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Thinking in C++
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How C++ implements late binding

How can late binding happen? All the work goes on behind the scenes by the compiler, which installs the necessary late-binding mechanism when you ask it to (you ask by creating virtual functions). Because programmers often benefit from understanding the mechanism of virtual functions in C++, this section will elaborate on the way the compiler implements this mechanism.

The keyword virtual tells the compiler it should not perform early binding. Instead, it should automatically install all the mechanisms necessary to perform late binding. This means that if you call play( ) for a Brass object through an address for the base-class Instrument, you’ll get the proper function.

To accomplish this, the typical compiler[54] creates a single table (called the VTABLE) for each class that contains virtual functions. The compiler places the addresses of the virtual functions for that particular class in the VTABLE. In each class with virtual functions, it secretly places a pointer, called the vpointer (abbreviated as VPTR), which points to the VTABLE for that object. When you make a virtual function call through a base-class pointer (that is, when you make a polymorphic call), the compiler quietly inserts code to fetch the VPTR and look up the function address in the VTABLE, thus calling the correct function and causing late binding to take place.

All of this – setting up the VTABLE for each class, initializing the VPTR, inserting the code for the virtual function call – happens automatically, so you don’t have to worry about it. With virtual functions, the proper function gets called for an object, even if the compiler cannot know the specific type of the object.

The following sections go into this process in more detail.

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