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C++ Opaque Pointer

An opaque pointer (also known as an opaque data type or incomplete type) is a design pattern in C++ where the internal implementation details of a class or data structure are hidden from the user of that class or data structure. The user of the class is only provided with a pointer to the type, but they do not have access to the details of the type’s members or implementation. This helps in encapsulation and information hiding, promoting more robust and maintainable code.

The opaque pointer pattern is often implemented using a combination of a forward declaration and a pointer to an incomplete type in a header file. Here’s a simple example:

// MyType.h - Header file

// Forward declaration of the incomplete type
class MyTypeImpl;

// Declaration of the public interface for MyType
class MyType {
    MyType();            // Constructor
    ~MyType();           // Destructor
    void doSomething();  // Public member function

    MyTypeImpl* pImpl;   // Opaque pointer to the incomplete type

In this example:

  • MyTypeImpl is the incomplete type that contains the private implementation details of MyType.
  • MyType is the public interface class that provides access to the functionality of MyType. Users of MyType can create instances, call public member functions, and manage the object’s lifetime.

Here’s the implementation of the MyType class:

// MyType.cpp - Implementation file

#include "MyType.h"

// Definition of the incomplete type MyTypeImpl
class MyTypeImpl {
    void doSomethingPrivate() {
        // Implementation details here

MyType::MyType() : pImpl(new MyTypeImpl()) {}

MyType::~MyType() {
    delete pImpl;

void MyType::doSomething() {
    pImpl->doSomethingPrivate(); // Accessing the private implementation

In this implementation:

  • MyTypeImpl is a separate class containing the private implementation details.
  • In the constructor of MyType, we allocate memory for the private implementation (MyTypeImpl) and store a pointer to it.
  • The doSomething function of MyType can access and call the private functions and members of the MyTypeImpl class via the opaque pointer.

Using an opaque pointer allows the library or class author to change the internal implementation details of MyType without affecting users of the class, as long as the public interface remains the same. It provides encapsulation and allows for more flexibility and maintainability in your code.


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