Friday, April 25, 2008

c++ forward class declaration vs "implementation"

a FCD is the minimum declaration of a class before its use. Here are some FCD in std::iosfwd library --

template<class E> class char_traits;
class char_traits<char>;

In C++, i see 3 levels of class declarations
1) FCD
2) class definition using method prototypes, and field compositions ie a full listing of fields. Full listing required for memory allocation.
3) class fully defined with method bodies
4?) see another post for an alternative - pure abstract classes

Usually we put #2 in *.h; client programs "#include" our class definitions by macro expansion. We seldom need to put #3 in header files, though most boost header files are #3, with important consequences for linking and compiling.

effC++ item 34 has a detailed treatment of #1 vs #2. FCD, being the minimum declaration, is also known as the "interface", whereas #2 is known as an "implementation" and "class definition".

Puzzled by the word "implementation"? Think of a Car as an abstract concept. Different car makers "implement" it by using concrete components. A specific implementation of car is essentially a listing of non-static fields.


Put another way, implementation means composition.

Compiler need the size of each field (possibly user-defined-types) in order to size up your Car instance. new expression and operator new calls sizeof(Car). In java, primitive fields have known sizes; all reference fields occupy 4 bytes (32-bit machine). I believe c++ compiler actually calculates and determines the address of each new'ed object -- the address is not determined at runtime.

As you write a client program, you could sometimes choose to include the API classes by FCD rather than #2. I feel If you don't open up an API object to access its members, and you only mention the class name in method signatures, then FCD suffices.

The motivation behind Item #34 is compile-time dependency and coupling. I feel it's c++ specific. By the way, decoupling is one of my favorites, and is a practical priority compared to a lot of other design principles.

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