Applying a permutation to a vector, part 2

We left off our study of the apply_permutation function by wondering which version is bettern: the moving version of the swapping version. I'm not certain I have the answer, but here's my analysis.

The first observation is that the standard swap function performs three move operations. It basically goes like this:

template<class T>
void std::swap(T& a, T& b)
 T t{std::move(a));
 a = std::move(b);
 b = std::move(t);

So if you're counting move operations, you need to count a swap as three moves.

But wait, you say. It is legal for types to provide a custom swap operation. However, even those custom swap operations are still going to perform three move operations.¹ The customization is just to reduce the memory requirements. While the standard swap will move the entire instance into a temporary, a custom swap will move individual members.

struct sample
 std::string x, y, z;

In the above example, assuming the obvious definition of the move assignment operator, the standard swap would move all three strings from the first sample into a temporary sample, then move the three strings from the second sample into the first, and then move the three strings from the temporary sample into the second. But a custom swap would look like this:

void swap(sample& a, sample& b)
 swap(a.x, b.x);
 swap(a.y, b.y);
 swap(a.z, b.z);

This version performs three swaps consecutively. The total number of move operations is the same; they just happen in a different order.

standard swap custom swap
t.x = std::move(a.x);
t.y = std::move(a.y);
t.z = std::move(a.z);
a.x = std::move(b.x);
a.y = std::move(b.y);
a.z = std::move(b.z);
b.x = std::move(t.x);
b.y = std::move(t.y);
b.z = std::move(t.z);
t   = std::move(a.x);
a.x = std::move(b.x);
b.x = std::move(t);
t   = std::move(a.y);
a.y = std::move(b.y);
b.y = std::move(t);
t   = std::move(a.z);
a.z = std::move(b.z);
b.z = std::move(t);

The member-by-member swap of the custom swap function will probably exhibit better locality than the full-class swap used by the standard swap. The member-by-member swap also requires fewer temporary resources than the full-class swap (here: one string compared to three).

Okay, so either way, a swap costs three moves. Therefore, if we are just counting moves, the swapping version of apply_permutation performs almost three times as many move operations as the explicit-temporary version.

The counter-argument to "too many move operations" is that move operations are relatively inexpensive. A typical move operation transfers ownership of resources from one instance to another. No new allocation needs to be done; the existing allocation just needs to be transferred across. So counting your move operations is like counting pennies: Even if you manage to save a hundred of them, that's still only one dollar.

But I think the winning argument for moving rather than swapping is the copyable-but-not-movable object. If the object doesn't have a move constructor/move assignment operator, but it does have a copy constructor/copy assignment operator, then the algorithm will still work, but it will fall back to using the copy operation in the absence of a move operation.

And copy operations are not cheap.

So now instead of saving pennies, we are saving dollars, and those dollars quickly add up. So this argues in favor of the moving version rather than the swapping version.²

Like I said at the start, this is my analysis. It could be wrong. Let me know.

Next time, we'll look at how this function could be generalized.

¹ Yes, there may be super-optimized custom swaps that are actually perform less work than the standard swap, but I think those types of custom swaps are relatively uncommon.

² On the third hand (fourth, fifth? how many am I up to?) if the object is copyable but not movable, but it also has a custom swap function, then that swap function is going to be much less expensive than copying. (Because the custom swap function is going to exchange contents rather than making three expensive copies.) You'll encounter objects of this ilk if they predate C++11, since it is C++11 that introduced the concept of movability. So now, if you have an object that is copyable, efficiently swappable, and not movable, you are better off using the swapping version again. Another case where the swapping version may be better is if the vector uses a proxy iterator, such as vector<bool>.

So now I'm not sure any more. Maybe the way to go is to do compile-time detection of whether the object has a custom swap function. If so, then use the swapping version. If not, then use the moving version.

Comments (11)
  1. kantos says:

    Oh nice in looking up information to make a comment on this I found out that c++17 is introducing an is_swappable type trait[1]. That coupled with is_move_assignable[2] you could in theory template all this out and have it SFINAE to victory in most cases.


    1. Close. The is_swappable reports true if std::swap is a match. But I want to detect whether there is a custom swap.

      1. kantos says:

        So is_swappable should work, assuming the type doesn’t resolve to a reference, CV qualified, or void. Assuming all of that is_swappable decays to is_swappable_with which infers if swap(T,T); is well formed after using std::swap;. Therefore Konieg lookup custom swaps should be inferred correctly by the trait.

        1. But I don’t want it to pick std::swap.

  2. Muzer says:

    The last paragraph of footnote 2 sounds to me like a great example of a good use-case for template metaprogramming!

  3. GWO says:

    You don’t need to do compile-time detection for a custom swap(T&a, T&b). Just do

    using std::swap;

    and argument-dependent lookup will select a custom swap() if available, and std::swap if not.

    1. GWO says:

      (Not I assumend “compile time detection” meant some form of template-metaprogramming / SFINAE / std::enable_if technique, rather than the builtin language feature)

      1. Muzer says:

        But his idea is that he’d use swap if a custom one is available, but not use swap at all otherwise.

  4. Ivan K says:

    The best part of reading this blog post is the smell of the pages of my old Programming Pearls (John Bentley) book, possibly unopened for over a decade. (Not that this has anything to do with solving this problem or with using using statements to help with Koenig lookup.)

  5. Billy O'Neal says:

    >super-optimized custom swaps that are actually perform less work than the standard swap

    All STL containers do this. For std::string move needs to null out the moved-from string’s small string buffer, and for node-like containers map, set, list, unordered_map, and unordered_set the move constructor needs to allocate memory for a sentinel end() node in the moved-from container. Swap never needs to do these things.

    1. Martin Bonner says:

      Why does std::string move need to null out the small string buffer? Move just needs to leave the object in *a* valid state – not any particular valid state. (In particular, not in the default constructed state).

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