Crash Course: reflection system

Michele Caini edited this page Oct 12, 2018 · 1 revision

Crash Course: reflection system

Table of Contents

Introduction

Reflection (or rather, its lack) is a trending topic in the C++ world and, in the specific case of EnTT, a tool that can unlock a lot of other features. I looked for a third-party library that met my needs on the subject, but I always came across some details that I didn't like: macros, being intrusive, too many allocations. In one word: unsatisfactory.
I finally decided to write a built-in, non-intrusive and macro-free runtime reflection system for `EnTT. Maybe I didn't do better than others or maybe yes, time will tell me, but at least I can model this tool around the library to which it belongs and not vice versa.

Reflection in a nutshell

Reflection always starts from real types (users cannot reflect imaginary types and it would not make much sense, we wouldn't be talking about reflection anymore).
To reflect a type, the library provides the reflect function:

auto factory = entt::reflect<my_type>("reflected_type");

It accepts the type to reflect as a template parameter and an optional name as an argument. Names are important because users can retrieve meta types at runtime by searching for them by name. However, there are cases in which users can be interested in adding features to a reflected type so that the reflection system can use it correctly under the hood, but they don't want to allow searching the type by name.
In both cases, the returned value is a factory object to use to continue building the meta type.

A factory is such that all its member functions returns the factory itself. It can be used to extend the reflected type and add the following:

  • Constructors. Actual constructors can be assigned to a reflected type by specifying their list of arguments. Free functions (namely, factories) can be used as well, as long as the return type is the expected one. From a client's point of view, nothing changes if a constructor is a free function or an actual constructor.
    Use the ctor member function for this purpose:

    entt::reflect<my_type>("reflected").ctor<int, char>().ctor<&factory>();
  • Destructors. Free functions can be set as destructors of reflected types. The purpose is to give users the ability to free up resources that require special treatment before an object is actually destroyed.
    Use the dtor member function for this purpose:

    entt::reflect<my_type>("reflected").dtor<&destroy>();
  • Data members. Both real data members of the underlying type and static and global variables, as well as constants of any kind, can be attached to a meta type. From a client's point of view, all the variables associated with the reflected type will appear as if they were part of the type itself.
    Use the data member function for this purpose:

    entt::reflect<my_type>("reflected")
        .data<&my_type::static_variable>("static")
        .data<&my_type::data_member>("member")
        .data<&global_variable>("global");

    This function requires as an argument the name to give to the meta data once created. Users can then access meta data at runtime by searching for them by name.

  • Member functions. Both real member functions of the underlying type and free functions can be attached to a meta type. From a client's point of view, all the functions associated with the reflected type will appear as if they were part of the type itself.
    Use the func member function for this purpose:

    entt::reflect<my_type>("reflected")
        .func<&my_type::static_function>("static")
        .func<&my_type::member_function>("member")
        .func<&free_function>("free");

    This function requires as an argument the name to give to the meta function once created. Users can then access meta functions at runtime by searching for them by name.

  • Base classes. A base class is such that the underlying type is actually derived from it. In this case, the reflection system tracks the relationship and allows for implicit casts at runtime when required.
    Use the base member function for this purpose:

    entt::reflect<derived_type>("derived").base<base_type>();

    From now on, wherever a my_base_type is required, an instance of my_type will also be accepted.

  • Conversion functions. Actual types can be converted, this is a fact. Just think of the relationship between a double and an int to see it. Similar to bases, conversion functions allow users to define conversions that will be implicitly performed by the reflection system when required.
    Use the conv member function for this purpose:

    entt::reflect<double>().conv<int>();

That's all, everything users need to create meta types and enjoy the reflection system. At first glance it may not seem that much, but users usually learn to appreciate it over time.
Also, do not forget what these few lines hide under the hood: a built-in, non-intrusive and macro-free system for reflection in C++. Features that are definitely worth the price, at least for me.

Any as in any type

The reflection system comes with its own meta any type. It may seem redundant since C++17 introduced std::any, but it is not.
In fact, the type returned by an std::any is a const reference to an std::type_info, an implementation defined class that's not something everyone wants to see in a software. Furthermore, the class std::type_info suffers from some design flaws and there is even no way to convert an std::type_info into a meta type, thus linking the two worlds.

A meta any object provides an API similar to that of its most famous counterpart and serves the same purpose of being an opaque container for any type of value.
It minimizes the allocations required, which are almost absent thanks to SBO techniques. In fact, unless users deal with fat types and create instances of them though the reflection system, allocations are at zero.

A meta any object can be created by any other object or as an empty container to initialize later:

// a meta any object that contains an int
entt::meta_any any{0};

// an empty meta any object
entt::meta_any empty{};

It can be constructed or assigned by copy and move and it takes the burden of destroying the contained object when required.
A meta any object has a type member function that returns the meta type of the contained value, if any. The member functions can_cast and can_convert are used to know if the underlying object has a given type as a base or if it can be converted implicitly to it. Similarly, cast and convert do what they promise and return the expected value.

Enjoy the runtime

Once the web of reflected types has been constructed, it's a matter of using it at runtime where required.
All this has the great merit that, unlike the vast majority of the things present in this library and closely linked to the compile-time, the reflection system stands in fact as a non-intrusive tool for the runtime.

To search for a reflected type there are two options: by type or by name. In both cases, the search can be done by means of the resolve function:

// search for a reflected type by type
auto by_type = entt::resolve<my_type>();

// search for a reflected type by name
auto by_name = entt::resolve("reflected_type");

There exits also a third overload of the resolve function to use to iterate all the reflected types at once:

resolve([](auto type) {
    // ...
});

In all cases, the returned value is an instance of meta_type. This type of objects offer an API to know the runtime name of the type, to iterate all the meta objects associated with them and even to build or destroy instances of the underlying type.
Refer to the inline documentation for all the details.

