Returning a vector by value or by reference
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Thread: Returning a vector by value or by reference

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Apr 2008
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    Returning a vector by value or by reference

    Hi,

    I am designing a class that has a vector as a private member. My class also has a member function that returns the vector. I am trying to decide if this function should return a copy of the private vector or a reference to it:

    Code:
    #include <vector>
    
    using namespace std;
    
    class A {
        public:
            vector<int> numbers1() {
                return _numbers;
            }
    
            vector<int>& numbers2() {
                return _numbers;
            }
    
        private:
            vector<int> _numbers;
    };
    I would like to allow users to iterate thru the vector using numbers2().begin() and numbers2().end() directly (Note that this wouldn't work using number1 since both expressions return a different copy of the vector). But I've heard that I should avoid returning handles to object internals because of possible dangling handlers. I would like to know the thoughts of this group.

    Thank you.

  2. #2
    Lindley is offline Elite Member Power Poster
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    Re: Returning a vector by value or by reference

    But I've heard that I should avoid returning handles to object internals because of possible dangling handlers.
    To a certain extent that's good advice, but don't take it too far. Requiring the user of the class to have some common sense like "don't destroy the object while iterating over it" isn't a bad thing. The rule of thumb is: do as the STL containers do. Obviously, you can't destroy one of them while iterating over it, right?

    However, you might consider whether you want to return by reference, or whether const reference is most appropriate.

  3. #3
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    Re: Returning a vector by value or by reference

    Another thing to consider: would it be more appropriate to return begin and end iterators instead?
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  4. #4
    Join Date
    May 2009
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    Re: Returning a vector by value or by reference

    Quote Originally Posted by roddomi View Post
    But I've heard that I should avoid returning handles to object internals because of possible dangling handlers.
    Why not just return a couple of const iterators, like,
    Code:
    class A {
    public:
    	std::vector<int>::const_iterator begin() {return v.cbegin();}
    	std::vector<int>::const_iterator end() {return v.cend();}
    private:
    	std::vector<int> v;
    };
    You expose the internal data structure but at least users cannot change the data.

    The standard approach to better encapsulation is to offer a getter access method like,
    Code:
    class A {
    public:
    	int get(int i) {return v[i];}
    	int size() {v.size();}
    private:
    	std::vector<int> v;
    };
    Yet another approach is to pass in a functor object. A method (for example operator()) of the functor is called with all ints of the vector one by one. This offers good encapsulation because users never know how the ints are actually stored internally. This approach is sometimes called "inner iteration".
    Code:
    class A {
    public:
    	template <typename FUNCTOR>
    	void iterate(FUNCTOR& f) {
    		for (std::vector<int>::const_iterator p=v.cbegin(); p!=v.cend(); ++p) f(*p);
    	}
    private:
    	std::vector<int> v;
    };
    //
    class Sum_Functor {
    public:
    	Sum_Functor() : sum(0) {}
    	int sum;
    	void operator() (int i) {
    		sum += i;
    	}
    };
    //
    A a;
    Sum_Functor sf;
    a.iterate(sf);
    int s = sf.sum;
    Last edited by nuzzle; July 5th, 2010 at 02:38 AM.

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