Runtime polymorphism cheat sheet

While C++ is used here as an example, the concepts apply to any statically typed programming language that supports polymorphism.

For example, while Rust doesn’t have virtual functions and inheritance, it’s traits/dyn/Boxes are conceptually equivalent and. Rust enums are conceptually equivalent to std::variant as a closed set runtime polymorphism feature.

Virtual Functions/Inheritancestd::variant
Runtime PolymorphismYes – dynamic dispatch via vtableYes – dynamic dispatch via internal union tag (discriminant) and compile-time generated function pointer table
SemanticsReference – clients must operate using pointer or referenceValue – clients use value type
Open/Closed?Open – Can add new types without recompiling (even via DLL). Clients do not need to be adjusted.Closed – Must explicitly specify the types in the variant. Generally clients/dispatchers may need to be adjusted.
CodegenClient virtual call + virtual methodsClient function table dispatch based on union tag + copy of callable for each type in the dispatch. If doing generic dispatch (virtual function style), then also need the functions in each struct. Inlining possible.
Class definition boilerplateClass/pure virtual methods boilerplate.Almost none.
Client callsite boilerplateAlmost nonestd::visit() boilerplate can be onerous.
Must handle all cases in dispatch?No support โ€” the best you can do is an error-prone chain of dynamic_cast<>. If you need this, virtual functions are not the best tool.Yes, can support this.

Overall, virtual functions and std::variant are similar, though not completely interchangeable features. Both allow runtime polymorphism, however each has different strengths.

Virtual functions excels when the interface/concept for the objects is highly uniform and the focus is around code/methods; this allows callsites to be generic and avoid manual type checking of objects. Adding a const data member to the public virtual interface is awkward and must go through a virtual call.

std::variant excels when the alternative types are highly heterogenous, containing different data members, and the focus is on data. The dispatch/matching allows one to safely and maintainably handle the different cases, and be forced to update when a new alternative type is added. Accessing data members is much more ergonomic than for virtual functions, but the opposite is true for generic function dispatch across all alternative types, because the std::visit() is not ergonomic.

Building on these low level primitives, one can build:

  • Component pattern (using virtual functions typically) (value semantics technique; moves away from static typing and towards runtime typing)
  • Type erase pattern (also virtual functions internally) (value semantics wrapper over virtual functions)

Fun facts:

  • Rust also has exactly these, but just with different names and syntax. The ergonomics and implementation are different, but the concepts are the same. Rust uses fat pointers instead of normal pointer pointing to a vtable. Rust’s match syntax is more ergonomic for the variant-equivalent. Rust uses fat pointers apparently because it allows “attaching a vtable to an object whose memory layout you cannot control” which is apparently required due to Rust Traits. (source)
  • Go uses type erasure internally, but offers this as a first class language feature.

Case study: Component pattern

The component pattern is a typical API layer alternative to classical virtual functions. With classical runtime polymorphism via virtual functions, the virtual functions and inheritance are directly exposed to the client โ€” the client must use reference semantics and does direct invocation of virtual calls.

With the component pattern, virtual functions are removed from the API layer. Clients use value semantics and then “look up” a component for behavior that would have previously been inherited.

API classes, instead of inheriting, contain a container of Components, who are themselves runtime polymorphic objects of heterogenous types. The components can classically use virtual functions for this, inheriting from some parent class. Then the API class contains a container of pointers to the parent class. API clients look up the component they are interested in via its type, and the API class implements a lookup method that iterates the components and identifies the right one using dynamic_cast or similar.

However, variants offer another way to implement this. Rather than having all components inherit from the superclass, they can be separate classes that are included in a variant. The API class then has a container of this variant type. In the lookup method, instead of using dynamic_cast, it uses std::holds_alternative which is conceptually equal.

This is a somewhat unusual application of runtime polymorphism and neither implementation method stands out as strictly better. Since components do not share a common interface really (they would just inherit so they can be stored heterogenously in a container), virtual functions does not offer a strong benefit. But also since the component objects are never dispatched on (they are always explicitly looked up by type), the variant method also does not offer a strong benefit.

The main difference in this scenario is the core difference between virtual functions and variants: whether the set of “child” types is open or closed. With virtual functions being open, it offers the advantage that new components can be added by simply inheriting from the parent class and no existing code needs to be touched. Potentially new components could even be loaded dynamically and this would work.

With variants, when new components are added, the core definition of the component variant needs to be adjusted to include the new type. No dynamic loading is supported.

So it appears that virtual functions have slight advantage here.


Q: What about std::any?

std::any is loosely similar to virtual functions or std::variant in that it implements type erasure, allowing a set of heterogenous objects of different types, to be referenced using a single type. Virtual functions and std::variant aren’t typically called “type erasure” as far as I’ve heard, but this is effectively what they do.

However that’s where the similarities end. std::any represents type erasure, but not any kind of object polymorphism. With std::any, there is no notion of a common interface that can be exercised across a variety of types. In fact, there is basically nothing you can do with a std::any but store it and copy it. In order to extract the internally stored object, it must be queried using its type (via std::any_cast()) which tends to defeat the purpose of polymorphism.

std::any is exclusively designed to replace instances where you might have previously used a void * in C code, offering improved type safety and possibly efficiency. 1 The classic use case is implementing a library that allows clients to pass in some context object that will later be passed to callbacks supplied by the client.

For this use case, the library must be able to store and retrieve the user’s context object. It’s it. It literally never will interpret the object or access it in any other way. This is why std::any fits here.

Another use case for std::any might be the component pattern in C++, where objects store a list of components, which are then explicitly queried for by client code. In this case, the framework also never deals directly with the components, but simply stores and exposes the to clients on request.


  1. The improved type safety comes from the any_cast whose failure can be caught and handled, as opposed to blindly casting a void * to the type that you hope it’s still pointing to. Lifetimes are also managed automatically. The increased efficiency comes from possibly avoiding a heap allocation since any objects can be stored directly in the std::any.

Any thoughts?