variants in C++14 without boost


Variants in their native land

One of the best parts of functional programming are Algebraic Data Types, also known as Sum types, also known as variants. They help you make more type safe programs, self-documenting code.

Here are some examples in OCaml

type 'a option = Some of 'a | None

This is the famous option type of functional programming. A fun thing about option is that its also a Monad, so >>= aka bind is easily defined as:

let ( >>= ) x f = match x with Some h -> f h | _ -> None

Another example recently added to the OCaml standard library is the result type.

type ('success, 'failure) result = Ok of 'success | Error of 'failure

The things prefixed with ' are called type variables, they let you write generic code from the getgo. We only need one for option but we need two different ones for result so that the type of the Ok variant need not be the same as the type of the Error variant.

Once you get an result value, you can pattern match on it:

let process_result = function 
  | Ok r -> (* Do something with r *)
  | Error reason -> (* Do something with the error *)

variants in C++

In C++ variants are not first class citizens of the language, so they need to be provided by a library. In modern C++ our options are C++17’s std::variant, boost::variant or someone’s own rolled version.

I don’t want the boost dependency and I can’t use C++17 so I looked for a library implementation. I found one by mapbox and it fit my usecase perfectly; its a header only template library and I like the API provided. Here’s my implementation of option using the mapbox variant library.

// Let's assume this file is named optional.hpp
#pragma once

#include <mapbox/variant.hpp>

namespace optional {
  struct None { };
  template<typename T>
  struct Some { T payload; };

  template<typename T>
  struct Optional : mapbox::util::variant<None, Some<T>> {
    using Base = mapbox::util::variant<None, Some<T>>;
    using Base::Base;

  // These two are helper functions, like std::make_unique, etc.
  template<typename T>
  auto some(T x)  { return Optional<T>{Some<T>{x}}; }

  template<typename T>
  auto none(void) { return Optional<T>{None{}}; }


And here’s an example usage:

// Let's assume this file is named main.cpp
#include <string>
#include <iostream>

#include "optional.hpp"

// This lets just make std::string just by adding a suffix of 's'
// to things that otherwise look like char *
using namespace std::literals::string_literals;

// Pretend that this is something that could fail.
auto file_contents(void) {
  return optional::some("some file contents"s);

int main(void)
  	   [](optional::None) {
  	     std::cout << "Check if file existed\n";
  	   [](auto some) {
  	     std::cout << "File contents: " << some.payload;

and you can easily compile it with, assuming that you added mapbox/variant.hpp to your compiler’s include search path…

$ clang++ -std=c++14 main.cpp

Happy coding.