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From: Fernando Cacciola (fernando_cacciola_at_[hidden])
Date: 2002-12-13 13:48:40

----- Original Message -----
From: "William E. Kempf" <wekempf_at_[hidden]>
To: <boost_at_[hidden]>
Sent: Thursday, December 12, 2002 7:41 PM
Subject: Re: [boost] Re: Formal review: Optional library

> [snipped]
> To be honest, I'm wondering if the pointer semantics should just be
> dropped. Here's the rationale you provide for pointer semantics:
> [snipped]
> template <typename T>
> class optional
> {
> public:
> optional();
> explicit optional(T const& value); // Does it need to be explicit?
> optional(optional const& other);
> template <typename U>
> optional(optional<U> const& other);
> operator safe-bool();
> T& ref();
> T const& ref() const;
> };
> template <typename T>
> bool operator==(optional<T> const& opt1, optional<T> const& opt2);
> template <typename T>
> bool operator!=(optional<T> const& opt1, optional<T> const& opt2);
> William E. Kempf
Let's consider the whole thing all over again from scratch.

I really prefer to have the library rejected if it is not really
well thought out; we can work out the standing isssues and
review it again later.

But we're half way on the review period so there is
a chance that we can come out with a sound design at this point.
But if we don't, feel free to reject it.
(And I don't mind ending up with a totally different beast either)

So, after having carefully considered all the arguments raised so far,
here is my re-conceptualization of optional<>.

optional<>'s purpose is to wrap a possibly non existent value.

>From this definition, it is clear that optional is a value-based container.
It has clearly deep-copy semantics, which are clearly _not_ pointer

So, the first important concept is that optional is a container.
This implies that at least the following part of the interface
is IMO clearly correct:

optional<T>::optional( T const& v )
  Contains a _copy_ of the value 'v'.
  Uses T::T( T const& )

  Destroys its _copy_ of the contained value.
  Uses T::~T();

optional<T>::reset ( T const& v )
  Replaced the contained value, if any, with a _copy_ of the new value.
  Possibly uses T::~T()
  And uses T::T( T const& )

  Removes the contained value.
  Uses T::~T();

Being a container, and being its purpose to model the possible nonexistence
of the contained value, there are two options:

One is to model the nonexisting case as noncontainment.
That is, optional, as a container, can have either one element (the value)
or none.

Let's call this the 1-Element-Sequence model.
Here, optional<T> is just like a (stack based) vector<T> with a fixed
capacity of 1
and a varying size of at most 1, so:

  Contains no copy of any value.
  Size = 0.

For the other possible model the nonexisting case can be given by the
of an object of a type other than T.
This is the model followed by variant<T,nil_t> and a Hashkell's-like
With this model, the size of the container is always one, just as its
and the nonexistence of the value is given explicitely by a special type

Let's call this the Union model.
Here, optional<T> is a discriminated union of T | nil_t,
just like variant<T,nil_t>, so:

  Contains an instance of the special type nil_t.
  Size = 1.

Hre comes the first design choice:
Should we model optional<> as a 1-Element-Sequence or as a Union of T |

I find more convenient for optional purposes the Sequence model because
it doesn't require a explicit special type to indicate
a nonexisting value.

Notice that any stack_based_vector<T> perfectly fits the Sequence model
as used for optional<T>, therefore, it has _exactly_ the required semantics.
(optional<T> would use just a subset, though)

Whatever the model we choose, the semantics of the
relational operations will be well defined, so we would have:

bool operator == ( optional<T>, optional<T> ) ;
bool operator != ( optional<T>, optional<T> ) ;

    Compare sizes(), and if they match, compare contained values.
    Compare values.

In both cases the effects are the same, so both models are equivalent on
this respect.

--CHECKPOINT-- Do we agree this far?

