Lesson #19

Exception Safety


In this lesson I will cover the following topics

  1. The difficulties involved in writing exception safe code.

  2. What operations can't (or shouldn't) throw exceptions and why you should care.

  3. Resource allocation is initialization (RAII) as a general technique to prevent resource leaks when exceptions are being used.


The problem with exceptions

Throwing an exception is an alternate, and sometimes unexpected, way of returning from a function. As a result programs must be written with care so that they operate in sensible ways when exceptions are thrown. Even functions that do not contain any explicit exception handling code must be reviewed for "exception safety." Although such functions do not need to include any explicit error checks, the possibility of errors must still be considered in them. The purpose of this lesson is to alert you to the issues involved so that you can write exception safe code.

The best way to appreciate the issues is to see an example of code that is not exception safe. Consider a simple string class. Objects of this class hold a pointer to a dynamically allocated buffer where the text of the string is located. They also hold an integer that specifies the size of the string. (That allows the size can be returned in a short time independent of the string's length).

class String {
    String &operator=(const String &);
      // Overloaded assignment operator lets you assign one string to another.

    char  *buffer;
    size_t size;

For brevity I left out of the above definition many other useful and necessary public operations. Here's how String's operator=() might look.

String &String::operator=(const String &other)
  // Blow away the current string.
  delete [] buffer;

  // Allocate new space for a copy of the other string.
  buffer = new char[other.size];

  // Copy the other string.
  std::memcpy(buffer, other.buffer, other.size);
  size = other.size;

  // Return a reference to the result object.
  return *this;

The function above looks fairly simple and straight forward. However, it has a serious flaw. It is not exception safe. In particular, allocating memory might throw a std::bad_alloc exception if there is insufficient memory for the requested allocation. Memory is a potentially scarce resource. You should never assume that there will be enough of it whenever you need more. For example, consider the case where the "other" String is extremely long.

If the allocation throws then the function above aborts on the line

buffer = new char[other.size];

The lines below this line are never executed. Instead the exception propagates to whatever function called this one in its search for a std::bad_alloc handler. What state does that leave the string that was the target of this assignment? Its buffer has been deleted, but the value stored in the pointer member has not been updated; it still points at the deleted block of memory. The result is a String that is completely unusable. Any attempt to manipulate it will cause undefined behavior. In fact, even destroying it will cause undefined behavior since the destructor for this string class (not shown) must do delete [] buffer in order to recover a String's memory. When a delete is performed on the block that has already been deleted you will have problems.

The function can be easily fixed, however, to make it exception safe. Here's how it looks

String &String::operator=(const String &other)
  // Allocate memory for the copy.
  char *temp = new char[other.size];

  // If we got here, the allocation must have worked.
  delete [] buffer;
  buffer = temp;

  std::memcpy(buffer, other.buffer, other.size);
  size = other.size;

  return *this;

In this version I do the allocation before I commit myself to modifying the target object. If the allocation throws, the target object is left in exactly the same state as it was before I started. In effect, the target object is either completely updated correctly or not updated at all. Once I know the allocation will succeed, I can then begin modifying the target object with confidence. None of the other operations in the function will ever throw an exception.

Both versions of the function seem superficially the same. Yet one has a serious problem and the other one does not. Exception safety is a subtle issue. The difference between an exception safe function and one that is not exception safe is often very minor. Typically just rearranging a few lines is all that it takes to transform a function from one that works when exceptions are thrown into one that causes major problems when exceptions are thrown.

Notice that exception safety comes with a price. The exception safe version requires more memory than the unsafe version. It holds on to the memory that the target string is using while it allocates space for a copy of the source string. The original version first gave back memory to the system before allocating space for the copy. If the strings are both very long, it is quite possible that the exception safe version will fail when the original version might not. This is often the case. Writing exception safe code often requires giving up some performance... either in space or time.

The general problem

Now that you've seen a specific example, let me formulate the problem in more general terms.

When an object is updated the operation doing the update might require several steps. While the update is in progress the object might thus go through several intermediate states that are technically invalid. If the update completes normally the object will be put back into a valid state before the update operation finishes. However, if an exception occurs while the object is in an invalid state, the update will be aborted and the object will be left in an invalid state. This is undesirable.

Exception safety is not really a black and white issue. Saying an operation is exception safe does not really say very much because there are several "levels" of safety one might talk about. It is useful to distinguish between the following cases

  1. The object is completely updated correctly or, if an exception occurs, the object is left unmodified. This is the most desirable situation from the point of view of the user. Stroustrup, the creator of C++, calls this the "strong gaurentee". Surprisingly it is often possible to get this by simply arranging your code carefully. In general, try to do all operations that might throw before committing to any changes of the target object. This is what I did in my string example above. However, this is an infeasible approach in many cases.

