Simple copy-on-write framework

Ulrich Eckhardt <>
27 Oct 2006 10:32:46 -0400

I recently stumbled over the fact that using existing tools it is quite easy
to create a COW framework (almost) without any additional locking for
multithreaded code.

The idea is simple:
1. While you modify an object, you store it in a std::auto_ptr<T>. This
makes sharing the object impossible (due to auto_ptr's move semantics).
2. If you want to share an object, you store it in a boost::shared_ptr<T

Now, if you have an existing object, shared across threads via a
shared_ptr<T const> you obviously can't modify it, unless you first copy
it. For convenience, you store that copy in an auto_ptr<T> until you
finally assign that to the shared_ptr. This final assignment operation is
also the only place where you need a lock. Afterwards, your auto_ptr is
null and thus the only modifyable reference to the object is gone (unless
you cheated, of course) so if the object is thread-safe for concurrent
reads everything is fine.

In a related topic, the virtual copy construct comes in handy in this

struct base {
   virtual auto_ptr<base> clone() const = 0;

struct derived: base {
   virtual auto_ptr<base> clone() const {
     return auto_ptr<base>(new derived(*this));

A mutating operation then looks like this:

shared_ptr<T const> pc = get_ptr(); // uses locking
auto_ptr<T> p = pc->clone();
set_ptr(shared_ptr<T const>(p)); // uses locking

Quite simple and charming, so I thought I'd share it. And also of course to
get some peer review.


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