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any_iterator: Type Erasure for C++ Iterators

Copyright (C) 2006 2007 Thomas Becker


  1. Overview
  2. Quick Tutorial
  3. Supported Compilers
  4. Download and Installation
  5. Feedback and Bug Reports
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Appendix


The class template any_iterator is the analog to boost::function for iterators. It allows you to have a single variable and assign to it iterators of different types, as long as these iterators have a suitable commonality.

For a more in-depth view of type erasure in general and my any_iterator in particular, see my October 2007 article at The C++ Source.

Quick Tutorial

The any_iterator Class Template Declaration

The class template any_iterator is declared like this:
  class Value,
  class CategoryOrTraversal,
  class Reference = Value&,
  class Difference = std::ptrdiff_t
class any_iterator;
For the second template argument, you may use the old-style STL iterator categories such as std::random_access_iterator_tag, or you may use the new traversal categories as set forth in the Boost iterator library.

Assigning Concrete Iterators to any_iterator Variables

Here is an iterator type that can hold an std::vector<double>::const_iterator as well as an std::list<double>::const_iterator:
typedef any_iterator<
  double const, 

any_number_iterator number_iter;

std::vector<double> number_vector(42, 43.0);
number_iter = number_vector.begin();
double d = *number_iter;

std::list<double> number_list(42, 44.0);
number_iter = number_list.begin();
d = *number_iter;

Next, suppose you want the variable number_iter to hold not only the vector and list iterators, but also a Boost transform iterator which, upon dereferencing, multiplies by 100.0, like this:

number_iter = boost::make_transform_iterator(
  boost::bind(std::multiplies<double>(), _1, 100)
The any_iterator's assignment operator is not enabled for this assignment, and you will get an error message such as
binary '=': no operator found which takes a right-hand operand of
Why is this assignment not allowed? The transform iterator's operator* returns a double. If we were to pass that through our number iterator, which currently has a reference type of double const&, then the number iterator's operator* would be returning a reference to a temporary local variable. The solution is to change the any_iterator's reference type so that it is no longer a reference:
typedef any_iterator<
  double const, // Value
  double const // Reference
Now all of the assignments above will compile and work. It should be intuitively clear by now what the rules are for assigning "concrete" iterators to any_iterator variables. For example, an any_iterator that's a bidirectional iterator will not accept something that's a forward iterator only, like an iterator into a singly linked list. That would not make sense: a variable whose iterator category is bidirectional cannot at runtime hold something that is only a forward iterator. Similarly, our any_number_iterator would not accept anything that dereferences to something that does not convert to a double. After such an assignment, dereferencing would not make sense anymore.

You can find more examples in the file any_iterator_demo.hpp that comes with the any_iterator distribution. The exact, formal rules for assigning "concrete" iterators to any_iterator variables are stated below.

Important Warning: Type Erasure Erases Interoperability

Suppose you have two concrete iterators that point into the same sequence but are of different type:
std::vector<int> int_vector;
std::vector<int>::iterator it = int_vector.begin();
std::vector<int>::const_iterator cit = int_vector.begin();
These two iterators are of course interoperable: the comparison
it == cit
will compile, run, and give the correct answer (true in this case). If, however, you wrap these two iterators into any_iterators, then their interoperability is lost. For example, if you define
typedef any_iterator<int, boost::random_access_traversal_tag,  int const &> 

random_access_const_iterator_to_int ait_1 = it;
random_access_const_iterator_to_int ait_2 = cit;
then the comparison
ait_1 == ait_2; // bad comparison!
behaves as if you were comparing iterators into different sequences: the behavior is undefined! (In my implementation, you will get an assertion in debug mode and a null pointer dereferencing in release mode.)

This behavior is most certainly highly undesirable and extremely dangerous. In fact, it is so bad that I had at one point decided to declare the idea of the any_iterator infeasible. But then it occurred to me that this pitfall is not entirely specific to the any_iterator. It occurs with any type-erasing class that implements binary operators. Therefore, it is perhaps beneficial to put all this out there and alert people to the problem.

Acknowledgment: I believe the first person to spot this problem with interoperability was Thomas Witt. The issue was pointed out to me independently by Sergei Politov.

Performance Overhead

The extra cost of an operation such as dereferencing or incrementing an any_iterator is one level of indirection and a virtual function call. Construction and destruction of an any_iterator object involve one heap access each.

