Inline functions

Part of C++ FQA Lite. To see the original answers, follow the FAQ links.

Inline functions are a pet feature of people who think they care about performance, but don't bother to measure it.

[9.1] What's the deal with inline functions?

FAQ: Inlining a function call means that the compiler inserts the code of the function into the calling code (which is technically different, but logically similar to the expansion of #define macros). This may improve performance, because the compiler optimizes the callee code in the context of the calling code instead of implementing a function call. However, the performance impact depends on lots of things.

There's more than one way to say that a function should be inline, some of which use the inline keyword and some don't. No matter what way you use, the compiler might actually inline the function and it might not - you're just giving it a "hint". Sounds vague? It is - and it is good: it lets the compiler generate better and/or more debuggable code.

FQA: To summarize: the compiler has the right to inline or not inline any function, whether it's declared inline in any of the several ways or not. Doesn't this make "inline functions" a meaningless term?

It's impossible to make any sense of this without discussing the history of actual implementations of the C language tool chain - compilers, assemblers and linkers. A straight-forward C implementation (which originally all of them were) works like this. First, a compiler generates assembly code from each source file, separately (without looking at other source files). Then the assembler converts the assembly code to an "object file", where "object" means "a sequence of bytes" (talk about "object oriented"). For example, a function is one kind of "object" - the bytes encode the machine instructions the compiler used to implement it.

The values of the bytes making up these "objects" are almost completely finalized at this stage. The only kind of "unknowns" is addresses of "objects" - when an "object" refers to an address of another "object" (say, a function calls another function), the assembler can't compute the actual values of the bytes making up the function call instructions. This is done by the linker, which allocates the "objects" (basically by concatenating them). The linker then resolves the references (such as function calls) to the addresses of the "objects".

What this means is that the only way to inline functions is to #include their definition in the header file - otherwise, the compiler doesn't see the code of the function, and the linker can't do inlining, because all it sees is byte sequences, and it would have to decompile them first. Which explains why you need to include the source code of inline functions in header files, but doesn't explain why you need an inline keyword and other ways to explicitly declare a function as "inline". After all, the compiler is free to ignore these hints, so what's their point?

Well, the point is that the compiler can't tell an #included function from one written in your source file, because that's how C preprocessing works - the compiler only sees one large file of code. So unless you explicitly declare the #included functions "inline", it will generate their code like it does with normal functions. Then the linker will complain about multiple definitions.

Here's how code is compiled by many modern compilers, including some C and C++ compilers. The compiler transforms the source code to an intermediate representation, "lower" than the source language but "higher" than assembly language. This makes it possible to do inlining at link time, either on a per-library or a whole-program basis. The machine code is only generated as the final linkage step, or it can even be delayed until run time (the so called "just in time compilation"). This way, you don't have to split your functions to "inline" (those that can be inlined, but the compiler gets to decide if they actually are inlined) and the rest (those that just can't be inlined). Instead, you let the compiler make the decision for all functions. Unfortunately, the meaning of C and C++ is defined with the old sort of implementation in mind, and having newer, more sophisticated implementations around can't change it.

[9.2] What's a simple example of procedural integration?

FAQ: There's an example of a function calling another function and how inlining may save you copying the parameters when you pass them to a function and copying the result it returns and stuff. There's also a disclaimer saying that it's just an example and many different things can happen.

FQA: Basically, code may be portable, but performance is typically not. For example, inlining a function may make code faster or slower, depending on lots of things discussed in the next FAQs. This is one reason to leave the decision to a compiler, because "it understands the target platform better". This is also a reason to leave the decision to a human, because compilers don't really know the target platform very well (they know the target processor but not the entire system), and because they don't understand the problem you are solving at all (so they can't tell how many times each piece of code is likely to run, etc.).

Anyway, the problem of "helping the compiler to optimize code" by adding "hints" to the code, especially portable code, is quite hard. There are many things similar to inlining in this respect (for example, loop unrolling). Which is why there's no unroll keyword forcing loop unrolling. And the inline keyword only exists because there's no better way to enable (as opposed to "force") inlining in C/C++.

[9.3] Do inline functions improve performance?

FAQ: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. There's no simple answer.

Inlining can make code faster by eliminating function call overhead, or slower by generating too much code, causing instruction cache misses. It may make it larger by replicating all that callee code, or smaller by saving the instructions used to implement function calls. It may inflate the code of an innermost loop, causing repeated cache misses, or it may improve the locality of reference in the loop, by compiling all relevant code at adjacent addresses. It may also be irrelevant for performance, because your system is not CPU-bound.

See? Told you there was no simple answer.

FQA: However, there is a relatively simple answer to the legitimate question: "Why do we need this language feature if its effect is undefined?". See the first FAQ in the section. There's also a relatively simple & useful rule saying that functions which have short code and/or are typically called with compile time constant arguments so that most of their code computes a constant are typically good candidates for inlining. Long functions are typically worse candidates for inlining, because the function call overhead is negligible compared to the things the functions actually do, and the main problem with inlining - large code size - becomes dominant.

It's usually a good idea to only explicitly enable the inlining of very short functions, and performance considerations are not the only reason. In C++ you have to place the code in header files to enable inlining. While the run time performance may or may not improve, the compile time performance is guaranteed to drop. Which means changing code becomes hard, which means you'll do your best to not change it, which means you'll leave wrong things unfixed. And debuggers handle inlined code pretty poorly (typically you can't inspect the local variables of inlined functions or even step through their source code lines), so debugging the optimized (production) build becomes harder. And debugging a special "debug" build is not always possible (some bugs won't reproduce in that build), not to mention that you have to spend time building those binaries, too.

If your application is not CPU bound, you aren't getting any benefits from using an unsafe language like C++ except for extra quality time with the debugger.

