Bert's blog

Template programming

Nowadays, computers can be programmed using a large variety of computing languages, with very different degrees of complexity and sometimes with a very strong fan base of enthusiastic users. Fundamentally though, computers and their CPUs only understand one language: the machine code that contains the binary instructions for the CPU that tell it what to do. This machine code only depends on the type of CPU, and has no link to any specific programming language. To convert human readable code (usually written using ASCII characters in some kind of text editor) into machine code (long series of bits that can be fed straight into the CPU) some kind of code interpreter or compiler is required. If an interpreter is used, the conversion is done while the code is already running, and overall code execution will be slow (this is what happens for Python and Java). If a compiler is used, the human readable code is translated into machine code before the program is executed, resulting in a program binary that makes optimal use of the CPU.

To make the conversion from program code to machine code, the compiler can make a number of assumptions that allow it to generate more efficient machine code. If you for example have a loop that needs to be executed a certain number of times, and the compiler can deduce what that number is during compilation, it can choose to get rid of the loop altogether and just generate machine code for that fixed number of iterations. This way, all the instructions necessary to control the loop can be completely removed from the machine code. Similarly, the compiler can decide to inline a small function call by replacing the explicit call to another bit of machine code with the instructions that are in that function, removing the overhead of actually calling a function.

A programmer can also directly give instructions to the compiler. In C(++), these compiler instructions are preceded by a hashtag (#). One typical example is the #include statement, which is used to include header files (that contain information about functions that are provided in external source code files or the C(++) standard library). When a compiler encounters such an instruction, it will immediately interpret and execute it; in the case of an #include statement, this means it will copy the entire contents of the header file into the currently compiled file. Other compiler instructions are e.g. #define, which allows you to define a variable or macro that can be referenced elsewhere in the code, and that will be literally replaced by whatever the #define defines by the compiler before it actually compiles the code, or the #pragma statements that are typically used to include OpenMP instructions for shared memory parallelisation.

In C++, these basic compiler instructions have been expanded with a very powerful language concept: templates. As with the compiler instructions above, templates are entirely handled by the compiler at compilation time, which means they are not present in the final machine code. They do however allow you to write more modular and more concise code, and are very useful in certain situations. An introduction.

An example template

If you have ever used any of the standard C++ library functionality, you very likely encountered templates without realising it. Consider for example the following bit of code:

#include <iostream>
#include <vector>

int main(int argc, char **argv){

  std::vector<double> positions(4);
  positions[0] = 0.;
  positions[1] = 3.;
  positions[2] = 9.;
  positions[3] = 6.;

  for(unsigned int i = 0; i < positions.size(); ++i){
    std::cout << "positions[" << i << "]: " << positions[i] << std::endl;

  return 0;

This snippet creates a four element vector with double precision floating point values, assigns values to the individual elements, and then displays the contents of the vector. The reason we know the vector contains floating point elements is because of its declaration: std::vector<double> positions(4). This bit of code calls the constructor of the std::vector class with a single argument (the number of elements: 4). The type of the elements is declared using the <double> part of the statement. This is a template declaration!

So why do we use a template here (and how does this work)? Basically, a C++ vector is nothing more than a memory block for which the memory allocation and deallocation are hidden, and with some additional functionality (like the possibility to query the size of the vector using the size() function). Without using vectors, we could rewrite the same bit of code as

double *positions = new double[4];
positions[0] = 0.;
for(unsigned int i = 0; i < 4; ++i){
delete [] positions;

Suppose that instead of double precision floating point elements, we wanted to use 32-bit integers as the data type for the vector elements. Then the only thing we would need to do is replace double with int twice in the above code snippet. If we were to write our own std::vector class, then the only change required between the vector with floating point values and the one with integer values would be a similar change from double to int. All the other functionality of the vector class would be completely unaffected by this change.

When we write the above piece of code, we know, while writing it, that we want the data type of the vector elements to be double. Since we know this, this fact is also known at compile time by the compiler. This means that the compiler could in principle also make the change from double to int if we were to change our mind about the data type. Of course, the compiler is not allowed to simply change every double to int (as this might break other parts of the code). We can however tell it which occurrences of a specific value can be replaced at compile time. This is what templates do.

To be more specific, the C++ std::vector class does not actually use a specific data type internally. Instead, it uses a template data type: it replaces all occurrences of the data type with a placeholder name, so that the compiler knows which variables to replace with a specific type at compile time. To tell the compiler which data type we want to use, we simply provide it as an additional instruction to the std::vector class, by means of the <>.

Writing your own template classes

So you can use template classes by providing a template argument in between <> when constructing a template class. But how do you declare a template class? Let’s write our own version of the C++ standard vector class:

template <typename _data_type_>
class OurVector{
  unsigned int _size;

  _data_type_ *_elements;

  OurVector(unsigned int size) : _size(size) {
    _elements = new _data_type_(size);

  ~OurVector() {
    delete [] _elements;

  _data_type_ &operator[](unsigned int index){
    return _elements[index];

  unsigned int size() {
    return _size;

This class does everything the std::vector in our previous example had to do: it contains a constructor that allocates the vector in memory, a destructor that takes care of deallocating the memory when the vector is no longer used, a size() function that returns the size of the vector, and an indexing operator function (operator[]) that allows accessing individual elements of the vector. To turn this class into a template class, the only thing we had to do was replace all specific occurrences of the vector data type with the label _data_type_, and add the template declaration template <typename _data_type_> to the class definition. That’s all!

Note however that there is an additional subtlety: since the template class uses the label _data_type_ as data type, it cannot be compiled on its own (_data_type_ is not a valid C++ type!). This means that the compiler first needs to replace _data_type_ with an actual type whenever the template class is used, before the class can be compiled. Since the compiler only knows what the data type should be when you call the constructor of the vector class in a source code file, the class needs to be compiled as part of that same source code file. Or in other words: you need to provide the full class inside a header file that can be included in the source code file that is being compiled. So unless you only plan to use the template class in one source code file, you always need to put the full class definition, including all template-dependent code, in a header file.

Note also that the label _data_type_ can be anything that is not a C++ key word. This can make it hard to distinguish between ordinary C++ variables and template labels. For this reason, I personally prefer to use the double underscore syntax (_label_) for template labels, but this is by no means standard practice.

In the example above, the template type was typename, which means the compiler is allowed to replace the template label with anything that could be used to declare a variable type (standard types like double or int, but also classes, as they can also act as type). It is also possible to use the template type class, in which case the compiler is allowed to replace the label with any class name, but not basic types like double or int. Finally, it is also possible to use the template type int, in which case the compiler will replace the label with an integer. This is useful to create classes with a variable number of elements that is known at compile time:

template <int _size_>
class Values{
  double _values[_size_];

  double &operator[](unsigned int index){
    return _values[index];

  unsigned int size(){
    return _size_;

This class can provide an alternative for a standard C++ array with an additional size() function (similar to std::array).

Template functions

The example above illustrated how to create template classes. In this case, the template label is used throughout the class definition, and a separate class will be created by the compiler each time the class constructor is called with a different template type. It is also possible to use a template in conjunction with an individual function (a function template), in which case the compiler will generate separate versions of that function for different template types.

Function templates are extremely useful when a function can perform the same action on a variety of variable types. Consider the following example:

#include <iostream>

template <typename _data_type_>
_data_type_ add(_data_type_ a, _data_type_ b) {
  _data_type_ result = a + b;
  std::cout << a << " + " << b << " = " << result << std::endl;
  return result;

In this case, we provided our own addition function that provides some output while performing the addition. Since both an addition and terminal output are independent of the variable type (_data_type_ could be double, int, float…), this function will work for any of those types, and apart from the _data_type_, the code would be exactly the same. By using a template function, we avoid unnecessary code duplication and leave this task to the compiler.

What if you do want to provide a separate function to add two double precision floating point values? In this case, a concept called template specialisation comes into play. By default, the compiler will only create a function (or class) from a template when it cannot find a matching function or class for the code signature it encountered. This makes sense, as the compiler is only allowed to create the same class or function once during the compilation of a single file (if you use a lot of std::vector<double> variables, it will only create the code for that class once). You are allowed to provide the code for a specific specialisation of a template yourself, in which case the compiler will always use your custom specialisation. This is done as follows:

double add<double>(double a, double b){
  double result = a + b;
  std::cout << "Double addition: " << a << " + " << b << " = " << result
            << std::endl;
  return result;

Note that we need to tell the compiler that this is a template function template<>, before we tell it that we explicitly assume the template type double.

What can I use templates for?

Templates can be useful in a variety of scenarios. A first (obvious) scenario is that of a container class, i.e. a class that is used to store values or objects (like a std::vector). Very often, these classes can be written in a way that is pretty much agnostic of what the object type is, and then a template allows you to reuse that same class for different object types without having to duplicate any code.

Another scenario in which template functions are very powerful is one where a function needs to read or write a value to and or from a terminal window or file. In such a function, the interface between the terminal window or file and the code will make use of a std::string, independent of the type of the variable that is read or written. The only thing that differs between different variable types is the conversion to and from a std::string. In this case, you can provide a single template input/output function that itself calls a template conversion function. That conversion function can then be specialised for different variable types, while only a single input/output function needs to be written.

The final scenario I want to mention here is one were templates are used to mimic object inheritance. Since template labels can also be classes, it is possible to call member functions on them. If multiple classes provide the same function (with exactly the same signature), then the compiler can in principle interchange these at compile time. This is similar to normal class inheritance, where a parent class defines a function signature that can then be implemented by different child classes. However, in normal inheritance, the compiler will always create an explicit function call to the parent function, and the decision on which function to call will be made at run time by the CPU, based on which child class is actually used. If you already know which child class will be used, then it is better to use a template: the compiler will then create a direct call to the actual child class function, avoiding the additional call to the parent function.


As repeatedly pointed out above, templates are completely handled by the compiler. This means that they can (and should) only be used when the information required to compile them is available at compile time. You can use a template size for a custom array class when you know what sizes of arrays you want to use in your code. You cannot use the template array when the size depends on the run time (it is e.g. read from the command line).

A good way to think about it is in terms of code duplication. In principle, you should always be able to do the same job as the compiler, and explicitly write the template specialisations you use yourself. If you are using templates correctly, this will mean a lot of code duplication, where you need to write a lot of classes/functions that are almost identical up to a single number or variable type. If you are somehow unable to write the code for a template specialisation (because it e.g. depends on a number that is not available before you start running the code), then you cannot use a template. If you notice that explicitly writing the template specialisations does not cause any significant code duplication, then it might be better to convert the class/function into a non-template version, as that makes for clearer code (unless you plan to use the same function with a different type later, of course).

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