Flaming Dangerzone

To SFINAE or not to SFINAE

enable_if is somewhat of a hack used to exploit a language feature (SFINAE) for selectively enabling or disabling certain overloads based on compile-time tests. SFINAE can sometimes be cumbersome, ugly, and cryptic, and isn’t known for producing the clearest error messages. As I’ve shown before, some of these annoyances can be mitigated with some clever changes to the typical patterns, but it still feels like a hack.

There are some relatively well-known alternatives to SFINAE that seem to fulfill the same purpose, and don’t have many of the annoyances of SFINAE: like tag dispatching and static assertions.

Can these alternatives fully replace things like enable_if?

Tag dispatching

If you want to pick between two (or more) overloads, you can use the tag dispatching technique. It consists of using overload resolution to pick one of two (or more) implementations, where the overloads differ in the result of applying some trait.

Example 1:

#include <type_traits>

template <typename T>
int  f_impl(T t, std::true_type) {
    return 42 + t;
}
template <typename T>
double f_impl(T, std::false_type) {
    return 3.14;
}
template <typename T>
auto f(T t) -> decltype(f_impl(t, std::is_integral<T>())) {
    return f_impl(t, std::is_integral<T>());
}

#include <iostream>

int main() {
    std::cout << f(1) << " " << f(1.2);
}

// outputs "43 3.14"

std::is_integral derives from std::true_type or from std::false_type depending on whether the type is integral or not. The f_impl overloads take one of those types as argument and that’s how overload resolution picks the right one. This may appear to do the same one can do with SFINAE, but it doesn’t. It does something that is similar but at times not appropriate, as we will see later.

Static assertions

Sometimes we don’t use SFINAE to pick between two overloads. Sometimes we use SFINAE to just enable or disable a single function template, i.e., cause errors unless the function template is called with appropriate arguments types. The compiler will complain that overload resolution failed, and possibly list that template as the failed candidate.

We can get this same behaviour with static assertions, and with better errors on top.

Example 2:

#include <type_traits>

template <typename T>
int f(T t) {
    static_assert(std::is_integral<T>(), "T must be integral");
    return 42;
}

int main() {
    f(1.2);
}

// main.cpp:5:5: error: static assertion failed: T must be integral

This appears to be a superior option, but once more, it is just similar in some aspects. It fails to achieve one effect one achieves with SFINAE.

What we are picking between

First, I need to present two concepts that need to be explicitly called out. When discussing these issues, I and some other people have come to refer to them as “hard errors” and “soft errors”.

Hard errors

A hard error is like your run-of-the-mill compiler error: it stops compilation dead in its tracks, because it makes the program ill-formed. It could be that there is a call to a non-existing member function somewhere in the body, or there is a failed static assertion.

Example 3:

#include <type_traits>

template <typename T>
int f() {
    static_assert(std::is_integral<T>::value, "T must be integral");
    return 42;
}

int main() {
    f<double>();
}

// main.cpp:5:5: error: static assertion failed: T must be integral

Example 4:

#include <type_traits>

template <typename T>
int f() {
    T t;
    t.f();
}

int main() {
    f<double>();
}
// main.cpp:6:5: error: request for member 'f' in 't', which is of non-class
// type 'double'

Soft errors

Soft errors are the familiar substitution failures. Soft errors cause overloads to be discarded, but by themselves don’t cause the program to be ill-formed. If soft errors result in all overloads being discarded, the end result is a hard error, an overload resolution failure.

Example 5:

#include <type_traits>

struct foo { int x; };

struct bar { double y; };

template <typename T>
auto get_it(T t) -> decltype(t.x) {
    return t.x;
}
template <typename T>
auto get_it(T t) -> decltype(t.y) {
    return t.y;
}

int main() {
    get_it(foo{});
}

In the second overload, when instantiated with T = foo, decltype(t.y) has an invalid expression: T has no y member. However, decltype is special and turns this into a soft error. End result? There is only one overload to pick, and the program compiles.

However, if we use a third type struct qux {}; instead, the soft errors will take away all the overloads and that causes a hard error: overload resolution fails.

main.cpp:19:17: error: no matching function for call to get_it(qux)

Which are which

Herein lies the difference between enable_if and the two alternatives presented above: enable_if generates soft errors, while the alternatives generate hard errors.

This is so because SFINAE takes the functions away when resolving overloads, as if they did not exist. Tag dispatching and static_assert, however, do not remove functions from the set of candidates. Overload resolution will still find and even select those functions. When selected, if their body is not valid (like when having failed static assertion), the program is ill-formed.

Hopefully this distinction is now clear enough. Let’s talk about why it matters.

Why you should care

As I alluded above, there are trade-offs to be made here. Tag dispatching and static assertions may be more convenient than SFINAE, but they don’t provide all the same effects, namely they result in different kinds of errors in a way that can affect semantics. It is now time to answer the question I posed at the beginning.

Consider the following two functions in some library:

template <typename T, typename U>
T make_impl(U&& u, std::true_type) {
    return T(std::forward<U>(u));
}
template <typename T, typename U>
T make_impl(U&&, std::false_type) {
    return T(); // line 7
}

// construct a T with the given argument if constructible,
// otherwise default-construct
template <typename T, typename U>
T make(U&& u) {
    return make_impl(std::forward<U>(u), std::is_constructible<T, U>());
}

When we call make<foo>(bar), there are three different possibilities:

  1. foo can be constructed from bar: the first overload of make_impl is picked and the code compiles;
  2. foo cannot be constructed from bar and can be default-constructed: the second overload is picked and the code compiles;
  3. foo cannot be constructed from bar and cannot be default-constructed: the second overload is picked we have a compiler error on line 7.

Now, let us suppose we write a class with a template constructor with two overloads: one for random-access iterators, and one for other iterators. We would be doing this because we can make a more efficient implementation using the capabilities of random-access iterators. However, let’s say that our code cannot work without bidirectional iterators, so the other overload will use functionality from those. There is no way to implement the constructor with input or forward iterators.

Static assertions alone won’t do here: they can never be used to select between two overloads. We could statically assert that the iterator passed in is a forward iterator or better, but that won’t help with picking an overload.

The only viable options are tag dispatching and SFINAE, since both can be used to pick between overloads. Let’s look at both in turn.

Implementing with tag dispatching

// a little helper
template <typename Iterator>
using IteratorCategory = typename std::iterator_traits<Iterator>::iterator_category;

// with tag dispatching
struct foo {
public:
    foo() {}

    template <typename Iterator>
    foo(Iterator it)
    : foo(it, IteratorCategory<Iterator>()) {}

private:
    template <typename Iterator>
    foo(Iterator it, std::bidirectional_iterator_tag) {
        // do it with a bidirectional iterator
    }
    template <typename Iterator>
    foo(Iterator it, std::random_access_iterator_tag) {
        // do it with a random-access iterator
        do_it_with_a_random_access_iterator(it);
    }
};

By now it should be obvious what happens when we pass different kinds of iterators:

  1. passing a random access iterator will pick the second overload and use the version optimized for random-access;
  2. passing a bidirectional iterator will pick the second overload and use the non-optimized version;
  3. passing an input iterator will pick neither overload and will result in a hard error (overload resolution failure).

Implementing with SFINAE

What about the implementation with SFINAE?

// a little helper
template <typename Iterator>
struct is_random_access_iterator
: std::is_base_of<std::random_access_iterator_tag, IteratorCategory<Iterator>> {};

// with SFINAE
struct foo {
public:
    foo() {}

    template <typename Iterator,
              DisableIf<is_random_access_iterator<Iterator>>...>
    foo(Iterator it) {
        // do it with a bidirectional iterator
    }

    template <typename Iterator,
              EnableIf<is_random_access_iterator<Iterator>>...>
    foo(Iterator it) {
        // do it with a random-access iterator
    }
};

This gives us the same behaviour as the version with tag dispatching when using random-access or bidirectional iterators.

It also gives the same result, but for slightly different reasons when using an input iterator: the first overload will be picked, but the body will fail to compile since it probably makes use of --it somewhere.

Traits need some consideration

Now, how does this relate to the function make presented at the start? Both examples share one important characteristic here: they both cause hard errors because a constructor is picked and does not have a valid body (remember that in the case of tag dispatching, the dispatching constructor is always picked).

This characteristic interact poorly with traits like std::is_constructible. Those traits only look at the declarations (otherwise, how would they even begin to work when the definition is in another translation unit?). Unfortunately this means that for both examples presented std::is_constructible<foo, some_input_iterator>::value is true.

Because of that, when we call make<foo>(some_input_iterator()), this will attempt to construct a foo with an argument, instead of default constructing one, and that ends with a compiler error.

Implementing with SFINAE, fixed

The example with SFINAE, however, can be made to work correctly. We just need to make sure the constructors are removed from the overload candidate set when the argument is an input iterator.

// with SFINAE, fixed
struct foo {
public:
    foo() {}

    template <typename Iterator,
              EnableIf<Not<is_random_access_iterator<Iterator>>,
                       is_bidirectional_iterator<Iterator>>...>
    foo(Iterator it) {
        // do it with a bidirectional iterator
    }

    template <typename Iterator,
              EnableIf<is_random_access_iterator<Iterator>>...>
    foo(Iterator it) {
        // do it with a random-access iterator
    }
};

With this both constructors will be discard when overload resolution is performed, and std::is_constructible<foo, some_input_iterator>::value will be false, as expected, and make<foo>(some_input_iterator()) will correctly default construct foo.

Implementing with both

One could also combine the two: use tag dispatching to pick between the two overloads, and use SFINAE to disable the distpatcher when the iterator does not meet the requirements.

// with both!
struct foo {
public:
    foo() {}

    // SFINAE on dispatcher
    template <typename Iterator,
              EnableIf<is_bidirectional_iterator<Iterator>>...>
    foo(Iterator it)
    : foo(it, IteratorCategory<Iterator>()) {}

private:
    // tags as usual
    template <typename Iterator>
    foo(Iterator it, std::bidirectional_iterator_tag) {
        // do it with a bidirectional iterator
    }
    template <typename Iterator>
    foo(Iterator it, std::random_access_iterator_tag) {
        // do it with a random-access iterator
        do_it_with_a_random_access_iterator(it);
    }
};

Conclusion

While convenient, tag dispatching cannot quite replace SFINAE, because sometimes it is actually important to get rid of overloads. If a templated overload cannot work with some set of template parameters, it should be constrained appropriately if one wants any traits that check for its existence to work properly.