Templates and Files

Posted at December 22, 2010 | By : | Categories : Random | Comments Off

Something I always wondered about was why STL piles implementations into the same file as the declarations.  Never had a good reason to investigate until today when my class template implementation – which was located in a separate file from the class declaration – compiled fine (seemingly) but the linker couldn’t find any of the template class’s method implementations (needless to say I spend little or no time implementing my own template classes – just never had much of a need).  But today I did and stumbled on this excellent explanation of what’s going on:

To answer your initial question and to provide a condensed explanation for the reason behind your compile problem.

From the point of view of the compiler, templates are not normal functions or classes. They are compiled on demand, meaning that the code of a template function is not compiled until an instantiation with specific template arguments is required. At that moment, when an instantiation is required, the compiler generates a function specifically for those arguments from the template.

When projects grow it is usual to split the code of a program in different source code files. In these cases, the interface and implementation are generally separated. Taking a library of functions as example, the interface generally consists of declarations of the prototypes of all the functions that can be called. These are generally declared in a "header file" with a .h extension, and the implementation (the definition of these functions) is in an independent file with c++ code.

Because templates are compiled when required, this forces a restriction for multi-file projects: the implementation (definition) of a template class or function must be in the same file as its declaration. That means that we cannot separate the interface in a separate header file, and that we must include both interface and implementation in any file that uses the templates.

Since no code is generated until a template is instantiated when required, compilers are prepared to allow the inclusion more than once of the same template file with both declarations and definitions in a project without generating linkage errors.

Thanks saige

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