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Modern C++ for C Programmers: Part 4

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NOTE: If you like this stuff, come work with me over at PowerDNS - aspiring C++ programmers welcome!

Welcome back! In part 3 I discussed classes, polymorphism, references and templates, and finally built a source indexer out of basic containers that achieves 60MB/s indexing speed.

In this part we continue with further C++ features that you can use to spice up your code ‘line by line’, without immediately having to use all 1400 pages of ‘The C++ Programming Language’. There is frequent reference to the indexing example from part 3 so you may want to make sure you know what that is about.

Various code samples discussed here can be found on GitHub.

If you have any favorite things you’d like to see discussed or questions, please hit me up on @PowerDNS_Bert or


We have previously encountered these weird looking snippets, for example like this:

std::sort(vec.begin(), vec.end(), 
          [](const auto& a, const auto& b) { return a < b; } 

Although lambdas are, in essence, syntactical sugar, their availability has made modern C++ a far more expressive language. In addition, as noted in part 1, passing code snippets as function pointers severely restricts what the compiler can do to optimize code. So not only do lambdas lead to fewer lines of code, the resulting binaries can be faster too.

C++ lambdas are first class citizens and are compiled just like normal code. Scripting languages can easily do lambdas since they come with a runtime interpreter, C++ has no such luxury. So how does it all work?

Here is the anatomy: [capture specification](parameters) { actual code }. The capture specification can be empty which means the code in the lambda only ‘sees’ global variables, and this is a very good default. Captures can be by value or by reference. In general, if a lambda needs to capture a lot of detail, ponder if it is still a lambda.

For the parameters, you will very frequently use auto there, but it is in no way mandatory.

The actual code is then between { and }, where the only special thing is that the return type is derived automatically, but you can also override it if you know what you are doing. A worked example:

vector<string> v{"9", "12", "13", "14", "18", "42", "75"};

string prefix("hi ");

for_each(v.begin(), v.end(), [&prefix](const auto& a) {
	cout << prefix + a << endl;
}); // outputs hi 9, hi 12, hi 13 etc

The first line employs the fun initializers that allow modern C++ to quickly fill containers. The second line creates a prefix string. Finally the third line uses the C++ algorithm for_each to iterate over the container.

The prefix variable is ‘captured by reference’. For passing the parameters, const auto& a could also have been const std::string&. Finally we print the prefix and the container member.

To sort this vector of strings numerically, we could do:

 std::sort(v.begin(), v.end(), [](const auto& a, const auto& b)
              return atoi(a.c_str()) < atoi(b.c_str());

A lambda creates an actual object, albeit one of unspecified type:

  auto print = [](const vector<std::string>& c) {
    for(const auto& a : c)
        cout << a << endl;

  cout<<"Starting order: "<<endl;

We have now stored a lambda in print, and we can pass this around and use it later on too. But what is print? If we ask a debugger, it may tell us:

(gdb) ptype print
struct <lambda(const std::vector<std::string>&)> {}

Depending on what gets captured, the type becomes ever more exotic. It is for this reason that lambdas are usually passed via auto or with generics.

When there is a need to store a lambda, or anything callable actually, there is std::function:

  std::function<void(const vector<std::string>&)> stored = print;

  stored(v); // same as print(v)

Note that we can also do this:

void print2(const vector<string>& vec)
	// ..


std::function<void(const vector<std::string>&)> stored = print2;

std::function can store other callable things too, like objects with operator() defined. The downside of std::function is that it is not as fast as calling a function or invoking a lambda directly , so when possible, try doing that.

A lambda used inside a class can capture [this] which means it gains access to class members.

To further promote C interoperability, a lambda decays into a plain C function pointer if it doesn’t capture anything, leading to the ability to do this:

  std::vector<int> v2{3, -1, -4, 1, -5, -9, -2, 6, -5};

  qsort(&v2[0], v2.size(), sizeof(int), [](const void *a, const void* b)
          if(abs(*(int*)a) < abs(*(int*)b))
            return -1;
          if(abs(*(int*)a) > abs(*(int*)b))
            return 1;
          return 0;

In general, lambdas are awesome but best used for small, inline, constructs. If you find yourself capturing lots of stuff, you may actually be better off using a functor, which is a class instance you can call (because it has overloaded operator()).

Expanding our indexer

In the indexer from part 3 we ended up with:

struct Location
	unsigned int fileno;
	size_t offset;

std::unordered_map<string, vector<Location>> allWords;

This contains an unordered list of all words found in the indexed files, plus per word a vector of Locations where the word was found. We used an unordered map since this is 40% faster than an ordered one.

