Hands-On Design Patterns with C++

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By Fedor G. Pikus
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  1. An Introduction to Inheritance and Polymorphism

About this book

C++ is a general-purpose programming language designed with the goals of efficiency, performance, and flexibility in mind. Design patterns are commonly accepted solutions to well-recognized design problems. In essence, they are a library of reusable components, only for software architecture, and not for a concrete implementation.

The focus of this book is on the design patterns that naturally lend themselves to the needs of a C++ programmer, and on the patterns that uniquely benefit from the features of C++, in particular, the generic programming. Armed with the knowledge of these patterns, you will spend less time searching for a solution to a common problem and be familiar with the solutions developed from experience, as well as their advantages and drawbacks. The other use of design patterns is as a concise and an efficient way to communicate. A pattern is a familiar and instantly recognizable solution to specific problem; through its use, sometimes with a single line of code, we can convey a considerable amount of information. The code conveys: "This is the problem we are facing, these are additional considerations that are most important in our case; hence, the following well-known solution was chosen."

By the end of this book, you will have gained a comprehensive understanding of design patterns to create robust, reusable, and maintainable code.

Publication date:
January 2019


An Introduction to Inheritance and Polymorphism

C++ is, first and foremost, an object-oriented language, and objects are the fundamental building blocks of a C++ program. Class hierarchies are used to express relationships and interactions between different parts of a software system, define and implement the interfaces between components, and organize data and code. While this isn't a book for teaching C++, the aim of this chapter is to give the reader enough knowledge about C++ language features as they relate to classes and inheritance, which will be used in later chapters. To that end, we don't attempt to completely describe the C++ tools for working with classes but introduce the concepts and language constructs that will be used throughout this book.

The following topics will be covered in this chapter:

  • What are classes and what is their role in C++?
  • What are class hierarchies and how does C++ use inheritance?
  • What is runtime polymorphism and how is it used in C++?

Classes and objects

Object-oriented programming is a way to structure a program by combining the algorithms and the data that the algorithms operate on into single entities called objects. Most object-oriented languages, including C++, are class-based. A class is a definition of an object—it describes the algorithms and the data, its format, and relations to other classes. An object is a concrete instantiation of a class, that is, a variable. An object has an address, which is a location in memory. A class is a user-defined type. In general, any number of objects can be instantiated from the definition provided by the class (some classes limit the number of objects that can be created, but this is an exception, not the norm).

In C++, the data contained in a class is organized as a collection of data members, variables of different types. The algorithms are implemented as functions—the methods of the class. While there's no language requirement that the data members of a class should be somehow relevant to the implementation of its methods, it's one of the signs of good design when the data is well encapsulated in the classes, and the methods have limited interaction with external data.

This concept of encapsulation is central to the classes in C++—the language allows us to control which data members and methods are public—visible outside of the class, and which are internalprivate to the class. A well-designed class has mostly, or only, private data members, and the only public methods are those needed to express the public interface of the class—in other words, what the class does. This public interface is like a contract—the class designer promises that this class provides certain features and operations. The private data and methods of the class are part of the implementation, and they can be changed as long as the public interface, the contract we've committed to, remains valid. For example, the following class represents a rational number and supports the increment operation, as exposed by its public interface:

class Rational {
Rational& operator+=(const Rational& rhs);

A well-designed class doesn't expose any more of the implementation details than it has to through its public interface. The implementation isn't part of the contract, although the documented interface may impose some restrictions on it. For example, if we promise that all rational numbers don't contain any common multipliers in the numerator and denomination, the addition should include the step of canceling them. That would be a good use of a private member function—the implementation of several other operations will need to call it, but the client of the class never needs to call it because every rational number is already reduced to its lowest terms before it's exposed to the callers:

class Rational {
Rational& operator+=(const Rational& rhs);
long n_; // numerator
long d_; // denominator
void reduce();
Rational& Rational::operator+=(const Rational& rhs) {
n_ = n_*rhs.d_ + rhs.n_*d_;
d_ = d_*rhs.d_;
return *this;
Rational a, b;
a += b;

The class methods have special access to the data members—they can access the private data of the class. Note the distinction between the class and the object here—operator+=() is a method of the Rational class and is invoked on the object, a. However, it has access to the private data of the b object as well, because a and b are objects of the same class. If a member function references a class member by name without any additional qualifiers, then it's accessing a member of the same class it's invoked on (we can make it explicit by writing this->n_ and this->d_). Accessing members of another object of the same class requires a pointer or a reference to that object, but is otherwise not restricted, as would have been the case if we tried to access a private data member from a non-member function.