Now, let's consider value access on the presence of possibly nonexisting

Under the 1-Element-Sequence model:

1) The sequence might have 0 elements, so it would be undefined to
access its containee.
2) The sequence might have 1 elements, so it is perfectly defined to
access its containee, and since the container is value-based a reference to
the value can be obtained.

vector's interface has size() and front(), but since this sequence
is restricted to at most 1 element, we can choose another more
convenient spelling, such as:

bool optional<T>::empty()
T const& optional<T>::ref() const ;
T& optional<T>::ref() ;

Under the Union model:

The union always has an instantiated value, so we either
(1) let the user to know about this value explicitely:

// no empty()
T const& / nil_t optional<T>::value() const;
T& / nil_t optional<T>::value() ;

(2) hide the fact the the contained value might be nil_t and
provide a 1-Element-Sequence interface.

I find significantly better for optional<> purposes the
1-Element-Sequence interface, which means that I prefer the
Sequence model to the Union model
(which doesn't mean that a union couldn't be used for the implementation)

Suppose we go on with a 1-Element-Sequence model:

Since the sequence contains at most one element,
and since ref() is already undefined for the case the sequence is empty(),
one possibility would to replace ref() by operator T&() provided the
constructor is explicit and empty() is not replaced by a conversion to bool
(safe or not).

bool optional<T>::empty() ;
operator T const&() const ;
operator T& () ;

This would look on the user code as:

optional<int> foo() { return optional<int>(3) ; }
void bar()
  optional<int> f = foo();
  if ( !f.empty() )
    f = 2 ;
    if ( f == 2 )

This interface gives optional<> an almost strict value semantics.
It would almost look like an ordinary T variable, with the only exception
being the explicit empty() call.

AFAICT, this interface is completely consistent and provides completely
sound semantics.

But there is a problem... And the only way for me to show you the problem is
to ask you to trust the fact that I've been using different versions of
optional<> for more than two years on dozens of different projects
and I had been caught already by most of the traps that some interfaces
{I've just counted 436 appearances of the word 'optional<' in my code base}

I originally used _a lot_ the interface shown above.
The problem with this interface is precisely the fact that it shows
ordinary value semantics. IOWs, is the fact that it really looks like
an ordinary variable were the trap is hidden. It is too easy for a dumb
programmer like me to forget about testing the initialization state.

IOWs, when you see code like this:

opt = 2 ;
int n = opt ;
if ( opt == 3 )

it is hard, or at least it was hard for me, to keep in mind that
unlike ordinary values, 'opt' might have no value at all.
That is, I used to loose track of the fact that all the expressions
above can have undefined behavior; they look too familiar
for me to remember that; and the _declaration_ of opt is
usually not near enough to account for the lack of context.

As a side note, notice that that empty() must remain explicit
if operator T&() is used instead of ::ref(), otherwise, expressions
like if ( opt ) or ( opt == 0 ) would be ambiguous.

I believe that is is always important when syntax alone comunicate
meaning. This is were the 'operator T&()' interface fails. And I _had_
been caugth by this so much as to go through the trouble of changing

Fortunately, a possible remedy to the problem of lack of
context teeling that expressions like:

(opt = 2 ), or ( int x = opt), or (opt == 2 )

can be undefined, is to keep the explicit ref() member function
as William suggested.
This way, the expressions would look like:

(opt.ref() = 2 ), or ( int x = opt.ref()), or (opt.ref() == 2 )

and at least won't look decievenly familar.

Therefore, I can see that an interface with a explicit member function
used to access the possibly uninitialized value is pretty sound.

Suppose we go on with an explicit member function as the value access
method. How about safe_bool() as a replacement for empty()?

Safe_bool will allow the familiar idioms:

if ( opt )
if ( !opt )
if ( opt == 0 )
if ( opt != 0 )

The first form, which is probably the most used, comunicates exactly what
it means.
But the second form, using operator ==, appears to me confusing for
value-semantic objects because a comparison against 0 as indication
of uninitialization is typical of pointers but not of containers.
No container-like object that I know of uses that idiom to indicate
emptyness() so I believe it would we wrong to have it in this sort
of interface

As a conclusion, I agree that it is possible to model optional<>
entirely as a 1-element-sequence provided that its
interface uses explicit member funcions for both value access and
emptyness testing.

I notice in particular that this interface allows for a consistent
definition of relational operators.

--CHECKPOINT-- Do we agree this far?

The quest for a pointer-like interface:

Let's get back to the point I realized that:

if ( opt == 3 )
int x = opt ;
opt = 1 ;;

had a syntax too familiar with non-optional values, and hidden the
fact the any of the expressions above would be undefined had 'opt'
been uninitialized.

William's interface do not show this problem because the syntax is not

Back then, I wondered which familiar syntax conveys the precise notion
that the expressions above can be undefined unless the 'initialized'
or 'value-exist' condition is met.
I've noticed that pointers do just that.
When you see:

if ( *opt == 3 )
int x = *opt ;
*opt = 1 ;

it is clear by syntax alone that 'opt' _must_ refer
to an existing value and that this might not be the case
so you know that a test for this condition must be present
somewhere before the expressions are reached.

If we think about this per see, we should agree that this interface
is even more comunicative than the .ref() interface:

if ( opt.ref() == 3 )
int x = opt.ref() ;
opt.ref() = 1 ;

The above indicates that there is something 'peculiar' with 'opt', but
it doesn't comunicate what.
OTOH, the pointer-like interface is self-evident.

I concluded then, and I still think, that
for the possible unexisting value access operation,
operator*() and ->() allows for a very familiar and comunicative
syntax which expresses _exactly_ the semantic of the operation.

It is not just a minor convenience IMO.

And to be honest, the fact that this interface allows optional<>
to be replaced by a pointer is not the reason why I adopted it,
and having though about droping it, I realized that it is not
even the reason why the pointer interface is really good.
It is really good because it comunicates _clearly_ and _each time_
you access an optional value that the operation will be undefined unless
the initialized condition is met.
For dumb programmers like me, this is a very important feature
of the interface; and I know this based on experience, since I stop
being caught often by uninitialized optionals<> once I adopted it.

Anyway, I concede that the pointer interface is really just a visual aid.
And of course, smart programmers don't need this aid, and can safely deal
with whatever consistent interface you gave them.
But I'd like to stress out that this particular aid is significantly

Anyway, I notice that _only_ operator *() and ->(), which are used to access
the value,
are the part of the pointer-like interface that I consider really important.
operator safe_bool() is just handy and it is consistent with optional<>
(a value-based container) even though it allows expressions of the form:

if ( opt == 0 )

just because it goes along with the pointer-like interface.
Because this expression (with the intended meaning) is used with pointers.
I think that if the pointer-like interface is dropped, this should be
dropped too.


The problem with the pointer-like interface.

Mostly thanks to William Kempf, we've came to realize
that the pointer-like interface makes optional<> appear like a
pointer, while it is not, and that this false appearance
evidences itself when we face the fact that the
relational operators that are perfectly defined
for optional<> per see, since it is a value-based container,
conflicts with its pointer-like interface.

Thinking about this problem we realize that operators *() and ->()
shape optional<> into a pointer-like thing even though it isn't.

It is clear to me after much discussion that optional<> is
not a pointer at all but a container.

OTOH, it is true that pointers can either be null or point to a valid
so it is true that there is some analogy between a pointer and an
This analogy is what makes operators *() and ->() viable options.
However, optional<> should not be considered a pointer just like
an iterator should not be considered a pointer either.

The semantics of value access for optional<> is clearly defined,
thus the following are just three different syntactic variants
of the same:

(1) (opt = 2), ( 3 == opt), ( x = opt )
(2) (opt.ref() = 2), ( 3 == opt.ref()), ( x = opt.ref())
(3) (*opt = 2), ( 3 == *opt), ( x = *opt)

I argued that

(1) is problematic
(2) it only lacks self-evident syntax.
(3) is ideal (in itself).

However, operator*() should be seen on optional as a visual aid and not
as implying that optional<> is a pointer.

OTOH, I came to figure that resembling a pointer w.r.t to value access
is a good idea because it is true that pointers do model perfectly well
the notion of optional pointees.
IOWs, there exist the well defined concept of OptionalValue as Augustus
This model is well defined by a part of pointers interface:

operator*, operator-> and conversion to bool.

And pointers have historically been used to deal with optional
objects precisely because they model this concept.

Therefore, it make sense to me to have optional<>, a container with
value semantics, models the OtionalValue concept, provided that it's
clearly understood (and documented) that it is a container
with value semantics and not a pointer.

Of course, having a value-semantic container model a concept which is
defined via a pointer-like interface has the drawback that it makes
the appearance that it is a pointer.
This is an important drawback which definitely justifies reconsidering
to which extent it is convenient to model the OptionalValue concept
in optional<>.

A pro of modeling this concept is that allows optionals<> to be interchanged
with true pointers; but I concede that this pro is not really that much
A con is that it could make the programmer believe it is a pointer.

Since it is fundamental that optional<> is not mistaken to be a pointer,
but rather a value-based container modeling the OptionalValue concept,
proper documentation is not enough.
It is required that the interface of optional<> that looks like a pointer
follow _exactly_ pointer semantics. This way, if it comes to ocurr that
a programmer did think that optional<> is a pointer, the code he wrote
won't behave abnormally.

A way to measure this potential problem is to consider what would happen
if optional<T> were actually be replaced by T*
With the current definition of the OptionalValue concept, the code will have
_exactly_ the same effect, so the potential danger of mistakenly
consider optional<T> as a pointer is conceptual but not practical.

However, and very unfortunately, this _requires_ the properly well defined
relational operators to be disallowed, because they can effectively create
practical problems if optional is mistaken for a pointer and used,
for example, to test for aliased equivalence as you do when you compare

As a general conclusion, the final decision boils down, as
Augustus said, to weight the convenience of this syntax:

if ( opt ) // or if ( opt != 0 )
  if ( opt2 && *opt == *opt2 )

against the convenience of the more conceptually consistent:

if ( !opt.empty() )
  if ( opt == opt2 )

My experience shows that comparions of optionals is _extemely_
less frequent than testing for initalization and accessing
the value; so I really prefer the pointer-like interface
with poisonned relops.
Provided the documentation is reworked to clearly state
that optional<> is a value-based container and not a pointer.

Anyway, the viable choices are, AFAICT:

(A) Strict container-like interface:

    optional () ;

    explicit optional ( T const& v ) ;

    optional ( optional const& rhs ) ;

    template<class U> optional ( optional<U> const& rhs ) ;

    optional& operator = ( optional const& rhs ) ;

    template<class U> optional& operator = ( optional<U> const& rhs ) ;

    bool empty() const ;

    T const& ref() const ;
    T& ref() ;

    friend void swap ( optional<T>& x, optional<T>& y ) ;

    bool operator == ( optional<T> const& x, optional<T> const& y ) ;

    bool operator != ( optional<T> const& x, optional<T> const& y ) ;

(A) Pointer-like interface to model OptionalValue concept:

    optional () ;

    explicit optional ( T const& v ) ;

    optional ( optional const& rhs ) ;

    template<class U> optional ( optional<U> const& rhs ) ;

    optional& operator = ( optional const& rhs ) ;

    template<class U> optional& operator = ( optional<U> const& rhs ) ;

    T const* operator -> () const ;
    T* operator -> () ;

    T const& operator* () const ;
    T& operator* () ;

    T const* get() const ;
    T* get() ;

    operator safe_bool() const ;

    friend void swap ( optional<T>& x, optional<T>& y ) ;

Fernando Cacciola

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