The Case for Exceptions Part 7: Exception Safe Code

In 2014 Jon Kalb 1 gave a three hour presentation at cppcon on how to write exception safe code 234. In the talk, Kalb sets out a series of guidelines on how to write exception safe code. In this post I’m going to go over those guidelines, with a few small adaptations of my own. If you’re interested in using exceptions in your code I highly recommend the talk, as you will find Kalb’s thoughts mirror many of my own on the subject.


There are three guarantees that exception safe code can provide:

  • The nothrow guarantee: this code will not throw an exception
  • The basic guarantee: if an exception is thrown, invariants are preserved and no resources are leaked
  • The strong guarantee: if an exception is thrown, no state is changed (a “transaction”)

All exception safe code must provide one or more of these guarantees, and at a minimum all code must provide the basic guarantee even if it itself will not throw an exception 5.

Some code can provide the strong guarantee, but in doing so there is sometimes a performance penalty. Thus we should only provide the strong guarantee when it is natural and free to do so. In practice the strong guarantee is not required as often as you would expect, because the basic exception guarantee ensures that we will not leak resources or violate invariants we can know that the program will still be in a valid (if not ideal) state.

Guideline 1: All code must provide the basic exception safety guarantee

Guideline 2: Code should provide the strong exception safety guarantee when it is natural and free to do so.


There are few assumptions we can make about code that uses exceptions, as we saw in part 6 we should assume all code can throw unless the no-throw guarantee is an explicit part of the interface. Note that this is not quite the same as the C++11 nothrow decorator, as there may be circumstances where we wish to state that code will never throw but not explicitly declare it as such (C++ 2003 code for example).

Guideline 3: Assume all code may throw unless it explicitly documented not to

And you're sure this code won't throw?

Exception Specifications

C++ 2003 has the throw() dynamic exception specification mechanism. This is deprecated in C++11, and replaced by the nothrow mechanism. Unlike throw(), nothrow is useful because it documents one of the guarantees. The numerous problems with the throw() mechanism are well documented 6.

Guideline 4: DO NOT use dynamic exception specifications. DO use nothrow.

Some no-throw functions are required

In C++, destructors should be no-throw (and are nothrow by default in C++11) because destructor code is the only code that executes while unwinding the stack during exception handling. If a destructor throws during an unwind with an existing, active, exception the standard says the program will terminate - which is very bad.

In order to write exception safe code it is often necessary to swap two objects with the guarantee that the swap operation cannot fail. Thus, it is important to provide either a no-throw swap implementation (C++ 2003) or a no-throw move constructor (C++ 2011) to ensure this is possible.

Guideline 5: Destructors must never throw

Guideline 6: Swapping two instances of a class should never throw

Know how to throw and catch

C++ lets us throw any type of object, but in practice we want to limit the types of object that can be thrown. Firstly it is extremely useful to have all exceptions derive from std::exception, this means that a generic exception handler can catch a known type and still output a meaningful error message using the what() method.

Secondly, we should always throw by value. Throwing a pointer implies the lifetime of the object pointed to must at least continue until the exception is caught and handled. In practice this means heap allocated or global objects, but there is no way for the catching site to reasonably know which case is occurring. It also makes generic exception handling impossible, as we cannot necessarily know the correct type of the exception being caught in order to do things like free the heap memory.

Finally, because we use inheritance to establish an exception hierarchy we need to catch by reference to ensure we do not slice off any relevant information held in the exception.

Guideline 7: Derive exceptions from std::exception (directly or indirectly)

Guideline 8: Throw by value, catch by reference

Know when to catch

Exception safe code catches all exceptions at program boundaries. These can be API boundaries (e.g. between C++ code and a C API), process boundaries (main), thread boundaries, or even event handler boundaries (for example, it is advisable to overload QApplication::notify to trap unexpected exceptions from event handlers).

In general there three times you need to catch an exception:

  • To switch error handling method. For example, changing from an exception to a user-facing error message, to log the error and resume, or to translate an exception to another exception type or to an error code.
  • To recover from the error in code that has a strategy for doing so. For example, if there is an alternative way to complete a failed operation.
  • To continue processing in cases where some success is acceptable. For example, when processing a list of items it may be acceptable if processing some items fails.

Most of the time, catch statements fall into the first class - in particular the first class will be present at the boundaries present in an application.

Guideline 9: Catch all exceptions at boundaries

Guideline 10: Catch when you need to switch error handling mechanism, have a strategy for recovering, or when some success is acceptable.

