Separating Interface and Implementation in C++
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Separating Interface and Implementation in C++
by Alan Griffiths & Mark Radford


This article discusses three related problems in the design of C++ classes and surveys five of the solutions to them found in the literature. These problems and solutions are considered together because they relate to separating the design choices that are manifested in the interface from those that are made in implementing the class. The problems are:

These have led developers to seek ways to separate interface from implementation and practice has seen all of the following idioms used and documented. We will be evaluating them to see how they compare as solutions to the above problems:

In order to illustrate the problems and solutions we are going to use a telephone address book (with very limited functionality) as an example. For comparison purposes we have implemented this as a naïve implementation (see first sidebar) which does not attempt to address any of the stated problems. We have also refactored this example to use each of the idioms - the header files are reproduced in the corresponding sidebars. (The full implementation and sample client code for all versions of the example are available here.)

Examining the Problems

Problem 1: Reducing implementation detail exposed to the user

Client code makes use of an object via its public interface, without any recourse to implementation details. Since the authors of client code have to use an object through its public interface that interface is all they need to understand. This public interface typically comprises member functions declarations.

C++ allows developers to separate the implementation code for member functions from the class definition, but there is no comparable support for separating the member data that implements an object's state (or, for that matter, for separating the declarations of private member functions). Consequently the implementation detail exposed in a class' definition is still there as background noise, providing users with an added distraction. The definition of a class is typically encumbered with implementation "noise" that is of no interest to the user and is inaccessible to the client code written by that user: the naïve implementation shows this with "MyDict", "myName" and "dict".

Problem 2: Reducing Physical Coupling

The purpose of defining a class in a header file is for the definition of that class to be included in any translation units that define the client code for that class. If classes are designed in a naïve manner this leads to compilation dependencies upon details of the implementation that are not only inaccessible to the client code but also (in most cases) do not affect it in any way.

These compilation dependencies are undesirable for two reasons:

In a medium to large system the effect of these compilation dependencies can multiply to an extent that causes excessive and problematic build times.

Problem 3: Allowing Customised Implementations

Library code frequently defines points of customisation for user code to exploit. One of the ways to do this is to specify an interface as a class and allow the user code to supply objects that conform to this interface.

Such a library is typically compiled before the user code is written. In this case the library contains the "client code" and for this to have compilation dependencies on the implementation would be problematic.

Clearly, the naïve implementation makes no provision for alternative implementations.

The Idioms

We present the best known idioms for implementation hiding along with some comments in Italics. Each of these idioms can have advantages and these need to be understood when choosing between them.

Cheshire Cat

A private "representation" class is written that embodies the same functionality and interface as the naïve class - however, unlike the naïve version, this is defined and implemented entirely within the implementation file. The public interface of the class published in the header is unchanged, but the private implementation details are reduced to a single member variable that points to an instance of the "representation" class, each of its member functions forwards to the corresponding function of the "representation" class.

The term "Cheshire Cat" (see [Murray1993]) is an old one, coined by John Carollan over a decade ago. Sadly it seems to have disappeared from use in contemporary C++ literature. It appears described as a special case of the "Bridge" pattern in "Design Patterns" [GOF95], but the name "Cheshire Cat" is not mentioned. Herb Sutter (in [Sut00]) discusses it under the name "Pimpl idiom", but considers it only from the perspective if its use in reducing physical dependencies. It has also been called "Compilation Firewall".

Cheshire Cat requires "boilerplate" code in the form of forwarding functions that are tedious to write and (if the compiler fails to optimise them away) can introduce a slight performance hit. It also requires care with the copy semantics (although it is possible to factor this out into a smart pointer - see Griffiths99). As the relationship between the public and implementation classes is not explicit it can cause maintenance issues.


One or more areas of the class functionality are factored out from the naïve implementation into separate helper classes. The class published in the header holds a pointer to each of these classes and delegates responsibility for the corresponding functionality by forwarding the corresponding operations. This is similar to Cheshire Cat, except that some implementation may remain exposed (like myName in the example) and there may be more than one helper class. (The helper classes may be defined and implemented in the implementation file - as in the sample code - or placed in a header file and made available for use by other code.)

Delegation is attractive where there is a distinct area of functionality that can be factored out or shared with another class. In maintenance and performance terms it is similar to Cheshire Cat.


As with "Cheshire Cat" a private "representation" class is written which implements the same functionality and interface as the naïve class but is defined and implemented entirely within the implementation file. The variations from "Cheshire Cat" are:

This is described in some detail in Coplien's "Advanced C++ Style and Idioms" [Cope92].

Frankly Envelope/Letter confuses us - we don't see what advantage it gives over Cheshire Cat. (Maybe it is just a misguided attempt to represent the correspondence of interface and implementation functions explicitly?) But please read Coplien and make up your own mind! In performance terms each client call initiates two function calls dispatched via the v-table - so it is the slowest of the idioms. (However it is rare that the overhead of a virtual function call is significant.)

Interface Class

All member data is removed from the naïve class and all member functions are made pure virtual. In the implementation file a derived class is defined and implements these member functions. The derived class is not used directly by client code, which sees only a pointer to the public class.

This is described in some detail in Mark Radford's "C++ Interface Classes - An Introduction" [Radford04].