However, if we want to perform lookups for things like “main*“, to match everything that begins with “main”, we also need an ordered list of words:

  std::vector<string> owords;

  owords.reserve(allWords.size()); // saves mallocs

  for(const auto& w : allWords) 

  sort(owords.begin(), owords.end()); 

Note how this uses the range-for construct to insert only the keys of the allWords map into a vector, as yet unsorted, which we remedy in the final line.

Interestingly enough, we do not lose out on our 40% speedup since ‘sort once we are done’ is faster than keeping everything sorted all the time.

Should we be in the mood, we could attempt to be smarter. As written above, every word is now present in memory twice, once in allWords, once in owords.

It is a pretty C-like thing to not do this and live on the edge for a bit:

  std::vector<const string*> optrwords;

  for(const auto& w : allWords)

  sort(optrwords.begin(), optrwords.end(),
       [](auto a, auto b) { return *a < *b;}

With this code, we store const pointers to the keys in the allWords unsorted map. Then we sort optrwords, containing pointers, using a lambda that dereferences these pointers.

If we index the Linux source tree, which contains around 600,000 unique words, this does save us around 14 megabytes of memory, which is nice.

The downside however is that we are now storing raw pointers straight into another container (allWords). As long we don’t modify allWords this is safe. And for some containers, it is even safe if we do make changes. This happens to be the case for std::unordered_map, as long as we don’t actually delete an entry we store a pointer to.

I think this illustrates a key point of using modern C++. You can shave 14 megabytes of memory ‘if you know what you are doing’, but I highly recommend that you only reach into this ‘C’ like bag of tricks if you really need to. But if that is the case, it is good to know it can be done.

Containers and algorithms

We have seen a variety of containers so far (std::vector, std::unordered_map for example). In addition, there is a raft of algorithms that can operate on these containers. Crucially, through the use of templates, algorithms are actually completely decoupled from the containers they operate on.

This decoupling has enabled the standard to specify a larger than usual amount of generically useful algorithms. We’ve already encountered std::for_each and std::sort, but here’s a more exotic one: std::nth_element.

Going back to our indexer, we have a list of words and how often they occur. Let’s say we want to print the 20 most frequently occurring ones, we’d normally take the whole list of words, sort them in order of frequency and then print the top 20.

With std::nth_element, we can actually get what we want. First, let’s gather the data to sort, and define the comparison function:

  vector<pair<string, size_t>> popcount;
  for(const auto& w : allWords)
    popcount.push_back({w.first, w.second.size()});

  auto cmp = [](const auto& a, const auto& b)
         return b.second < a.second;

We are defining a vector containing pairs. A pair is a convenient templated struct containing two members, called first and second. I find that pair inhabits a sweet spot that is quite useful, an ‘anonymous struct’ with well known names. Confusion occurs when pairs get nested into pairs, or when using std::tuple, which is std::pair on steroids. Beyond two simple members, create a struct with named members.

The range-for loop shows one new feature, ‘brace initialization’, which means w.first and w.second.size() (which is the number of occurrences of this word) are used to construct our pair. It saves a lot of typing.

Finally, we define a comparison function and call it cmp so we can reuse it. Note that it compares in reverse order.

Next up, the actual sorting and printing:

  int top = std::min(popcount.size(), (size_t)20);
  nth_element(popcount.begin(), popcount.begin() + top, popcount.end(), cmp);
  sort(popcount.begin(), popcount.begin() + top, cmp);
  int count=0;
  for(const auto& e : popcount) {
    if(++count > top)
    cout << count << "\t" << e.first << "\t" << e.second << endl;

This invocation of std::nth_element bears some explanation. As noted, iterators are places within a container. begin() is the first entry and, consistently, end() is one beyond the last entry. On an empty container, begin() == end().

We pass three iterators to nth_element: where to begin the sorting, what the cutoff is for our ‘top 20’ and finally the end of the container. What nth_element then does is make sure that the entire top-20 is in fact in the first 20 positions of the container. It does not however guarantee that the top-20 itself is sorted. For this reason we do a quick sort of the first 20 entries.

The final 6 lines print the actual top-20, in the correct order.

C++ comes with many useful algorithms that allow you to compose powerful programs. For example, std::set_difference, std::set_intersection and std::set_symmetric_difference make it trivial to write ‘diff’ like tools or find out what changed from one state to another.

Meanwhile, algorithms like std::inplace_merge and std::next_permutation may prevent you from having to whip out the Knuth books.

Before doing any kind of data manipulation or analysis, I urge you to go through the list of existing algorithms, you will likely find things there that get you most of the way.