The meta objects that compose a meta type are accessed in the following ways:

  • Meta constructors. They are accessed by types of arguments:

    auto ctor = entt::resolve<my_type>().ctor<int, char>();

    The returned type is meta_ctor and may be invalid if there is no constructor that accepts the supplied arguments or at least some types from which they are derived or to which they can be converted.
    A meta constructor offers an API to know the number of arguments, the expected meta types and to invoke it, therefore to construct a new instance of the underlying type.

  • Meta destructor. It's returned by a dedicated function:

    auto dtor = entt::resolve<my_type>().dtor();

    The returned type is meta_dtor and may be invalid if there is no custom destructor set for the given meta type.
    All what a meta destructor has to offer is a way to invoke it on a given instance. Be aware that the result may not be what is expected.

  • Meta data. They are accessed by name:

    auto data = entt::resolve<my_type>().data("member");

    The returned type is meta_data and may be invalid if there is no meta data object associated with the given name.
    A meta data object offers an API to query the underlying type (ie to know if it's a const or a static one), to get the meta type of the variable and to set or get the contained value.

  • Meta functions. They are accessed by name:

    auto func = entt::resolve<my_type>().func("member");

    The returned type is meta_func and may be invalid if there is no meta function object associated with the given name.
    A meta function object offers an API to query the underlying type (ie to know if it's a const or a static function), to know the number of arguments, the meta return type and the meta types of the parameters. In addition, a meta function object can be used to invoke the underlying function and then get the return value in the form of meta any object.

  • Meta bases. They are accessed through the name of the base types:

    auto base = entt::resolve<derived_type>().base("base");

    The returned type is meta_base and may be invalid if there is no meta base object associated with the given name.
    Meta bases aren't meant to be used directly, even though they are freely accessible. They expose only a few methods to use to know the meta type of the base class and to convert a raw pointer between types.

  • Meta conversion functions. They are accessed by type:

    auto conv = entt::resolve<double>().conv<int>();

    The returned type is meta_conv and may be invalid if there is no meta conversion function associated with the given type.
    The meta conversion functions are as thin as the meta bases and with a very similar interface. The sole difference is that they return a newly created instance wrapped in a meta any object when they convert between different types.

All the objects thus obtained as well as the meta types can be explicitly converted to a boolean value to check if they are valid:

auto func = entt::resolve<my_type>().func("member");

if(func) {
    // ...
}

Furthermore, all meta objects with the exception of meta destructors can be iterated through an overload that accepts a callback through which to return them. As an example:

entt::resolve<my_type>().data([](auto data) {
    // ...
});

A meta type can also be used to construct or destroy actual instances of the underlying type.
In particular, the construct member function accepts a variable number of arguments and searches for a match. It returns a meta_any object that may or may not be initialized, depending on whether a suitable constructor has been found or not. On the other side, the destroy member function accepts instances of meta_any as well as actual objects by reference and invokes the registered destructor if any or a default one.
Be aware that the result of a call to destroy may not be what is expected.

Meta types and meta objects in general contain much more than what is said: a plethora of functions in addition to those listed whose purposes and uses go unfortunately beyond the scope of this document.
I invite anyone interested in the subject to look at the code, experiment and read the official documentation to get the best out of this powerful tool.

Named constants and enums

A special mention should be made for constant values and enums. It wouldn't be necessary, but it will help distracted readers.

As mentioned, the data member function can be used to reflect constants of any type among the other things.
This allows users to create meta types for enums that will work exactly like any other meta type built from a class. Similarly, arithmetic types can be enriched with constants of special meaning where required.
Personally, I find it very useful not to export what is the difference between enums and classes in C++ directly in the space of the reflected types.

All the values thus exported will appear to users as if they were constant data members of the reflected types.

Exporting constant values or elements from an enum is as simple as ever:

entt::reflect<my_enum>()
        .data<my_enum::a_value>("a_value")
        .data<my_enum::another_value>("another_value");

entt::reflect<int>().data<2048>("max_int");

It goes without saying that accessing them is trivial as well. It's a matter of doing the following, as with any other data member of a meta type:

auto value = entt::resolve<my_enum>().data("a_value").get({}).cast<my_enum>();
auto max = entt::resolve<int>().data("max_int").get({}).cast<int>();

As a side note, remember that all this happens behind the scenes without any allocation because of the small object optimization performed by the meta any class.

Properties and meta objects

Sometimes (ie when it comes to creating an editor) it might be useful to be able to attach properties to the meta objects created. Fortunately, this is possible for most of them.
To attach a property to a meta object, no matter what as long as it supports properties, it is sufficient to provide an object at the time of construction such that std::get<0> and std::get<1> are valid for it. In other terms, the properties are nothing more than key/value pairs users can put in an std::pair. As an example:

entt::reflect<my_type>("reflected", std::make_pair("tooltip"_hs, "message"));

The meta objects that support properties offer then a couple of member functions named prop to iterate them at once and to search a specific property by key:

// iterate all the properties of a meta type
entt::resolve<my_type>().prop([](auto prop) {
    // ...
});

// search for a given property by name
auto prop = entt::resolve<my_type>().prop("tooltip"_hs);

Meta properties are objects having a fairly poor interface, all in all. They only provide the key and the value member functions to be used to retrieve the key and the value contained in the form of meta any objects, respectively.

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