This was originally a wiki entry I was writing for the By Tech internal development wiki this morning, but I thought it’s the kind of simple and useful tip that deserves a blog post…

Opaque Pointer (PIMPL) Idiom

The opaque pointer idiom provides a way to isolate the implementation of a class from its interface, by forwarding interface calls to a private type (The implementation) that’s declared as part of class definition:

class MyClass
{
    ... // Interface
private:
    class Implementation; // Forward-declared, declared in the definition of MyClass.
    Implementation* _impl;
};

This provides multiple advantages:

C++11 opaque pointer

As with C++11 one may be attempted to write memory-safe PIMPLs by putting the implementation pointers in smart pointers (usually std::unique_ptr):

class MyClass
{
    ... // Interface
private:
    class Implementation; // Forward-declared, declared in the definition of MyClass.
    std::unique_ptr<Implementation> _impl;
};

Sadly is not that simple since standard smart pointers impose some requirements to the type being wrapped:

I means an incomplete type is enough, C means a complete type is needed

Complete type requirements for unique_ptr and shared_ptr

                            unique_ptr       shared_ptr
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+
|          P()           |      I        |      I        |
|  default constructor   |               |               |
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+
|      P(const P&)       |     N/A       |      I        |
|    copy constructor    |               |               |
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+
|         P(P&&)         |      I        |      I        |
|    move constructor    |               |               |
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+
|         ~P()           |      C        |      I        |
|       destructor       |               |               |
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+
|         P(A*)          |      I        |      C        |
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+
|  operator=(const P&)   |     N/A       |      I        |
|    copy assignment     |               |               |
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+
|    operator=(P&&)      |      C        |      I        |
|    move assignment     |               |               |
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+
|        reset()         |      C        |      I        |
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+
|       reset(A*)        |      C        |      C        |
+------------------------+---------------+---------------+

*From [“Is std::unique_ptr required to know the full definition of T?"](http://stackoverflow.com/questions/6012157/is-stdunique-ptrt-required-to-know-the-full-definition-of-t)*

As you can see, std::unique_ptr requires a complete type to define its destructor. The reasoning behind this is that the dtor calls a deleter that at the end calls delete, which needs a complete type to call that type dtor prior to deallocation.

However there’s a workaround to make the code above work: A class destructor definition is illformed as long as any of its memebers destructor’s is illformed. So when the compiler tries to define a class destructor all members dtors should be available. The code above fails to compile not because Implementation doesn’t have a destructor, but because the compiler cannot see it when trying to define the class default constructor from the translation unit including the declaration of the class.

The workaround consists in defining the class dtor in the definition (.cpp) file instead of the declaration, regardless it’s = default or not. This way the compiler will try to define the class dtor in a translation unit where the Implementation type, and its dtor, are defined and available:

myclass.h

class MyClass
{
    ... // Interface
    
    ~MyClass(); // define in .cpp
private:
    class Implementation; // Forward-declared, declared in the definition of MyClass.
    std::unique_ptr<Implementation> _impl;
};

myclass.cpp

#include "myclass.h"

// Declare and define implementation
class MyClass::Implementation
{
    ...
};

// Define default class dtor
MyClass::~MyClass() = default;