Looking things up

As an example, recall that we made a sorted list of words so we could do prefix lookups. All words ended up in std::vector<string> owords. We can interrogate this flat (and hence very efficient) container in several ways:

As long as we don’t have multiple equivalent entries in our container, lower_bound and upper_bound are the same. To list all words starting with main from our sorted vector owords, we can do:

string val("main");

auto iter = lower_bound(owords.begin(), owords.end(), val);

for(; iter != owords.end() && !iter->compare(0, val.size(), val); ++iter) 
	cout<<" "<<*iter<<endl;

std::lower_bound does the heavy lifting here, performing a binary search over our sorted std::vector. The for loop bears a bit of explaining. The first check iter != owords.end() will stop us if lower_bound did not find anything.

The second check using iter->compare performs a substring match on at most the first 4 characters of a candidate word. Once that no longer matches, we’ve iterated beyond the words that start with “main”.

Some more containers

In the previous examples we’ve used the very basic std::vector, which is contiguous in memory and compatible with C, and std::unordered_map, which is a pretty fast key/value store, but has no ordering.

There are several other useful containers:

  • std::map an ordered map, where you can pass a comparison function if you want, for example to get case-insensitive ordering. Many many examples you will see needlessly use std::map. This is because pre-2011, C++ had no unordered containers. Ordered containers are wonderful when you need ordering, but present unnecessary overhead otherwise.
  • std::set. This is like a std::map<string,void>, in other words, it is a key value store without values. Like std::map it is ordered, which you often do not need. Luckily there is also std::unordered_set.
  • std::multimap and std::multiset. These work just like regular set and map, but then allowing multiple equivalent keys. This means these containers can’t be queried with [] since that only supports a single key.
  • std::deque. A double-ended queue which is a great workhorse for implementing any kind of queue. Storage is not consecutive, but popping and pushing elements from either end is fast.

A full list of standard containers can be found here

Boost containers

Although this series of posts focuses on ‘core’ C++, I would be remiss if I did not point out a few parts of Boost at this point. Boost is a large collection of C++ code, some of which is excellent (and tends to make it into the C++ standard, which is edited by some of the Boost authors), some of which is good and then there are some unfortunate parts.

But the good news is, most of Boost is pretty modular: it is not a framework kind of library where if you use one part, you use all parts. And in fact, many of the most interesting parts are include-only, with no need to link in libraries. Boost is universally available and freely licensed.

First up is the Boost Container library, which is not a library but a set of includes. This offers niche containers that are mostly completely compatible with standard library containers, but offer specific advantages if they match your usecase.

For example, boost::container::flat_map (and set) are like std::map and std::set except they use contiguous slabs of memory for cache efficiency. This makes them slow on inserts, but lightning fast on lookups.

As another example, boost::container::small_vector is optimized for storing a small (templatized) number of elements, which can save a lot of malloc traffic.

Lots more Boost containers can be found here.


Secondly, in part 1 of this series I promised I’d stay away from exotics and “template metaprogramming”. But there is one pearl I must share with you, something I regard as the golden standard by which I measure programming languages. Is the language powerful enough to implement Boost.MultiIndex?

In short, we frequently need objects to be findable in several ways. For example, if we have a container of open TCP sessions, we may want to find sessions based on the ‘full source IP, source port, destination IP, destination port’ tuple, but also on only source IP or destination IP. We might also like to have time ordering to harvest/close old sessions.

The ‘manual’ way of doing this is to have several containers in which objects live, and use all these to find objects using various keys:

map<pair<IPEndpoint,IPEndpoint>, TCPSession*> d_sessions;
map<IPEndpoint, TCPSession*> d_sessionsSourceIP;
map<IPEndpoint, TCPSession*> d_sessionsDestinationIP;
multimap<time_t, TCPSession*> d_timeIP;

auto tcps = new TCPSession;
d_sessions[{srcEndpoint, dstEndpoint}] = tcps;
d_sessionsSourceIP[srcEndpoint] = tcps;
d_sessionsDestinationIP[dstEndpoint] = tcps;

While this works, we suddenly have to do a lot of housekeeping. If we want to remove a TCPSession, we have to remember to erase it from all containers, for example, and then free the pointer.

Boost.MultiIndex is a work of art that not only offers containers that can be searched in several ways at the same time, it also offers (un)ordered, unique and non-unique indexes, plus the use of partial keys for lookups, as well as ‘alternate keys’, which enable you to find a std::string key using a char * (which saves the creation of temporaries).

