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The C++ Source
What's Your Address
by Matthew Wilson
April 8, 2005

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26.2 What Actions Are Carried Out During Conversion?

Since it's a function like any other, the operator &() overload can do things other than simply return a converted value. This has serious consequences.

Imperfection: Overloading operator&() breaks encapsulation.

That's a bold statement. Let me illustrate why it is so.

As I've mentioned already, ATL has a large number of wrapper classes that overload operator &(). Unfortunately, there are different semantics to their implementations. The types shown in Table 26.1 all have an assertion in the operator method to ensure that the current value is NULL.

Wrapper Classes operator&() Return Type
CComPtr / CComQIPtr T**
CHeapPtr T**

Table 26.1

Don't worry about the specifics of the types TYPEATTR, VARDESC and FUNCDESC—they're POD Open type structures (see Section 4.4) used for manipulating COM meta data. The important thing to note is that they have allocated resources associated with them but they do not provide value semantics, which means that they must be managed carefully in order to prevent resource leaks or use of dangling pointers.

The operator is overloaded in the wrapper classes to allow these types to be used with COM API functions that manipulate the underlying types, and to be thus initialised. Of course, it's not an initialisation as we RAII-phile C++ types know and love it, but it is initialisation, because the assertion means that any subsequent attempt to repeat the process will result in an error, in debug mode at least. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that, in and of itself, is a good way to design wrapper classes, but you can see that you are required to look inside the library to see what is going on. After all, it's using an overloaded operator, not calling a function named get_one_time_content_pointer()[1].

The widely used CComBSTR class, which wraps the COM BSTR type, also overloads operator &() to return BSTR*, but it does not have an assertion. By contra-implication, we assume that this means that it's OK to take the address of a CComBSTR multiple times, and, since the operator is non-const, that we can make multiple modifying manipulations to the encapsulated BSTR without ill-effect. Alas, this is not the case. CComBStr can be made to leak memory with ease:

void SetBSTR(char const *str, BSTR *pbstr);
CComBSTR  bstr;
SetBSTR("Doctor", &bstr);   // All ok so far
SetBSTR("Proctor", &bstr);  // "Doctor" is now lost forever!

We can surmise that the reason CComBSTR does not assert is that it proved too inconvenient. For example, it is not uncommon to see in COM an API function or interface method that will take an array of BSTR. Putting aside the issue of passing arrays of derived types (see Sections 14.5; 33.4), we might wish to use our CComBSTR when we're only passing one string.

An alternative strategy is to release the encapsulated resource within the operator &() method. This is the approach of another popular Microsoft COM wrapper class, the Visual C++ _com_ptr_t template. The downside of this approach is that the wrapper is subject to premature release on those occasions when you need to pass a pointer to the encapsulated resource to a function that will merely be using it, rather than destroying it or removing it from your wrapper. You may think that you can solve this by declaring const and non- const overloads of operator &(), as in Listing 26.2.

Listing 26.2

template <typename T>
class X
  . . .
  T const *operator &() const
    return &m_t;
  T *operator &()
    m_t = T();
    return &m_t;

Unfortunately, this won't help, because the compiler selects the overload appropriate to the const-ness of the instance on which it's to be called, rather than on the use one might be making of the returned value. Even if you pass the address of a non-const X<T> instance to a function that takes T const *, the non-const overload will be called.

To me, all this stuff is so overwhelmingly nasty that I stopped using any such classes a long time ago. Now I like to use explicitly named methods and/or shims to save me from all the uncertainty. For example, I use the sublimely named[2] BStr class to wrap BSTR. It provides the DestructiveAddress() and NonDestructiveAddress() methods, which, though profoundly ugly, don't leave anyone guessing as to what's going on.

26.3 What Do We Return?

Another source of abuse in overload operator &() is in the type it returns. Since we can make it return anything, it's easy to have it return something bad; naturally, this is the case for any operator.

We saw in Chapter 14 some of the problems attendant in passing arrays of inherited types with functions that take pointers to the base type. There's another dimension to that nasty problem when overloading operator &(). Consider the following types:

Listing 26.3

struct THING
  int i;
  int j;
struct Thing
  THING thing;
  int   k;

  THING *operator &()
    return &thing;
  THING const *operator &() const;

Now we're in the same position we would be if Thing inherited publicly from THING.

 void func(THING *things, size_t cThings);
 Thing things[10];
 func(&things[0], dimensionof(things)); // Oop!!

By providing the operator &() overloads for "convenience", we've exposed ourselves to abuse of the Thing type. I'm not going to suggest the application of any of the measures described in Chapter 14 here, because I think overloading operator &() is just a big no-no.

A truly bizarre confluence of factors is the case where the operator is destructive—it releases the resources—and you are passing an array of (even correctly size) wrapper class instances to a function, as in Listing 26.4.

Listing 26.4

struct ANOTHER
  . . .
void func(ANOTHER *things, size_t cThings);
inline void func(array_proxy<ANOTHER> const &things)
  func(things.base(), things.size());
class Another
  ANOTHER *operator &()
    return &m_another;
  ANOTHER m_another;

Let's assume you're on your best behaviour, and are using an array_proxy (see Section 14.5.5) and translator method to ensure that ANOTHER and Another can be used together.

 Another  things[5];
 . . . // Modify things
 func(things); // sizeof(ANOTHER) must == sizeof(Another)

Irrespective of the semantics of func(), in calling the function things[0] will be reset and things[1] - things[4] will not be affected. This is because the array constructor of array_proxy uses explicit array subscript syntax, as all good array manipulation code should. If you were to do it manually, you'd still need to apply the operator, unless Another inherited publicly from ANOTHER and you called the two parameter version of func() and relied on array decay.

If func() does not change the contents of the array passed to it, then this supposedly benign call has the nasty side effect of destroying the first element passed to it. If func() modifies the contents of the array, then things[1] - things[4] are subject to resource leaks, as their contents prior to the call are simply overwritten by func().

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