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Ambroisie's blog

Polymorphic Flyweight in C++

Coming back from our last post about generic flyweights in C++, we can write a flyweight that can be used with any abstract base classes.


I was writing a raytracer in C++, and used an abstract base class to represent textures. Having to potentially instantiate numerous identical textures, I wanted to avoid that problem and instead use a flyweight for my textures.

I first thought about using the generic flyweight scheme that I presented last time, however to do so I need a way to store and compare my objects.

I needed some infrastructure to extend the technique to be useful for my new use case.

RTTI and order

My textures' interface are the way I want to manipulate them in my raytracer, I cannot have access to the underlying type, and do not want to have to juggle their types outside of the implementation.

I also want to use RAII effectively, to avoid the headache of juggling lifetimes.

To this effect, I need to store some std::unique_ptr<TextureInterface> inside my set. However, to do so I need to come up with a way to totally order my values behind the TextureInterface.

std::type_info comes to the rescue: more specifically its sibling class std::type_index.

I could order my textures by their std::type_index to order them first by chunks of types, and then sort the values inside the chunks by calling an ordering method on my polymorphic objects.


The abstract class looked like this:

class AbstractTexture {
    // Abstract method to compare two instances of the same class
    virtual bool less_than(const AbstractTexture& other) = 0;

    virtual ~AbstractTexture() = default; // Abstract class => virtual destructor

    friend operator<(const AbstractTexture& lhs, const AbstractTexture& rhs) {
        const std::type_index lhs_i(lhs);
        const std::type_index rhs_i(rhs);
        if (lhs_i != rhs_i)
            returh lhs_i < rhs_i;
        // We are now assured that both classes have the same type
        return less_than(rhs);

And one of its children should be implemented like this:

class UniformTexture : public AbstractTexture {
    Color color_;

    bool less_than(const AbstractTexture& other) override {
        // We are assured that 'other' is of the same type at this point
        const auto& rhs = dynamic_cast<const UniformTexture&>(other);
        return color_ < rhs.color_; // Return appropriate order

We can now create a flyweight texture class by doing:

// Nice alias for a pointer to AbstractTexture
using texture_ptr = std::unique_ptr<AbstractTexture>;

// An implementation of the 'less_than' comparison for 'texture_ptr'
class TextureCmp {
    bool operator()(const texture_ptr& lhs, const texture_ptr& rhs) {
        return *lhs < *rhs; // Proxy to operator< for AbstractTexture

class Texture : Unique<texture_ptr, TextureCmp> {
    // Implement using the underlying AbstractTexture interface


I have now showed you this technique to implement a flyweight for any abstract class you might want to use it for. Having neither seen anybody use an std::set to store flyweights, nor anybody writing tutorials about storing polymorphic objects in flyweights, I had a blast trying to figure out an elegant solution to this problem.

My first implementation was complicated by the use of std::type_info directly, basically re-implementing std::type_index because I had missed it while reading the docs.

We could specialise our Unique class to avoid the double dereferencing when storing pointers in our set (instead of having the Unique store a pointer to the stored smart-pointer). We could also automatise the use of a comparison functor similar to the TextureCmp class defined above when storing pointer-like values in the set. Both of those are left as an exercise to the reader 😉