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Thinking in C++
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Under the hood

It can be helpful to see the assembly-language code generated by a virtual function call, so you can see that late-binding is indeed taking place. Here’s the output from one compiler for the call


inside the function f(Instrument& i):

push  1
push  si
mov   bx, word ptr [si]
call  word ptr [bx+4]
add   sp, 4

The arguments of a C++ function call, like a C function call, are pushed on the stack from right to left (this order is required to support C’s variable argument lists), so the argument 1 is pushed on the stack first. At this point in the function, the register si (part of the Intel X86 processor architecture) contains the address of i. This is also pushed on the stack because it is the starting address of the object of interest. Remember that the starting address corresponds to the value of this, and this is quietly pushed on the stack as an argument before every member function call, so the member function knows which particular object it is working on. So you’ll always see one more than the number of arguments pushed on the stack before a member function call (except for static member functions, which have no this).

Now the actual virtual function call must be performed. First, the VPTR must be produced, so the VTABLE can be found. For this compiler the VPTR is inserted at the beginning of the object, so the contents of this correspond to the VPTR. The line

mov bx, word ptr [si]

fetches the word that si (that is, this) points to, which is the VPTR. It places the VPTR into the register bx.

The VPTR contained in bx points to the starting address of the VTABLE, but the function pointer to call isn’t at location zero of the VTABLE, but instead at location two (because it’s the third function in the list). For this memory model each function pointer is two bytes long, so the compiler adds four to the VPTR to calculate where the address of the proper function is. Note that this is a constant value, established at compile time, so the only thing that matters is that the function pointer at location number two is the one for adjust( ). Fortunately, the compiler takes care of all the bookkeeping for you and ensures that all the function pointers in all the VTABLEs of a particular class hierarchy occur in the same order, regardless of the order that you may override them in derived classes.

Once the address of the proper function pointer in the VTABLE is calculated, that function is called. So the address is fetched and called all at once in the statement

call word ptr [bx+4]

Finally, the stack pointer is moved back up to clean off the arguments that were pushed before the call. In C and C++ assembly code you’ll often see the caller clean off the arguments but this may vary depending on processors and compiler implementations.

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