Exception Handling in C++

Site: Saylor Academy
Course: CS102: Introduction to Computer Science II
Book: Exception Handling in C++
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Date: Monday, June 17, 2024, 6:39 PM

Description

This page might seem like it duplicates some of what we have just seen, but it is valuable because it gives a different perspective on the topic. Read chapter 1 on pages 15-60.

Exception Handling

Improving error recovery is one of the most powerful ways you can increase the robustness of your code.

Unfortunately, it's almost accepted practice to ignore error conditions, as if we're in a state of denial about errors. One reason, no doubt, is the tediousness and code bloat of checking for many errors. For example, printf( ) returns the number of characters that were successfully printed, but virtually no one checks this value. The proliferation of code alone would be disgusting, not to mention the difficulty it would add in reading the code.

The problem with C's approach to error handling could be thought of as coupling ­– the user of a function must tie the error-handling code so closely to that function that it becomes too ungainly and awkward to use.

One of the major features in C++ is exception handling, which is a better way of thinking about and handling errors. With exception handling:

1. Error-handling code is not nearly so tedious to write, and it doesn't become mixed up with your "normal" code. You write the code you want to happen; later in a separate section you write the code to cope with the problems. If you make multiple calls to a function, you handle the errors from that function once, in one place.

2. Errors cannot be ignored. If a function needs to send an error message to the caller of that function, it "throws" an object representing that error out of the function. If the caller doesn't "catch" the error and handle it, it goes to the next enclosing dynamic scope, and so on until the error is either caught or the program terminates because there was no handler to catch that type of exception.

This chapter examines C's approach to error handling (such as it is), discusses why it did not work well for C, and explains why it won't work at all for C++. This chapter also covers trythrow, and catch, the C++ keywords that support exception handling.


Source: Bruce Eckel and Chuck Allison, https://archive.org/details/TICPP2ndEdVolTwo
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License.

Traditional Error Handling

In most of the examples in these volumes, we use assert( ) as it was intended: for debugging during development with code that can be disabled with #define NDEBUG for the shipping product. Runtime error checking uses the require.h functions (assure( ) and require( )) developed in Chapter 9 in Volume 1 and repeated here in Appendix B. These functions are a convenient way to say, "There's a problem here you'll probably want to handle with some more sophisticated code, but you don't need to be distracted by it in this example". The require.h functions might be enough for small programs, but for complicated products you'll want to write more sophisticated error-handling code.

Error handling is quite straightforward when you know exactly what to do, because you have all the necessary information in that context. You can just handle the error at that point.

The problem occurs when you don't have enough information in that context, and you need to pass the error information into a different context where that information does exist. In C, you can handle this situation using three approaches:

1. Return error information from the function or, if the return value cannot be used this way, set a global error condition flag. (Standard C provides errno and perror( ) to support this.) As mentioned earlier, the programmer is likely to ignore the error information because tedious and obfuscating error checking must occur with each function call. In addition, returning from a function that hits an exceptional condition might not make sense.

2. Use the little-known Standard C library signal-handling system, implemented with the signal( ) function (to determine what happens when the event occurs) and raise( ) (to generate an event). Again, this approach involves high coupling because it requires the user of any library that generates signals to understand and install the appropriate signal-handling mechanism. In large projects the signal numbers from different libraries might clash.

3. Use the nonlocal goto functions in the Standard C library: setjmp( ) and longjmp( ). With setjmp( ) you save a known good state in the program, and if you get into trouble, longjmp( ) will restore that state. Again, there is high coupling between the place where the state is stored and the place where the error occurs.

When considering error-handling schemes with C++, there's an additional critical problem: The C techniques of signals and setjmp( )/longjmp( ) do not call destructors, so objects aren't properly cleaned up. (In fact, if  longjmp( ) jumps past the end of a scope where destructors should be called, the behavior of the program is undefined.) This makes it virtually impossible to effectively recover from an exceptional condition because you'll always leave objects behind that haven't been cleaned up and that can no longer be accessed. The following example demonstrates this with setjmp/longjmp:

    
//: C01:Nonlocal.cpp
// setjmp() & longjmp().
#include <iostream>
#include <csetjmp>
using namespace std;
 
class Rainbow {
public:
  Rainbow() { cout << "Rainbow()" << endl; }
  ~Rainbow() { cout << "~Rainbow()" << endl; }
};
 
jmp_buf kansas;
 
void oz() {
  Rainbow rb;
  for(int i = 0; i < 3; i++)
    cout << "there's no place like home" << endl;
  longjmp(kansas, 47);
}
 
int main() {
  if(setjmp(kansas) == 0) {
    cout << "tornado, witch, munchkins..." << endl;
    oz();
  } else {
    cout << "Auntie Em! "
         << "I had the strangest dream..."
         << endl;
  }
} ///:~
 

The setjmp( ) function is odd because if you call it directly, it stores all the relevant information about the current processor state (such as the contents of the instruction pointer and runtime stack pointer) in the jmp_buf and returns zero. In this case it behaves like an ordinary function. However, if you call longjmp( ) using the same jmp_buf, it's as if you're returning from setjmp( ) again ­– you pop right out the back end of the setjmp( ). This time, the value returned is the second argument to longjmp( ), so you can detect that you're actually coming back from a longjmp( ). You can imagine that with many different  jmp_bufs, you could pop around to many different places in the program. The difference between a local goto (with a label) and this nonlocal goto is that you can return to any pre-determined location higher up in the runtime stack with setjmp( )/longjmp( ) (wherever you've placed a call to setjmp( )).

The problem in C++ is that longjmp( ) doesn't respect objects; in particular it doesn't call destructors when it jumps out of a scope. Destructor calls are essential, so this approach won't work with C++. In fact, the C++ Standard states that branching into a scope with goto (effectively bypassing constructor calls), or branching out of a scope with longjmp( ) where an object on the stack has a destructor, constitutes undefined behavior.


Throwing an Exception

If you encounter an exceptional situation in your code ­– that is, if you don't have enough information in the current context to decide what to do ­– you can send information about the error into a larger context by creating an object that contains that information and "throwing" it out of your current context. This is called throwing an exception. Here's what it looks like:

//: C01:MyError.cpp {RunByHand}
 
class MyError {
  const char* const data;
public:
  MyError(const char* const msg = 0) : data(msg) {}
};
 
void f() {
  // Here we "throw" an exception object:
  throw MyError("something bad happened");
}
 
int main() {
  // As you'll see shortly, we'll want a "try block" here:
  f();
} ///:~

MyError is an ordinary class, which in this case takes a char* as a constructor argument. You can use any type when you throw (including built-in types), but usually you'll create special classes for throwing exceptions.

The keyword throw causes a number of relatively magical things to happen. First, it creates a copy of the object you're throwing and, in effect, "returns" it from the function containing the throw expression, even though that object type isn't normally what the function is designed to return. A naive way to think about exception handling is as an alternate return mechanism (although you'll find you can get into trouble if you take that analogy too far). You can also exit from ordinary scopes by throwing an exception. In any case, a value is returned, and the function or scope exits.

Any similarity to a return statement ends there because where you return is some place completely different from where a normal function call returns. (You end up in an appropriate part of the code ­– called an exception handler ­– that might be far removed from where the exception was thrown). In addition, any local objects created by the time the exception occurs are destroyed. This automatic cleanup of local objects is often called "stack unwinding".

In addition, you can throw as many different types of objects as you want. Typically, you'll throw a different type for each category of error. The idea is to store the information in the object and in the name of its class so that someone in a calling context can figure out what to do with your exception.


Catching an Exception

As mentioned earlier, one of the advantages of C++ exception handling is that you can concentrate on the problem you’re trying to solve in one place, and then deal with the errors from that code in another place.

The try block

If you're inside a function and you throw an exception (or a called function throws an exception), the function exits because of the thrown exception. If you don't want a throw to leave a function, you can set up a special block within the function where you try to solve your actual programming problem (and potentially generate exceptions). This block is called the try block because you try your various function calls there. The try block is an ordinary scope, preceded by the keyword try:

try {
  // Code that may generate exceptions
}

If you check for errors by carefully examining the return codes from the functions you use, you need to surround every function call with setup and test code, even if you call the same function several times. With exception handling, you put everything in a try block and handle exceptions after the try block. Thus, your code is a lot easier to write and to read because the goal of the code is not confused with the error handling.

Exception handlers

Of course, the thrown exception must end up some place. This place is the exception handler, and you need one exception handler for every exception type you want to catch. However, polymorphism also works for exceptions, so one exception handler can work with an exception type and classes derived from that type.

Exception handlers immediately follow the try block and are denoted by the keyword catch:

try {
  // Code that may generate exceptions
} catch(type1 id1) {
  // Handle exceptions of type1
} catch(type2 id2) {
  // Handle exceptions of type2
} catch(type3 id3)
  // Etc...
} catch(typeN idN)
  // Handle exceptions of typeN
}
// Normal execution resumes here...
 

The syntax of a catch clause resembles functions that take a single argument. The identifier (id1id2, and so on) can be used inside the handler, just like a function argument, although you can omit the identifier if it’s not needed in the handler. The exception type usually gives you enough information to deal with it.

The handlers must appear directly after the try block. If an exception is thrown, the exception-handling mechanism goes hunting for the first handler with an argument that matches the type of the exception. It then enters that catch clause, and the exception is considered handled. (The search for handlers stops once the catch clause is found). Only the matching catch clause executes; control then resumes after the last handler associated with that try block.

Notice that, within the try block, a number of different function calls might generate the same type of exception, but you need only one handler.

To illustrate try and catch, the following variation of Nonlocal.cpp replaces the call to setjmp( ) with a try block and replaces the call to longjmp( ) with a  throw statement:

//: C01:Nonlocal2.cpp
// Illustrates exceptions.
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class Rainbow {
public:
  Rainbow() { cout << "Rainbow()" << endl; }
  ~Rainbow() { cout << "~Rainbow()" << endl; }
};
 
void oz() {
  Rainbow rb;
  for(int i = 0; i < 3; i++)
    cout << "there's no place like home" << endl;
  throw 47;
}
 
int main() {
  try {
    cout << "tornado, witch, munchkins..." << endl;
    oz();
  } catch(int) {
    cout << "Auntie Em! I had the strangest dream..."
         << endl;
  }
} ///:~
When the throw statement in oz( ) executes, program control backtracks until it finds the catch clause that takes an int parameter. Execution resumes with the body of that catch clause. The most important difference between this program and Nonlocal.cpp is that the destructor for the object rb is called when the throw statement causes execution to leave the function oz( ).

Termination and resumption

There are two basic models in exception-handling theory: termination and resumption. In termination (which is what C++ supports), you assume the error is so critical that there's no way to automatically resume execution at the point where the exception occurred. In other words, whoever threw the exception decided there was no way to salvage the situation, and they don't want to come back.

The alternative error-handling model is called resumption, first introduced with the PL/I language in the 1960s. Using resumption semantics means that the exception handler is expected to do something to rectify the situation, and then the faulting code is automatically retried, presuming success the second time. If you want resumption in C++, you must explicitly transfer execution back to the code where the error occurred, usually by repeating the function call that sent you there in the first place. It is not unusual to place your try block inside a while loop that keeps reentering the try block until the result is satisfactory.

Historically, programmers using operating systems that supported resumptive exception handling eventually ended up using termination-like code and skipping resumption. Although resumption sounds attractive at first, it seems it isn't quite so useful in practice. One reason may be the distance that can occur between the exception and its handler. It is one thing to terminate to a handler that's far away, but to jump to that handler and then back again may be too conceptually difficult for large systems where the exception is generated from many points.

Exception matching

When an exception is thrown, the exception-handling system looks through the "nearest" handlers in the order they appear in the source code. When it finds a match, the exception is considered handled and no further searching occurs.

Matching an exception doesn't require a perfect correlation between the exception and its handler. An object or reference to a derived-class object will match a handler for the base class. (However, if the handler is for an object rather than a reference, the exception object is "sliced" ­– truncated to the base type ­– as it is passed to the handler. This does no damage, but loses all the derived-type information). For this reason, as well as to avoid making yet another copy of the exception object, it is always better to catch an exception by reference instead of by value. If a pointer is thrown, the usual standard pointer conversions are used to match the exception. However, no automatic type conversions are used to convert from one exception type to another in the process of matching. For example:

 //: C01:Autoexcp.cpp
// No matching conversions.
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class Except1 {};
 
class Except2 {
public:
  Except2(const Except1&) {}
};
 
void f() { throw Except1(); }
 
int main() {
  try { f();
  } catch(Except2&) {
    cout << "inside catch(Except2)" << endl;
  } catch(Except1&) {
    cout << "inside catch(Except1)" << endl;
  }
} ///:~

Even though you might think the first handler could be matched by converting an Except1 object into an Except2 using the converting constructor, the system will not perform such a conversion during exception handling, and you'll end up at the Except1 handler.

The following example shows how a base-class handler can catch a derived-class exception:

      //: C01:Basexcpt.cpp
// Exception hierarchies.
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class X {
public:
  class Trouble {};
  class Small : public Trouble {};
  class Big : public Trouble {};
  void f() { throw Big(); }
};
 
int main() {
  X x;
  try {
    x.f();
  } catch(X::Trouble&) {
    cout << "caught Trouble" << endl;
  // Hidden by previous handler:
  } catch(X::Small&) {
    cout << "caught Small Trouble" << endl;
  } catch(X::Big&) {
    cout << "caught Big Trouble" << endl;
  }
} ///:~
 

Here, the exception-handling mechanism will always match a Trouble object, or anything that is a Trouble (through public inheritance), to the first handler. That means the second and third handlers are never called because the first one captures them all. It makes more sense to catch the derived types first and put the base type at the end to catch anything less specific.

Notice that these examples catch exceptions by reference, although for these classes it isn't important because there are no additional members in the derived classes, and there are no argument identifiers in the handlers anyway. You'll usually want to use reference arguments rather than value arguments in your handlers to avoid slicing off information.

Catching any exception

Sometimes you want to create a handler that catches any type of exception. You do this using the ellipsis in the argument list:

   catch(...) {
  cout << "an exception was thrown" << endl;
}
 

Because an ellipsis catches any exception, you'll want to put it at the end of your list of handlers to avoid pre-empting any that follow it.

The ellipsis gives you no possibility to have an argument, so you can't know anything about the exception or its type. It's a "catchall." Such a catch clause is often used to clean up some resources and then rethrow the exception.


Rethrowing an exception

You usually want to rethrow an exception when you have some resource that needs to be released, such as a network connection or heap memory that needs to be deallocated. (See the section "Resource Management" later in this chapter for more detail). If an exception occurs, you don't necessarily care what error caused the exception ­– you just want to close the connection you opened previously. After that, you'll want to let some other context closer to the user (that is, higher up in the call chain) handle the exception. In this case the ellipsis specification is just what you want. You want to catch any exception, clean up your resource, and then rethrow the exception for handling elsewhere. You rethrow an exception by using throw with no argument inside a handler:

catch(...) {
cout << "an exception was thrown" << endl;
// Deallocate your resource here, and then rethrow
  throw;
}
Any further catch clauses for the same try block are still ignored ­– the throw causes the exception to go to the exception handlers in the next-higher context. In addition, everything about the exception object is preserved, so the handler at the higher context that catches the specific exception type can extract any information the object may contain.

Uncaught exceptions

As we explained in the beginning of this chapter, exception handling is considered better than the traditional return-an-error-code technique because exceptions can't be ignored, and because the error handling logic is separated from the problem at hand. If none of the exception handlers following a particular try block matches an exception, that exception moves to the next-higher context, that is, the function or try block surrounding the try block that did not catch the exception. (The location of this try block is not always obvious at first glance, since it's higher up in the call chain.) This process continues until, at some level, a handler matches the exception. At that point, the exception is considered "caught," and no further searching occurs.


The terminate( ) function

If no handler at any level catches the exception, the special library function terminate( ) (declared in the <exception> header) is automatically called. By default, terminate( ) calls the Standard C library function abort( ) , which abruptly exits the program. On Unix systems, abort( ) also causes a core dump. When abort( ) is called, no calls to normal program termination functions occur, which means that destructors for global and static objects do not execute. The terminate( ) function also executes if a destructor for a local object throws an exception while the stack is unwinding (interrupting the exception that was in progress) or if a global or static object's constructor or destructor throws an exception. (In general, do not allow a destructor to throw an exception.)

The set_terminate( ) function

You can install your own terminate( ) function using the standard set_terminate( ) function, which returns a pointer to the terminate( ) function you are replacing (which will be the default library version the first time you call it), so you can restore it later if you want. Your custom terminate( ) must take no arguments and have a void return value. In addition, any terminate( ) handler you install must not return or throw an exception, but instead must execute some sort of program-termination logic. If terminate( ) is called, the problem is unrecoverable.

The following example shows the use of set_terminate( ). Here, the return value is saved and restored so that the terminate( ) function can be used to help isolate the section of code where the uncaught exception occurs:

//: C01:Terminator.cpp
// Use of set_terminate(). Also shows uncaught exceptions.
#include 
#include 
using namespace std;
 
void terminator() {
  cout << "I'll be back!" << endl;
  exit(0);
}
 
void (*old_terminate)() = set_terminate(terminator);
 
class Botch {
public:
  class Fruit {};
  void f() {
    cout << "Botch::f()" << endl;
    throw Fruit();
  }
  ~Botch() { throw 'c'; }
};
 
int main() {
  try {
    Botch b;
    b.f();
  } catch(...) {
    cout << "inside catch(...)" << endl;
  }
} ///:~

The definition of old_terminate looks a bit confusing at first: it not only creates a pointer to a function, but it initializes that pointer to the return value of set_terminate( ). Even though you might be familiar with seeing a semicolon right after a pointer-to-function declaration, here it's just another kind of variable and can be initialized when it is defined.

The class Botch not only throws an exception inside f( ), but also in its destructor. This causes a call to terminate( ), as you can see in main( ). Even though the exception handler says catch(...), which would seem to catch everything and leave no cause for terminate( ) to be called, terminate( ) is called anyway. In the process of cleaning up the objects on the stack to handle one exception, the Botch destructor is called, and that generates a second exception, forcing a call to terminate( ). Thus, a destructor that throws an exception or causes one to be thrown is usually a sign of poor design or sloppy coding.


Cleaning up

Part of the magic of exception handling is that you can pop from normal program flow into the appropriate exception handler. Doing so wouldn't be useful, however, if things weren't cleaned up properly as the exception was thrown. C++ exception handling guarantees that as you leave a scope, all objects in that scope whose constructors have been completed will have their destructors called.

Here's an example that demonstrates that constructors that aren't completed don't have the associated destructors called. It also shows what happens when an exception is thrown in the middle of the creation of an array of objects:

//: C01:Cleanup.cpp
// Exceptions clean up complete objects only.
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class Trace {
  static int counter;
  int objid;
public:
  Trace() {
    objid = counter++;
    cout << "constructing Trace #" << objid << endl;
    if(objid == 3) throw 3;
  }
  ~Trace() {
    cout << "destructing Trace #" << objid << endl;
  }
};
 
int Trace::counter = 0;
 
int main() {
  try {
    Trace n1;
    // Throws exception:
    Trace array[5];
    Trace n2;  // Won't get here.
  } catch(int i) {
    cout << "caught " << i << endl;
  }
} ///:~

The class Trace keeps track of objects so that you can trace program progress. It keeps a count of the number of objects created with a static data member counter and tracks the number of the particular object with objid.

The main program creates a single object, n1 (objid 0), and then attempts to create an array of five Trace objects, but an exception is thrown before the fourth object (#3) is fully created. The object n2 is never created. You can see the results in the output of the program:

constructing Trace #0
constructing Trace #1
constructing Trace #2
constructing Trace #3
destructing Trace #2
destructing Trace #1
destructing Trace #0
caught 3
Three array elements are successfully created, but in the middle of the constructor for the fourth element, an exception is thrown. Because the fourth construction in main( ) (for array[2]) never completes, only the destructors for objects array[1] and array[0] are called. Finally, object n1 is destroyed, but not object n2, because it was never created.

Resource management

When writing code with exceptions, it's particularly important that you always ask, "If an exception occurs, will my resources be properly cleaned up?" Most of the time you're fairly safe, but in constructors there's a particular problem: if an exception is thrown before a constructor is completed, the associated destructor will not be called for that object. Thus, you must be especially diligent while writing your constructor.

The difficulty is in allocating resources in constructors. If an exception occurs in the constructor, the destructor doesn't get a chance to deallocate the resource. This problem occurs most often with "naked" pointers. For example:

//: C01:Rawp.cpp
// Naked pointers.
#include 
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class Cat {
public:
  Cat() { cout << "Cat()" << endl; }
  ~Cat() { cout << "~Cat()" << endl; }
};
 
class Dog {
public:
  void* operator new(size_t sz) {
    cout << "allocating a Dog" << endl;
    throw 47;
  }
  void operator delete(void* p) {
    cout << "deallocating a Dog" << endl;
    ::operator delete(p);
  }
};
 
class UseResources {
  Cat* bp;
  Dog* op;
public:
  UseResources(int count = 1) {
    cout << "UseResources()" << endl;
    bp = new Cat[count];
    op = new Dog;
  }
  ~UseResources() {
    cout << "~UseResources()" << endl;
    delete [] bp; // Array delete
    delete op;
  }
};
 
int main() {
  try {
    UseResources ur(3);
  } catch(int) {
    cout << "inside handler" << endl;
  }
} ///:~
The output is
UseResources()
Cat()
Cat()
Cat()
allocating a Dog
inside handler
The  UseResources constructor is entered, and the Cat constructor is successfully completed for the three array objects. However, inside Dog::operator new( ), an exception is thrown (to simulate an out-of-memory error). Suddenly, you end up inside the handler, without the UseResources destructor being called. This is correct because the UseResources constructor was unable to finish, but it also means the Cat objects that were successfully created on the heap were never destroyed.

Making everything an object

To prevent such resource leaks, you must guard against these "raw" resource allocations in one of two ways:

  • You can catch exceptions inside the constructor and then release the resource.
  • You can place the allocations inside an object's constructor, and you can place the deallocations inside an object's destructor.

Using the latter approach, each allocation becomes atomic, by virtue of being part of the lifetime of a local object, and if it fails, the other resource allocation objects are properly cleaned up during stack unwinding. This technique is called Resource Acquisition Is Initialization (RAII for short)  because it equates resource control with object lifetime. Using templates is an excellent way to modify the previous example to achieve this:

//: C01:Wrapped.cpp
// Safe, atomic pointers.
#include 
#include 
using namespace std;
 
// Simplified. Yours may have other arguments.
template class PWrap {
  T* ptr;
public:
  class RangeError {}; // Exception class
  PWrap() {
    ptr = new T[sz];
    cout << "PWrap constructor" << endl;
  }
  ~PWrap() {
    delete[] ptr;
    cout << "PWrap destructor" << endl;
  }
  T& operator[](int i) throw(RangeError) {
    if(i >= 0 && i < sz) return ptr[i];
    throw RangeError();
  }
};
 
class Cat {
public:
  Cat() { cout << "Cat()" << endl; }
  ~Cat() { cout << "~Cat()" << endl; }
  void g() {}
};
 
class Dog {
public:
  void* operator new[](size_t) {
    cout << "Allocating a Dog" << endl;
    throw 47;
  }
  void operator delete[](void* p) {
    cout << "Deallocating a Dog" << endl;
    ::operator delete[](p);
  }
};
 
class UseResources {
  PWrap cats;
  PWrap dog;
public:
  UseResources() { cout << "UseResources()" << endl; }
  ~UseResources() { cout << "~UseResources()" << endl; }
  void f() { cats[1].g(); }
};
 
int main() {
  try {
    UseResources ur;
  } catch(int) {
    cout << "inside handler" << endl;
  } catch(...) {
    cout << "inside catch(...)" << endl;
  }
} ///:~

The difference is the use of the template to wrap the pointers and make them into objects. The constructors for these objects are called before the body of the UseResources constructor, and any of these constructors that complete before an exception is thrown will have their associated destructors called during stack unwinding.

The PWrap template shows a more typical use of exceptions than you've seen so far: A nested class called RangeError is created to use in operator[ ] if its argument is out of range. Because operator[ ] returns a reference, it cannot return zero. (There are no null references.) This is a true exceptional condition ­– you don't know what to do in the current context and you can't return an improbable value. In this example, RangeError is simple and assumes all the necessary information is in the class name, but you might also want to add a member that contains the value of the index, if that is useful.

Now the output is

Cat()
Cat()
Cat()
PWrap constructor
allocating a Dog
~Cat()
~Cat()
~Cat()
PWrap destructor
inside handler
Again, the storage allocation for Dog throws an exception, but this time the array of Cat objects is properly cleaned up, so there is no memory leak.

auto_ptr

Since dynamic memory is the most frequent resource used in a typical C++ program, the standard provides an RAII wrapper for pointers to heap memory that automatically frees the memory. The auto_ptr class template, defined in the <memory> header, has a constructor that takes a pointer to its generic type (whatever you use in your code). The auto_ptr class template also overloads the pointer operators * and -> to forward these operations to the original pointer the auto_ptr object is holding. So you can use the auto_ptr object as if it were a raw pointer. Here's how it works:

//: C01:Auto_ptr.cpp
// Illustrates the RAII nature of auto_ptr.
#include 
#include 
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class TraceHeap {
  int i;
public:
  static void* operator new(size_t siz) {
    void* p = ::operator new(siz);
    cout << "Allocating TraceHeap object on the heap "
         << "at address " << p << endl;
    return p;
  }
  static void operator delete(void* p) {
    cout << "Deleting TraceHeap object at address "
         << p << endl;
    ::operator delete(p);
  }
  TraceHeap(int i) : i(i) {}
  int getVal() const { return i; }
};
 
int main() {
  auto_ptr pMyObject(new TraceHeap(5));
  cout << pMyObject->getVal() << endl;  // Prints 5
} ///:~
The TraceHeap class overloads the operator new and operator delete so you can see exactly what's happening. Notice that, like any other class template, you specify the type you're going to use in a template parameter. You don't say TraceHeap*, however ­– auto_ptr already knows that it will be storing a pointer to your type. The second line of main( ) verifies that auto_ptr's operator->( ) function applies the indirection to the original, underlying pointer. Most important, even though we didn't explicitly delete the original pointer, pMyObject's destructor deletes the original pointer during stack unwinding, as the following output verifies:
Allocating TraceHeap object on the heap at address 8930040
5
Deleting TraceHeap object at address 8930040
The auto_ptr class template is also handy for pointer data members. Since class objects contained by value are always destructed, auto_ptr members always delete the raw pointer they wrap when the containing object is destructed.

Function–level try blocks

Since constructors can routinely throw exceptions, you might want to handle exceptions that occur when an object's member or base subobjects are initialized. To do this, you can place the initialization of such subobjects in a function-level try block. In a departure from the usual syntax, the try block for constructor initializers is the constructor body, and the associated catch block follows the body of the constructor, as in the following example:

//: C01:InitExcept.cpp {-bor}
// Handles exceptions from subobjects.
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class Base {
  int i;
public:
  class BaseExcept {};
  Base(int i) : i(i) { throw BaseExcept(); }
};
 
class Derived : public Base {
public:
  class DerivedExcept {
    const char* msg;
  public:
    DerivedExcept(const char* msg) : msg(msg) {}
    const char* what() const { return msg; }
  };
  Derived(int j) try : Base(j) {
    // Constructor body
    cout << "This won't print" << endl;
  } catch(BaseExcept&) {
    throw DerivedExcept("Base subobject threw");;
  }
};
 
int main() {
  try {
    Derived d(3);
  } catch(Derived::DerivedExcept& d) {
    cout << d.what() << endl;  // "Base subobject threw"
  }
} ///:~

Notice that the initializer list in the constructor for Derived goes after the try  keyword but before the constructor body. If an exception does occur, the contained object is not constructed, so it makes no sense to return to the code that created it. For this reason, the only sensible thing to do is to throw an exception in the function-level catch clause.

Although it is not terribly useful, C++ also allows function-level try blocks for any function, as the following example illustrates:

//: C01:FunctionTryBlock.cpp {-bor}
// Function-level try blocks.
// {RunByHand} (Don't run automatically by the makefile)
#include 
using namespace std;
 
int main() try {
  throw "main";
} catch(const char* msg) {
cout << msg << endl;
return 1;
} ///:~

In this case, the catch block can return in the same manner that the function body normally returns. Using this type of function-level try block isn't much different from inserting a try-catch around the code inside of the function body.

Exception specifications

You're not required to inform the people using your function what exceptions you might throw. However, failure to do so can be considered uncivilized because it means that users cannot be sure what code to write to catch all potential exceptions. If they have your source code, they can hunt through and look for throw statements, but often a library doesn't come with sources. Good documentation can help alleviate this problem, but how many software projects are well documented? C++ provides syntax to tell the user the exceptions that are thrown by this function, so the user can handle them. This is the optional exception specification, which adorns a function's declaration, appearing after the argument list.

The exception specification reuses the keyword throw, followed by a parenthesized list of all the types of potential exceptions that the function can throw. Your function declaration might look like this:

void f() throw(toobig, toosmall, divzero);
As far as exceptions are concerned, the traditional function declaration
void f();
means that any type of exception can be thrown from the function. If you say
void f() throw();

no exceptions whatsoever will be thrown from the function (so you'd better be sure that no functions farther down in the call chain let any exceptions propagate up!).

For good coding policy, good documentation, and ease-of-use for the function caller, consider using exception specifications when you write functions that throw exceptions.


The unexpected( ) function

If your exception specification claims you're going to throw a certain set of exceptions and then you throw something that isn't in that set, what's the penalty? The special function unexpected( ) is called when you throw something other than what appears in the exception specification. Should this unfortunate situation occur, the default unexpected( ) calls the terminate( ) function described earlier in this chapter.


The set_unexpected( ) function

Like terminate( ), the unexpected( ) mechanism installs your own function to respond to unexpected exceptions. You do so with a function called set_unexpected( ), which, like set_terminate( ), takes the address of a function with no arguments and void return value. Also, because it returns the previous value of the unexpected( ) pointer, you can save it and restore it later. To use set_unexpected( ), include the header file <exception>. Here's an example that shows a simple use of the features discussed so far in this section:

//: C01:Unexpected.cpp
// Exception specifications & unexpected(),
//{-msc} (Doesn't terminate properly)
#include 
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class Up {};
class Fit {};
void g();
 
void f(int i) throw(Up, Fit) {
  switch(i) {
    case 1: throw Up();
    case 2: throw Fit();
  }
  g();
}
 
// void g() {}         // Version 1
void g() { throw 47; } // Version 2
 
void my_unexpected() {
  cout << "unexpected exception thrown" << endl;
  exit(0);
}
 
int main() {
  set_unexpected(my_unexpected); // (Ignores return value)
  for(int i = 1; i <=3; i++)
    try {
      f(i);
    } catch(Up) {
      cout << "Up caught" << endl;
    } catch(Fit) {
      cout << "Fit caught" << endl;
    }
} ///:~

The classes Up and Fit are created solely to throw as exceptions. Often exception classes will be small, but they can certainly hold additional information so that the handlers can query for it.

The f( ) function promises in its exception specification to throw only exceptions of type Up and Fit, and from looking at the function definition, this seems plausible. Version one of g( ), called by f( ), doesn't throw any exceptions, so this is true. But if someone changes g( ) so that it throws a different type of exception (like the second version in this example, which throws an int), the exception specification for f( ) is violated.

The my_unexpected( ) function has no arguments or return value, following the proper form for a custom unexpected( ) function. It simply displays a message so that you can see that it was called, and then exits the program (exit(0) is used here so that the book's make process is not aborted). Your new unexpected( ) function should not have a return statement.

In main( ), the try block is within a for loop, so all the possibilities are exercised. In this way, you can achieve something like resumption. Nest the try block inside a forwhiledo, or  if and cause any exceptions to attempt to repair the problem; then attempt the try block again.

Only the Up and Fit exceptions are caught because those are the only exceptions that the programmer of f( ) said would be thrown. Version two of g( ) causes my_unexpected( ) to be called because f( ) then throws an int.

In the call to set_unexpected( ), the return value is ignored, but it can also be saved in a pointer to function and be restored later, as we did in the set_terminate( ) example earlier in this chapter.

A typical unexpected handler logs the error and terminates the program by calling exit( ). It can, however, throw another exception (or rethrow the same exception) or call abort( ). If it throws an exception of a type allowed by the function whose specification was originally violated, the search resumes at the call of the function with this exception specification. (This behavior is unique to unexpected( ).)

If the exception thrown from your unexpected handler is not allowed by the original function's specification, one of the following occurs:

1.  If std::bad_exception (defined in <exception>) was in the function's exception specification, the exception thrown from the unexpected handler is replaced with a std::bad_exception object, and the search resumes from the function as before.

2.  If the original function's specification did not include std::bad_exceptionterminate( ) is called.

The following program illustrates this behavior:

//: C01:BadException.cpp {-bor}
#include     // For std::bad_exception
#include 
#include 
using namespace std;
 
// Exception classes:
class A {};
class B {};
 
// terminate() handler
void my_thandler() {
  cout << "terminate called" << endl;
  exit(0);
}
 
// unexpected() handlers
void my_uhandler1() { throw A(); }
void my_uhandler2() { throw; }
 
// If we embed this throw statement in f or g,
// the compiler detects the violation and reports
// an error, so we put it in its own function.
void t() { throw B(); }
 
void f() throw(A) { t(); }
void g() throw(A, bad_exception) { t(); }
 
int main() {
  set_terminate(my_thandler);
  set_unexpected(my_uhandler1);
  try {
    f();
  } catch(A&) {
    cout << "caught an A from f" << endl;
  }
  set_unexpected(my_uhandler2);
  try {
    g();
  } catch(bad_exception&) {
    cout << "caught a bad_exception from g" << endl;
  }
  try {
    f();
  } catch(...) {
    cout << "This will never print" << endl;
  }
} ///:~
The my_uhandler1( ) handler throws an acceptable exception (A), so execution resumes at the first catch, which succeeds. The my_uhandler2( ) handler does not throw a valid exception (B), but since g specifies bad_exception, the  B exception is replaced by a bad_exception object, and the second catch also succeeds. Since f does not include bad_exception in its specification, my_thandler( ) is called as a terminate handler. Here's the output:
caught an A from f
caught a bad_exception from g
terminate called

Better exception specifications?

You may feel that the existing exception specification rules aren't very safe, and that

void f();
should mean that no exceptions are thrown from this function. If the programmer wants to throw any type of exception, you might think he or she should have to say
void f() throw(...); // Not in C++
This would surely be an improvement because function declarations would be more explicit. Unfortunately, you can't always know by looking at the code in a function whether an exception will be thrown ­– it could happen because of a memory allocation, for example. Worse, existing functions written before exception handling was introduced into the language may find themselves inadvertently throwing exceptions because of the functions they call (which might be linked into new, exception-throwing versions). Hence, the uninformative situation whereby
void f();
means, "Maybe I'll throw an exception, maybe I won't". This ambiguity is necessary to avoid hindering code evolution. If you want to specify that f throws no exceptions, use the empty list, as in:
void f() throw();

Standard exceptions

The exceptions used with the Standard C++ library are also available for your use. Generally it's easier and faster to start with a standard exception class than to try to define your own. If the standard class doesn't do exactly what you need, you can derive from it.

All standard exception classes derive ultimately from the class exception, defined in the header <exception>. The two main derived classes are logic_error and runtime_error, which are found in  <stdexcept> (which itself includes <exception>). The class logic_error represents errors in programming logic, such as passing an invalid argument. Runtime errors are those that occur as the result of unforeseen forces such as hardware failure or memory exhaustion. Both runtime_error and logic_error provide a constructor that takes a std::string argument so that you can store a message in the exception object and extract it later with exception::what( ) , as the following program illustrates:


//: C01:StdExcept.cpp
// Derives an exception class from std::runtime_error.
#include 
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class MyError : public runtime_error {
public:
  MyError(const string& msg = "") : runtime_error(msg) {}
};
 
int main() {
  try {
    throw MyError("my message");
  } catch(MyError& x) {
    cout << x.what() << endl;
  }
} ///:~

Although the runtime_error constructor inserts the message into its std::exception subobject, std::exception does not provide a constructor that takes a std::string argument. You'll usually want to derive your exception classes from either runtime_error or logic_error (or one of their derivatives), and not from std::exception.

The following tables describe the standard exception classes:

exception

The base class for all the exceptions thrown by the C++ Standard library. You can ask what( ) and retrieve the optional string with which the exception was initialized.

logic_error

Derived from exception. Reports program logic errors, which could presumably be detected by inspection.

runtime_error

Derived from exception. Reports runtime errors, which can presumably be detected only when the program executes.

 

The iostream exception class ios::failure is also derived from exception, but it has no further subclasses.

You can use the classes in both of the following tables as they are, or you can use them as base classes from which to derive your own more specific types of exceptions.

Exception classes derived from logic_error

domain_error

Reports violations of a precondition.

invalid_argument

Indicates an invalid argument to the function from which it is thrown.

length_error

Indicates an attempt to produce an object whose length is greater than or equal to npos (the largest representable value of context's size type, usually std::size_t).

out_of_range

Reports an out-of-range argument.

bad_cast

Thrown for executing an invalid dynamic_cast expression in runtime type identification (see Chapter 8).

bad_typeid

Reports a null pointer p in an expression typeid(*p). (Again, a runtime type identification feature in Chapter 8).

 

Exception classes derived from runtime_error

range_error

Reports violation of a postcondition.

overflow_error

Reports an arithmetic overflow.

bad_alloc

Reports a failure to allocate storage.



Exception specifications and inheritance

Each public function in a class essentially forms a contract with the user; if you pass it certain arguments, it will perform certain operations and/or return a result. The same contract must hold true in derived classes; otherwise the expected "is-a" relationship between derived and base classes is violated. Since exception specifications are logically part of a function's declaration, they too must remain consistent across an inheritance hierarchy. For example, if a member function in a base class says it will only throw an exception of type A, an override of that function in a derived class must not add any other exception types to the specification list because that would break any programs that adhere to the base class interface. You can, however, specify fewer exceptions or none at all, since that doesn't require the user to do anything differently. You can also specify anything that "is-a" A in place of A in the derived function's specification. Here's an example.

//: C01:Covariance.cpp {-xo}
// Should cause compile error. {-mwcc}{-msc}
#include 
using namespace std;
 
class Base {
public:
  class BaseException {};
  class DerivedException : public BaseException {};
  virtual void f() throw(DerivedException) {
    throw DerivedException();
  }
  virtual void g() throw(BaseException) {
    throw BaseException();
  }
};
 
class Derived : public Base {
public:
  void f() throw(BaseException) {
    throw BaseException();
  }
  virtual void g() throw(DerivedException) {
    throw DerivedException();
  }
}; ///:~
A compiler should flag the override of Derived::f( ) with an error (or at least a warning) since it changes its exception specification in a way that violates the specification of Base::f( ). The specification for Derived::g( ) is acceptable because DerivedException "is-a" BaseException (not the other way around). You can think of Base/Derived and BaseException/DerivedException as parallel class hierarchies; when you are in Derived, you can replace references to BaseException in exception specifications and return values with DerivedException. This behavior is called covariance  (since both sets of classes vary down their respective hierarchies together). (Reminder from Volume 1: parameter types are not covariant ­– you are not allowed to change the signature of an overridden virtual function).

When not to use exception specifications

If you peruse the function declarations throughout the Standard C++ library, you'll find that not a single exception specification occurs anywhere! Although this might seem strange, there is a good reason for this seeming incongruity: the library consists mainly of templates, and you never know what a generic type or function might do. For example, suppose you are developing a generic stack template and attempt to affix an exception specification to your pop function, like this:

T pop() throw(logic_error);

Since the only error you anticipate is a stack underflow, you might think it's safe to specify a logic_error or some other appropriate exception type. But type T's copy constructor could throw an exception. Then unexpected( ) would be called, and your program would terminate. You can't make unsupportable guarantees. If you don't know what exceptions might occur, don't use exception specifications. That's why template classes, which constitute the majority of the Standard C++ library, do not use exception specifications ­– they specify the exceptions they know about in documentation and leave the rest to you. Exception specifications are mainly for non-template classes.

Exception safety

In Chapter 7 we'll take an in-depth look at the containers in the Standard C++ library, including the stack container. One thing you'll notice is that the declaration of the pop( ) member function looks like this:

void pop();

You might think it strange that pop( ) doesn't return a value. Instead, it just removes the element at the top of the stack. To retrieve the top value, call top( ) before you call pop( ). There is an important reason for this behavior, and it has to do with exception safety, a crucial consideration in library design. There are different levels of exception safety, but most importantly, and just as the name implies, exception safety is about correct semantics in the face of exceptions.

Suppose you are implementing a stack with a dynamic array (we'll call it data and the counter integer count), and you try to write pop( ) so that it returns a value. The code for such a pop( ) might look something like this:

template T stack::pop() {
  if(count == 0)
    throw logic_error("stack underflow");
  else
    return data[--count];
}

What happens if the copy constructor that is called for the return value in the last line throws an exception when the value is returned? The popped element is not returned because of the exception, and yet count has already been decremented, so the top element you wanted is lost forever! The problem is that this function attempts to do two things at once: (1) return a value, and (2) change the state of the stack. It is better to separate these two actions into two separate member functions, which is exactly what the standard stack class does. (In other words, follow the design practice of cohesion ­– every function should do one thing well.) Exception-safe code leaves objects in a consistent state and does not leak resources.

You also need to be careful writing custom assignment operators. In Chapter 12 of Volume 1, you saw that operator= should adhere to the following pattern:

  1. Make sure you're not assigning to self. If you are, go to step 6. (This is strictly an optimization.)
  2. Allocate new memory required by pointer data members.
  3. Copy data from the old memory to the new.
  4. Delete the old memory.
  5. Update the object's state by assigning the new heap pointers to the pointer data members.
  6. Return *this.

It's important to not change the state of your object until all the new pieces have been safely allocated and initialized. A good technique is to move steps 2 and 3 into a separate function, often called clone( ). The following example does this for a class that has two pointer members, theString and theInts:

//: C01:SafeAssign.cpp
// An Exception-safe operator=.
#include 
#include        // For std::bad_alloc
#include 
#include 
using namespace std;
 
// A class that has two pointer members using the heap
class HasPointers {
  // A Handle class to hold the data
  struct MyData {
    const char* theString;
    const int* theInts;
    size_t numInts;
    MyData(const char* pString, const int* pInts,
      size_t nInts)
    : theString(pString), theInts(pInts), numInts(nInts) {}
  } *theData;  // The handle
  // Clone and cleanup functions:
  static MyData* clone(const char* otherString,
      const int* otherInts, size_t nInts) {
    char* newChars = new char[strlen(otherString)+1];
    int* newInts;
    try {
      newInts = new int[nInts];
    } catch(bad_alloc&) {
      delete [] newChars;
      throw;
    }
    try {
      // This example uses built-in types, so it won't
      // throw, but for class types it could throw, so we
      // use a try block for illustration. (This is the
      // point of the example!)
      strcpy(newChars, otherString);
      for(size_t i = 0; i < nInts; ++i)
        newInts[i] = otherInts[i];
    } catch(...) {
      delete [] newInts;
      delete [] newChars;
      throw;
    }
    return new MyData(newChars, newInts, nInts);
  }
  static MyData* clone(const MyData* otherData) {
    return clone(otherData->theString, otherData->theInts,
                 otherData->numInts);
  }
  static void cleanup(const MyData* theData) {
    delete [] theData->theString;
    delete [] theData->theInts;
    delete theData;
  }
public:
  HasPointers(const char* someString, const int* someInts,
              size_t numInts) {
    theData = clone(someString, someInts, numInts);
  }
  HasPointers(const HasPointers& source) {
    theData = clone(source.theData);
  }
  HasPointers& operator=(const HasPointers& rhs) {
    if(this != &rhs) {
      MyData* newData = clone(rhs.theData->theString,
        rhs.theData->theInts, rhs.theData->numInts);
      cleanup(theData);
      theData = newData;
    }
    return *this;
  }
  ~HasPointers() { cleanup(theData); }
  friend ostream&
  operator<<(ostream& os, const HasPointers& obj) {
    os << obj.theData->theString << ": ";
    for(size_t i = 0; i < obj.theData->numInts; ++i)
      os << obj.theData->theInts[i] << ' ';
    return os;
  }
};
 
int main() {
  int someNums[] = { 1, 2, 3, 4 };
  size_t someCount = sizeof someNums / sizeof someNums[0];
  int someMoreNums[] = { 5, 6, 7 };
  size_t someMoreCount =
  sizeof someMoreNums / sizeof someMoreNums[0];
  HasPointers h1("Hello", someNums, someCount);
  HasPointers h2("Goodbye", someMoreNums, someMoreCount);
  cout << h1 << endl;  // Hello: 1 2 3 4
  h1 = h2;
  cout << h1 << endl;  // Goodbye: 5 6 7
} ///:~

For convenience, HasPointers uses the MyData class as a handle to the two pointers. Whenever it's time to allocate more memory, whether during construction or assignment, the first clone function is ultimately called to do the job. If memory fails for the first call to the new operator, a bad_alloc exception is thrown automatically. If it happens on the second allocation (for theInts), we must clean up the memory for  theString ­– hence the first try block that catches a bad_alloc exception. The second try block isn't crucial here because we're just copying ints and pointers (so no exceptions will occur), but whenever you copy objects, their assignment operators can possibly cause an exception, so everything needs to be cleaned up. In both exception handlers, notice that we rethrow the exception. That's because we're just managing resources here; the user still needs to know that something went wrong, so we let the exception propagate up the dynamic chain. Software libraries that don't silently swallow exceptions are called exception neutral. Always strive to write libraries that are both exception safe and exception neutral.

If you inspect the previous code closely, you'll notice that none of the delete operations will throw an exception. This code depends on that fact. Recall that when you call delete on an object, the object's destructor is called. It turns out to be practically impossible to design exception-safe code without assuming that destructors don't throw exceptions. Don't let destructors throw exceptions. (We're going to remind you about this once more before this chapter is done).

Programming with exceptions

For most programmers, especially C programmers, exceptions are not available in their existing language and require some adjustment. Here are guidelines for programming with exceptions.

When to avoid exceptions

Exceptions aren't the answer to all problems; overuse can cause trouble. The following sections point out situations where exceptions are not warranted. The best advice for deciding when to use exceptions is to throw exceptions only when a function fails to meet its specification.

Not for asynchronous events

The Standard C signal( ) system and any similar system handle asynchronous events: events that happen outside the flow of a program, and thus events the program cannot anticipate. You cannot use C++ exceptions to handle asynchronous events because the exception and its handler are on the same call stack. That is, exceptions rely on the dynamic chain of function calls on the program's runtime stack (they have "dynamic scope"), whereas asynchronous events must be handled by completely separate code that is not part of the normal program flow (typically, interrupt service routines or event loops). Don't throw exceptions from interrupt handlers.

This is not to say that asynchronous events cannot be associated with exceptions. But the interrupt handler should do its job as quickly as possible and then return. The typical way to handle this situation is to set a flag in the interrupt handler, and check it synchronously in the mainline code.


Not for benign error conditions

If you have enough information to handle an error, it's not an exception. Take care of it in the current context rather than throwing an exception to a larger context.

Also, C++ exceptions are not thrown for machine-level events such as divide-by-zero. It's assumed that some other mechanism, such as the operating system or hardware, deals with these events. In this way, C++ exceptions can be reasonably efficient, and their use is isolated to program-level exceptional conditions.


Not for flow–of–control

An exception looks somewhat like an alternate return mechanism and somewhat like a switch statement, so you might be tempted to use an exception instead of these ordinary language mechanisms. This is a bad idea, partly because the exception-handling system is significantly less efficient than normal program execution. Exceptions are a rare event, so the normal program shouldn't pay for them. Also, exceptions from anything other than error conditions are quite confusing to the user of your class or function.


You're not forced to use exceptions

Some programs are quite simple (small utilities, for example). You might only need to take input and perform some processing. In these programs, you might attempt to allocate memory and fail, try to open a file and fail, and so on. It is acceptable in these programs to display a message and exit the program, allowing the system to clean up the mess, rather than to work hard to catch all exceptions and recover all the resources yourself. Basically, if you don't need exceptions, you're not forced to use them.


New exceptions, old code

Another situation that arises is the modification of an existing program that doesn't use exceptions. You might introduce a library that does use exceptions and wonder if you need to modify all your code throughout the program. Assuming you have an acceptable error-handling scheme already in place, the most straightforward thing to do is surround the largest block that uses the new library (this might be all the code in main( )) with a try block, followed by a catch(...) and basic error message). You can refine this to whatever degree necessary by adding more specific handlers, but, in any case, the code you must add can be minimal. It's even better to isolate your exception-generating code in a try block and write handlers to convert the exceptions into your existing error-handling scheme.

It's truly important to think about exceptions when you're creating a library for someone else to use, especially if you can't know how they need to respond to critical error conditions (recall the earlier discussions on exception safety and why there are no exception specifications in the Standard C++ Library).

Typical Uses of Exceptions

Do use exceptions to do the following:

  • Fix the problem and retry the function that caused the exception.
  • Patch things up and continue without retrying the function.
  • Do whatever you can in the current context and rethrow the same exception to a higher context.
  • Do whatever you can in the current context and throw a different exception to a higher context.
  • Terminate the program.
  • Wrap functions (especially C library functions) that use ordinary error schemes so they produce exceptions instead.
  • Simplify. If your error handling scheme makes things more complicated, it is painful and annoying to use. Exceptions can be used to make error handling simpler and more effective.
  • Make your library and program safer. This is a short-term investment (for debugging) and a long-term investment (for application robustness).

When to use exception specifications

The exception specification is like a function prototype: it tells the user to write exception-handling code and what exceptions to handle. It tells the compiler the exceptions that might come out of this function so that it can detect violations at runtime.

You can't always look at the code and anticipate which exceptions will arise from a particular function. Sometimes, the functions it calls produce an unexpected exception, and sometimes an old function that didn't throw an exception is replaced with a new one that does, and you get a call to unexpected( ). Any time you use exception specifications or call functions that do, consider creating your own unexpected( ) function that logs a message and then either throws an exception or aborts the program.

As we explained earlier, you should avoid using exception specifications in template classes, since you can't anticipate what types of exceptions the template parameter classes might throw.


Start with standard exceptions

Check out the Standard C++ library exceptions before creating your own. If a standard exception does what you need, chances are it's a lot easier for your user to understand and handle.

If the exception type you want isn't part of the standard library, try to inherit one from an existing standard exception. It's nice if your users can always write their code to expect the what( ) function defined in the exception( ) class interface.


Nest your own exceptions

If you create exceptions for your particular class, it's a good idea to nest the exception classes either inside your class or inside a namespace containing your class, to provide a clear message to the reader that this exception is only for your class. In addition, it prevents pollution of the global namespace.

You can nest your exceptions even if you're deriving them from C++ Standard exceptions.


Use exception hierarchies

Using exception hierarchies is a valuable way to classify the types of critical errors that might be encountered with your class or library. This gives helpful information to users, assists them in organizing their code, and gives them the option of ignoring all the specific types of exceptions and just catching the base-class type. Also, any exceptions added later by inheriting from the same base class will not force all existing code to be rewritten ­– the base-class handler will catch the new exception.

The Standard C++ exceptions are a good example of an exception hierarchy. Build your exceptions on top of it if you can.


Multiple inheritance (MI)

As you'll read in Chapter 9, the only essential place for MI is if you need to upcast an object pointer to two different base classes­ – that is, if you need polymorphic behavior with both of those base classes. It turns out that exception hierarchies are useful places for multiple inheritance because a base-class handler from any of the roots of the multiply inherited exception class can handle the exception.


Catch by reference, not by value

As you saw in the section "Exception matching," you should catch exceptions by reference for two reasons:

  • To avoid making a needless copy of the exception object when it is passed to the handler.
  • To avoid object slicing when catching a derived exception as a base class object.

Although you can also throw and catch pointers, by doing so you introduce more coupling­ – the thrower and the catcher must agree on how the exception object is allocated and cleaned up. This is a problem because the exception itself might have occurred from heap exhaustion. If you throw exception objects, the exception-handling system takes care of all storage.


Throw exceptions in constructors

Because a constructor has no return value, you've previously had two ways to report an error during construction:

  • Set a nonlocal flag and hope the user checks it.
  • Return an incompletely created object and hope the user checks it.

This problem is serious because C programmers expect that object creation is always successful, which is not unreasonable in C because the types are so primitive. But continuing execution after construction fails in a C++ program is a guaranteed disaster, so constructors are one of the most important places to throw exceptions ­– now you have a safe, effective way to handle constructor errors. However, you must also pay attention to pointers inside objects and the way cleanup occurs when an exception is thrown inside a constructor.


Don't cause exceptions in destructors

Because destructors are called in the process of throwing other exceptions, you'll never want to throw an exception in a destructor or cause another exception to be thrown by some action you perform in the destructor. If this happens, a new exception can be thrown before the catch-clause for an existing exception is reached, which will cause a call to terminate( ).

If you call any functions inside a destructor that can throw exceptions, those calls should be within a try block in the destructor, and the destructor must handle all exceptions itself. None must escape from the destructor.


Avoid naked pointers

See Wrapped.cpp earlier in this chapter. A naked pointer usually means vulnerability in the constructor if resources are allocated for that pointer. A pointer doesn't have a destructor, so those resources aren't released if an exception is thrown in the constructor. Use auto_ptr or other smart pointer types for pointers that reference heap memory.

Overhead

When an exception is thrown, there's considerable runtime overhead (but it's good overhead, since objects are cleaned up automatically!). For this reason, you never want to use exceptions as part of your normal flow-of-control, no matter how tempting and clever it may seem. Exceptions should occur only rarely, so the overhead is piled on the exception and not on the normally executing code. One of the important design goals for exception handling was that it could be implemented with no impact on execution speed when it wasn't used; that is, as long as you don't throw an exception, your code runs as fast as it would without exception handling. Whether this is true depends on the particular compiler implementation you're using. (See the description of the "zero-cost model" later in this section).

You can think of a throw expression as a call to a special system function that takes the exception object as an argument and backtracks up the chain of execution. For this to work, extra information needs to be put on the stack by the compiler, to aid in stack unwinding. To understand this, you need to know about the runtime stack.

Whenever a function is called, information about that function is pushed onto the runtime stack in an activation record instance (ARI), also called a stack frame. A typical stack frame contains the address of the calling function (so execution can return to it), a pointer to the ARI of the function's static parent (the scope that lexically contains the called function, so variables global to the function can be accessed), and a pointer to the function that called it (its dynamic parent). The path that logically results from repetitively following the dynamic parent links is the dynamic chain, or call chain, that we've mentioned previously in this chapter. This is how execution can backtrack when an exception is thrown, and it is the mechanism that makes it possible for components developed without knowledge of one another to communicate errors at runtime.

To enable stack unwinding for exception handling, extra exception-related information about each function needs to be available for each stack frame. This information describes which destructors need to be called (so that local objects can be cleaned up), indicates whether the current function has a try block, and lists which exceptions the associated catch clauses can handle. There is space penalty for this extra information, so programs that support exception handling can be somewhat larger than those that don't. Even the compile-time size of programs using exception handling is greater, since the logic of how to generate the expanded stack frames during runtime must be generated by the compiler.

To illustrate this, we compiled the following program both with and without exception-handling support in Borland C++ Builder and Microsoft Visual C++:

//: C01:HasDestructor.cpp {O}
class HasDestructor {
public:
  ~HasDestructor() {}
};
 
void g(); // For all we know, g may throw.
 
void f() {
  HasDestructor h;
  g();
} ///:~

If exception handling is enabled, the compiler must keep information about ~HasDestructor( ) available at runtime in the ARI for f( ) (so it can destroy h properly should g( ) throw an exception). The following table summarizes the result of the compilations in terms of the size of the compiled (.obj) files (in bytes).

Compiler\Mode

With Exception Support

Without Exception Support

Borland

616

234

Microsoft

1162

680

Don't take the percentage differences between the two modes too seriously. Remember that exceptions (should) typically constitute a small part of a program, so the space overhead tends to be much smaller (usually between 5 and 15 percent).

This extra housekeeping slows down execution, but a clever compiler implementation avoids this. Since information about exception-handling code and the offsets of local objects can be computed once at compile time, such information can be kept in a single place associated with each function, but not in each ARI. You essentially remove exception overhead from each ARI and thus avoid the extra time to push them onto the stack. This approach is called the zero-cost model of exception handling, and the optimized storage mentioned earlier is known as the shadow stack.


Summary

Error recovery is a fundamental concern for every program you write. It's especially important in C++ when creating program components for others to use. To create a robust system, each component must be robust.

The goals for exception handling in C++ are to simplify the creation of large, reliable programs using less code than currently possible, with more confidence that your application doesn't have an unhandled error. This is accomplished with little or no performance penalty and with low impact on existing code.

Basic exceptions are not terribly difficult to learn; begin using them in your programs as soon as you can. Exceptions are one of those features that provide immediate and significant benefits to your project.