The C++ Object Lifecycle

Most Discussions around RAII don’t discuss the implicit contracts and relationships with. These contracts help enable RAII.

This is typically required when implementing your container types, working with custom memory allocators, deferred object construction (when implementing types for structured error-handling like Result<T, E> and Option<T>). These are typically termed as ‘unsafe’ operations.

NOTE: Most projects don’t use exceptions, so we will not be discussing about them or the corner cases, unnecessary complexities, code path explosions, and limitations they introduce.

The lifecycle of a C++ Object is illustrated as:

  allocate placement memory                        
             ||                       ==============
             \/                       ||          || 
====>  construct object  =====> assign object <=====
||           ||                       ||  
||           \/                       ||  
====== destruct object  <===============          
 deallocate placement memory                        

A violation of this lifecycle WILL lead to undefined behaviour, typically: memory leak, double-free, uninitialized memory read/write, unaligned read/writes, nullptr dereference, out of bound read/writes, etc.

A general rule of thumb for testing lifecycle violations in containers is to ensure the number of constructions is equal to the number of destructions, which is the core idea behind RAII. The types we will be using for demonstrating some of these concepts is defined as follows:

struct Counter {
    uint32_t num_constructs = 0;
    uint32_t num_destructs = 0;

    void log() {
        printf("num_constructs = %" PRIu32 " \nnum_destructs =  %" PRIu32 "\n",
               num_constructs, num_destructs);

struct Obj {
    // default-construction
    Obj() { counter.num_constructs++; }
    // copy-construction
    Obj(Obj const& t) : data{t.data} { counter.num_constructs++; }
    // move-construction
    Obj(Obj&& t) : data{t.data} { counter.num_constructs++; }
    // copy-assignment
    Obj& operator=(Obj const& t) {
        data = t.data;
        return *this;
    // move-assignment
    Obj& operator=(Obj&& t) {
        data = t.data;
        return *this;
    // destruction
    ~Obj() { counter.num_destructs++; }
    uint32_t data = 1;

struct Animal {
    virtual void react() = 0;

struct Cat : Animal {
    void react() override { printf("purr...\n"); }

struct Dog : Animal {
    void react() override { printf("woof!\n"); }

Allocate Memory

An object’s memory can be sourced from the stack (i.e. alloca, malloca) or heap (i.e. sbrk, malloc, kalloc) and have some base requirements for objects to be placed on them:

  • On successful allocation, memory returned by allocators MUST be valid and not be already in use. This prevents catastrophic failures like double-free (double-object destructor calls). SEE: GNUC’s __attribute__((malloc(...))) and MSVC’s __restrict return attributes which enables global aliasing optimizations for the compiler’s reachability analysis. NOTE: malloc(0) and realloc(ptr, 0, 0) are not required to return nullptr and is implementation-defined behavior. An implementation MIGHT decide to return the same or different non-null (possibly sentinel) memory address for a 0-sized allocation.
  • General-purpose allocators SHOULD support at least alignment of alignof(max_align_t) where max_align_t is mostly either double (8 bytes) or long double (16 bytes), as in the case of malloc. max_align_t is a maximum-aligned integral scalar type. NOTE: C11 introduced aligned_alloc for over-aligned allocations (beyond alignof(max_align_t)) which is typically required for SIMD vector operations (SSE/AVX’s 128-bit, 256-bit, and 512-bit extensions) as the SIMD’s wide registers operate on over-aligned memory addresses. MSVC’s C runtime doesn’t support aligned_alloc yet but provides _aligned_malloc and _aligned_free.

Construct Object

This is where the lifecycle of an object begins. For trivially constructible objects this implies a placement new of the object on the placement memory and for trivially constructible types, any memory write operation on the object’s placement memory.

The object’s placement memory address MUST be sized to at-least the object’s size and the object placement address within the memory MUST be aligned to a multiple of the object’s alignment. If an object is constructed at a memory location not sized enough for it, this can lead to Undefined Behaviour (out-of-bound reads). Non-suitably aligned placement memory can lead to unaligned read & writes (undefined behavior, which on some CPU architectures crash your application with a SIGILL or just lead to degraded performance). Reading an uninitialized/non-constructed object is Undefined Behaviour and catastrophic.

Placement-new serves some important purposes:

  • initializing virtual function dispatch table for virtual (base and inherited) classes. (reintepret_cast + trivial construction i.e. memset or memcpy is not enough). i.e.
  • initializing the class/struct, it’s base classes, and its members

Let’s look at these in practice:

// https://godbolt.org/z/fq9KdP1eo
int * x = (int*) malloc(4);
(*x)++; // undefined behaviour

The code above invokes undefined behaviour due to an uninitialized read of an int at memory x. With optimizations enabled, the compiler can aggressively decide to totally ignore the increment operation.