  2. The object is left in a valid state, but with a "random" value. In this situation the partial update leaves the object with a value that makes no sense to the application—it is neither the original value nor the desired final value. It might not even resemble either of those values. However, the object still "works" in the sense that all operations that you might want to apply to the object will be well defined.

  3. The object is left in an invalid state, but it is still destructable. Furthermore the destruction of the object will correctly recover all resources that the object is using. In this case, the object can't be used normally. The calling program must not touch it after the exception has occurred. However, the object can be thrown away without causing the program any problems.

  4. The object is left in a completely invalid state; it can't even be destroyed. In this case the program has a serious problem. If it is coded correctly it will try to destroy every object it creates. When the invalid object is destroyed the program's behavior will become undefined.

Stroustrup regards cases #2 and #3 as basically equivalent and says that an object that promises either case #2 or case #3 makes the "basic gaurentee". Treating those cases as the same makes some sense. If an object has a "random" value, the best you can probably do with it is throw it away. Knowing that it still works doesn't help you much. However, if the object still works you could attempt to initialize it with a meaningful value again and retry the operation that threw the exception (after correcting whatever situation caused the exception in the first place). You wouldn't be able to do that with case #3 so I think there is some justification for distinguishing those cases.

When you write your own functions, try to build in the strong gaurentee (case #1). Think about which operations you are doing might throw and arrange to do them all before committing to any irreversible changes. Sometimes it will be impossible to honor the strong gaurentee without making a superhuman effort (and reducing performance to an unacceptable degree). In that case, you must fall back to supporting only the basic gaurentee—be sure your object is left in a destructable state. If you can keep the object fully operational as well that is an added bonus.

In many cases you can get the exception safety you want by just arranging your code carefully. Sometimes you'll have to catch exceptions yourself, back out some changes, and then rethrow the exception you caught. Here is how that looks in C++

void f()
  try {

    // Do things that might throw.


  // Catch anything.
  catch (...) {

    // Back out some changes to leave target objects in an acceptable
    // state.

    // Rethrow whatever exception you got so that it can be handled by
    // a higher level function.

You should only use this method when it is necessary to do so. Try blocks complicate your function and also tend to slow it down. In a vast majority of cases, you can get the exception safety you need by just arranging your code carefully.

So what operations don't throw?

When you start thinking about exception safety and start trying to arrange your code so that your functions are exception safe, you quickly realize that it is essential to know which operations don't throw exceptions. Ideally once you've committed yourself to modifying objects, you should only do non-throwing operations. Thus knowing what those operations are is very important.

  1. No operation on a primitive object throws. Such operations include adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing integers, manipulating pointers, and working with characters.

  2. You can assume that no iterator operation throws. Most iterator operations are just primitive operations. In theory a complicated iterator type might throw, but you can consider that a problem with the iterator and not with your code.

  3. Deallocating a block of memory does not throw. In theory a specialized deallocator function might throw, but you can also consider that to be a problem with the deallocator. (The standard delete function is gaurenteed by the standard not to throw).

  4. Destructors do not throw. Again, in theory a destructor might throw, but it is a bad idea to write such destructors. Most of what destructors do---give resources back to the system—do not stimulate exceptions.

  5. Any operation that treats an object as a constant (read only) does not throw. Again, in theory such an operation might throw---particularly if the object has some internal state that is updated by the read (a cache, for example). However, in practice such a situation would be rare. If an object does update its internal state during a read, it should probably absorb all of the exceptions that occur while doing so.

  6. Any function explicitly declared to throw nothing (by way of an exception specification) does not throw. C++ exception specifications are controversial and not widely used. I have more to say about them in a later lesson.

  7. Functions in the C standard library do not throw. Thus functions like memcpy used in the example above definitely does not throw any exceptions.

Here are some operations that definitely might throw. When you do these things, be wary of exceptions.

  1. Constructing objects---especially large or complicated objects. Constructors typically acquire resources from the system (memory, handles, locks, etc) and they are prone to throwing exceptions if they are unable to get the resources they need.

    NOTE: When a constructor throws, the destructor for that object will not be executed. Thus when writing a constructor, be sure that if an exception is thrown you release any resources you've already acquired. You can't rely on the destructor to take care of that for you.

    NOTE ALSO: When a constructor throws, the object will be left in an unusable state (it has, in effect, been destroyed by the constructor's exception handling). This is not really a problem though since the object will be inaccessible... the scope of its declaration will have been exited by the exception.

    NOTE ALSO: If an object contains subobjects with destructors (members or base class objects), those objects *will* get destroyed if the constructor of the overall object throws. The general rule is: only completely constructed objects, including members and base subobjects are destroyed when an exception is thrown.

  2. Allocating memory. Any operation you do that involves extending the size of an object might throw.

  3. Copying complicated objects. Typically the objects need to allocate memory internally to make their copy. There are other reasons why making a copy might fail.