Conceptually the Interface Class idiom is the simplest of those we consider. However, it may be necessary to provide an additional component and interface in order to create instances. Interface Classes, being abstract, can not be instantiated by the client. If a derived "implementation" class implements the pure virtual member functions of the Interface Class, then the client can create instances of that class. (But making the implementation class publicly visible re-introduces noise.) Alternatively, if the implementation class is provided with the Interface Class and (presumably) buried in an implementation file, then provision of an additional instantiation mechanism - e.g. a factory function - is necessary. This is shown as a static "create" function in the corresponding sidebar.

As objects are dynamically allocated and accessed via pointers this solution requires the client code to manage the object lifetime. This is not a handicap where the domain understanding implies objects are to be managed by a smart pointer (or handle) but it may be significant in some cases.

Note: Interfaces may play an additional role in design to that addressed in this article - they may be used to delineate each of several roles supported by a concrete type. This allows for client code that depend only on (the interface to) the relevant role.

Non-Virtual Public Interface

All member data is removed from the naïve class, the public interface becomes non-virtual forwarding functions that delegate to corresponding private pure virtual functions. As with Interface Class the implementation file defines a derived class that implements these member functions. The derived class is not used directly by client code, which sees only a pointer to the public class.

This is described in some detail in Sutter's "Exceptional C++ Style" [Sut04].

We had thought Non-Virtual Public Interface an idea that had been tried and discarded as introducing unjustified complexity. While the standard library uses this idiom in the iostreams design we've yet to see an implementation of the library that exploits the additional flexibility (in implementing the public functions) it offers over Interface Class. Further, there are some costs to providing this flexibility:

Evaluating the Solutions

Problem 1: Reducing implementation detail exposed to the user

All the idioms considered address this problem reasonably successfully. The only implementation detail any of these idioms expose is the mechanism by which they support the separation:

Delegation is in a way the odd one out, because it does not by nature conceal all the implementation detail. This point is illustrated in our example implementation where the std::string member myName is visible in the definition of TelephoneList. Delegation reduces the implementation noise exposed to clients, but - unless all functionality is delegated to one (or more) other classes it leaves the class still vulnerable to the problems suffered by the naïve implementation.

Problem 2: Reducing Physical Coupling

When the principle concern is reducing compile time dependencies the size (including indirect inclusions) of the header is more significant than that of the implementation file. However, in most cases, there is very little difference between the header files required by the different idioms - in our example they all have the same includes and the file lengths are as follows:

$ wc *.h | sort
     62     163    1580 cheshire_cat.h
     62     184    1677 interface_class.h
     65     162    1535 naive.h
     66     163    1554 delegation.h
     66     164    1605 envelope_letter.h
     94     285    2688 non_virtual_public_interface.h

The lack of variation is not surprising: all of the examples have eliminated the <map> header file and the only substantial difference is that Non-Virtual Public Interface declares twice as many functions (having both public and private versions of each).

Problem 3: Allowing Customised Implementations

It should be noted that only Interface Class and Non-Virtual Public Interface allow user implementation - the other idioms do not publish an implementation interface.

When our principle concern is that of simplifying the task of implementing the class then the size of the implementation file is most significant:

$ wc interface_class.cpp non_virtual_public_interface.cpp
     85     147    2013 interface_class.cpp
     89     151    2186 non_virtual_public_interface.cpp

There is no substantial difference in implementation cost between these approaches as they contain almost identical code.


In scenarios where customisation of implementation needs to be supported the choice is between Interface Class and Non-Virtual Public Interface. In this case we would prefer the simplicity of Interface Class (unless we have a need for the public functions to do more work than forwarding - which leads us into the territory of "Template Method" [GOF95]).

Sometimes we wish to develop "value based" classes - these can, for example, be used directly with the standard library containers. Only three of the idioms (Cheshire Cat, Envelope/Letter and Delegation) permit this style of class. (Using value-based classes implies that the identity of class instances is transparent - and that may not be appropriate). Of these options, Cheshire Cat is most often the appropriate choice - although Delegation may be appropriate if it allows common functionality to be factored out.

There are many occasions where user customisation of implementation is not required, and the identity of instances of the class is important. In these circumstances it is reasonable to expect client code to manage object lifetime explicitly (e.g. by using a smart pointer). Both Interface Class and Cheshire Cat are reasonable choices here. Interface Class is simpler, but where a strong separation of interface and implementation is required Cheshire Cat may be preferred.


Thanks to Tim Penhey and Phil Bass for commenting on drafts of this article.


[Cope92] J. Coplien. Advanced C++ Programming Styles and Idioms, Addison-Wesley, 1992
[Murray1993] Robert B Murray, C++ Strategies and Tactics, Addison-Wesley, 1993.
[Sut00] Herb Sutter. Exceptional C++, Addison-Wesley, 2000
[Griffiths99] Ending with the grin
[Radford04] Mark Radford, C++ Interface Classes - An Introduction (Overload 62, and also available from
[Sut04] Herb Sutter. Exceptional C++ Style, Addison-Wesley, 2004
[GOF95] Gamma, Helm, Johnson & Vlissides. "Design Patterns", Addison-Wesley, 1995