By the way, C++ also supports C-style structs. But in C++, a struct isn't limited to just an aggregate of data members—it can have methods, public and private access modifiers, and anything else classes have. From a language point of view, the only difference between a class and a struct is the default access—in a class, all members and methods are private by default, while in a struct they're public. Beyond that, the use of structs instead of classes in a matter of convention—traditionally, structs are used for C-style structs (structs that would be legal in C) as well as almost C-style structs, for example, a struct with only a constructor added. Of course, this boundary isn't precise and is a matter of coding styles and practices in each project or team.

In addition to the methods and data members we've seen, C++ also supports static data and methods. A static method is very similar to a regular non-member function—it isn't invoked on any particular object, and the only way it can get access to an object of any type is through its arguments. However, unlike a non-member function, a static method retains its privileged access to the private data of the class.

Classes by themselves are a useful way to group together the algorithms and the data they operate on and to limit access to some data. However, the most powerful object-oriented features of C++ are inheritance and the resulting class hierarchies.


Inheritance and class hierarchies

Class hierarchies in C++ serve a dual purpose. On the one hand, they allow us to express relations between objects. On the other hand, they let us compose more complex types from simpler ones. Both uses are accomplished through inheritance.

The concept of inheritance is central to the C++ use of classes and objects. Inheritance allows us to define new classes as extensions of existing ones. When a derived class is inherited from the base class, it contains, in some form, all of the data and the algorithms that were in the base class, and it adds some of its own. In C++, it's important to distinguish between two primary types of inheritance—public and private.

Public inheritance inherits the public interface of the class. It also inherits the implementation—the data members of the base class are also a part of the derived class. But the inheritance of the interface is what distinguishes public inheritance—the derived class has, as a part of its public interface, the public member functions of the base class.

Remember that the public interface is like a contract—we promise to the clients of the class that it supports certain operations, maintains some invariants, and obeys the specified restrictions. By publicly inheriting from the base class, we bind the derived class to the same contract (plus any extensions of the contract, should we decide to define additional public interfaces). Because the derived class also respects the interface contract of the base class, we could use a derived class in any place in the code where a base class is expected—we would not be able to use any of the extensions to the interface (the code expects the base class, we don't know about any extensions at that point), but the base class interface and its restrictions have to be valid.

This is often expressed as the is-a principle—an instance of a derived class is also an instance of the base class. However, the way we interpret the is-a relationship in C++ isn't exactly intuitive. For example, is a square a rectangle? If it is, then we can derive the Square class from the Rectangle class:

class Rectangle {
double Length() const { return length_; }
double Width() const { return width_; }
double l_;
double w_;
class Square : public Rectangle {

Right away, there's something that doesn't seem right—the derived class has two data members for dimensions, but it really needs only one. We would have to somehow enforce that they're always the same. This doesn't seem so bad—the Rectangle class has the interface that allows for any positive values of length and width, and the Square imposes additional restrictions. But it's worse than that—the Rectangle class has a contract that allows the user to make the dimensions different. This can be quite explicit:

class Rectangle {
void Scale(double sl, double sw) { // Scale the dimensions
length_ *= sl;
width_ *= sw;

Now, we have a public method that allows us to distort the rectangle, altering its aspect ratio. Like any other public method, it's inherited by the derived classes, so now the Square class has it too. In fact, by using public inheritance, we assert that a Square object can be used anywhere a Rectangle object is used, without even knowing that it's really a Square. Clearly, this is a promise we can't keep—when the client of our class hierarchy tries to change the aspect ratio of a square, we can't do it. We could ignore the call or report an error at runtime. Either way, we've violated the contract provided by the base class. There's only one solution—in C++, a square isn't a rectangle. Note that a rectangle is usually not a square, either—the contract provided by the Square interface could contain any number of guarantees that we can't maintain if we derive the Rectangle class from Square.