  4. Passing an object into a function by value or returning an object from a function. These operations involve copying objects. See item #3 above. Note that passing objects into a function by reference will not throw since no copies are made.

    Take a look at this example

    x = y + z;

    If x, y, and z are type integer, the expression can't throw. However, if x, y, and z are of some more complex type (say very_long), this expression involves returning an object from operator+(), and copying that object into x by way of operator=(). Either of those operations might throw. Also the computation of y + z might throw internally even before the operator+() function tries to return. (What state will x be in if the expression above throws?)

  5. Be especially wary of template type parameters. For example

    template<typename T>
    void f()
      // Operations on objects of type T might throw. We don't know what
      // the type T is right now!

This list of operations that might throw is not exhaustive. It's just meant to give you a feeling for what to watch out for when writing exception safe code.

Resource allocation is initialization (RAII)

Another important aspect of writing exception safe code is in the handling of resources. When an exception is thrown all functions between the throw point and the handler are aborted. What about the various resources those functions own? Here is an example

void f()
  // Dynamically allocate an object.
  std::string *p = new std::string;


  // Release the memory acquired above.
  delete p;

What if function g throws? In that case, the string allocated at the top of function f is never released and the program has leaked memory.

Memory is one of the most important and commonly used resources. However, there are many kinds of resources that programs obtain and then later release. Here is a partial list

  1. Memory. A long lived program (such as a server) that leaks memory will run out of memory eventually.

  2. Open files. Usually there is a limit to how many files a process can have open at once so it is important to close files when they are no longer needed.

  3. Network connections. Very similar to open files in some ways.

  4. GUI handles. Most graphical systems require that you obtain a "handle" of some kind before you use a graphical object. Those handles should be returned to the system when the object is no longer needed. If you don't do this you'll run out of graphical resources.

  5. Locks (mutexes, semaphores, file locks, etc). If you leave things locked when you don't need to, you run the risk of deadlocking your program.

In C++ the destructors of local objects are executed automatically when an exception pass through a block. Thus the cleanest way (by far) of handling the resource allocation problem is to acquire every resource in the constructor of some suitable object and then let that object's destructor release the resource. This frees you from having to worry about releasing resources and it works automatically when an exception is thrown. This technique is often called "resource allocation is initialization" (or "RAII" on the newsgroups).

The C++ standard even has a class specifically designed to help you manage dynamic memory. Here is an exception safe version of the function above.

#include <memory>  // Needed for std::auto_ptr

void f()
  // Put the pointer to dynamic memory into an auto_ptr object. Notice
  // that auto_ptr is a template so that it can handle pointers to
  // various types.
  std::auto_ptr<std::string> p(new std::string);


  // No need to explicitly release the dynamic memory. The auto_ptr
  // destructor does that. If g() throws an exception, the auto_ptr
  // destructor is also run and the memory is cleaned up.

If you review the C++ standard library you will see that RAII is used extensively. The destructors for std::string and all the standard containers release the memory owned by the object. The destructors for ifstream and ofstream objects close their associated files. You should use the RAII technique in your own code. Be sure that any resource you are manipulating is managed by an object with a destructor that cleans up the resource. This practice is essential if your code is going to be exception safe.


Dealing with exceptions is much more than just throwing them here and catching them over there. Even functions without a throw or a catch must think about exceptions if your program is going to work properly. That is the central point of this lesson. However, if you stay aware of the issues while you are writing your code you will find that dealing with exceptions correctly is not that bad. Get in the habit of asking yourself: What happens if this expression throws? Will any objects be left in an invalid state? Will I leak any resources? Once you get practiced thinking about these issues it will become second nature.


  1. Even functions that don't throw exceptions and don't have catch clauses need to consider the effects of exceptions. When a lower level function throws an exception, the current function is aborted at once. This might leave one or more objects in an invalid state. In general you want to arrange your code so that all resources you need are obtained first before you commit yourself to irreversable changes. In this way you can leave objects unchanged should an exception be thrown. In any case, you should never leave an object in a non-destructable state. Every object will eventually be destroyed and thus no object can ever be left in a state where destruction is impossible.

  2. In general very simple operations do not throw exceptions (operations on primitive objects or on iterators for example). Also operations that give resources back to the system usually don't throw exceptions. Knowing which operations do not throw exceptions is essential when evaluating the exception safety of your code.

  3. Resource allocation is initialization (RAII) involves allocating resources in the contructor of a suitable class and releasing those resources in the corresponding destructor. Since destructors are executed both when a function ends normally and when a function ends by way of an exception, releasing resources in a destructor will prevent resource leaks regardless of the manner in which a function is terminated.

© Copyright 2008 by Peter C. Chapin.
Last Revised: November 26, 2008