C++ annoyances (and reliefs): operator[] in STL map-based containers

I recently watched Louis Brandy’s CppCon presentation “Curiously Recurring C++ Bugs at Facebook” on youtube.

For bug#2, which is a well-known trap for STL map-based containers, operator[] will insert the requested key (associated with a default-constructed value) if it is not found. 

He mentioned a few workarounds and their disadvantages, like

  • use at() method: requires exception handling
  • const protect: noobs try to defeat that, transferred to non-const (stripped)
  • ban operator[] calls: makes the code ugly

but would like to see something neater. In bug#3, he added that a very common usage is to return a default when the key is not found. The normal approach requires returning a copy of the default (expensive if it’s large), which tempts noobs to return a local reference (to destroyed temporary variables: guaranteed bug).

Considering how much productivity drain a clumsy interface can cause, I think it’s worth spending a few hours of my time approaching it, since I might need to use STL map-based containers myself someday.

Here’s my thought process for the design choices:

  • Retain the complete STL interface to minimize user code/documentation changes
  • Endow a STL map-based container with a default_value (common use case), so that the new operator[] can return a reference without worrying about temporaries getting destroyed.
  • Give users a easy read-only access interface (make intentions clear with little typing)

The code (with detailed comment about design decisions and test cases) can be downloaded here: MapWithDefault. For the experienced, here’s the meat:

#include <unordered_map>
#include <map>

#include <utility>  // std::forward

// Legend (for extremely simple generic functions)
// ===============================================
// K: key
// V: value
// C: container
// B: base (class)
template <typename K, typename V, template <typename ... Args> class C = std::map, typename B = C<K,V> >
class MapWithDefault : private B 
    // Make default_value mandatory. Everything else follows the requested STL container
    template<typename... Args>
    MapWithDefault(V default_value, Args&& ... args) : B(std::forward<Args>(args)...), default_value(default_value) {};

    using B::operator=;
    using B::get_allocator;

    using B::at;

    using B::operator[];

    // Read-only map (const object) uses only read-only operator[]
    const V& operator[](const K& key) const
        auto it = this->find(key);
        return (it==this->end()) ? default_value : it->second;

    using B::begin;
    using B::cbegin;
    using B::end;
    using B::cend;
    using B::rbegin;
    using B::crbegin;
    using B::rend;
    using B::crend;

    using B::empty;
    using B::size;
    using B::max_size;

    using B::clear;
    using B::insert;
    // using B::insert_or_assign;   // C++17
    using B::emplace;
    using B::emplace_hint;
    using B::erase;
    using B::swap;

    using B::count;
    using B::find;
    using B::equal_range;
    using B::lower_bound;
    using B::upper_bound;

    const               V default_value;
    const MapWithDefault& read_only = static_cast<MapWithDefault&>(*this);

Note that this is private inheritance (can go without virtual destructors since STL doesn’t have it). I have not exposed all the private members and methods back to public with the ‘using’ keyword yet, but you get the idea.

This is how I normally want the extended container to be used:

int main()
    MapWithDefault<string, int> m(17);  // Endowed with default of 17
    cout << "pull rabbit from m.read_only:  " << m.read_only["rabbit"] << endl;   // Should read 17

    // Demonstrates commonly unwanted behavior of inserting requested key when not found
    cout << "pull rabbit from m:            " << m["rabbit"] << endl; // Should read 0 because the key was inserted (not default anymore)

    // Won't compile: demonstrate that it's read only
    // m.read_only["rabbit"] = 42;

    // Demonstrate writing
    m["rabbit"] = 42;

    // Confirms written value
    cout << "pull rabbit from m_read_only:  " << m.read_only["rabbit"] << endl;   // Should read 42
    cout << "pull rabbit from m:            " << m["rabbit"] << endl;             // Should read 42

    return 0;

Basically, for read-only operations, always operate directly on the chained ‘m.read_only‘ object reference: it will make sure the const protected version of the methods (including read-only operator[]) is called.

Please let me know if it’s a bad idea or there’s some details I’ve missed!


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