internal_ptr<T> --- reference counting for data structures with cycles

In his CppCon 2016 keynote, Herb Sutter described the ideal of code being "leak free by construction", and then went on to detail the uses of std::unique_ptr<T> and std::shared_ptr<T> to ensure this. One of the key shortcomings of the standard smart pointers is that they don't work for data structures with cycles: if A holds a std::shared_ptr<T> to B and B holds a std::shared_ptr<T> to A then they will never be freed, even if there are no other references to A or B.

Herb proposed his gcpp library as an experimental solution to this problem. By allocating your objects from the deferred_heap, and using deferred_ptr<T> to point to them, then you are guaranteed that they will be properly destroyed by calling their destructors, even if that destruction is "deferred" until later.

This library is an alternative solution to the same problem. Rather than deferring collection of unreachable objects, collection is done immediately, just as with std::shared_ptr<T>. The key difference here is that if the only outstanding references to objects are those within a cycle then the whole set of objects is destroyed, rather than the internal references keeping the whole data structure alive.


The library provides two smart pointer class templates: root_ptr<T> and internal_ptr<T>. root_ptr<T> is directly equivalent to std::shared_ptr<T>: it is a reference-counted smart pointer. For many uses, you could use root_ptr<T> as a direct replacement for std::shared_ptr<T> and your code will have identical behaviour. root_ptr<T> is intended to represent an external owner for your data structure. For a tree it could hold the pointer to the root node. For a general graph it could be used to hold each of the external nodes of the graph.

The difference comes with internal_ptr<T>. This holds a pointer to another object within the data structure. It is an internal pointer to another part of the same larger data structure. It is also reference counted, so if there are no root_ptr<T> or internal_ptr<T> objects pointing to a given object then it is immediately destroyed, but even one internal_ptr<T> can be enough to keep an object alive as part of a larger data structure.

The "magic" is that if an object is only pointed to by internal_ptr<T> pointers, then it is only kept alive as long as the whole data structure has an accessible root in the form of an root_ptr<T> or an object with an internal_ptr<T> that is not pointed to by either an root_ptr<T> or an internal_ptr<T>.

This is made possible by the internal nodes deriving from internal_base, much like std::enable_shared_from_this<T> enables additional functionality when using std::shared_ptr<T>. This base class is then passed to the internal_ptr<T> constructor, to identify which object the internal_ptr<T> belongs to.

For example, a singly-linked list could be implemented like so:

class List{
    struct Node: jss::internal_base{
        jss::internal_ptr<Node> next;
        data_type data;

        Node(data_type data_):next(this),data(data_){}

    jss::root_ptr<Node> head;
    void push_front(data_type new_data){
        auto new_node=jss::make_owner<Node>(new_data);

    data_type pop_front(){
        auto old_head=head;
            throw std::runtime_error("Empty list");
        return old_head->data;

    void clear(){

This actually has an advantage over using std::shared_ptr<Node> for the links in the list, due to another feature of the library. When a group of interlinked nodes becomes unreachable, then firstly each node is marked as unreachable, thus making any internal_ptr<T>s that point to them become equal to nullptr. Then all the unreachable nodes are destroyed in turn. All this is done with iteration rather than recursion, and thus avoids the deep recursive destructor chaining that can occur when using std::shared_ptr<T>.

local_ptr<T> completes the set: you can use a local_ptr<T> when traversing a data structure that uses internal_ptr<T>. local_ptr<T> does not hold a reference, and is not in any way involved in the lifetime tracking of the nodes. It is intended to be used when you need to keep a local pointer to a node, but you're not updating the data structure, and don't need that pointer to keep the node alive. e.g.

class List{
// as above
    void for_each(std::function<void(data_type&)> f){
        jss::local_ptr<Node> node=head;

Warning: root_ptr<T> and internal_ptr<T> are not safe for use if multiple threads may be accessing any of the nodes in the data structure while any thread is modifying any part of it. The data structure as a whole must be protected with external synchronization in a multi-threaded context.

How it works

The key to this system is twofold. Firstly the nodes in the data structure derive from internal_base, which allows the library to store a back-pointer to the smart pointer control block in the node itself, as long as the head of the list of internal_ptr<T>s that belong to that node. Secondly, the control blocks each hold a list of back-pointers to the control blocks of the objects that point to them via internal_ptr<T>. When a reference to a node is dropped (either from an root_ptr<T> or an internal_ptr<T>), if that node has no remaining root_ptr<T>s that point to it, the back-pointers are checked. The chain of back-pointers is followed until either a node is found that has an root_ptr<T> that points to it, or a node is found that does not have a control block (e.g. because it is allocated on the stack, or owned by std::shared_ptr<T>). If either is found, then the data structure is reachable, and thus kept alive. If neither is found once all the back-pointers have been followed, then the set of nodes that were checked is unreachable, and thus can be destroyed. Each of the unreachable nodes is then marked as such, which causes internal_ptr<T>s that refer to them to become nullptr, and thus prevents resurrection of the nodes. Finally, the unreachable nodes are all destroyed in an unspecified order. The scan and destroy is done with iteration rather than recursion to avoid the potential for deep recursive nesting on large interconnected graphs of nodes.

The downside is that the time taken to drop a reference to a node is dependent on the number of nodes in the data structure, in particular the number of nodes that have to be examined in order to find an owned node.

Note: only dropping a reference to a node (destroying a pointer, or reassigning a pointer) incurs this cost. Constructing the data structure is still relatively low overhead.

The code is copyright (c) 2016 Just Sofware Solutions Ltd, and is released under the BSD license. See the license text at the top of internal_ptr.hpp.