Relationships between Different any_iterator Types

Instantiations of the any_iterator class template are Standard conforming iterators. Therefore, it would theoretically be possible to assign an object of one any_iterator type to a variable of another any_iterator type. However, this would lead to nesting levels greater than 1. Consequently, the overhead of using an any_iterator could increase to several level of indirections and several virtual function calls. Therefore, assignments that would lead to nested any_iterator objects are not allowed. Instead, there are certain conversions between any_iterator types that behave nicely insofar as they do not cause nesting levels deeper than 1. The exact rules for these conversions are stated below.

The Explicit Constructor from Wrapped Iterator

The constructor that creates an any_iterator object from a "concrete" iterator is currently explicit. This is an unfortunate limitation that is caused by a technicality having to do with an arcane limitation of the SFINAE principle. This annoyance will go away once concepts will be available in C++.

For now, this means that a "concrete" iterator never converts to an any_iterator. There are only two ways to get a "concrete" iterator object into an any_iterator variable: either by ordinary assignment, as in

std::vector<int> vect;
any_iterator<int, std::forward_iterator_tag> ait;
ait = vect.begin();
or using explicit construction:
> ait_1(vect.begin()); // fine

> ait_2 = vect.begin(); // error, requires non-explicit copy ctor

Supported Compilers

The any_iterator has been tested under Microsoft VC7.1, Microsoft VC8, Microsoft VC9, gcc 3.2.4, gcc 3.4.2, gcc 4.0.3, and gcc 4.1.2. More recent compilers and compiler versions seem to always work, probably because C++ template support has stabilized by now.

The make_any_iterator_type Metafunction

There is a metafunction named make_any_iterator_type which takes an iterator type as its argument and produces an instantiation of the any_iterator class template with the same iterator traits. In other words, it allows you to create an any_iterator type "by example."
>::type ait;
This has the same effect as
typedef any_iterator<int, std::random_access_iterator_tag> ait;

Download and Installation

The any_iterator be downloaded from here. The download contains the source code, this HTML documentation, a demo .cpp file, and regression tests.

The directory any_iterator in the download contains the file any_iterator.hpp and a subdirectory named detail. To use the any_iterator, you must include any_iterator.hpp and make sure the header files in the subdirectory detail are found by any_iterator.hpp. The any_iterator currently lives in the namespace IteratorTypeErasure.

The any_iterator makes ample use of Boost libraries; however, it uses only header files. Therefore, no Boost binaries are needed. Just make sure that Boost is in your include path.

If you wish to build and run the regression tests, you will find solution files for Microsoft VC7.1 and Microsoft VC8 and a makefile for gcc in the corresponding subdirectories of the directory regression_tests. If you use the makefile, you will of course have to fix the path variables to match your development environment. The Microsoft solution files should work out of the box, except for the fact that you have to fix the include directories so that the Boost headers are found.

Feedback and Bug Reports

Click to send feedback and bug reports concerning the any_iterator.


I am indebted to Dave Abrahams, Christopher Baus, Fred Bertsch, Don Harriman, and Thomas Witt for their input to my efforts regarding iterator type erasure.


Exact Rules for Assignment to any_iterator Variables

Suppose that some_any_iterator is an instantiation of the any_iterator class template with value type, traversal tag, reference type, and difference type equal to AnyItValue, AnyItTraversal, AnyItReference, and AnyItDifference, respectively. Assume further that some_iterator is an iterator type with value type, traversal tag, reference type, and difference type equal to ItValue, ItTraversal, ItReference, and ItDifference, respectively. Then a variable of type some_any_iterator will accept an object of type some_iterator if and only if the following four conditions are met:

  1. ItValue converts to AnyItValue.
  2. ItTraversal and AnyItTraversal are equal, or the former is derived from the latter. This means that some_iterator's traversal category is equal to or better than that of some_any_iterator.
  3. The following are all true:
    • ItReference converts to AnyItReference.
    • If AnyItReference is a reference, then so is ItReference.
    • If AnyItReference and ItReference are both references, then the following is true: after stripping const qualifiers and references from AnyItReference and ItReference, the two are either the same, or the former is a base class of the latter.
    The second and third of the three conditions above ensure that no situation is allowed where some_any_iterator's operator* would return a reference to a temporary.
  4. If some_any_iterator is a random access iterator, then ItDifference and AnyItDifference are convertible to each other both ways. Here, we need convertibility in both directions because the difference type occurs as an argument type as well as a result type of iterator operators.

Exact Rules for Conversions between any_iterator Types

Let ait_source and ait_target be two different instantiations of the any_iterator class template. Then there is a conversion from ait_source to ait_target if and only if either or