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Smart Pointers

In C and C++ functions with multiple exit points (multiple return statements), we sometimes have allocated objects that need to be released, and the set of objects grows as we get further down the function execution. We manage this by either releasing a growing set of objects at each return statement, or by collecting all cleanup at the end of the function and doing "goto cleanup" or similar.

A cleaner way of doing this is via a "smart pointer". You create a smart_ptr<UnicodeString> variable, initialize it with a new UnicodeString, and when the smart_ptr goes out of scope, the UnicodeString is automatically deleted. We would also have something like a smart_uprv_malloc() which would call uprv_free().

We should also use (and offer publicly) variations that "close" our C API objects. For example, smart_ucnv cnv(ucnv_open("Shift-JIS", &errorCode)); would automatically ucnv_close() the converter when the cnv variable goes out of scope.

The smart pointer class could be kept internal, but since it is useful, it should be public, except for pieces that require ICU-internal definitions (uprv_free()).


  • Smart pointer owns the object and releases it when it goes out of scope.
  • Transfer of ownership via copy/assignment seems messy and unnecessary; better not to have it to reduce misuse. Simpler & more robust.
  • ICU-compatible: No exceptions.
  • Need to be able to orphan/release the pointer and its ownership.
    • It would be very useful to use a smart_ptr while building an ICU service object, simply return when there is an error (and the smart pointer releases the partially built object) and return ptr.orphan(); at the end when the service object was built successfully. Equivalently, a constructor could hold sub-objects in smart pointers until everything is done, at which point it orphans them into raw member pointers.
  • Need variants for normal C++ object pointers, C++ arrays, and ICU C service objects.


Implemented in ICU 4.4. Public API (unicode/localpointer.h) available in ICU 4.4 Milestone 3 (4.3.3), internal LocalMemory (cmemory.h) available in Milestone 4.

Prior Art


  • Part of the STL, well understood.
  • Has release() method.
  • Does not throw exceptions.
  • Drawback: Offers transfer of ownership via non-standard semantics of copy constructor and assignment operator.
  • Drawback: No variant even for C++ arrays.

boost::scoped_ptr & boost::scoped_array

  • Never transfers ownership of the object.
  • Does not throw exceptions.
  • Drawback: It intentionally does not have a release() or orphan() method.

Taligent Safe Pointers (TOnlyPointerTo)

  • Naming and semantics (alias/adopt/orphan) similar to ICU's, due to common heritage. (Otherwise it's a lot like std::auto_ptr.)
  • Has orphan() method.
  • Drawback: Offers transfer of ownership.
  • Drawback: Value-and-ownership change via assignment operator seems obscure.
  • Show-stopper: Throws exceptions.



One common base class with all of the common methods, plus variants for C++ pointers (delete), C++ arrays (delete[]) and C objects (ICU C service objects and other types with "close" functions).

Issue: This can be done in several ways:

  • Variants are subclasses
    • Non-virtual base class
      • Every subclass must override multiple methods which delete the owned object (destructor, adoptInstead()).
      • Pro: Simplest to implement. No vtable.
      • Con: If the set of deleting methods ever increases, then subclasses need to be modified to override those new methods. However, I don't see what kind of deleting method we would add given the limited goals for these smart pointer classes, so this seems like a minor disadvantage.
      • Con: It would be forbidden but possible to use the base class directly, unlike in the other approaches. Clear documentation should help.
    • Virtual base class
      • Virtual destructor, virtual void handleDelete() = 0 used by deleting methods.
      • Pro: Any subclass need override only handleDelete().
      • Con: vtable, doubles the size of the object, slightly larger inline code, and the linker needs to locate the vtable implementation.
  • Variants are template specializations, not subclasses
    • Close functor
      • Add a template parameter to the base class with a Close functor typename (a class with operator() which deletes its pointer argument).
      • Pro: Base class definition handles deletions; no vtable.
      • Con: Need to define a Close functor for every type for which we want a smart pointer.
    • Close function type
      • Add a template parameter to the base class with a Close function typename (a function typedef). (Does this work as a template parameter?)
      • Pro: Base class definition handles deletions; no vtable.
      • Con: Not sure "close" function signatures are all identical (return values, calling conventions).
Chosen option: Non-virtual base class.


template<class T> class LocalPointerBase (common base class for all variants; never deletes/frees)
template<class T> class LocalPointer : public LocalPointerBase<T> (uses standard delete)

  • explicit LocalPointer(T *p = NULL) -- takes ownership
  • ~LocalPointer() -- deletes the object it owns
  • UBool isNull() const, UBool isValid() const -- NULL checks
  • operator==(const T *), operator!=(const T *) -- comparisons with simple pointers, but not with other LocalPointers
  • T *getAlias() const -- access without ownership change
  • operator*, operator-> -- access without ownership change
  • No operator T *() -- the programmer must decide whether to use getAlias() (without transfer of ownership) or orpan() (with transfer of ownership and NULLing of the pointer).
  • T *orphan() -- gives up ownership; the internal pointer becomes NULL
  • T *adoptInstead(T *p) -- deletes the object it owns and adopts (takes ownership of) the one passed in
Properties of these classes:
  • No ownership transfer: No copy constructor, no assignment operator
  • Does not throw exceptions
  • Declares private new and new[] operators to enforce usage as stack objects

The following are variants for arrays and C service objects. Do not use them via the base class interface since none of the methods are virtual. (We could try to use template specialization rather than subclassing, but that might not work when adding further methods.)

template<class T> class LocalArray: public LocalPointerBase<T>

  • Destructor and adoptInstead() use delete[] not delete
  • operator[ptrdiff_t] -- array element accessor

template<class T> class LocalMemory: public LocalPointer<T> -- internal only, for uprv_malloc()/uprv_free()

  • Destructor and adoptInstead() use uprv_free() not delete
  • operator[index] -- array element accessor
  • allocateInstead(int32_t n) -- delete the memory it owns and adopt (take ownership of) (T *)uprv_malloc(n*sizeof(T))

#define U_DEFINE_LOCAL_OPEN_POINTER(LocalPointerClassName, Type, closeFunction) \
    class /* U_COMMON_API */ LocalPointerClassName : public LocalPointerBase<Type> { \
U_DEFINE_LOCAL_OPEN_POINTER(LocalStdioFilePointer, FILE, fclose);
U_DEFINE_LOCAL_OPEN_POINTER(LocalUBiDiPointer, UBiDi, ubidi_close);

  • For ICU C service objects
  • For any type (can be "incomplete") with a "close" function
Issue: Should we assume that all "close" functions check for NULL (at least most of them do), or should we define the class to check for NULL before calling the "close" function?
  • We could start with assuming that all "close" functions check for NULL, and change it later if necessary. This change would be compatible. Doing it the other way around would be an incompatible change.

ICU headers should predefine a LocalXyzPointer class for each Xyz ICU C service object type. (Xyz=UBiDi, UCaseMap, UConverter, ...)

Issue: Should these classes all be defined in a new header file (localpointer.h?), or should each of them be defined in the service-specific header file (ubidi.h, ucasemap.h, ucnv.h)?

  • Pro each in specific header file: The smart pointer type is defined next to the basic type. [With #ifdef XP_CPLUSPLUS...#endif] Easily found.
  • Pro all in one header file: No dependency from the specific header files on the new, template-using smart pointer header file.
  • Con all in one header file: This would require #defining a macro together with each service object typedef, and require the guarded typedef and macro definition in both the specific header file and in the smart pointer header file. Also, it is easy to forget adding a new smart pointer type for a new service object type.
Chosen option: Define each ICU service object smart pointer class next to its base typedef, in the service-specific header file.