:66
A stateful RawAllocator that manages nodes of fixed size.
Definition: memory_pool.hpp:49
Aliasas for STL containers using a certain RawAllocator.
Class foonathan::memory::memory_pool and its foonathan::memory::allocator_traits specialization.
Contains the node size of a node based STL container with a specific type.
Definition: container.hpp:289

The first line in main() declares a memory_pool. A memory pool is a special kind of allocator that takes a big memory block and separates it into many smaller nodes of a given size. Free nodes are put onto a list and can be retrieved in constant time. This structures allows (de-)allocations in any order, but only for a fixed size. But this is exactly the memory footprint for a node based container, like std::list: Each element has the same size and they can be created and destroyed at any time.

memory_pool is templated but the default parameters are just fine for the most use cases so they are used. Its constructor takes two parameters: The first one is the fixed size of each node. The pool will be used two allocate the nodes for a list of int, but sizeof(int) isn't enough, since each node also stores the two pointers to the next and previous node in the list. To avoid guessing its size which also varies between STL implementations, they are automatically obtained on building and stored in integral constants of the from <container>_node_size<T>. In this case it is a list of int and thus list_node_size<int>::value is the node size we need. The second parameter is simply the size of big block that will be seperated. All allocators that are working on bigger memory blocks can grow, if their initial capacity is exhausted, but it is better to use a big size at the beginning.

The second line then actually declares the list. Since RawAllocator provides a conceptually very different interface than Allocator, they cannot be used directly, but need to be wrapped in the class std_allocator. It takes a RawAllocator and provides the interface of an Allocator forwarding to the underlying raw allocator and taking care of rebinding, container copying and threading. The raw allocator itself is only stored as reference, not directly embedded. This is required by the Allocator model which wants to copy allocators, but RawAllocator objects are only moveable. In addition, the get_allocator() function of containers only return a copy of the allocator, access to the direct allocator isn't possible. By storing a reference (actually a pointer) inside the std_allocator, copying is enabled and the raw allocator can be accessed either directly or via getter function of the std_allocator object.

For simplicity, template aliases are provided in container.hpp that do the wrapping. The above memory::list<...> is equivalent to std::list<int, memory::std_allocator<int, decltype(pool)>>. Due to the nature of the Allocator model, the value_type has to be repeated twice, also the Allocator is the last template parameter, leading to a very verbose std::unordered_map<Key, Value, std::hash<Key>, std::equal_to<Key>, memory::std_allocator<std::pair<const Key, Value>, RawAllocator>> as opposed to memory::unordered_map<Key, Value, RawAllocator>. But of course the verbose form can be used, in this case std_allocator.hpp has to be included to get std_allocator.

Since the type of list is a normal std::list, just with a special allocator, it provides all the normal functions. The constructor used is the one taking the allocator object, an automatic conversion to std_allocator allows to pass it the pool directly. Then the object can be used as normal, passed to algorithms and freely copied, moved or swapped. std_allocator ensures that each copy uses the same memory_pool as its allocator.

The same procedure - create a RawAllocator, wrap it inside a std_allocator and pass it to a container, optionally the last two steps combined - can be used for all other STL containers, basic_string or any class taking an Allocator object. Node size values are provided for all node based STL containers (lists, sets and maps).

2. RawAllocators as Deleter classes

But not all STL classes require the full Allocator, some only need a Deleter. A Deleter is just a function object that can be called with a pointer and should free it. Like std_allocator is a wrapper to provide the Allocator interface, there are two kinds of deleter wrappers defined in deleter.hpp: allocator_deallocator and allocator_deleter. The former just deallocates the memory without calling destructors, the latter does call destructors. They also store a reference instead of the actual allocator for the same reason as in std_allocator and take care of synchronization. And like the container typedefs, there is an easier way to handle the most common use case of deleters: smart pointers.

The following excerpt shows the handling of smart pointers:

#include <memory/smart_ptr.hpp> // for allocate_XXX
// assume we have a RawAllocator alloc
auto unique_ptr = memory::allocate_unique<int>(alloc, 5); // (1)
auto array_unique_ptr = memory::allocate_unique<int[]>(alloc, 10u) // (2)
auto shared_ptr = memory::allocate_shared<int>(alloc, 7) // (3)
Memory namespace.
Definition: aligned_allocator.hpp:20
std::make_unique() / std::make_shared() replacement allocating memory through a RawAllocator.