To fix:

// https://godbolt.org/z/fq9KdP1eo
int * x = (int*) malloc(4);
* x = 0;

Because int is a trivially constructible type (i.e. no special construction semantics) with no invariants, it can be constructed simply by writing to the memory address, and an int “object” would implicitly exist at memory address x. To construct an int or trivially constructible object at address x You can also use:

  • operator new
  • memcpy/memmove
  • memset/memset_explicit

Now, let’s take a look at a type with a more complex construction semantic (non-trivially-constructible):

// https://godbolt.org/z/Kn3bccore
Obj* obj = (Obj*) malloc(sizeof(Obj));
obj->data++; // undefined behaviour, data is random value
printf("data: %" PRIu32 "\n", obj->data);
counter.log(); // num_constructs = 0, num_destructs = 0

From the log above, you can see the Object is never constructed at address obj, so, no object of type Obj exists at obj yet and it is undefined behaviour to use/destroy the object in that state. This could lead to a number of contract violations/undefined behaviour like double-free, out-of-bounds reads/writes.

To fix:

// https://godbolt.org/z/1M58e85Mh
Obj* obj = (Obj*) malloc(sizeof(Obj));
new (obj) Obj{};  // constructs object of type Obj at the address
obj->data++;  // ok: data is increased from default value of 1 to 2
printf("data: %" PRIu32 "\n", obj->data);
counter.log();  // num_constructs = 1, num_destructs = 0

The placement new constructs the object of type Obj at address obj, and now contains valid data.

Placement-new also serves to initialize the virtual function table pointers for the object to be usable in virtual dispatch. The compiler’s reachability analysis MIGHT decide an object doesn’t exist at a memory address if it is not constructed with placement new and thus invoke undefined behaviour. To illustrate:

// https://godbolt.org/z/aMMGe1n8o
Cat * cat = (Cat*) malloc(sizeof(Cat));
memset(cat, 0, sizeof(Cat));
cat->react(); // static dispatches to Cat::react()
Animal * animal = cat;
animal->react(); // undefined behaviour

Calling cat->react(), correctly calls Cat::react via static dispatch. However with dynamic dispatch from its Base class method Animal::react via the call animal->react(), this would lead to Undefined Behaviour (a segmentation fault if in debug mode or compiler’s reachability analysis doesn’t see the memset. otherwise, the compiler can simply ignore it).

To examine why this happens, let’s implement our virtual classes with our custom dynamic dispatch/v-table:

struct Animal{
 void (*react)(void *);

struct Cat{
  Animal animal{
    .react = &react
 static void react(void *);

For virtual dispatch to occur, the function pointer Animal::react would need to be called, the function pointer has been initialized to 0 by the memset call which is undefined behaviour when invoked.

To fix our previous example, we would need to correctly initialize the implementation-defined virtual function dispatch table via, the operator-new call, i.e:

// https://godbolt.org/z/z3rds6hPc
Cat * cat = (Cat*) malloc(sizeof(Cat));
new (cat) Cat{}; // initializes v-table
cat->react(); // static dispatches to Cat::react()
Animal * animal = cat;
animal->react(); // undefined behaviour

The virtual function call animal->react() now correctly dispatches to Cat::react.

NOTE: The C++ standard doesn’t specify how virtual dispatch/virtual function tables should be implemented, so there’s no portable way to reliably manipulate the runtime’s virtual function table.

Copy and Move construction implies the source address is already constructed with an object, and the destination address is a scratch memory containing uninitialized object that need to be initialized. Note that Copy and Move construction should not call the destructors of either of the source or destination objects.

Object construction is also split into several categories, namely:

Assign Object

Copy and Move assignment requires that an object already exists at a memory address and we would like to assign another object to it. Meaning both the source and dest addresses contain valid intialized objects. Object Assignment is split into several categories, namely:

Destruct Object

Destruction requires that a valid object exists at a memory location. Unlike trivial constructions and assignments, trivial destruction implies a no-op.

Deallocate Memory

Deallocating memory requires that any object on the placement memory has been destroyed. The memory is returned to its allocator and should no longer be referenced nor used.



Strict Aliasing, Dead-store, and Dead-load Optimizations

Option<T> (std::optional<T>)

Option<T> implies an object of type T may or may not exist, this means the object is either initialized or not initialized at the placement address and its existence is recognized by a discrimating enum/boolean. Implementing Option<T> would require that the lifecycle of the value type T is maintained correctly. i.e. number of constructions is same as the number of destructions, the object’s constructor is called before being regarded as existing in the Option.

Result<T, E> (std::expected<T, E>)

Result<T, E> implies an object of type T or type E exists at the placement address of the Result, it is discriminated by an enum or boolean value. Just like Option<T>, Result<T, E> maintains the lifecycle of the value type T and E.

Trivial Relocation

Container Types

updated_at 15-01-2023