It is increasingly the case that you use generic algorithms in programming rather than reinvent the wheel by writing the algorithms yourself. Similarly, generic data structures should be used rather than reinventing data structures yourself.

The generic algorithm or data structure will require the object supplied by you to provide certain methods with a certain set of parameters in order to work.

So, the question is, if you are defining a generic algorithm or data structure, how do you specify the methods that the user must provide?

Clearly this could be done by writing comments all over the place or writing documentation that specifies the methods and their parameters. Of course, the documentation of the generic software should indeed contain such information. However, a better solution is one which is expressed in C++ so that the interface can be seen in a header file and which enables a compiler to do some consistency checking.

In Java there is a built-in concept called an interface that provides this functionality. What I have done therefore is to mimic the Java interface in C++.

Interface Classes

I define a C++ interface to be a class with one or more methods, some or all of which are abstract. The user indicates that they are providing the interface by making their class a derivative of the interface class.

An abstract method is one which has "= 0" placed after its declaration. This seems odd at first because it reads like an initial value. It makes more sense if you see it as meaning that the method has a null address.

A class is abstract if one or more of its methods is abstract.

It is illegal to create an object of an abstract class. You can only use it as a baseclass to a derivation that overloads all of the abstract methods. Only when all the abstract methods are overloaded by non-abstract methods does the derived class itself become non-abstract.

For example, the following class is abstract:

class printable
  void print(std::ostream&) const = 0;

This class is abstract because the print method is abstract. Such a class would define an interface to a printable object - so its name reflects its usage. Interface classes tend to have adjectives as names. The methods as usual in C++ are verbs.

In this case, the class has only one method and it is abstract. This is a pure interface class. However, sometimes it is convenient to provide other methods in the interface class which implement composite operations by calling the abstract methods. This is an impure interface. For example:

class printable
  void print(std::ostream&) const = 0;
  void print_indented(std::ostream&, unsigned indent);

In this case, the interface is saying that you must provide an overload of the abstract method print. Having done so, you will be able to call print_indented which has been defined in terms of the abstract print function. The point is that to implement the interface you only need to provide the abstract methods and having done so you can then use the non-abstract methods provided by the interface.

When you derive from an interface class, the rules of C++ require you to provide non-abstract overloadings of all the abstract methods defined in the interface. It is illegal in C++ to create an object of an abstract class and your class will only be non-abstract if all of the abstract functions have been overloaded correctly. Therefore the compiler can confirm that all the methods required by the interface have been provided. If you have missed out a method or mis-defined it, there will still be at least one abstract method inherited from the interface class and therefore your class will be abstract too. A compiler error will be produced when you try to create an object of the class.


The above printable interface is an artificial example and you will not find it in the STLplus library.

The Persistent Interface

This is an example taken from the STLplus library. I have defined a persistent interface for use with polymorphic types. It is only used for polymorphic types for which the best way of proving data persistence is through virtual methods.

The persistent interface is defined by the following class:

namespace stlplus

  class persistent
    virtual void dump(dump_context&) const = 0;
    virtual void restore(restore_context&) = 0;
    virtual persistent* clone(void) const = 0;


Using the trivial class from the previous section; to make that class persistent, you derive it from the persistent interface:

class base : public persistent
  int m_value;
  base(int value = 0) : m_value(value) {}
  virtual ~base(void) {}

  virtual int value (void) const {return m_value;}
  virtual void set(int value = 0) {m_value = value;}

void dump(dump_context& context) const {stlplus::dump_int(context,m_value);}
void restore(restore_context& context) {stlplus::restore_int(context,m_value);}
persistent* clone(void) const {return new base(*this);}

You will need to read the documentation on persistence to find out all the details of how this interface is used to provide data persistence - this document is only concerned with the meaning of the interface class and the requirements that it defines.