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Making Pimpl Easy


The Pimpl idiom is a simple yet robust technique to minimize coupling via the separation of interface and implementation and then implementation hiding. Successfully popularized by Sutter ([1,2]) under the cheeky Pimpl name (as for "pointer to implementation") the technique has been known long before under various names (the Cheshire Cat in [3], the Handle/Body in [4], the Bridge in [5]) and conceptually deployed in C and C++ as far back as at least early eighties ([6]).

In the domain of industrial software development where portability, implementation hiding and minimization of compilation dependencies come to the fore, the Pimpl technique can help great deal achieving those goals. Still, it does not seem to be very widely deployed. Sometimes that is due to efficiency considerations (valid or misguided) and probably more often due to additional implementation scaffolding and coding overhead associated with the technique.

I have been using the technique quite extensively lately and I found myself increasingly frustrated having to waste time cutting and pasting the same Pimpl-enabling set. I Googled around to see if there were easier deployment alternatives available. Not surprisingly, I found numerous Pimpl-related discussions and quite a few attempts to generalize the Pimpl idiom (see [7,8]). However, I was not able to find anything that I thought would fit my objective.

The conventional Pimpl deployment packs quite a punch by tackling two issues at once. The first is the separation of interface and implementation. The second is implementation hiding. The former is the obvious prerequisite for the latter. However, it is the latter that brings in all the benefits like portability and minimization of compilation dependencies.

All the implementations that I looked at managed the separation of interface and implementation quite well. However, the implementation hiding — the main quality and attraction of the Pimpl idiom — was routinely sacrificed in the name of generalization.

In addition, I was looking for a simple and convenient yet flexible and generic deployment technique. The conventional Pimpl deployment technique is uninspiring but already fairly straightforward. The complexity of any alternative technique is to be measured against that original and simplifying something so straightforward might be not as simple as it might seem.

In the end I rolled up my sleeves and came up with my own Pimpl generalization technique which (not surprisingly) I find quite satisfying. It's seemingly complete and broadly applicable, yet minimal, simple and pleasant to use. But I am admittedly biased. You decide for yourself. Read on. Try the code (located here). Let me know if there is anything that I missed or got wrong that could be improved.

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