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7.5 Where’s the Template?

C++ templates were the first language feature to require more intelligence from the environment than was traditionally found on a UNIX system. Somehow the compiler and linker have to make sure that each template instance occurs exactly once in the executable if it is needed, and not at all otherwise. There are two basic approaches to this problem, which are referred to as the Borland model and the Cfront model.

Borland model

Borland C++ solved the template instantiation problem by adding the code equivalent of common blocks to their linker; the compiler emits template instances in each translation unit that uses them, and the linker collapses them together. The advantage of this model is that the linker only has to consider the object files themselves; there is no external complexity to worry about. The disadvantage is that compilation time is increased because the template code is being compiled repeatedly. Code written for this model tends to include definitions of all templates in the header file, since they must be seen to be instantiated.

Cfront model

The AT&T C++ translator, Cfront, solved the template instantiation problem by creating the notion of a template repository, an automatically maintained place where template instances are stored. A more modern version of the repository works as follows: As individual object files are built, the compiler places any template definitions and instantiations encountered in the repository. At link time, the link wrapper adds in the objects in the repository and compiles any needed instances that were not previously emitted. The advantages of this model are more optimal compilation speed and the ability to use the system linker; to implement the Borland model a compiler vendor also needs to replace the linker. The disadvantages are vastly increased complexity, and thus potential for error; for some code this can be just as transparent, but in practice it can been very difficult to build multiple programs in one directory and one program in multiple directories. Code written for this model tends to separate definitions of non-inline member templates into a separate file, which should be compiled separately.

G++ implements the Borland model on targets where the linker supports it, including ELF targets (such as GNU/Linux), Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows. Otherwise G++ implements neither automatic model.

You have the following options for dealing with template instantiations:

  1. Do nothing. Code written for the Borland model works fine, but each translation unit contains instances of each of the templates it uses. The duplicate instances will be discarded by the linker, but in a large program, this can lead to an unacceptable amount of code duplication in object files or shared libraries.

    Duplicate instances of a template can be avoided by defining an explicit instantiation in one object file, and preventing the compiler from doing implicit instantiations in any other object files by using an explicit instantiation declaration, using the extern template syntax:

    extern template int max (int, int);

    This syntax is defined in the C++ 2011 standard, but has been supported by G++ and other compilers since well before 2011.

    Explicit instantiations can be used for the largest or most frequently duplicated instances, without having to know exactly which other instances are used in the rest of the program. You can scatter the explicit instantiations throughout your program, perhaps putting them in the translation units where the instances are used or the translation units that define the templates themselves; you can put all of the explicit instantiations you need into one big file; or you can create small files like

    #include "Foo.h"
    #include ""
    template class Foo<int>;
    template ostream& operator <<
                    (ostream&, const Foo<int>&);

    for each of the instances you need, and create a template instantiation library from those.

    This is the simplest option, but also offers flexibility and fine-grained control when necessary. It is also the most portable alternative and programs using this approach will work with most modern compilers.

  2. Compile your template-using code with -frepo. The compiler generates files with the extension ‘.rpo’ listing all of the template instantiations used in the corresponding object files that could be instantiated there; the link wrapper, ‘collect2’, then updates the ‘.rpo’ files to tell the compiler where to place those instantiations and rebuild any affected object files. The link-time overhead is negligible after the first pass, as the compiler continues to place the instantiations in the same files.

    This can be a suitable option for application code written for the Borland model, as it usually just works. Code written for the Cfront model needs to be modified so that the template definitions are available at one or more points of instantiation; usually this is as simple as adding #include <> to the end of each template header.

    For library code, if you want the library to provide all of the template instantiations it needs, just try to link all of its object files together; the link will fail, but cause the instantiations to be generated as a side effect. Be warned, however, that this may cause conflicts if multiple libraries try to provide the same instantiations. For greater control, use explicit instantiation as described in the next option.

  3. Compile your code with -fno-implicit-templates to disable the implicit generation of template instances, and explicitly instantiate all the ones you use. This approach requires more knowledge of exactly which instances you need than do the others, but it’s less mysterious and allows greater control if you want to ensure that only the intended instances are used.

    If you are using Cfront-model code, you can probably get away with not using -fno-implicit-templates when compiling files that don’t ‘#include’ the member template definitions.

    If you use one big file to do the instantiations, you may want to compile it without -fno-implicit-templates so you get all of the instances required by your explicit instantiations (but not by any other files) without having to specify them as well.

    In addition to forward declaration of explicit instantiations (with extern), G++ has extended the template instantiation syntax to support instantiation of the compiler support data for a template class (i.e. the vtable) without instantiating any of its members (with inline), and instantiation of only the static data members of a template class, without the support data or member functions (with static):

    inline template class Foo<int>;
    static template class Foo<int>;

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