Blast from the Past: the Pimpl?

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
— Leonard Cohen, I’m your man, First we take Manhattan

Advance warning: This blog post talks about C++ coding style, and given the “expressiveness” (aka a severe infection with TimTowTdi) this is bound to contain significant amounts of bikeshedding, personal opinion/preference. As such, be invited to ignore all this as the ramblings of a raging lunatic.

Anyone who observed me spotting a Pimpl in code will know that I am not a fan of this idom. Its intend is to reduce build times by using a design pattern to move implementation details out of headers — a workaround for C++s misfeature of by default needing a recompile even for changing implementation details only without changing the public interface. Now I personally always thought a pure abstract base class to be a more “native” and less ugly way to tell this to the compiler. However, without real testing, such gut feelings are rarely good advisors in a complex language like C++.

So I did some testing on the real life performance of a pure abstract base class vs. a pimpl (each of course in a different compilation unit to prevent the compiler to optimize away what we want to measure) — and for reference, a class with functions that can be completely inlined. These are the three test implementations, inline:

-- header (hxx) --
class InlineClass final
{
	public:
		InlineClass(int nFirst, int nSecond)
			: m_nFirst(nFirst), m_nSecond(nSecond), m_nResult(0)
		{};
		void Add()
			{ m_nResult = m_nFirst + m_nSecond; };
		int GetResult() const
			{ return m_nResult; };
	private:
		const int m_nFirst;
		const int m_nSecond;
		int m_nResult;
};

Pimpl, as suggested by Effective Modern C++ when using C++11, but not C++14:

-- header (hxx) --
#include <memory>
class PimplClass final
{
	public:
		PimplClass(int nFirst, int nSecond);
		~PimplClass();
		void Add();
		int GetResult() const;
	private:
		struct Impl;
		std::unique_ptr<Impl> m_pImpl;
};
-- implementation (cxx) --
#include "pimpl.hxx"
struct PimplClass::Impl
{
	Impl(int nFirst, int nSecond)
		: m_nFirst(nFirst), m_nSecond(nSecond), m_nResult(0)
	{};
	const int m_nFirst;
	const int m_nSecond;
	int m_nResult;
};
PimplClass::PimplClass(int nFirst, int nSecond)
	: m_pImpl(std::unique_ptr<Impl>(new Impl(nFirst, nSecond)))
{}
PimplClass::~PimplClass()
	{}
void PimplClass::Add()
	{ m_pImpl->m_nResult = m_pImpl->m_nFirst + m_pImpl->m_nSecond; }
int PimplClass::GetResult() const
	{ return m_pImpl->m_nResult; }

Pure abstract base class:

-- header (hxx) --
#include <memory>
struct AbcClass
{
	static std::shared_ptr<AbcClass> Create(int nFirst, int nSecond);
	virtual ~AbcClass() {};
	virtual void Add() =0;
	virtual int GetResult() const =0;
};
-- implementation (cxx) --
#include "abc.hxx"
#include <memory>
struct AbcClassImpl final : public AbcClass
{
	AbcClassImpl(int nFirst, int nSecond)
		: m_nFirst(nFirst), m_nSecond(nSecond)
	{};
	virtual void Add() override
		{ m_nResult = m_nFirst + m_nSecond; };
	virtual int GetResult() const override
		{ return m_nResult; };
	const int m_nFirst;
	const int m_nSecond;
	int m_nResult;
};
std::shared_ptr<AbcClass> AbcClass::Create(int nFirst, int nSecond)
	{ return std::shared_ptr<AbcClass>(new AbcClassImpl(nFirst, nSecond)); }

Comparing these we find:

implementation lines added for GetResult() source entropy added source entropy for GetResult() runtime
inline 2 187 17 100%
Pimpl 3 316 26 168% (174%)
pure ABC 3 295 (273) 19 (16) 158%

So the abstract base class has less complex source code (entropy)1, needs less additional entropy to expand and is still faster in the end on common hardware (Intel i5-4200U) with common compiler optimization switches (-O2)2.

Additionally, in a non-trivial code base you might actually need to use virtual functions for your implementation anyway as you are deriving from or implementing an existing interface. In the Pimpl case, this means using two indirections (resolving the virtual function and then resolving the m_pImpl pointer in that function on top of that). In the abstract base class case thats not happening and in addition, it means that you can spare yourself the pure virtual declarations in the *.hxx (the virtual ... =0 ones), as those are already declared in the class derived from. In LibreOffice, this is true for any class implementing UNO interfaces. So the first numbers are actually biased against an abstract base class for real world code bases — the numbers in parathesis show the results when an interface is already defined elsewhere.