[9.4] How can inline functions help with the tradeoff of safety vs. speed?

FAQ: "In straight C" you could implement encapsulation using a void*, so that users can't access the underlying data. Instead, the users have to call functions which access that data by casting the void* to the right type first.

Not only is this type-unsafe - it's also costly, since the simplest access now involves a function call. In C++ you can use inline accessors to private data - safe, fast.

FQA: Today C has inline functions (the FAQ probably doesn't consider the current C standard "straight", I wonder why). AFAIK they were back-ported from C++ together with const and other useless things. But it's irrelevant to the question, which is about the completely wrong argument that inline accessors to private functions are a form of "high-speed encapsulation".

First, the tales about void* are wrong - you can use forward declarations to achieve the holy grail of (compile time) type safety. Second, a good language implementation can inline the small C-style accessors at link time. Third, private provides little encapsulation - change a private member and you have to recompile all code using the class. Fourth, most frequently private members with straight-forward public accessors are a just verbose way to implement a public member, since changing the representation is almost impossible and/or hardly useful.

And in the quite rare cases where it is possible and useful, "properties" - a language facility allowing to overload the obj.member syntax - could solve the problem, but C++ doesn't have properties. Or you could refactor the code automatically - if anything could reliably parse it.

In the C++ world code is considered a good thing, of which there should be plenty. private: int _n; public: int n() const { return _n; } is thus better than int n;. The question is - do you like lots and lots of C++ code doing practically nothing?

[9.5] Why should I use inline functions instead of plain old #define macros?

FAQ: Because macros are evil. In particular, when a macro is expanded, the parameters are not evaluated before the expansion, but copied "as is" (they are interpreted as character sequences by the preprocessor, not as C++ expressions). Therefore, if a parameter is an expression with a side effect, such as i++, and the macro mentions it several times, the macro will expand to buggy code (for instance, i will get incremented many times). Or the generated code may be slow (when you use expressions like functionTakingAgesToCompute() as macro arguments).

Besides, inline functions check the argument types.

FQA: Yeah, C macros are no picnic. But see that thing about argument types? How can you write an inline function computing the maximal value of two arguments? A template inline function, you say? Try this: std::max(n,5) with short n.

And how should function arguments be passed - by value or by reference? "By value" may cause extra copying, and "by reference" may slow down the code due to aliasing problems, forcing the compiler to actually spill values to memory in order to pass them to the code of an inlined function! How's that for "performance benefits"? Another problem C macros don't have.

Frequently inline functions are better than macros, though, because the problems with macros turn out to be more severe in many cases. As usual, it's you who gets the interesting job of choosing between duplicate C++ facilities, each flawed in its own unique way.

[9.6] How do you tell the compiler to make a non-member function inline?

FAQ: Prepend the inline keyword to its prototype, and place the code in a header file, unless it's only used in a single .cpp file, or else you'll get errors about "unresolved externals" from the linker.

FQA: The FAQ's decision to avoid the discussion of the reasons leading to these requirements is wrong. Clearly people who don't understand the underlying implementation issues won't survive to live the miserable life of competent C++ developers. That's because in C++, the underlying stuff tends to climb out of the basement in repeated attempts to make you the one lying under a pile of hard, urgent, mind-numbing low-level problems.

Therefore, the only legitimate excuse for telling about a totally weird language requirement and not explaining why it exists is brevity. See the FAQ's lengthy discussion about the performance of inline functions for a pretty good evidence that brevity is hardly the motivation here.

[9.7] How do you tell the compiler to make a member function inline?

FAQ: Declare the function in the class as usual. In the definition, add the inline keyword to the prototype. The definition must be in a header file.

FQA: Yep, it's similar to non-member functions.

[9.8] Is there another way to tell the compiler to make a member function inline?

FAQ: Yes, by writing its code right in the body of the class, instead of only writing the declaration there, and defining it outside of the class. This way, you don't even have to use the inline keyword.

It's easier when you write classes, but harder when you read them, because the interface is mixed with the implementation. Remember the "reuse-oriented world"? Think about the welfare of the many, many users of your class!

FQA: What popular language forces you to write a bare interface ("header file") and separately an implementation containing all the information in the interface ("source files")? Somehow all those languages which only make you type the interface once are not at all that hard to use. May it be that it's because these languages are parsable and therefore IDEs can do the oh-so-interesting job of extracting the interface from the implementation and then you can use things like class view windows to inspect interfaces?

Unless you use templates and operator overloading and all that, many IDEs even have a chance of working with your C++ code. So writing inline functions inside class definitions won't really hurt your users after all. Even if there were no IDEs, you should probably only inline very short functions, with implementations as descriptive as a comment (is return _x; less of a documentation than "//returns the value of the x coordinate"?). If there's lots of "implementation details" to hide from the eye of a casual observer, inlining is most likely a bad idea anyway.

[9.9] With inline member functions that are defined outside the class, is it best to put the inline keyword next to the declaration within the class body, next to the definition outside the class body, or both?

FAQ: The "best practice" is to only use it in the definition outside of the class. Blah, blah, blah, argues the FAQ passionately about the issue. "Observable semantics", "practical standpoint", blah, blah, blah.

FQA: Programmers typically have a good ability to keep many details in their heads. So good that many don't realize that this ability is finite. If you litter your brain with idiotic "best practices" which don't even affect the observable semantics of code, you do it at the expense of not thinking about something else when you write code. "Something else" may include really important things, like the purpose and the meaning of the code.

If you don't care about this sort of discussions, and you find yourself under an attack of "software professionals" buzzing buzzwords about your "bad practices", send them a link to this page to distract them, and use the time gained by the distraction to go out and buy a buzzer to talk back to them.

Copyright © 2007-2009 Yossi Kreinin
revised 17 October 2009