Pimpl idiom vs Pure virtual class interface

C++Abstract ClassPimpl Idiom

C++ Problem Overview

I was wondering what would make a programmer to choose either Pimpl idiom or pure virtual class and inheritance.

I understand that pimpl idiom comes with one explicit extra indirection for each public method and the object creation overhead.

The Pure virtual class in the other hand comes with implicit indirection(vtable) for the inheriting implementation and I understand that no object creation overhead.
EDIT: But you'd need a factory if you create the object from the outside

What makes the pure virtual class less desirable than the pimpl idiom?

C++ Solutions

Solution 1 - C++

When writing a C++ class, it's appropriate to think about whether it's going to be

  1. A Value Type

    Copy by value, identity is never important. It's appropriate for it to be a key in a std::map. Example, a "string" class, or a "date" class, or a "complex number" class. To "copy" instances of such a class makes sense.

  2. An Entity type

    Identity is important. Always passed by reference, never by "value". Often, doesn't make sense to "copy" instances of the class at all. When it does make sense, a polymorphic "Clone" method is usually more appropriate. Examples: A Socket class, a Database class, a "policy" class, anything that would be a "closure" in a functional language.

Both pImpl and pure abstract base class are techniques to reduce compile time dependencies.

However, I only ever use pImpl to implement Value types (type 1), and only sometimes when I really want to minimize coupling and compile-time dependencies. Often, it's not worth the bother. As you rightly point out, there's more syntactic overhead because you have to write forwarding methods for all of the public methods. For type 2 classes, I always use a pure abstract base class with associated factory method(s).

Solution 2 - C++

Pointer to implementation is usually about hiding structural implementation details. Interfaces are about instancing different implementations. They really serve two different purposes.

Solution 3 - C++

The pimpl idiom helps you reduce build dependencies and times especially in large applications, and minimizes header exposure of the implementation details of your class to one compilation unit. The users of your class should not even need to be aware of the existence of a pimple (except as a cryptic pointer to which they are not privy!).

Abstract classes (pure virtuals) is something of which your clients must be aware: if you try to use them to reduce coupling and circular references, you need to add some way of allowing them to create your objects (e.g. through factory methods or classes, dependency injection or other mechanisms).

Solution 4 - C++

I was searching an answer for the same question. After reading some articles and some practice I prefer using "Pure virtual class interfaces".

  1. They are more straight forward (this is a subjective opinion). Pimpl idiom makes me feel I'm writing code "for the compiler", not for the "next developer" that will read my code.
  2. Some testing frameworks have direct support for Mocking pure virtual classes
  3. It's true that you need a factory to be accessible from the outside. But if you want to leverage polymorphism: that's also "pro", not a "con". ...and a simple factory method does not really hurts so much

The only drawback (I'm trying to investigate on this) is that pimpl idiom could be faster

  1. when the proxy-calls are inlined, while inheriting necessarily need an extra access to the object VTABLE at runtime
  2. the memory footprint the pimpl public-proxy-class is smaller (you can do easily optimizations for faster swaps and other similar optimizations)

Solution 5 - C++

I hate pimples! They do the class ugly and not readable. All methods are redirected to pimple. You never see in headers, what functionalities has the class, so you can not refactor it (e. g. simply change the visibility of a method). The class feels like "pregnant". I think using iterfaces is better and really enough to hide the implementation from the client. You can event let one class implement several interfaces to hold them thin. One should prefer interfaces! Note: You do not necessary need the factory class. Relevant is that the class clients communicate with it's instances via the appropriate interface. The hiding of private methods I find as a strange paranoia and do not see reason for this since we hav interfaces.

Solution 6 - C++

There's a very real problem with shared libraries that the pimpl idiom circumvents neatly that pure virtuals can't: you cannot safely modify/remove data members of a class without forcing users of the class to recompile their code. That may be acceptable under some circumstances, but not e.g. for system libraries.

To explain the problem in detail, consider the following code in your shared library/header:

// header
struct A
  // more public interface, some of which uses the int below
  int a;

// library 
  : a(0)

The compiler emits code in the shared library that calculates the address of the integer to be initialized to be a certain offset (probably zero in this case, because it's the only member) from the pointer to the A object it knows to be this.

On the user side of the code, a new A will first allocate sizeof(A) bytes of memory, then hand a pointer to that memory to the A::A() constructor as this.

If in a later revision of your library you decide to drop the integer, make it larger, smaller, or add members, there'll be a mismatch between the amount of memory user's code allocates, and the offsets the constructor code expects. The likely result is a crash, if you're lucky - if you're less lucky, your software behaves oddly.

By pimpl'ing, you can safely add and remove data members to the inner class, as the memory allocation and constructor call happen in the shared library:

// header
struct A
  // more public interface, all of which delegates to the impl
  void * impl;

// library 
  : impl(new A_impl())

All you need to do now is keep your public interface free of data members other than the pointer to the implementation object, and you're safe from this class of errors.

Edit: I should maybe add that the only reason I'm talking about the constructor here is that I didn't want to provide more code - the same argumentation applies to all functions that access data members.

Solution 7 - C++

We must not forget that inheritance is a stronger, closer coupling than delegation. I would also take into account all the issues raised in the answers given when deciding what design idioms to employ in solving a particular problem.

Solution 8 - C++

Although broadly covered in the other answers maybe I can be a bit more explicit about one benefit of pimpl over virtual base classes:

A pimpl approach is transparent from the user view point, meaning you can e.g. create objects of the class on the stack and use them directly in containers. If you try to hide the implementation using an abstract virtual base class, you will need to return a shared pointer to the base class from a factory, complicating it's use. Consider the following equivalent client code:

// Pimpl
Object pi_obj(10);
std::cout << pi_obj.SomeFun1();

std::vector<Object> objs;
for (auto& o : objs)
	std::cout << o.SomeFun1();

// Abstract Base Class
auto abc_obj = ObjectABC::CreateObject(20);
std::cout << abc_obj->SomeFun1();

std::vector<std::shared_ptr<ObjectABC>> objs2;
for (auto& o : objs2)
	std::cout << o->SomeFun1();

Solution 9 - C++

In my understanding these two things serve completely different purposes. The purpose of the pimple idiom is basically give you a handle to your implementation so you can do things like fast swaps for a sort.

The purpose of virtual classes is more along the line of allowing polymorphism, i.e. you have a unknown pointer to an object of a derived type and when you call function x you always get the right function for whatever class the base pointer actually points to.

Apples and oranges really.

Solution 10 - C++

The most annoying problem about the pimpl idiom is it makes it extremely hard to maintain and analyse existing code. So using pimpl you pay with developer time and frustration only to "reduce build dependencies and times and minimize header exposure of the implementation details". Decide yourself, if it is really worth it.

Especially "build times" is a problem you can solve by better hardware or using tools like Incredibuild ( www.incredibuild.com, also already included in Visual Studio 2017 ), thus not affecting your software design. Software design should be generally independent of the way the software is built.


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