Matt Fowles and Sven Olsen's Multi Method Dispatch Page

In this lab I worked with Sven on implementing a version of multiple dispatch in C++. Our initial approach was to have a highly automated method of determining inheritance relationships, but that turned out to be exceedingly difficult, and so our final solution is heavily scaled back.


Internally we represent each vertex in our class hierarchy as a templated node. To ease memory management, we maintain a vector of pointers to these nodes, which is where all new vertices are added and where the objects are deleted from at the end of the dispatch object's lifetime. Whenever a vertex needs to refer to another vertex (for inheritance relationships), it will store the index of its relative in the array.

Thus each vertex in our graph stores an int vector representing its children and another representing its parents. The graph object, which manages these vertices, also stores a vector holding which vertices are leaves. It can be told to regenerate this list, which the dispatch object automatically does for you, at the appropriate time.

The dispatch object stores N graphs (one for each object of the dispatchable type). Currently only the 2 dimensional case is implemented; however, expanding to a greater number should be relatively simple. Internally, some treacherous template games are played so that the function pointers can reflect their true type, while storing them internally in a single vector (which does not allow disparate types).


A user will interface to the dispatch class by constructing a templated dispatch object. The arguments to the template are the base type for each of the object types and the return type.

int c1_id,c2_id;
disp< c1, c2, returnType > dispatcher( &c1_id, &c2_id, defaultFunction );

The arguments to the constructor are two pointers to ints (used to store the id of the class object) and a pointer to the default function.

The user then adds a vertex to the disp object, for each type she wishes to place in the object hierarchy. These functions are templated and return the object's code.

int c1_child_id = dispatcher.vertex_add_1< c1_child >();

Unfortunately, g++ has a bug in its implementation of templated member functions, so this has to be called

int c1_child_id = dispatcher.template vertex_add_1< c1_child >();

Sadder still, MSVC has a bug in its templated member functions such that it does not even support them. While one could work around this problem by templating a normal function and then passing it a templated struct, this requires around 5 template arguments for each templated function.

Next the user must tell the dispatch object the proper hierarchy for each inheritance tree. We would like to automate this step; however, we have not yet stumbled upon the proper algorithm for determining these at run-time. The user creates this hierarchy by calling the dispatch object edge_add function for each of the inheritance links that need to be made, using the ids that have been gathered in previous steps. The syntax is edge_add( parent_id, child_id).

dispatcher.edge_add_1( c1_id, c1_child_id);

It is worth note that there exist vertex_add_2 and edge_add_2 functions with the same syntax that are used to build up the other class's inheritance tree. If we can manage to automate this step (the edge adding), then the entirety of graph generation can be done silently during the next stage.

At this stage, the user supplies the functions that should be called for the different object types. This function is also templated, so the above notes about member templating still apply. The user should pass the function the ids representing the classes and the appropriate function pointer.

dispatcher.add< c1_type, c2_type >( c1_type_id, c2_type_id, specificFunction );

As mentioned, if we can automate the graph generation only this final step will be necessary; however, every type of class for which this is done then must be default constructible. In the mean time, this manual approach will have to suffice. Once the dispatch object is constructed fully enough to support all of the specific functions that the user wishes to provide, the user can simply call the dispatch function on pointers to types derived from the base class even if those types do not directly appear in constructed graph.

dispatcher.dispatch( c1_relative, c2_relative );

This function will call the appropriate specific function and return its result, which function is chosen is carefully defined in the next section.

Multiple Dispatch Ambiguity Resolution

Clearly, given arbitrary object hierarchies ambiguous cases exist. Here we will define the system used by our dispatch class to determine the appropriate function to call. For the purpose of this explanation, we will refer to class hierarchies as being to the "left" or "right" of each other. This is simply the order of templating. In the above examples, the c1 hierarchy is to the left of that of c2. First we will explain the two-dimensional case, then we will generalize.

The easiest way to think of the 2D detection algorithm is to imagine a breadth-first search up the left hierarchy, starting with the leaves, in the order in which they were inserted. When a node is visited in this search, a complete breadth first search is done of the right graph, taking each node from this search and checking if a specific function matches for the two classes. The first time such a function is found, the search terminates.

