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The XFC Object System

Table of Contents

  1. Design Principles
  2. The Library Organization
  3. The Base Class Hierarchy
  4. Reference Counting
  5. Memory Management
  6. The XFC Smart Pointer
  7. The Truth about Memory Leaks

Understanding the XFC object system, the decisions that went into its design, its reference counting and its memory management will help you to better optimize your XFC applications. Essentially, the XFC object system integrates the functionality of the GLib object system, the libsigc++ library and C++ memory management into one easy to use programming interface. Achieving this required some design choices that restricted memory management but the end result is a secure C++ programming environment that prevents memory leaks.

Design Principles

Perhaps the most important design issue to deal with when writing a language binding for GTK+ is integrated memory management. There are three possible ways a language binding can manage memory. The binding's wrapper object can manage the life cycle of the C object, the C object can manage the life cycle of the binding object, or you can have a combination of the both and leave the choice optional.

GTK+ implements a system of self aware object-oriented classes that clean up after themselves when they're destroyed. This is achieved through reference counting, which is the basis of memory management in GTK+. A unique feature in GTK+ is that parent containers manage the reference count of their children. So if you hold onto a reference to a parent container you don't need to hold on to any references to the container's children, unless you have good reason.

In C++ things are done differently.  Dynamic objects are created with operator new and only get destroyed when operator delete is called. Stack objects are automatic objects that get destroyed when they go out of scope. In C++ there is no automatic garbage collection but implementing basic garbage collection is very simple and a part of good C++ design. Essentially, you put the construction and deletion of dynamic objects inside another object type and use that type to manage the memory of the contained object. This is how the standard auto_ptr<> class works.

So how does XFC manage memory? In XFC the GTK+ C object is responsible for managing the life cycle of its C++ object wrapper. This design was chosen because its implementation is a natural extension to structure and function that GTK+ already provides. Its main advantage is that it makes memory management safer and easier to use, but there is one limitation. You cannot call operator delete on an XFC object. Instead, if you hold onto a reference to an XFC object you must call unref() to release your reference when your finished with the object. When the object's reference count reaches zero XFC automatically calls operator delete on the XFC object if it was created by operator new.

The Library Organization

The XFC library is organized into namespaces. The primary namespace is the Xfc namespace. Within this namespace there are several secondary namespaces named according to the GTK+ library they wrap. These are:
  • Atk - wraps the ATK accessibility library
  • Gdk - wraps the GDK drawing kit and GDK-PIXBUF image library
  • G - wraps the GLIB utility library
  • Gtk - wraps the GTK GUI toolkit
  • Pango - wraps the Pango internationalized text handling library
The Main namespace wraps the GTK+ main processing loop and its associated functions and signals. There are two signals in the Main namespace you can connect to:
  • quit_signal - emitted when an instance of the mainloop is left
  • key_snooper_signal - emitted on all key events before delivering them normally
The G namespace includes an interface for the GLib main processing loop and its associated functions and signals. There are four signals in the G namespace that you can connect to:
  • child_watch_signal - emitted when the child being watched exits
  • timeout_signal - emitted at user-specified intervals
  • idle_signal - emitted when the event loop is idle
  • io_signal - emitted when a given condition is met
These signals don't have accessor functions because they're declared static, and they don't require an object pointer. You connect to these signals in the same way you would connect to any other signal except that for some signals the connect() function takes an extra argument. For example, the 'timeout_signal' connect() method takes a slot and an unsigned integer which is the time in milliseconds that is to elapse before the slot gets called.

Xfc::Gtk is a GUI toolkit that provides a complete object orientated widget collection, including all the widgets you might expect (windows, dialog boxes, buttons, notebooks, text fields and so on). It has an advanced tree and list widget with a model-view architecture. It has a feature rich text widget that supports the editing and display of Unicode text using the Pango internationalization subsystem. You can also write your own custom widgets either by subclassing the abstract Xfc::Gtk::Widget or by subclassing an existing concrete widget and modifying its functionality.

The Base Class Hierarchy

The base class hierarchy in XFC looks like this:

XFC base class hierarchy

Xfc::Trackable is the primary base class for the entire XFC object hierarchy. It inherits from sigc::trackable so that XFC objects can auto-disconnect libsigc++ slots on destruction. Xfc::Trackable, Xfc::G::TypeInstance and Xfc::G::TypeInterface are abstract bases and generally you wont use these classes directly.
Xfc::Trackable is a dynamic memory tracking class based on Item 27 in Scott Meyers book More Effective C++. It keeps track of heap memory allocations and ensures that XFC calls delete on all dynamic objects. It also implements the reference counting requirements that the XFC smart pointer (Xfc::Pointer<>) needs to work. Xfc::Trackable is derived from sigc::trackable so any object that derives from it can automatically use libsigc++ signals and slots.