Similarly, a penguin isn't a bird in C++ if the bird interface includes flying. The correct design for such cases usually includes a more abstract base class, Bird, that doesn't make any promises that at least one derived class can't keep (for example, a Bird object doesn't make a guarantee that it can fly). Then, we create intermediate-based classes, such as FlyingBird and FlightlessBird, that are derived from the common base class and serve as base classes for the more specific classes such as Eagle or Penguin. The important lesson here is that whether or not a penguin is a bird in C++ depends on how we define what a bird is, or, in C++ terms, what the public interface of the Bird class is.

Because the public inheritance implies the is-a relationship, the language allows a wide range of conversions between references and pointers to different classes in the same hierarchy. First of all, a conversion from a pointer to a derived class into a pointer to the base class is implicit (this is the same for references):

class Base { ... };
class Derived : public Base { ... };
Derived* d = new Derived;
Base* b = d; // Implicit conversion

This conversion is always valid because an instance of the derived class is also an instance of the base class. The inverse conversion is possible but has to be made explicit:

Base* b = new Derived;    // *b is really Derived
Derived* d = b; // Does not compile, not implicit
Derived* d = static_cast<Derived*>(b); // Explicit conversion

The reason this conversion isn't implicit is that it's valid only if the base class pointer really points to a derived object (otherwise, the behavior is undefined). The programmer, therefore, must explicitly assert, using the static cast, that somehow, through the logic of the program or a prior test or by some other means, it's known that this conversion is valid. If you aren't sure that the conversion is valid, there's a safer way to try it without causing undefined behavior; we'll learn about this in the next section.

The other kind of inheritance in C++ is private inheritance. When inheriting privately, the derived classes don't extend the public interface of the base class—all base class methods become private in the derived class. Any public interface has to be created by the derived class, starting from a clean slate. There's no assumption that an object of the derived class can be used in place of an object of the base class. What the derived class does get from the base class is the implementation details—both the methods and the data members can be used by the derived class to implement its own algorithms. It's said, therefore, that private inheritance implements a has-a relationship—the derived object has an instance of the base class contained inside of it.

The relation of the privately derived class to its base class is, therefore, similar to that of the relationship of a class to its data members. The latter implementation technique is known as composition—an object is composed from any number of other objects, which are all used as its data members. In the absence of any reason to do otherwise, the composition should be preferred to private inheritance. What, then, might be the reasons to use private inheritance? There are several possibilities. First of all, it's possible, within the derived class, to re-expose one of the public member functions of the base class with the help of the using declaration:

class Container : private std::vector<int> {
using std::vector<int>::size;

This can be useful in rare cases, but it's also equivalent to an inline forwarding function:

class Container {
std::vector<int> v_;
size_t size() const { return v_.size(); }

Second, a pointer or reference to a derived object can be converted into a pointer or reference to the base object, but only inside a member function of the derived class. Again, the equivalent functionality for composition is provided by taking the address of a data member. So far, we haven't seen a good reason to use private inheritance, and indeed, the common advice is to prefer composition. But the next two reasons are more significant, and either one could be motivation enough to use private inheritance.

One good reason to use private inheritance has to do with the size of the composed or derived objects. It isn't uncommon to have base classes that provide only methods but no data members. Such classes have no data of their own and, therefore, should not occupy any memory. But in C++, they have to be given a non-zero size. This has to do with the requirement that any two different objects or variables have different and unique addresses. Typically, if we have two variables declared one after the other, the address of the second one is the address of the first one, plus the size of the first one:

int x;     // Created at address 0xffff0000, size is 4
int y; // Created at address 0xffff0004

To avoid the need to handle zero-sized objects differently, C++ assigns an empty object the size of one. If such an object is used as a data member of a class, it occupies at least 1 byte (the alignment requirements for the next data member may increase this value). This is wasted memory; it'll never be used for anything. On the other hand, if an empty class is used as a base class, there's no requirement that the base part of an object must have a non-zero size. The entire object of the derived class must have a non-zero size, but the address of a derived object, its base object, and its first data member can all be at the same address. Therefore, it's legal in C++ to allocate no memory for an empty base class, even though sizeof() returns 1 for this class. While legal, such empty base class optimization isn't required and is considered an optimization. Nonetheless, most modern compilers do this optimization:

class Empty {
void useful_function();
class Derived : private Empty {
int i;
}; // sizeof(Derived) == 4
class Composed {
int i;
Empty e;
}; // sizeof(Composed) == 8

If we create many derived objects, the memory saved by the empty base optimization can be significant.

The second reason to possibly use private inheritance has to do with virtual functions, and this will be explained in the next section.


Polymorphism and virtual functions

When we discussed public inheritance earlier, we mentioned that a derived object can be used in any place where a base object is expected. Even with this requirement, it's often useful to know what the actual type of the object is—in other words, what type the object was created as:

Derived d;
Base& b = d;
b.some_method(); // b is really a Derived object

some_method() is a part of the public interface of the Base class and has to be valid for the Derived class as well. But, within the flexibility allowed by the contract of the base class interface, it can do something different. As an example, we've already used the avian hierarchy before to represent different birds, in particular, birds that can fly. The FlyingBird class can be assumed to have a fly() method, and every specific bird class derived from it has to support flight. But eagles fly differently from vultures, and so the implementation of the fly() method in the two derived classes, Eagle and Vulture, can be different. Any code that operates on arbitrary FlyingBird objects can call the fly() method, but the results will vary depending on the actual type of the object.

This functionality is implemented in C++ using virtual functions. A virtual public function must be declared in the base class:

class FlyingBird : public Bird {
virtual void fly(double speed, double direction) {
... move the bird at the specified speed in the given direction ...

A derived class inherits both the declaration and the implementation of this function. The declaration and the contract it provides must be respected. If the implementation meets the needs of the derived class, there's no need to do anything more. But if the derived class needs to change the implementation, it can override the implementation of the base class:

class Vulture : public FlyingBird {
virtual void fly(double speed, double direction) {
... move the bird but accumulate exhaustion if too fast ...

When a virtual function is called, the C++ runtime system must determine what the real type of the object is. Usually, this information isn't known at compile time and must be determined at runtime:

void hunt(FlyingBird& b) {
b.fly(...); // Could be Vulture or Eagle
Eagle e;
hunt(e); // Now b in hunt() is Eagle, FlyingBird::fly() is called
Vulture v;
hunt(v); // Now b in hunt() is Vulture, Vulture::fly() is called

The programming technique where some code operates on any number of base objects and invokes the same methods, but the results depend on the actual type of these objects, is known as runtime polymorphism, and the objects that support this technique are polymorphic. In C++, polymorphic objects must have at least one virtual function, and only the parts of their interface that use the virtual functions for some or all of the implementation are polymorphic.

It should be evident from this explanation that the declaration of the virtual function and its overrides should be identical—the programmer calls the function on a base object, but the version that's implemented in the derived class runs instead. This can happen only if the two functions have identical arguments and return types (one exception is that if a virtual function in the base class returns a pointer or a reference to an object of some type, the override can return a pointer or a reference to an object derived from that type).

A very common special case of polymorphic hierarchies is one where the base class doesn't have a good default implementation of the virtual function. For example, all flying birds fly, but they all fly at different speeds, so there's no reason to select one speed as the default. In C++, we can refuse to provide any implementation for a virtual function in the base class. Such functions are called pure virtual, and any base class that contains a pure virtual function is known as an abstract class:

class FlyingBirt {
virtual void fly(...) = 0; // Pure virtual function

An abstract class defines an interface only; it's the job of the concrete derived classes to implement it. If the base class contains a pure virtual function, every derived class that's instantiated in the program must provide an implementation. In other words, an object of a base class can't be created. We can, however, have a pointer or a reference to an object of a base class—they really point to a derived class, but we can operate on it through the base class interface.

A few notes on the C++ syntax—when overriding a virtual function, it isn't required to repeat the virtual keyword. If the base class declares a virtual function with the same name and arguments, the one in the derived class will always be a virtual function and will override the one from the base class. Note that, if the arguments differ, the derived class function doesn't override anything and instead shadows the name of the base class function. This can lead to subtle bugs where the programmer intended to override a base class function but didn't copy the declaration correctly:

class Eagle : public FlyingBird {
virtual void fly(int speed, double direction);

Here, the types of the arguments are slightly different. The Eagle::fly() function is also virtual, but it doesn't override FlyingBird::fly(). If the latter is a pure virtual function, the bug will be caught because every pure virtual function must be implemented in a derived class. But if FlyingBird::fly() has the default implementation, then the bug will go undetected by the compiler. C++11 provides a very useful feature that greatly simplifies finding such bugs—any function that's intended to be an override of a base class virtual function can be declared with the override keyword:

class Eagle : public FlyingBird {
void fly(int speed, double direction) override;

The virtual keyword is still optional, but if the FlyingBird class doesn't have a virtual function that we could be overriding with this declaration, this code won't compile.

The most common use of virtual functions, by far, is in hierarchies that use public inheritance—since every derived object is also a base object (is-a relationship), a program can often operate on a collection of derived objects as if they were all of the same type, and the virtual function overrides ensure that the right processing happens for every object:

void MakeLoudBoom(std::vector<FlyingBird*> birds) {
for (auto bird : birds) {
bird->fly(...); // Same action, different results

But virtual functions can also be used with private inheritance. The use is less straightforward (and much less common)—after all, an object that's derived privately can't be accessed through a base class pointer (a private base class is referred to as an inaccessible base, and an attempt to cast a derived class pointer to the base class will fail). However, there's one context in which this cast is permitted, and that's within a member function of the derived class. Here's, then, the way to arrange a virtual function call from a privately inhered base class to the derived one:

class Base {
virtual void f() { std::cout << "Base::f()" << std::endl; }
void g() { f(); }
class Derived : private Base {
virtual void f() { std::cout << "Derived::f()" << std::endl; }
void h() { g(); }
Derived d;
d.h(); // Prints "Derived::f()"

The public methods of the Base class become private in the Derived class, so we can't call them directly. We can, however, call them from another method of the Derived class, such as the public method, h(). We can then call f() directly from h(), but that doesn't prove anything—it would come as no surprise if Derived::h() invoked Derived::f(). Instead, we call the Base::f() function that's inherited from the Base class. Inside that function, we're in the Base class—the body of this function may have been written and compiled long before the Derived class was implemented. And yet, in this context, the virtual function override works correctly and Derived::f() is called, just as it would if the inheritance was public.

In the previous section, we recommended that the composition is preferred to private inheritance unless there's a reason to do otherwise. There's no good way to implement similar functionality using composition; so, if the virtual function behavior is desired, private inheritance is the only way to go.

A class with a virtual method has to have its type encoded into every object—this is the only way to know, at runtime, what was the type of the object when it was constructed, after we converted the pointer into a base class pointer and lost any other information about the original type. That type information isn't free; it takes space—a polymorphic object is always larger than an object with the same data members but no virtual methods (usually by the size of a pointer). The extra size doesn't depend on how many virtual functions the class has—at long as it has one, the type information must be encoded in the object. Now, recall that a pointer to the base class can be converted into a pointer to the derived class, but only if we know the correct type of the derived class. With the static cast, there's no way to test whether our knowledge is correct. For non-polymorphic classes (classes without any virtual functions), there can be no better way; once their original type is lost, there is no way to recover it. But for polymorphic objects, the type is encoded in the object, so there has to be a way to use that information to check whether our assumption is correct about which derived object this really is. Indeed, there is a way. It's provided by the dynamic cast:

class Base { ... };
class Derived : public Base { ... };
Base* b1 = new Derived; // Really Derived
Base* b2 = new Base; // Not Derived
Derived* d1 = dynamic_cast<Derived*>(b1); // Succeeds
Derived* d2 = dynamic_cast<Derived*>(b2); // d2 == nullptr

The dynamic cast doesn't tell us what the real type of the object is; rather, it allows us to ask the question—Is the real type Derived? If our guess at the type is correct, the cast succeeds and returns the pointer to the derived object. If the real type is something else, the cast fails and returns a null pointer. The dynamic cast can also be used with references, with similar effects, save one—there's no null reference. A function that returns a reference must always return a reference to some valid object. Since the dynamic cast can't return a reference to a valid object if the requested type doesn't match the actual type. The only alternative is to throw an exception.

