Users and applications
Formal description
Use in data structures
Architectural roots
Making pointers safer
Simulation using an array index
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Virtual method table
A virtual method table (VMT), virtual function table, virtual call table, dispatch table, vtable, or vftable is a mechanism used in a programming language to support dynamic dispatch (or run-time method binding).
Whenever a class defines a virtual function (or method), most compilers add a hidden member variable to the class that points to an array of pointers to (virtual) functions called the virtual method table. These pointers are used at runtime to invoke the appropriate function implementations, because at compile time it may not yet be known if the base function is to be called or a derived one implemented by a class that inherits from the base class.
There are many different ways to implement such dynamic dispatch, but use of virtual method tables is especially common among C++ and related languages (such as D and C#). Languages that separate the programmatic interface of objects from the implementation, like Visual Basic and Delphi, also tend to use this approach, because it allows objects to use a different implementation simply by using a different set of method pointers.
Suppose a program contains three classes in an inheritance hierarchy: a superclass, Cat, and two subclasses, HouseCat and Lion. Class Cat defines a virtual function named speak, so its subclasses may provide an appropriate implementation (e.g. either meow or roar). When the program calls the speak function on a Cat reference (which can refer to an instance of Cat, or an instance of HouseCat or Lion), the code must be able to determine which implementation of the function the call should be dispatched to. This depends on the actual class of the object, not the class of the reference to it (Cat). The class cannot generally be determined statically (that is, at compile time), so neither can the compiler decide which function to call at that time. The call must be dispatched to the right function dynamically (that is, at run time) instead.
An object's virtual method table will contain the addresses of the object's dynamically bound methods. Method calls are performed by fetching the method's address from the object's virtual method table. The virtual method table is the same for all objects belonging to the same class, and is therefore typically shared between them. Objects belonging to type-compatible classes (for example siblings in an inheritance hierarchy) will have virtual method tables with the same layout: the address of a given method will appear at the same offset for all type-compatible classes. Thus, fetching the method's address from a given offset into a virtual method table will get the method corresponding to the object's actual class.
Typically, the compiler creates a separate virtual method table for each class. When an object is created, a pointer to this table, called the virtual table pointer, vpointer or VPTR, is added as a hidden member of this object. As such, the compiler must also generate "hidden" code in the constructors of each class to initialize a new object's virtual table pointer to the address of its class's virtual method table.
Many compilers place the virtual table pointer as the last member of the object; other compilers place it as the first; portable source code works either way. For example, g++ previously placed the pointer at the end of the object.
A virtual call requires at least an extra indexed dereference and sometimes a "fixup" addition, compared to a non-virtual call, which is simply a jump to a compiled-in pointer. Therefore, calling virtual functions is inherently slower than calling non-virtual functions. An experiment done in 1996 indicates that approximately 613% of execution time is spent simply dispatching to the correct function, though the overhead can be as high as 50%.[4] The cost of virtual functions may not be so high on modern CPU architectures due to much larger caches and better branch prediction.
Furthermore, in environments where JIT compilation is not in use, virtual function calls usually cannot be inlined. In certain cases it may be possible for the compiler to perform a process known as devirtualization in which, for instance, the lookup and indirect call are replaced with a conditional execution of each inlined body, but such optimizations are not common.