The Infinite Loop

Tales from a lean programmer.

Custom deleters for smart pointers in modern C++

Leave a comment


Many C++ programmers are not aware of a big difference in how the custom deleters of std::unique_ptr and std::shared_ptr are implemented in the C++ standard library. std::unique_ptr carries the custom deleter as part of its type (template<class T, class Deleter> std::unique_ptr). In contrast, the custom deleter of std::shared_ptr is not part of the type (template<class T> std::shared_ptr) but part of the constructor’s template argument list (template<class Y, class Deleter> shared_ptr(Y *ptr, Deleter d)). Mostly, this difference doesn’t matter much. Though, there are use-cases, like e.g. factories returning std::unique_ptr with a custom deleter, were the difference does matter.

Design choices


The advantage of making the custom deleter part of std::unqiue_ptr‘s type is that, as long as the deleter is stateless (e.g. a lambda that doesn’t capture anything or a function with no member variables), storing it doesn’t take up any additional memory thanks to the empty base optimization. This makes std::unique_ptr a zero-overhead abstraction, which means that:

  1. Its size is identical to the size of a raw pointer on the underlying architecture.
  2. All calls to the deleter can be inlined.

One possible implemention which makes use of the empty base optimization is to store the wrapped pointer together with the deleter in a compressed pair. The obvious disadvantage of making the custom deleter part of the type is that two std::unique_ptrs with different custom deleters are of different type, even if they wrap the same pointer type.


In contrast to std::unique_ptr, std::shared_ptr provides the convinience of a type erased deleter. Type erased means that the type of the custom deleter is not dragged into std::shared_ptr‘s type. Hence, one cannot know by just looking at the type if two std::shared_ptr instances have different custom deleters or not.
The type erasure makes std::shared_ptr more flexible. For example changing the allocation strategy of a factory, and with it the custom deleter of the returned std::shared_ptrs, doesn’t break source/binary compatibility and thereby, doesn’t require any recompilation of client software.
The drawback is that storing the custom deleter takes up additional memory, because some wrapper (e.g. std::function or a raw function pointer) is needed to store the custom deleter. The rationale behind this design choice is that std::shared_ptr must anyways heap allocate memory for its shared control block, containing the wrapped pointer and the reference counter. Additionally including the custom deleter didn’t seem like a big cost, taking the increased flexiblity into account.

Type erased custom deleters with std::unique_ptr

Imagine you’re building an object factory which returns std::unique_ptrs. The return type of the factory’s Create() function must allow casting instances of different derived classes to the same std::unique_ptr type. One way to do that is to use a std::unique_ptr to the base class. This, however, requires the base class’ destructor to be virtual. What if the destructor cannot be virtual for some reason or the implications for source and binary compatibility are limiting?

An alternative is to create a type erased custom deleter for std::unique_ptr by wrapping the deleter e.g. in an std::function. The wrapped function is then responsible for casting the void * to the correct type when deleting it. This construction works for virtual and non-virtual classes as well as for multiple inheritance, because the deleter casts the void * argument containing the address to the most derived class simply back to the type of the most derived class.

template<typename Type>
void MyDelete(void *ptr) // Casts 'ptr' to real type and deletes it
    delete static_cast<Type *>(ptr);

auto Factory::Create(int typeId)
    // Unique pointer with type erased custom deleter
    using UniquePtr = std::unique_ptr<Base, std::function<void(void *)>>;

    switch (typeId)
    case 0: return UniquePtr(new Derived0, MyDelete<Derived0>); 
    case 1: return UniquePtr(new Derived1, MyDelete<Derived1>);
    // ...

The applied type erasure doesn’t come for free. There are two penalties to pay:

  1. Destroying the pointer cannot be inlined anymore and therefore always requires an additional function call.
  2. Additional memory is required to store the deleter.

It turns out that the std::function wrapper increases the memory footprint of the std::unique_ptr type considerably (32 bytes with GCC 5.3.1’s libc++ and 64 bytes with Visual C++ 2015, both 64 bit). Luckily, we can use a simple function pointer to reduce the total size of the final std::unique_ptr to 16 bytes.

using UniquePtr = std::unique_ptr<Base, void(*)(void *)>;

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s