So far, we've limited ourselves to only one base class. While it's much easier to think about class hierarchies if we imagine them as trees, with the base class and the root and branches where multiple classes are derived from the same base, C++ doesn't impose such limitations. Next, we'll learn about inheriting from several base classes at once.


Multiple inheritance

In C++, a class can be derived from several base classes. Going back to our birds, let's make an observation—while flying birds have a lot in common with each other, they also have something in common with other flying animals, specifically, the ability to fly. Since flight isn't limited to birds, we may want to move the data and the algorithms related to processing flight into a separate base class. But there's also no denying that an eagle is a bird. We could express this relation if we used two base classes to construct the Eagle class:

class Eagle : public Bird, public FlyingAnimal { ... };

In this case, the inheritance from both base classes is public, which means that the derived class inherits both interfaces and must fulfill two separate contracts. What happens if both interfaces define a method with the same name? If this method isn't virtual, then an attempt to invoke it on the derived class is ambiguous, and the program doesn't compile. If the method is virtual and the derived class has an override for it, then there's no ambiguity since the method of the derived class is called. Also, Eagle is now both Bird and FlyingAnimal:

Eagle* e = new Eagle;
Bird* b = e;
FlyingAnimal* f = e;

Both conversions from the derived class into the base class pointer are allowed. The reverse conversions must be made explicitly using a static or a dynamic cast. There's another interesting conversion—if we have a pointer to a FlyingAnimal class that's also a Bird class, can we cast from one to the other? Yes, we can with a dynamic cast:

Bird* b = new Eagle;    // Also a FlyingAnimal
FlyingAnimal* f = dynamic_cast<FlyingAnimal*>(b);

When used in this context, the dynamic cast is sometimes called a cross-cast—we aren't casting up or down the hierarchy (between derived and based classes) but across the hierarchy—between the classes on different branches of the hierarchy tree.

Multiple inheritance is often maligned and disfavored in C++. Much of this advice is outdated and stems from the time when compilers implemented multiple inheritance poorly and inefficiently. Today, with modern compilers, this isn't a concern. It's often said that multiple inheritance makes the class hierarchy harder to understand and reason about. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it's harder to design a good multiple inheritance hierarchy that accurately reflects the relations between different properties, and that a poorly designed hierarchy is difficult to understand and reason about.

These concerns mostly apply to hierarchies that use public inheritance. Multiple inheritance can be private as well. There's even less reason to use multiple private inheritance instead of composition than there was to use single private inheritance. However, the empty base optimization can be done on multiple empty base classes and remains a valid reason to use private inheritance, if it applies:

class Empty1 {};
class Empty2 {};
class Derived : private Empty1, private Empty2 {
int i;
}; // sizeof(Derived) == 4
class Composed {
int i;
Empty1 e1;
Empty2 e2;
}; // sizeof(Composed) == 8

Multiple inheritance can be particularly effective when the derived class represents a system that combines several unrelated, non-overlapping attributes. We'll encounter such cases throughout this book when we explore various design patterns and their C++ representations.



While by no means a complete guide or reference to classes and objects, this chapter introduces and explains the concepts the reader will need to understand the examples and explanations in the rest of this book. As our interest is and will be in representing design patterns in C++, this chapter focuses on the proper use of classes and inheritance. We pay particular attention to what relations are expressed through different C++ features—it's through these features we'll express relations and interactions between different components that form a design pattern.

The next chapter will similarly cover knowledge of C++ templates, which will be necessary to understand the subsequent chapters of this book.



  • What is the importance of objects in C++?
  • What relation is expressed by public inheritance?
  • What relation is expressed by private inheritance?
  • What is a polymorphic object?

Further reading

About the Author

  • Fedor G. Pikus

    Fedor G. Pikus is a chief engineering scientist in the Mentor IC Segment of Siemens Digital Industries Software and is responsible for the long-term technical direction of Calibre products, the design and architecture of software, and research into new software technologies. His previous roles included senior software engineer at Google and chief software architect at Mentor Graphics. Fedor is a recognized expert in high-performance computing and C++. He has presented his works at CPPCon, SD West, DesignCon, and in software development journals, and is also an O'Reilly author. Fedor has over 25 patents and over 100 papers and conference presentations on physics, EDA, software design, and C++.

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