Xfc::G::TypeInstance is the base class for all GObject types, widgets and interfaces. Its main purpose is to connect an abstract interface to a concrete object instance. Many of the classes in the accessibility toolkit (ATK) are interface classes.

G::TypeInterface is the base class for all interface classes. Interfaces are a new design feature implemented in GTK+ 2.0. In XFC, interface classes are abstract classes that cannot be instantiated. They must be implemented using multiple inheritance on a concrete object. An example of such a class is Gtk::Entry which inherits from Gtk::Widget, Gtk::Editable and Gtk::CellEditable. This inheritance means that Gtk::Entry is a Gtk::Widget that implements the Gtk::Editable and Gtk::CellEditable interfaces.
The other base classes you will use quite frequently:
Xfc::Object is an abstract base class that adds one feature to Xfc::Trackable, a reference counter. Its purpose is to implement the reference counting features of Xfc::Trackable for objects that don't have their own reference counter. Examples include Xfc::G::Boxed, Xfc::G::Scanner, Xfc::Gdk::Region, Xfc::Gtk::TargetList and Xfc::Pango::Attribute. To implement your own reference counted classes that can be managed with Xfc::Pointer<> derive your class from Xfc::Object.

Xfc::G::Boxed is the base class for all boxed objects. In GTK+, boxed objects are small opaque structures that are registered by the GLib type system. Examples of boxed objects include Xfc::Gdk::Color, Xfc::Gdk::Cursor, Xfc::G::Value, Xfc::Gtk::IconSet, Xfc::Gtk::TextAttributes and Xfc::Pango::FontDescription. 

Xfc::G::Object is the base class for all wrapped GTK+ objects and widgets and is the C++ wrapper class for GObject.

Xfc::Atk::Object is the base class for objects that implement accessibility support via the Accessibility Toolkit (ATK) . An accessible object for any widget can be obtained by calling Gtk::Widget::get_accessible().

Xfc::Gdk::Drawable is the base class for drawable objects such as Xfc::Gdk::Bitmap, Xfc::Gdk::Pixmap and Xfc::Gdk::Window. These classes are frequently used when drawing or manipulating images.

Xfc::Gtk::Object is the base class for libXFCui, the user interface toolkit. Examples include Xfc::Gtk::AccelLabel, Xfc::Gtk::Button and Xfc::Gtk::Widget, the base class for all widgets.

Reference Counting

The life cycle of an XFC object is controlled by its reference count, so it's important you understand reference counting. If you're already familiar GTK+ reference counting then you already understand XFC reference counting. XFC integrates GTK+ reference counting into its memory management scheme, and uses the same reference counting rules.

An XFC reference counted object is created with an initial reference count of 1. When you create a G::Object that is not Gtk::Object you own the initial reference. So you must call unref() to release the reference when the object is no longer required. An example of  G::Objects are Gtk::AccelGroup and Gtk::Style. When you create a Gtk::Object you don't own the initial reference, instead it's a floating reference that keeps the object alive until some other object claims ownership. A floating reference can be removed by anyone at any time by calling ref(). The first call to ref() will also sink a Gtk::Object so there is no sink() function. Most widget code assumes that only a Gtk::Container will call ref() to hold onto a reference to a child widget. If you create a Gtk::Object and never pass it to an owner you have to call ref() yourself and later call unref(). If you never call unref() it causes a memory leak. An Xfc::Object, just like G::Object, is created with a reference count of 1 that is owned by the caller and must be released later by calling unref(). All Xfc::G::Boxed objects are derived from Xfc::Object.

Gtk::Window is an exception to the rule. Its initial reference is owned by GTK+ so you only need to call unref() if you first called ref(). To destroy a Gtk::Window you must explicitly call dispose(), not unref(). When emitted, a destroy signal requests that reference owners drop there references. This causes Gtk::Container to drop its references to child widgets, and GTK+ to drop its reference to a top level Gtk::Window. This normally leads to object finalization, unless some other object is holding onto a reference.

If your a GTK+ programmer these rules should sound familiar to you because they're the GTK+ reference counting rules. The advantage in using GTK+ reference counting is that it keeps memory management consistent across the XFC and GTK+ libraries.

Memory Management

How do you prevent memory leaks? By writing code that doesn't contain any! Bjarne Stroustrup says "Clearly, if your code has new operations, delete operations, and pointer arithmetic all over the place, you are going to mess up somewhere and get leaks, stray pointers, etc. This is true independently of how conscientious you are with your allocations: eventually the complexity of the code will overcome the time and effort you can afford. It follows that successful techniques rely on hiding allocation and deallocation inside more manageable types".

XFC partially implements this approach to memory management by hiding deallocation inside the GTK+ reference counting scheme. This helps to prevent of memory leaks and makes memory management much safer and easier to use. It also ensures consistent and familiar memory management techniques across the XFC and GTK+ libraries.

So how does XFC's memory management actually work? Xfc::Trackable keeps track of all dynamic memory allocations. When a new XFC object is created XFC installs a C callback function that gets called when the wrapped C object is destroyed. If the XFC object was created on the heap the callback function will call operator delete. This leads to the most important  rule of memory management in XFC: you must never call delete on an XFC object. If the object was created by operator new, XFC will automatically call delete when the object's reference count reaches zero.
When you want to destroy an XFC object you either call unref() or dispose(). You would call unref() if you are holding onto a reference to an object and you would call dispose() if you are not. Calling unref() drops an object's reference count but the object wont be destroyed until its reference count reaches zero. Calling dispose() generates a destroy signal which tells all reference holders to release their reference so the object can be destroyed.

To create an XFC object on the heap you have to call operator new. The new object is created with an initial reference count of 1. If the object is a G::Object but not a Gtk::Object, you own the object's initial reference and must call unref() at some stage.

Gtk::AccelGroup *group = new Gtk::AccelGroup;
... // use group, e.g. pass to a Gtk::MenuItem constructor

When you pass a Gtk::AccelGroup (or any other G::Object) to an owner, the owner will hold onto a reference to the object so you can safely call unref(). If the object is a Gtk::Object its initial reference will be a floating reference. If you pass a Gtk::Object to an owner, like Gtk::Container you don't have to call unref() because the owner will call ref() to hold onto a reference to the object and will sink the object to clear the floating reference. For example:

Gtk::VBox *vbox = new Gtk::VBox;

If for some reason you want to hold onto a reference to a Gtk::Object you passed to an owner you have to call ref() and later unref(). In XFC there is no sink() function. Calling ref() for the first time on a Gtk::Object will automatically sink the object if it has a floating reference. If you want to hold onto a pointer to a widget you added to a container, for later use, you don't need to call ref(). It is safe to use the pointer as long as the container is valid because the container holds onto a reference to the widget and will only call unref() when the container itself gets destroyed.

You don't need to release the initial reference for a G::Object created on the stack. Stack objects are automatic objects and as such will automatically release their initial reference when they go out of scope. That means you only need to call unref() on a stack object if you first called ref(). Dialog boxes (which are a windows) are an exception. When you create a modal dialog box by calling run() you must call dispose() to destroy the dialog box, not unref().

Gtk::MessageDialog *dialog = new Gtk::MessageDialog(Gtk::MESSAGE_INFO, Gtk::BUTTONS_CLOSE, this);
dialog->set_message("This is a message");
if (dialog->run())

Xfc::Object is a reference counting base class that provides the reference counting facilities required to implement automatic memory management for those objects that don't derive from G::Object. Examples of such objects include G::Boxed, G::Date, G::Scanner, G::Timer, Gdk::Region, Gtk::TargetList and Pango::Attribute. Like G::Objects, Xfc::Objects can either be created dynamically with operator new or declared as automatic variables on the stack. Dynamically allocated Xfc::Objects must be explicitly unreferenced with unref(), so that operator delete gets called. If you don't want to be bothered calling unref() just use an XFC smart pointer and it will call unref() for you. As with  G::Objects, Xfc::Objects declared on the stack don't need to be unreferenced, unless you first called ref().

The XFC Smart Pointer

The XFC smart pointer (Xfc::Pointer<>) is a reference counting smart pointer that manages the life cycle of the object it points to by calling ref() and unref(). Unlike other reference counting smart pointers, Xfc::Pointer<> is GTK+ aware because it knows the difference between a G::Object and Gtk::Object, and handles their initial reference counts appropriately. So make sure you only use a XFC smart pointer on XFC objects.

