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Apache C++ Standard Library User's Guide

16.4 Tips and Techniques for Building Algorithms

This section describes some techniques that use features of iterators to increase the flexibility and efficiency of your algorithms.

16.4.1 The iterator_traits Template

Sometimes an algorithm that can be implemented most efficiently with a random access iterator can also work with less powerful iterators. The C++ Standard Library includes primitives that allow a single algorithm to provide several different implementations, depending upon the power of the iterator passed into it. The following example demonstrates the usual technique for setting up multiple versions of the same algorithm:

The iterator_traits template provides typedefs for value, difference, pointer, reference, and category types that are based on the type used to instantiate the template. In the example above, we use iterator_traits::iterator_category to determine the capabilities of the iterator, and then use specializations to get the best available implementation of the algorithm. In order for iterator_traits to work, the iterator provided to the algorithm must be a simple pointer type or be derived from the iterator template, or it must itself define the types for value_type, difference_type, pointer, reference, and iterator_category. The iterator_category type must be one of the following: input_iterator_tag, output_iterator_tag, forward_iterator_tag, bidirectional_iterator_tag, or random_access_iterator_tag.

Note that when you use the iterator_traits template, the default implementation of an algorithm should expect at most a forward iterator. This default version is used if the algorithm encounters an iterator that is not a simple pointer or derived from a basic standard iterator. Note that input and output iterators are less capable than forward iterators, but that the requirements of algorithms generally mandate read/write capabilities.

Not also that iterator_traits only works with compilers that support partial specialization, since the specialization of iterator_traits for pointer types uses this feature. If your compiler doesn't support partial specialization, you can use the primitive __iterator_category(). Calling this function with an iterator argument returns the same tag you would get by using iterator_traits. For example, we could substitute the following line for the use of iterator_traits in the previous example:

Use iterator_traits::value_type and iterator_traits::difference_type to discover the type of value pointed to by an iterator, or the type that represents a distance between iterators. As with the category type, you must use the alternate functions __value_type() or __distance_type() when partial specialization is not available. Both of these functions take an iterator as an argument in just the same way as __iterator_category().

16.4.2 The distance and advance Primitives

The value_type primitive lets you determine the type of value pointed to by an iterator. Similarly, you can use the distance_type primitive to get a type that represents distances between iterators.

In order to efficiently find the distance between two iterators, regardless of their capabilities, you can use the distance primitive. The distance primitive uses the technique in Section 16.4.1 to send a calling program to one of four different implementations. This offers a considerable gain in efficiency, since an implementation for a forward iterator must step through the range defined by the two iterators:

whereas an implementation for a random access iterator can simply subtract the start iterator from the end iterator:

Similar gains are available with the advance primitive, which allows you to step forward or backward an arbitrary number of steps as efficiently as possible for a particular iterator.

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