03-25-08 - 4

Thoughts on intrusive vs. non-intrusive ref counting : (intrusive = refcounted base class, non-intrusive = boost::shared_ptr or equivalent)

We'll do pros & cons in a second, but perhaps the biggest difference is philosophical. Intrusive ref counting forces you to use ref counting & smart pointers to manage those objects. Non-intrusive lets you use them or not, and lets you use a mix of different lifetime management schemes. Some people consider this an advantage for non-intrusive, but personally I consider it a big advantage for intrusive. I consider it to be much better to have a single global clear rule for lifetime management so that you can go into any part of the codebase and things are being done the same way and you are familiar with the gotchas and how things work. Also if I design some classes and managers, I consider it a big advantage that I can force my clients to manage the objects the way I intended and not do whatever they please with them. In general in coding I'd rather have fewer options as long as they are reasonable options, and be able to enforce usage that I know is correct, as opposed to allowing a variety of uses and leaving it up to the client code to be correct.

Non-Intrusive Pros/Cons :

Pro : Can easily refcount classes from outside your codebase, like FILE or Windows/OS objects, or whatever. Doing the same with an Intrusive system would require a wrapper, though it's a pretty trivial template wrapper, so this isn't really a huge difference.

Con : cannot (easily) get from the object to its refcount or smart pointer. That means you can never get from a naked pointer to the controlled pointer. That means any function which could affect lifetime, or could call anything that affects lifetime, must take a smart pointer as an argument. That in turn means you pretty much have to use smart pointers everywhere, which means the celebrated flexibility of being able to use different types of lifetime management is a bit of a phantom. Also means that all those functions that take smart pointers can't be called from object members because "this" is not a smart pointer.

Pro : becoming pretty common through boost so there's a lot of familiarity and code out there that use this stuff.

Con : speed and memory use overhead for the extra shared refcount. Obviously uses some kind of fast pooled allocator, but it's still off somewhere else in memory space, it's not right with the object, which is ugly.

Con : because the object does not own its ref count, it can't verify that it's being counted correctly or managed correctly; in general no way to enforce proper lifetime management because you don't know how your object is being managed, it's left to the client.

Intrusive Pros/Cons :

Pro : Can easily go from naked pointers to smart pointers, which means you can just pass naked pointers in functions, and also use "this". If you choose, the speed hit or threading performance hit can be very very low, because you only need to actually use smart pointers when you are doing something that affects lifetime - otherwise you can just use naked pointers.

Con : a bit ugly with multiple inheritance; either need to use virtual inheritance to refcounted base, or use macros to make concrete classes refcountable. Non-intrusive doesn't have this problem, you can just refcount whatever multiple inherited thing you want.

more ... ??? @@

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old rants