To use Xfc::Pointer<> just pass the name of the object it will point to as the template argument. For example:

Pointer<Gtk::AccelGroup> group = new Gtk::AccelGroup;
... // use group. unref() is called when group goes out of scope

Xfc::Pointer<> is always used as a stack object so unref() automatically gets called on the object pointed to when it goes out of scope.

How does Xfc::Pointer<> know the difference between a G::Object and a Gtk::Object? That's what the second argument 'owns_reference' is for in an object's protected constructor.  If owns_reference is true the caller owns the initial reference and must call unref() to release it. If owns_reference is false the caller does not own the initial reference and only needs to call unref() if ref() was first called. When owns_reference is false the caller must either pass the object to an owner object, such as a container, or call ref(). Not passing an object to an owner object and not calling ref() will cause a memory leak. Look at these protected constructors:

G::Object(GObject *object, bool owns_reference = true);

Gtk::AccelGroup(GtkAccelGroup *group, bool owns_reference = true);

Gtk::Object(GtkObject *object, bool owns_reference = false);

Gtk::Widget(GtkWidget *widget, bool owns_reference = false);

Gtk::Window(GtkWindow *window, bool owns_reference = false);

Examining the default value of owns_reference in these constructors you can see that for G::Object owns_reference is true so the caller owns the initial reference count. Gtk::AccelGroup derives directly from G::Object so owns_reference is also true and the caller owns the initial reference count. For Gtk::Object, Gtk::Widget and Gtk::Window owns_reference is false so the caller does not own the initial reference. For all Gtk:: objects and widgets the initial reference is a floating reference, except for Gtk::Window. GTK+ owns all top level windows, including dialogs. At construction GTK+ references and sinks a window clearing its floating reference, so you should only call unref() on a top level window if you first called ref().

When you assign an object pointer to a Xfc::Pointer<>, the smart pointer examines the value of owns_reference. If owns_reference is true it doesn't call ref() on pointer acquisition.  Instead, it takes over ownership of the object's initial reference count and sets owns_reference to false. If owns_reference is false ref() is called on pointer acquisition. When a smart pointer goes out of scope it always calls unref() on the object it points to.

If your new to GTK+ programming and find the GTK+ reference counting rules too complex you can always use a XFC smart pointer for all objects you create with operator new. The smart pointer will know how handle reference counting correctly for all XFC objects. As you become more experienced you can then start using smart pointers only when you need to. If you take a look and the widget demonstration program and example applications that come with libXFCui, you will notice that a smart pointer is used for all objects that need their initial reference released. This makes programming a lot easier and avoids all those direct calls to unref().

This is a good place to talk about the use of XFC smart pointers as function arguments and return values. If a member function returns a pointer to an object that has had its reference count incremented and must be unreferenced, the pointer is returned as a smart pointer. Otherwise it is returned as a normal (dumb) pointer. But you can always assign the returned dumb pointer to a smart pointer if you prefer.

The Truth about Memory Leaks

The truth about memory leaks is that XFC cannot leak memory, but be warned XFC is not a garbage collector and must not be used that way. As mentioned earlier XFC tracks all dynamic memory allocations. It does this by storing a pointer to all memory allocated by operator new in a std::list<>. The newest allocations are pushed onto the front of the list. When operator delete is called on a dynamic object the list is searched from the front. When the object pointer is found it is removed from the list and the object it points to is deleted. This is quite fast because as a program executes and transient dynamic objects are created and destroyed, the most recent pointers will aways be found at the front of the list.

As a safe guard, when a program terminates the allocation list is iterated over and any pointers found in the list are deleted. This only deletes an object's raw memory and not the actual object pointed to because the actual object type is not known. Object destructors are not called either. So its up to you to learn the GTK+ reference counting rules and use them correctly.

Why is the allocation list needed? The main reason is to prevent memory leaks. For a language binding there are many potential memory leaks because GTK+ creates a lot of global objects that don't get destroyed until the GTK+ libraries are removed from memory. If you use the GNOME desktop GTK+ will not be removed from memory and those global objects wont get destroyed until GNOME is shut down. The destruction of a C object's C++ wrapper relies on the callback notification that occurs when a C object is destroyed. For global GTK+ objects that notification wont occur until after an application terminates, and so any global C++ wrappers used wont get deleted. Over time this can add up to a significant memory leak. What the XFC allocation list does is trap these pointers and reclaims the raw memory allocated to them when a program terminates. As an added bonus any stray pointers not unreferenced properly will also get trapped and their memory reclaimed. So should you make a mistake in your application it wont leak memory.

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