Shared pointer – std::shared_ptr

With C++11 came a new smart pointer class, std::shared_ptr.


The shared pointer is allocated on the stack, exactly like the std::unique_ptr, but unlike the unique pointer is it possible to copy the shared pointer. Just like the unique_ptr will the contents which the smart pointer manages be deleted once the smart pointer goes out of scope. The difference is that the resource will only be deleted when all copies of the shared_ptr have gone out of scope. That is to say that as long as there is at least one handle to the shared memory then the resource will not be cleared.


The behavior of the std::shared_ptr is in practice implemented through reference counting, creating a new copy of a std::shared_ptr increases a counter of the number of live instances and as each copy goes out of scope this counter is decreased one step. When the counter finally reaches zero then the memory is released. This reference counting means that there is a slight overhead with using a shared_ptr compared to using the unique_ptr which doesn’t have this overhead.


There is also one danger with the shared_ptr, it is possible to create dependency chains where two objects references each other through a shared_ptr and none of the two objects will ever be cleared because there is always one reference to each (by the other object). This “bug” can be resolve by using the third smart pointer introduced in C++11, the std::weak_ptr. A weak pointer is like a copy of a shared_ptr but creating it does not increase the reference count. Therefore, when the object is only reference by weak pointers then the memory will be deleted. The weak pointer can be converted into a std::shared_ptr (which you should do before trying to use it) and if the memory referenced to by the weak_ptr has already been released then you will get an empty shared_ptr back.

Creating – std::make_shared

You create instances of shared_ptr using the helper method std::make_shared. You can of course fill in the contents of the shared pointer yourself but the make_shared method is more efficient (one memory operation less than if you do it yourself) and has the advantage that if the constructor of the object throws an exception then the std::make_shared will make sure that no memory leak occurs.



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