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12.7 — Virtual base classes

Last chapter, in lesson 11.7 -- Multiple inheritance [1], we left off talking about the “diamond problem”. In this section, we will resume this discussion.

Note: This section is an advanced topic and can be skipped or skimmed if desired.

The diamond problem

Here is our example from the previous lesson (with some constructors) illustrating the diamond problem:

Although you might expect to get an inheritance diagram that looks like this:

If you were to create a Copier class object, by default you would end up with two copies of the PoweredDevice class -- one from Printer, and one from Scanner. This has the following structure:

We can create a short example that will show this in action:

This produces the result:

PoweredDevice: 3
Scanner: 1
PoweredDevice: 3
Printer: 2

As you can see, PoweredDevice got constructed twice.

While this is often desired, other times you may want only one copy of PoweredDevice to be shared by both Scanner and Printer.

Virtual base classes

To share a base class, simply insert the “virtual” keyword in the inheritance list of the derived class. This creates what is called a virtual base class, which means there is only one base object that is shared. Here is an example (without constructors for simplicity) showing how to use the virtual keyword to create a shared base class:

Now, when you create a Copier class object, you will get only one copy of PoweredDevice that will be shared by both Scanner and Printer.

However, this leads to one more problem: if Scanner and Printer share a PoweredDevice base class, who is responsible for creating it? The answer, as it turns out, is Copier. The Copier constructor is responsible for creating PoweredDevice. Consequently, this is one time when Copier is allowed to call a non-immediate-parent constructor directly:

This time, our previous example:

produces the result:

PoweredDevice: 3
Scanner: 1
Printer: 2

As you can see, PoweredDevice only gets constructed once.

There are a few details that we would be remiss if we did not mention.

First, virtual base classes are always created before non-virtual base classes, which ensures all bases get created before their derived classes.

Second, note that the Scanner and Printer constructors still have calls to the PoweredDevice constructor. When creating an instance of Copier, these constructor calls are simply ignored because Copier is responsible for creating the PoweredDevice, not Scanner or Printer. However, if we were to create an instance of Scanner or Printer, those constructor calls would be used, and normal inheritance rules apply.

Third, if a class inherits one or more classes that have virtual parents, the most derived class is responsible for constructing the virtual base class. In this case, Copier inherits Printer and Scanner, both of which have a PoweredDevice virtual base class. Copier, the most derived class, is responsible for creation of PoweredDevice. Note that this is true even in a single inheritance case: if Copier was singly inherited from Printer, and Printer was virtually inherited from PoweredDevice, Copier is still responsible for creating PoweredDevice.

Fourth, all classes inheriting a virtual base class will have a virtual table, even if they would normally not have one otherwise, and thus be larger by a pointer.

Because Scanner and Printer derive virtually from PoweredDevice, Copier will only be one PoweredDevice subobject. Scanner and Printer both need to know how to find that single PoweredDevice subobject, so they can access its members (because after all, they are derived from it). This is typically done through some virtual table magic (which essentially stores the offset from each subclass to the PoweredDevice subobject).

12.8 -- Object slicing [2]
Index [3]
12.6 -- Pure virtual functions, abstract base classes, and interface classes [4]