RAII: Responsibility Acquisition Is Initialisation

For any symmetric operation we must immediately and uniquely assign the second half of the operation to an RAII container to ensure that it will be performed as part of the stack unwinding should an error occur. For example, for every malloc we should have a free, for every new a delete, for every init a release, or for every push a pop.

Assignment must be immediate because we must assume that any intervening operation can throw, should an intervening operation throw then the responsibility to complete the second half of the operation would be leaked.

Assignment must be unique because we must assume that acquiring a second (or third, or fourth) responsibility may fail, which would leave the container in a potentially indeterminate state and may result in the first responsibility being leaked.

More generally, we have been talking about the acquisition of responsibilities, any time we do something or reach some point where we are have a responsibility to always perform some additional operation in the future we have acquired a responsibility and we should be using an RAII container to guarantee execution of that responsibility.

Whenever you see symmetric operations or responsibilities executed outside of a destructor it should always raise a flag in your mind that the code is wrong. Whenever you see cleanup code outside of a destructor (cleanup is a responsibility!) it should always raise a flag in your mind that the code is wrong.

One thing to be aware of here is that the C++ standard does not mandate the particular order of evaluation of subexpressions. For example, consider the following code:

	std::shared_ptr<A>(new A()),
	std::shared_ptr<B>(new B())

This code is not safe because the compiler is free to implement this as:

B *tmbB = new B();
A *tmpA = new A();
std::shared_ptr<A> ptrA(tmpA);
std::shared_ptr<B> ptrB(tmpB);
some_function(ptrA, ptrB);

So if the constructor for A throws, B could be leaked. In fact, the preferred way to do this in C++11 is to use make_shared (and also make_unique for C++14).


This is because the make_shared function uniquely and immediately assigns the allocated instance to the shared pointer.

Guideline 11: Immediately and uniquely assign responsibilities to RAII containers. As a consequence, all symmetric operations should be performed by constructor/destructor pairs.

Guideline 12: Never acquire responsibilities as part of an expression that can throw (except to report that the acquisition failed). Prefer std::make_shared and std::make_unique to new.

The Critical Line

One of the most important ideas in Kalb’s cppcon presentation is that of the critical line. This is what allows us to tell the difference between code that provides the strong guarantee and code that does not (or at least, is unlikely to). It can also be important for identifying whether code will preserve invariants or not.

The idea of the critical line is simple. All code that can throw in a function is before the critical line - but no code before the critical line modifies state. All code that modifies state is after the critical line - but no code after the critical line can throw.

If we cannot draw a critical line then there is a good chance the code will not provide some guarantees in the presence of exceptions.

Consider an implementation for the assignment operator of a pair:

template<typename A, typename B> pair<A,B>::operator=(const pair<A,B>& other)
	first = other.first;
	second = other.second;

We can start by identifying code that can fail, and code that can modify state

template<typename A, typename B> pair<A,B>::operator=(const pair<A,B>& other)
	first = other.first;   // assignment operator could throw, modifies first
	second = other.second; // assignment operator could throw, modifies second

Immediately we see that we have code that modifies state interleaved with code that can throw. Can we fix this? Well, it turns out we can - because earlier we defined swap operations to provide the no-throw guarantee as one of our guidelines:

template<typename A, typename B> pair<A,B>::operator=(const pair<A,B>& other)
	A copyA(other.first);  // copy constructor could throw
	B copyB(other.second); // copy constructor could throw

	// ------ the critical line ------

	swap(first, copyA);  // modifies first, cannot throw
	swap(second, copyB); // modifies second, cannot throw

This surprisingly simple concept suddenly makes it easy to differentiate “good” exception safe code from “bad” exception safe code. All we need to do is find the first statement that modifies state (for the strong guarantee) and determine if any subsequent statements can throw.

Guideline 13: meet exception safety guarantees using the “critical line”


In this post I’ve gone over 13 guidelines for writing exception safe code. In the final part of this series I will introduce a process via which legacy code can be converted to exception safe code.

  1. Exception Safe Coding in C++ 

  2. Exception Safe Code (part 1) by Jon Kalb 

  3. Exception Safe Code (part 2) by Jon Kalb 

  4. Exception Safe Code (part 3) by Jon Kalb 

  5. That is to say, even if a function itself guarantees not to allow an exception to propagate, it must correctly handle exceptions raised by any functions that it calls. 

  6. Why are exception specifications bad? 

Posted on October 20, 2016
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