Here’s how we’d lookup TCP sessions. First let’s start with some groundwork (full code):

struct AddressTupleTag{};
struct DestTag{};
struct TimeTag{};

struct Entry
  IPAddress srcIP;
  uint16_t srcPort;
  IPAddress dstIP;
  uint16_t dstPort;
  double time;

The three Tags provide types that identify three different indexes we will be defining on our container. We then define a struct that our Boost.MultiIndex container will contain. Note that the keys we want to search on are in the actual container itself - there is no separation here between key and value.

Next up the admittedly tricky definition of the container. You might literally spend an hour getting this right, but once it is right everything is easy:

typedef multi_index_container<
                    member<Entry, IPAddress, &Entry::srcIP>,
                    member<Entry, uint16_t, &Entry::srcPort>,
                    member<Entry, IPAddress, &Entry::dstIP>,
                    member<Entry, uint16_t, &Entry::dstPort> >
                    member<Entry, IPAddress, &Entry::dstIP>,
                    member<Entry, uint16_t, &Entry::dstPort> >
      member<Entry, double, &Entry::time>
  > tcpsessions_t;

This defines three indexes, one ordered & unique, and two ordered and non-unique. The first index is on the ‘4-tuple’ of the TCP session. The second one only on the destination of the session. The last one on the timestamp.

It is important to note that this template definition creates the entire container code at compile time. All of this leads to code that, as usual for templated containers, is as efficient as if you had written it yourself. Most of the time in fact, a Boost.MultiIndex container will be faster than a std::map.

Let’s fill it with some data:

  tcpsessions_t sessions;
  double now = time(0);

  Entry e{""_ipv4, 80, ""_ipv4, 123, now};

  sessions.insert({""_ipv4, 81, ""_ipv4, 1323, now+1.0});
  sessions.insert({""_ipv4, 80, ""_ipv4, 4215, now+2.0});

The first line uses our typedef to make an actual instance of our container, the second line takes the current time and puts it in a double.

Then some magic called a user-defined literal happens, which means that ""_ipv4 gets converted to 0x01020304 - at compile time. To observe how this works, head over to on GitHub. These party tricks are optional when using C++, but constexpr compile time code execution is pretty neat.

After this has run, our sessions container has 3 entries. Let’s list them all in time order:

  auto& idx = sessions.get<TimeTag>();
  for(auto iter = idx.begin(); iter != idx.end(); ++iter)
    cout << iter->srcIP << ":" << iter->srcPort<< " -> "<< iter->dstIP <<":"<<iter->dstPort<<endl;

This prints: -> -> ->

In the first line, we request a reference to the TimeTag index, which we iterate over as usual in the second line.

Let’s do a partial lookup in the ‘main’ (first) index, which is on the full 4-tuple:

  cout<<"Search for source, every port"<<endl;
  auto range = sessions.equal_range(std::make_tuple(""_ipv4));

  for(auto iter = range.first; iter != range.second ; ++iter)
    // print

By creating a tuple with only one member, we indicate we want to do our lookup on only the first part of the 4-tuple. If we had added ‘, 80’ to std::make_tuple, we would have found only one matching TCP session instead of two. Note that this lookup used equal_range as described earlier in this page.

Finally to search on a TCP session’s destination:

  cout<<"Destination search for port 123: "<<endl;
  auto range2 = sessions.get<DestTag>().
	equal_range(std::make_tuple(""_ipv4, 123));

  for(auto iter = range2.first; iter != range2.second ; ++iter)
    // print

This requests the DestTag index, and then uses it to find sessions to

I hope you will forgive me this excursion outside of standard C++, but as Boost.MultiIndex is part of almost all code I write, I felt the need to share it.


In this long part 4, we have delved into some of the nitty-gritty of lambdas, and how they can be used for custom sorting, how they can be stored and when they are a good idea.

Secondly we explored the interaction between algorithms and containers by enhancing our code indexer with the ability to look up partial words, by sorting our unordered container of words into a flat vector. We also looked how some ‘C’ like tricks could be used to make this process both use less memory and be more dangerous.

We also looked into the rich array of algorithms provided by C++, enabled by the separation of code between containers and algorithms. Before doing any data manipulation, check the existing algorithms if there is something that does what you need already.

Finally we covered further containers found in Boost, including the most magical and powerful Boost.MultiIndex.

In part 5 we will round off this series with a discussion of the ultimate smart pointer, std::unique_ptr and the associated concept of std::move. If you have any other favorite things you’d like to see discussed or questions, please do hit me up on @PowerDNS_Bert or

Part 5 is now available!

NOTE: If you like this stuff, come work with me over at PowerDNS - aspiring C++ programmers welcome!