Using weak_ptr for circular references

std::weak_ptr or weak references can simplify circular references or can even eliminate them.

Tutorial | Apr 17, 2020 | hkumar 

What is weak_ptr?

An std::weak_ptr is a non-owning smart pointer that maintains a weak reference to an std::shared_ptr managed object. Multiple shared_ptr instances can share the ownership of a managed object. The managed object is deleted when the last owning shared_ptr is destroyed. Therefore, a shared_ptr is a strong reference to a managed object. On the other hand, a weak_ptr is a weak reference that does not control the lifetime of a managed object but merely acts as a limited handle, from which a strong reference (shared_ptr) can be acquired when needed.

Let's look at an example of weak_ptr:

std::thread observer;

void observe(std::weak_ptr<int> wp) {
 //Start observer thread
 observer = std::thread([wp](){
  while(true) {
   std::this_thread::sleep_for(std::chrono::seconds(1));

   //Try acquiring a shared_ptr from weak_ptr
   if(std::shared_ptr<int> p = wp.lock()) {
    //Success
    std::cout << "Observing: " << *p << "\n";
   } else {
    //The managed object is destroyed. 
    std::cout << "Stop\n";
    break;
   }
  }
 });
}

int main() {

 { //Block Start  
  auto sp = std::shared_ptr<int>(new int());
  //Create a weak_ptr<int> from sp for observing
  observe(sp);  
  //Wait few seconds
  std::this_thread::sleep_for(std::chrono::seconds(5));

  //shared_ptr is destroyed and the
  // managed object is deleted when
  // block ends
 }


 //Wait for the observer thread to end
 observer.join();
 return 0;
}

In the contrived example above, an observer thread periodically checks the value of a shared_ptr managed object. The observer thread, however, does not own the object through a shared_ptr. It has a weak_ptr and periodically tries to acquire a temporary shared_ptr from it to access the object. The observer thread quits when it fails to obtain a shared_ptr.

The main thread starts the observer thread and provides a weak_ptr<int>. It lets the original owning shared_ptr<int> live for a few seconds by sleeping. When the original shared_ptr is destroyed, the managed object is deleted, and the observer thread quits because it cannot acquire a shared_ptr.

As shown above, it is not possible to directly access the managed object through a weak_ptr. A weak_ptr has to be converted to a shared_ptr to access the managed object. The conversion fails if the managed object gets deleted.

There are a few situations where weak_ptr can be quite useful. One of them is to avoid the circular references of shared_ptr. We will look at that in the next section.

Circular References

One of the biggest concerns dealing with the raw pointers is that sometimes it is hard to ensure that a raw pointer is not dangling or valid. Automatic memory management by shared_ptr leads to a safer and easier to maintain code. As long as a component or function holds a shared_ptr, the object managed by the shared_ptr stays in memory.

However, there is a caveat related to the use of shared_ptr when it comes to cyclic dependencies or circular references. Two objects are said to have circular references when they hold references to each other. Circular references ordinarily manifest in event-driven applications. For instance, in the following code, classes Back and Forth communicate with one another through shared_ptr references to each other:

//Forward declaration
struct Forth;

struct Back {     
 //stuff...
 //Sends messages to Forth...
 std::shared_ptr<Forth> forth;
};

struct Forth {
 //stuff...
 //Sends messages to Back...
 std::shared_ptr<Back> back;
};

Using shared_ptr for cyclic dependency causes the lifetime of Back and Forth to depend on each other. The instances of Back and Forth can stay in memory and cause memory-leak even when no other part of the application can reach them because they are both holding the shared_ptr to each other.

Following illustration shows the memory-leak when all other strong references to both Back and Forth are destroyed, and no part of the application can reach them:

Circular Strong References

Dealing with Circular References

There are several ways to avoid the memory-leak mentioned above, and depending on an application, the workarounds could be very involved and ugly. For instance, in some cases, we might be able to change one of the references (e.g., the reference to Back in Forth) to a raw pointer. By doing that, we are letting only one class control the lifetime of the other and avoid a memory leak. However, that solution is too specific and is not applicable in those situations where the lives of Back and Forth should be entirely independent of each other. It is ideal to use weak references (weak_ptr) in these circumstances where classes need to have cyclic links without controlling the lifetime of each other.

Let's take a more realistic example where we use weak references to avoid circular references. In an event-driven application (e.g., a UI application), there are sources of events and listeners that consume events. A Listener is registered with a Source for consuming events. An ostensibly simple approach is that a Source keeps a strong reference to a Listener to dispatch events:

struct Event {
 //..
};

class Listener {
public:
 void onEvent(Event e) {
  //Handle event from Source
 }
 //...
};

class Source {
public: 
 void dispatchEvent(Event e) {
  if(listener)
   listener->onEvent(e);
 }

 void 
 registerListener(const std::shared_ptr<Listener>& lp) {
  listener = lp;
 }
 //...
private:
 //Strong reference to Listener
 std::shared_ptr<Listener> listener;
};

But the above design causes the lifetime of a Listener to be influenced by the lifetime of a Source. The situation could be further exacerbated if a Listener is a big object and stays in memory for longer than it should. The existence of a Source and a Listener should be mutually independent, and only their respective holders should control their lifetimes.

It is tempting to use cyclic references here between Source and Listener so that they both can explicitly detach from one another when the time comes. But that would require both Source and Listener to be expressly disposed of by their holders, which might not be feasible or be very tricky at best. A better way is to use a weak reference from Source to Listener, as shown below:

class Source {
public: 
 void dispatchEvent(Event e) {
  //Acquire strong ref to listener
  if(auto listener = weakListener.lock()) {
    listener->onEvent(e);
  } else {
    //Handle if required
  }
 }

 void 
 registerListener(const std::shared_ptr<Listener>& lp) {
  weakListener = lp;
 }
 //...
private: 
 //Weak reference to Listener
 std::weak_ptr<Listener> weakListener;
};

Following illustration shows the relationships between Source, Listener, and their respective holders:

Source Listener Weak Reference

By having a weak reference to a Listener, we have separated the lifetimes of Source and Listener. A Source converts the weak_ptr<Listener> to a temporary shared_ptr<Listener> on-demand when it has to dispatch an event. When a Listener is destroyed, its Source cannot forward the events, and that can be handled appropriately depending on the application.

Conclusion

A reference type that guarantees the existence of the referred object is of paramount importance for writing a safer code. std::shared_ptr is a strong reference that provides this assurance. However, the firm control over the lifetime of an object by shared_ptr is not desirable in some cases. In those cases, a weak_ptr that can be converted to a strong reference on-demand is preferable for a more straightforward design.

Further Reading

std::weak_ptr - cppreference

shared_ptr - basics and internals with examples - nextptr

2015 nextptr