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Thinking in C++
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Object layout

Chapter 4 stated that a struct written for a C compiler and later compiled with C++ would be unchanged. This referred primarily to the object layout of the struct, that is, where the storage for the individual variables is positioned in the memory allocated for the object. If the C++ compiler changed the layout of C structs, then any C code you wrote that inadvisably took advantage of knowledge of the positions of variables in the struct would break.

When you start using access specifiers, however, you’ve moved completely into the C++ realm, and things change a bit. Within a particular “access block” (a group of declarations delimited by access specifiers), the variables are guaranteed to be laid out contiguously, as in C. However, the access blocks may not appear in the object in the order that you declare them. Although the compiler will usually lay the blocks out exactly as you see them, there is no rule about it, because a particular machine architecture and/or operating environment may have explicit support for private and protected that might require those blocks to be placed in special memory locations. The language specification doesn’t want to restrict this kind of advantage.

Access specifiers are part of the structure and don’t affect the objects created from the structure. All of the access specification information disappears before the program is run; generally this happens during compilation. In a running program, objects become “regions of storage” and nothing more. If you really want to, you can break all the rules and access the memory directly, as you can in C. C++ is not designed to prevent you from doing unwise things. It just provides you with a much easier, highly desirable alternative.

In general, it’s not a good idea to depend on anything that’s implementation-specific when you’re writing a program. When you must have implementation-specific dependencies, encapsulate them inside a structure so that any porting changes are focused in one place.

Thinking in C++
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire