We continue on our adventure of template metaprogramming. We explore the concept of compile-time data structures such as a typelist, map, and a set. This is done using the brigand template metaprogramming library (TMPL). However, there are several other options available. I outline them in a table below along with the C++ standard each requires. Giving credit where it is due, the original inspiration for some these libraries were blog posts by Eric Niebler and Peter Dimov.

Boost.MPL C++03 Only use if C++11 is not supported
brigand C++11 Personal preference, fast, lightweight
metal C++14
Boost.Hana C++14

In part one of this series of posts on TMP we explored the idea of if statements at compile time. In order to truly study loops in metaprogramming we need some sort of “data structure”. I put this in quotes because our data really is types, or as I previously referred to them, metavariables. Maybe the term “metadata structures” is appropriate. Regardless of what we call them, we need containers to store our metavariables.

The first, and simplest container we will look at is a typelist. Here is what a typelist looks like:

Okay, great, right? If you’re like me then you might be confused on exactly what good this does us. Well, typelist is a variadic template, which means it can take any number of types as template parameters. For example, typelist<int, bool, char> and typelist<double, float, std::vector<double>> are two typelists. So the typelist stores the types as template parameters. Alright, cool, so I can create a metavariable by writing using my_list = typelist<int, bool, char>;, that’s great but how do I use this? Well for that we need to write some helper metafunctions. Let’s compile a list of things we might want to do with a typelist. For inspiration let’s look at the member functions of std::vector. We probably want the following:

• at
• front
• back
• size
• clear
• erase (both at a specific location and all occurrences of a particular type)
• push_back
• pop_back
• push_front
• pop_front
• swap

We won’t cover all of these but we will get through enough to make you feel comfortable using typelist as a metadata structure.

Because the above ordering is not very pedagogical let’s start with size. How would we implement such a thing? Well what we want to do is get the number of template parameters in the variadic template typelist so we should be able to use the sizeof...() operator to get the size of the parameter pack Ts. One approach then is to create a static constexpr member variable as follows,

then we can get the size of a typelist by doing list::size(). However, in TMP we want to use metafunctions that return types, not values. Since list::size() returns a value let’s look for another option. One method would be simply to use a type alias,

Now we can retrieve the size of a typelist using using list_size = typename my_list::size; Okay, that seems pretty good, but can we be more generic? Having the size member can only work for typelists and also complicates our implementation of a typelist. So how can we be more generic? What we need is a metafunction that takes a typelist as its argument (denoted by Seq, short for sequence, in the code below) and returns the size in a std::integral_constant. Something like

works. So then the question is how to get the number of elements from the sequence. What the actual thing we want to do is get the template parameters of a template parameter. That is, Seq is a template parameter to size, but Seq also has template parameters, and these are what we want access to. The answer is the rarely seen template-template parameter, which we will come across in some frequency while discussing TMP. Here is our new implementation of size

That seems pretty good, but we still need to use the typename keyword to get access to the type member metavariable. While this isn’t terrible, it adds a lot of syntactic noise that is not necessary and that we would like to avoid. To avoid this syntactic noise we can use a type alias as follows:

Then, for example we can write using result = size<typelist<double, bool>>; and have result::value == 2. That’s pretty good and easy to use, so let’s stick with that.

Next let’s implement front as a metafunction. Just like with size we want access to the template parameters of the typelist, so we need a template-template parameter. However, this time we want to single out the first template parameter of the typelist. We will make life easier by immediately sticking the implementation in a detail namespace and use a type alias.

What’s happening here is that we use the template parameter T on lines 5 and 6 to deduce the first template parameter in the sequence. We can then trivially return the first type in the typelist via the type alias on line 7. That’s it for front. Hopefully you’ll agree that this wasn’t too bad to implement. However, if you’re really paying attention you’ll have noticed that the above implementation won’t work with an empty typelist. However, I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader dream up ways of handling empty typelists (hint: use a compile-time'if statement implemented using partial template specialization. I’ve shared my solution on GitHub). Here is a sample usage of front:

Now let’s turn our attention to pop_front (push_front will be very similar). Given a typelist we want to remove the first element. Well this is almost the same as front except that instead of returning the first element, we return a typelist of all the elements except the first one. Here is the implementation:

On lines 5 and 6 we again deduce the first element and the remaining separately. On line 7 we then return Seq<Ts...>, or typelist<Ts...> to be concrete. Again, what’s shown above will fail for an empty typelist and I’ll leave it to the reader to find a solution (mine is available on GitHub). Here is an example of how to use pop_front:

Finally, I’ll leave you with an implementation of push_front to think about. Hopefully with a bit of thought it will make sense given what else we’ve discussed. The implementations of some of the other metafunctions we outlined above are more intricate and would deserve their own post. But that’s enough digression, here is an implementation of push_front (I’ll leave it as an exercise to write push_back):

Here is an example of how to use push_front, though at this point you’ve probably figured out how this works.

In this part of our adventure into the land of template metaprogramming we looked at what a typelist is and how some of the core metafunctions needed to use typelists are implemented. The goal of this post was to familiarize the reader with typelists and how they work. What was covered above should be enough to allow the reader to use one of the metaprogramming libraries discussed in the first paragraph to manipulate typelists. In my next post I will discuss either compile-time for loops or algorithms that operate on typelists. Both of these are essential building blocks of metaprogramming and will prove indispensable for converting runtime code to compile time.

Note: I have shared my solutions to the exercises and all the final example code above on GitHub.