Posts Tagged ‘streambuf’

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine coded an output stream that outputted strings through Win32 OutputDebugString function (you can use DebugView to monitor these kind of traces). His implementation had two main problems:

  • it was designed quite poorly (as you’ll see in a while),
  • it didn’t allow a real formatting.

With the second point I mean: everytime operator<<(stream&, something) was called, something was sent to OutputDebugString. I paste here a facsimile of his code:

class debug_stream : public std::ostringstream
    template<typename T>
    friend debug_stream& operator<<(debug_stream& os, T&& s);

template<typename T>
debug_stream& operator<<(debug_stream& os, T&& s)
    (ostringstream&amp;)os << s;
    return os;

debug_stream dbgview;
dbgview << "This is a string" // sent to DebugView
        << 10.01 // sent to DebugView, separately
        << ...

What I mostly dislike of this code is the design choice to inherit from std::ostringstream, being forced to override operator<< as the only (simple) option to print something to the DebugView. This makes things even more difficult when you have to preserve formatting rules. The preferable choice would be storing stuff until they need to be outputted to DebugView (e.g. when std::endl is used).

I suggested him to change his point of view and thinking of the real nature of streams: streams are serial interfaces to some storage. That is, streams are just a way to send some data (e.g. chars) to devices (e.g. files), with a common interface (e.g. operator<<). In this example, we can think of DebugView as another device and not as another stream. In the standard library, these devices are called streambuffers (the base class is std::streambuf) and each one takes care of the various issues specific to that kind of device. The simplest streambuffer you can imagine is an array of characters. And if we are lucky, the standard library already provides some std::streambuf implementations we can take advantage of.

Let me recap the situation, with simple (and not so accurate) words:

  • we want to output data through different devices (e.g. files, sockets, console, …),
  • C++ provides a common interface to output data to devices, that is the concept of (output) stream,
  • streams need to be decoupled from devices. They don’t know details like specific synchronization issues,
  • buffers handles specific issues of devices.

Streams can be seen as a FIFO data structure, whereas buffers (that contain raw data) provide random access (like an array).

Let’s turn back to my friend’s problem:  roughly, he just has to wrap a sequence of characters and send it to DebugView as soon as std::endl is used. For example:

dbgview << "Formatted string with numbers " << 2 << " and " << setprecision(3) << 10.001 << endl;

This means he just needs a way to modify how the buffer “synchronizes” with the “underlying device” (that is: the buffer stores some characters and at some point it has to write them to its “target” – e.g. a file, the console or the DebugView). Yes, because if the standard library already provides a stream buffer that just maintains a sequence of characters, he doesn’t need to alter that mechanism at all. And he is lucky because C++ has the std::stringbuf, right for him!

So the idea is to inherit from std::stringbuf and let it do the most of the job. We only need to change the way our buffer writes the buffered data (aka: the formatted string) to the target (aka: DebugView). And this is a job for streambuf‘s sync() virtual function, that is called, for example, when std::endl manipulator is used on the stream using the buffer. Cool!

This is the simplest code I thought about and I sent to my friend:

#include <sstream>
#include <windows.h>

class dbgview_buffer : public std::stringbuf
       sync(); // can be avoided

    int sync()
        return 0;

Two notes:

  • I call sync() in the destructor because the buffer could contain some data when it dies (e.g. someone forgot to flush the stream). Yes, this can throw an exception (both str() and OutputDebugString could throw), so you can avoid this choice,
  • I clear the current content of the buffer after I send it to DebugView (str(“”)).

As you suspect, str() gives you the buffered std::string. It has also a second form that sets the contents of the stream buffer to a passed string, discarding any previous contents.

So you can finally use this buffer:

dbgview_buffer buf;
ostream dbgview(&buf);
dbgview << "Formatted string with numbers " << 2 << " and " << setprecision(3) << 10.001 << endl;
// only one string is sent to the DebugView, as wanted

std::streambuf (and its base class std::streambuf) handles the most of the job, maintaining the sequence of characters. When we use operator<< it updates this sequence (dealing also with potential end-of-buffer issuess – see, for instance, overflow). Finally, when we need to write data (e.g. synchronize with the underlying device) here it comes our (pretty simple) work.

Clearly you can also derive from ostream, hiding the buffer completely:

class dbgview_t : public ostream
    dbgview_t() : ostream(&m_buf)
    dbgview_buffer m_buf;

// we can also declare a global dbgview, like cout/cin/cerr:
extern dbgview_t dbgview; // defined elsewhere

The moral of this story is: sometimes, we have to think of what a component is made of. Can I just change one of its parts? If you want a faster car maybe you can just replace its engine rather than imagining to buy a new car! STL are quite extensible and often it happens that you can “configure” one of its classes just replacing a collaborator of it. This is quite related to the Open/Closed Principle, that is “software entities should be open for extension, but closed for modification“. C++ has different ways to preserve and pursue this concept, like object orientation and generic programming. And you can also combine them!