jambit ToiletPaper Strong Typedefs

Strong Typedefs


Many functions/methods that use an integer as a parameter have very special expectations regarding this integer. This could be an index in a certain structure, the ID of something, a certain physical unit or something made of chocolate. The problem is that f(int x) does not say "what meaning" int x has. The possible consequences range from "nobody will notice anyway" or "crash/restart" to "serious Ouch" (1).

In C++ there is the keyword typedef, but in the end it's not much more than alias in bash, so it doesn't help here. If someone comes along with "an extra class", many will find it "too bulky" and above all ... the performance!


With its template system, C++ allows to create custom data types, whose usage can be checked by the compiler (e.g. no "implicit casts" (2)), which nevertheless behave like simple ints at runtime. In the simplest case, this helps to keep different types of indices apart (3); but it can also be extended to perform type-safe calculations with SI units (4) (even “English imperial” units if necessary). The compiler includes the necessary code to convert millirad to deg or miles/h to m/s (and this way would’ve saved the Mars orbiter).


The basic idea is to create a struct (or – for the sake of visibility – a class) with a single value as member. Additionally, it gets all the necessary operators required for its handling.

Starting point is the following "inconspicuous" code. The declarations for PersonId and RoomId are still missing.

C++ class mit einem einzigen Wert als Member

Using a typedef will compile … and do something different than intended:

Strong Typedefs C++

Compiling the same code with PersonId as class, the compiler will complain and quit at rsc.get_room(id) (right image).

This works quite well for small applications. But to keep the linker quiet and to optimize the method call, a template is made from this class/struct. This brings us to BOOST_STRONG_TYPEDEF (3).

At first glance, this seems quite cumbersome, but it saves you from "falsely wired" integers (without any bigger runtime penalties). Anyone who has ever searched the entire system for an off-by-one bug will value this aid.

C++ Strong Typedefs

Further Aspects

(1) NASA lost its $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter because spacecraft engineers failed to convert from English to metric measurements: http://articles.latimes.com/1999/oct/01/news/mn-17288

(2) In 1996, an Ariane 5 exploded with its payload (worth about $500 million dollars) after a 64-bit double was put into a function that expected a 16-bit signed int. The value was too large for the 16 bits. http://www-users.math.umn.edu/~arnold/disasters/ariane.html

(3) See BOOST_STRONG_TYPEDEF https://www.boost.org/doc/libs/1_67_0/boost/serialization/strong_typedef.hpp

(4) See boost::units https://www.boost.org/doc/libs/1_67_0/libs/units/example/kitchen_sink.cpp or nholthaus/units https://github.com/nholthaus/units#documentation



Hannes Lerchl / Senior Software Architect / Business Division New Business​

Download Toilet Paper #94: Strong Typedefs (pdf)

Strong Typedefs jambit ToiletPaper

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