So unless the synthetic example used here is some kind of weird cornercase, this suggests abstract base classes being the better alternative over a Pimpl once the class goes beyond being a plain value type with completely inlineable accessor member functions.

Thanks for bearing with me on this rant about one of my personal pet peeves here!

1 entropy is measured as cat abc.[hc]xx|gzip|wc -c or cat pimpl.[hc]xx|sed -e 's/Pimpl/Abc/g'|gzip|wc -c.
2 Here is the code run for that comparision:

constexpr int repeats = 100000;

int pimplrun(long count)
//int abcrun(long count)
{
        std::vector< std::shared_ptr<PimplClass /* AbcClass */ > > vInstances;
        vInstances.reserve(count);
        while(--count)
                vInstances.emplace_back(std::make_shared<PimplClass>(4711, 4711));
                //vInstances.emplace_back(AbcClass::Create(4711, 4711));
        int result(0);
        count = vInstances.size();
        while(--count)
                for(auto pInstance : vInstances)
                {
                        pInstance->Add();
                        result += pInstance->GetResult();
                }
        return result;
}

Instances are stored in shared pointers as anything that a Pimpl is considered for would be “heavy” enough to be handled by reference instead of by value.

Update 1: Out of curiosity, I looked a bit deeper at this with callgrind. This is what I found for running the above (with 1000 repeats) and --cache-sim=yes:

I1 cache: 32768 B, 64 B, 8-way
D1 cache: 32768 B, 64 B, 8-way
LL cache: 3145728 B, 64 B, 12-way

event inline ABC Pimpl
Ir 23,356,163 38,652,092 38,620,878
Dr 5,066,041 14,109,098 12,107,992
Dw 3,060,033 5,094,790 5,099,991
I1ir 34 127 29
D1mr 499,952 253,006 999,013
D1mw 501,636 998,312 500,097
ILmr 28 126 24
DLmr 2 845 0
DLmw 0 1,285 250

I dont know exactly what to derive from that, but what is clear is that purely by instruction counts Ir this can not be explained. So you need --cache-sim=yes which gives the additional event counts. Actually Pimpl looks slightly better on most stats, so as it is slower in real life, the cache misses on the first level data cache D1mr might have quite an impact?

Update 2: This post made it to reddit, so I looked into some of the feedback from there. A common suggestion was to use for(auto& pInstance : vInstances) instead of for(auto pInstance : vInstances) in the benchmarking function. This had no significant impact on walltime measurements nor made it callgrind event counts show some clearer picture. I also played around with the order of linked objects to see if it has any impact (via cache locality etc.). While runtime measurements fluctuated quite a bit (even when using the same binary), the order was always the same: inlining quickest, then abstract base class and pimpl slowest.

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Going mobile

When I’m drivin’ free, the world’s my home
When I’m mobile

— The Who, Who’s Next, Going Mobile

As you might have noticed, work has started to integrate LibreOffice with the document viewer of Ubuntu core apps. Here is a screenshot of how the current code renders documents on a mobile device:

Ubuntu core apps: LibreOffice and document viewer

Kudos for integrating this go entirely to Stefano Verzegnassi, all I did was providing a tiny piece of example code. It loads a document and saves a rendered version of the document to a PNG file. The relevant part of that piece of C++ code is small enough to fit in one picture shown here, including build instructions et al., showing how easy it is to use LibreOfficeKit from outside LibreOffice now:

 libreoffice2png source code

Thus the doc viewer was quickly integrated with LibreOffice in a basic way. This proof of concept isnt finished however: It just renders the all the document in one buffer. For small documents, this is reasonable, for bigger documents, tiled rendering — which LibreOfficeKit nicely supports from the API by allowing you to render any part of a document in a buffer — needs to be implemented on the clientside. The code for this can be found on launchpad, so if you are just curious how this works you are invited to have a look. If you are interested in helping out with moving this forward towards a nice all-around document viewer reading and rendering everything LibreOffice can, you are most welcome!

Update: A picture says more than a thousand words, but a video tells a whole story. Stefano created this awesome video, which you shouldnt miss: