Track the Lifetime of std Classes' Instances

Published: 2015-11-03 | tags: (none)

I remembered a simple trick I used to know, but that could not remember on the spot, to solve a problem in understanding the exact lifetime of C++ objects.

Problem statement

Reading about unique_ptr’s, I have found some issue trying to understand the exact lifetime of objects of such types. When is the ownership of a unique_ptr exactly yielded? What happens when the first one passes its ownership?

A bad idea

I have gone through a silly phase where I have thought that I could log messages at crucial moments of the objects’ lifetime by just writing to standard output in constructors, destructors, copy/move constructors, and copy/move assignment operators. The first idea is to wrap such functions in the object being passed as argument to the unique_ptr:

struct S {
    S() { cout << "S()\n"; }

     * These will never be called, since what we are
     * copying/moving is the unique_ptr. How do we
     * extend a unique_ptr to print its
     * creation/destruction times?
    S(const S& s) {
      cout << "S(const S& s)" << hex << &s << "\n";

    S(S&& s) {
      cout << "S(S&& s)" << hex << &s << "\n";

    ~S() { cout << "~S()\n"; }

I even have the naive question expressed in a comment. Of course this wouldn’t work. While this approach does work when you want to follow the structure S’s lifetime, it certainly doesn’t when you want to follow the lifetime of the wrapping smart pointer.

I banged my head against Google and ran into some unrelated threads on StackOverflow. No one ever had this problem before? There must be something terribly wrong with what I am looking for…

How can we do better?

At the end of my study session, I thought about the obvious:

Just wrap the unique_ptr in a structure, and print a message in this structure’s ctors, dtors, and copy/move ctors and assignment operators

So I separated my code out into a header, and used it instead:

#include <memory>
#include <iostream>
#include <iomanip>

// Instrument a unique_ptr with some logging, to follow its
// lifetime.
template <typename T>
struct unique {
    unique() : _p(nullptr) {
        std::cout << "unique() " << std::hex << &_p << "\n";

    unique(T* p) : _p(p) {
        std::cout << "unique(T* p) " << std::hex <<
          &_p << "\n";

    unique(const unique<T>& p) : _p(p._p) {
        std::cout << "unique(const unique& u) " <<
          std::hex << &_p << "\n";

    unique(unique<T>&& u) : _p(move(u._p)) {
        std::cout << "unique(unique<T>&& u) " <<
          std::hex << &_p << "\n";

    // Can't declare this, as unique_ptr's operator= with
    // copy semantics has been explicitly deleted!
    unique<T>& operator=(const unique<T>& p) = delete;

    unique<T>& operator=(unique<T>&& p) {
        std::cout << "operator=(unique<T>&& p) " <<
          std::hex << &_p << "\n";
        _p = move(p._p);
        return *this;

    ~unique() {
      std::cout << "~unique() " << std::hex << &_p << "\n";

    std::unique_ptr<T> _p;

The basic structure of all of these functions is the following:

  1. Tell me your name
  2. Tell me the address of the unique_ptr

They really don’t do much, but they are terribly useful when things get complicated. Which, given the language, is quite often.


A very simple one:

#include <memory>
#include "../util/instr_ptr.hpp"

using namespace std;

unique<int> returnPtr() {
    return unique<int>(new int);

int main() {
  unique<int> u = returnPtr();
  cout << hex << &u << endl;

The output would be something as simple as:

  unique(T* p) 0x7fff71382e78
  ~unique() 0x7fff71382e78

As I said, nothing complicated, but it helps.