This description neglects to explain the order in which multiple parents will be expanded. Fortunately, that is well defined: parents will be searched in the order that the edges were added. Thus the first connected parent will take precedence over the second and so on. This can lead to some peculiarities which we will describe below. When the system that infers relationships is developed, the system will add vertices as it discovers them, and will give parental precedence to vertices in this order also. We like to refer to the ancestor with priority as an honored ancestor, simply because it agrees with our sense of humor.

The N dimensional detection system is best described recursively:
The right case from above provides the termination of the recursion (when only one class remains, do a breadth-first search, checking each node with the, now complete, list of types for an appropriate function).
Otherwise, do a breadth-first search on the left-most tree, at each node recursing on the trees to the right of the current one.

The other obvious resolution system is a "depth minimization" one. Such a system would choose the function that requires the smallest number of steps up the hierarchy for all of the classes. While such a system would not be difficult to implement, we felt that it would yields results that can be more difficult to predict, and requires yet another ambiguity resolver when two different functions provide the same depth value. Thus we chose this method, which has clearly defined and easily documented preferences.

Peculiarities in Resolution

As mentioned, this does lead to some peculiarities in resolution; however, all of them conform to the definition given above. Consider the object hierarchies represented below, darker lines represent honored ancestors.


Now consider what happens when the dispatch is called with objects of type A5 and B2. During the search A5 will expand node A3 before A4. Thus A3 will expand A1 before A2 gets expanded by A4. When A1 is checked, it will match with f1. Unfortunately, f2 is arguably the correct function to call in this case. If the user wished to achieve that result, she could report the class hierarchy used below. This hierarchy is slightly different then the true one, but is not meaningfully different in cases other than those of the type described here.


Interestingly, this example also points out a quirk with automatic hierarchy inference. Consider a situation whose "true" hierarchy is represented by the first image. When A5 is added to the inheritance hierarchy, the inference system can determine that A5 is a child of A4; however, since it cannot distinguish between children and grandchildren, it cannot determine that A5 is a child of A3, since it might be able to accomplish the dynamic cast by way of A4. Thus, these triangular relationships cannot be determined. Some people might consider this a feature, as it will correctly deal with the example given here, but whatever one wishes to call this fact, it needs to be noted.

Automatic Inference

The inference engine works by determining the tree based on the functions that are provided to it. When a function is added (through the same method as above), each type is placed into the tree and then the function is added between their codes (just as a user would do). When an element is placed into the tree, we use the name of the class (provided by RTTI) to determine if it is already in the tree. If so we return the appropriate id. If it is not in the tree, we use dynamic casts, starting from the leaves, to determine the items position in the tree. It is at this part of the process that we construct an object of the appropriate type, which is why it must be default constructible. If our system of dispatch were put into the compiler, we would not need this restriction as the compiler can use the extra information that it already possess to determine these relationships.

Once we have determined what a class's parents are, we check each of the parent's children to decide if they are really children of our new class. If they are, we insert the new class between the parent and child, otherwise we simply attach the new class as a child of the parent.

An inferential dispatcher can be constructed far more easily than an normal one, since it does most of the work for you. Thus the following code is enough to generate a fully functional inferential dispatcher:

int f(A1*, B1*);
int f(A1*, B2*);
int f(A2*, B2*);
int f(A4*, B1*);
int f(A4*, B2*);

int main()
  infer_disp<A,A,int> d(f);
  d.template add<A2,A>(f);
  d.template add<A1,A1>(f);
  d.template add<A3,A4>(f);


Currently our system uses a hash table to accomplish memoization. When a dispatch is requested, the hashtable is checked to determine if the appropriate function is already known. If it is not, we check through the tree in the manner described above. The result from this check is placed into the hashtable and then returned.

Our current implementation uses RTTI to determine the name of each class and hashes on the concatenation of the two names. We are planning on switching to a more efficient hashing scheme later, but currently we are just focusing on proof of concept. Once we are satisfied with the stability of it, we will begin optimizing our dispatch and will post benchmarks against other systems we find.

Code and Links

Anyone may use our code at their own risk.
makefile Main Dispatch Class Auto-inferential Dispatcher Internal Graph test program Tar filed everything

We will add links to this section as we find them:

Last modified 2003-10-07 22:15 EST