At (1) a std::unique_ptr is created storing a dynamically allocated int of value 5 via a RawAllocator alloc. It is another great use case for C++11's auto, the actual type would be std::unique_ptr<int, memory::allocator_deleter<int, RawAllocator>>. The deleter and function also works with arrays, of course, as (2) shows: It creates an array of 10 value-initialized integers. A similar function is provided for std::shared_ptr used in (3). It uses the std::allocate_shared function internally and thus guarantees the efficient allocation. Like in the standard library, there is no array version for shared pointers. And since the results are instantiations of the actual standard library pointers, they can be used as usual. Especially std::shared_ptr can be very easily integrated, since the actual allocator or deleter is type erased.

3. Temporary allocations

The third big use case for allocators besides containers or single objects are temporary allocations. Sometimes an algorithm needs a temporary buffer to store some results. Variable length arrays - although currently not part of the C++ standard - are a common solution. There are either compiler extensions allowing normal variables to be used as array size directly or the more low level approach via alloca(). alloca() allocates memory by simply adjusting the top pointer of the stack. The resulting memory is thus available directly on the stack and will be automatically freed on function exit. The allocation is also much faster than heap allocation directly.

But although alloca() is available on many platforms, it is not portable. In addition, out of memory cannot be reported, since it leads to a stack overflow and nothing can be done then. Thus it is not recommended to use it. Instead, use the temporary_allocator class available in temporary_allocator.hpp. It does not use the real program stack for the allocation, but its own, separate stack for each thread obtained from the heap.

Below is a simple implementation of a merge sort that uses a temporary buffer:

#include <algorithm>
#include <iterator>
#include <memory/container.hpp> // for memory::vector
#include <memory/temporary_allocator.hpp> // for memory::temporary_allocator
template <typename RAIter>
void merge_sort(RAIter begin, RAIter end)
using value_type = typename std::iterator_traits<RAIter>::value_type;
if (end - begin <= 1)
auto mid = begin + (end - begin) / 2;
second(mid, end, alloc); // (2)
merge_sort(first.begin(), first.end());
merge_sort(second.begin(), second.end());
std::merge(first.begin(), first.end(), second.begin(), second.end(), begin);
A stateful RawAllocator that handles temporary allocations.
Definition: temporary_allocator.hpp:220
Alias template for an STL container that uses a certain RawAllocator.
Definition: container.hpp:46
Class foonathan::memory::temporary_allocator and related functions.

The usage of temporary_allocator is just as usual: At (1), the allocator is created. Then it can be used to create the vectors as usual in (2).

Behind the scenes, a little bit of more work is done. As mentioned the allocator uses its own internal memory stack, one per thread. By default a lot of magic ensures that there is a stack object created when needed and destroyed on thread exit. This internal stack is the temporary_stack and you can access it for the current thread through the get_temporary_stack() function, which is also called by the default constructor of the temporary_allocator. If the stack wasn't already created for the current thread it will be by calling this function. Once a stack is created it will also be destroyed on thread exit.

‍This isn't quite true. On some platforms it might only be destroyed on full program exit, if thread exit can't be created.

You can also use explicit lifetime control of the stack through the temporary_stack_initializer class. Its constructor will create the stack and the destructor will destroy it. This gives you more control than the "magic" done to ensure the destruction.

Because the per-thread stack managment can has a little overhead, you can control it with the FOONATHAN_MEMORY_TEMPORARY_STACK_MODE variable. If 2, the behavior is as described here, with the fully automated managment. If 1, you have to use the temporary_stack_initializer to ensure the destructor call, because the automated managment is disabled. And if 0, there is no per-thread stack at all, calling get_temporary_stack() is not allowed; you have to create one yourself and pass it to the constructor of temporary_allocator.

The allocator itself now saves the current top of the stack in its constructor. Allocation will simply move the stack pointer and is such extremely fast. Deallocations are a no-op, because the destructor of the allocator will unwind to the saved position. You cannot move a temporary allocator, it is such not really a RawAllocator. Because of the automatic unwinding in the destructor, you must not allocate from an allocator that isn't the last created object. If the internal stack is exhausted, it can grow although this may lead to a slow heap allocation and can thus be controled by a growth handler.