Using Standard Library Containers with Persistent Memory


Somewhere along the road, when we were doing the C++ bindings for libpmemobj, we found the need for some kind of containers. We were faced with two viable solutions: write everything from scratch or adapt an existing implementation. The obvious choice was NOT to implement from scratch. We would have to implement at least the basic containers from the C++ standard: vector, list, set, map and their multi- companions. That would be a lot of work, not to mention the testing and maintenance effort. I’d say it would be the last resort, should all of our other options fail.

Ideally, if there we a set of containers, which were standard compliant, maintained by the community and enabled the user to substitute the allocation scheme and pointer type, that would be ideal. As it turns out, there is more than one. The C++ standard has long ago defined something called the…


There have been a lot of bad things said about the std::allocator and it’s usability. Despite all of the bad press the allocator has, it was exactly the thing we needed. We have our own, persistent memory friendly allocator written in C and we have our custom pointer type - the persistent_ptr. All of the containers defined in the C++ standard use the std::allocator for the memory management of both own and user’s data. Since this is defined in the standard, all we needed to do was implement the interface described by the standard, bind it together with the persistent_ptr and hope for the best. As it turned out, it wasn’t that easy, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The pmem::obj::allocator is actually pretty straightforward. It is able to allocate sufficient storage and construct the specific object in the specified place. It can as well destroy the object and return the memory afterwards. The design is modular, so the user can override the construction/destruction of a specific object type as well as the allocation and deallocation. The latter two are however discouraged, unless you know what you’re doing. The default rules implemented in the allocator work as expected, so in the 99% case, you don’t really have to bother with the details. One of the most important parts of the allocator are the public typedefs, and in our case that would be the pointer_type, which is set to the persistent_ptr.

Now that we have a standard compliant, persistent memory specific implementation of the allocator, we have to check if it actually works with any of the containers from a popular standard library implementations.

NOTE The allocator uses the transactional C API, so all operations using it must be enclosed in a transaction.

libc++ or libstdc++?

The two rather obvious choices are GCC’s libstdc++ and clang’s libc++. We needed an open source implementation, so that if the need arose, we could freely modify the source code. And as it turned out, we needed to. As far as I remember, out of the box, only the std::vector worked flawlessly for both implementations. The std::list in libc++ also worked without any modifications, while the libstdc++ version didn’t compile. At this point, it was quite obvious we would choose to go with libc++ for the initial version.


The vector implementation is basically identical in both libc++ and libstdc++. It’s just three pointers, begin, end, current. This is because the vector is a really simple and at the same time really powerful container. This is taken from libc++

pointer __begin_;
pointer __end_;
__compressed_pair<pointer, allocator_type> __end_cap_;

__compressed_pair is a fancy way of saving space. You can think of it as a std::pair on a radical diet. These are the only data members. This works, because the pointer type is taken from:

typedef _Allocator allocator_type;
typedef allocator_traits<allocator_type> __alloc_traits;
typedef typename __alloc_traits::pointer pointer;

And in turn the allocator defines something like this:

using value_type = T;
using pointer = persistent_ptr<value_type>;

This is a common pattern for all standard library containers. And finally how to use it:

using foovec = std::vector<foo, pmem::obj::allocator<foo>>;
pmem::obj::transaction::exec_tx(pop, [] {
    auto pvec = pmem::obj::make_persistent<foovec>();


The std::map implementation is different and at the same time similar. The typedefs are there, albeit slightly changed:

template <class _Key, class _Tp>
struct __value_type
    typedef _Key key_type;
    typedef _Tp mapped_type;
    typedef pair<const key_type, mapped_type> value_type;

typedef _VSTD::__value_type<key_type, mapped_type> __value_type;
typedef __map_value_compare<key_type, __value_type, key_compare> __vc;
typedef typename __rebind_alloc_helper<allocator_traits<allocator_type>, __value_type>::type __allocator_type;
typedef __tree<__value_type, __vc, __allocator_type> __base;
typedef typename __base::__node_traits __node_traits;
typedef allocator_traits<allocator_type> __alloc_traits;

template <class _Tp, class _Compare, class _Allocator>
class __tree
typedef typename __rebind_alloc_helper<__alloc_traits, __node>::type __node_allocator;
typedef allocator_traits<__node_allocator> __node_traits;

This might be intimidating at first, but bear with me for a moment. What this says is really simple. The std::map implementation is in fact a __tree, which holds std::pair<const key_type, value_type>. However, the last two lines mean, that the tree will be allocating it’s nodes using the allocator we specified in std::map. So let’s see what the nodes look like.

template <class _VoidPtr>
class __tree_node_base
    pointer __right_;
    __parent_pointer __parent_;
    bool __is_black_;

Let’s tell the containers they’re persistent!

The vector was just a couple of pointers, but here we can see that nodes have state, and rightfully so, it’s a red-black tree. The __is_black flag will change during the lifetime of the container. This means, it needs to be tracked by libpmemobj inside transactions, in case we need to roll back the state of the container. If you recall, it’s the pmem::obj::p that wraps basic types for transactional modifications. So we somehow have to tell __tree_node_base that there’s this thing called p that it has to use for it’s own data. Up to this point, we used the allocator as the entry point for all typedefs and it would be the ideal to place this new typedef as well. However, as you can see in the class definition, the __tree_node_base has absolutely no notion of an allocator. Therefore no way to fetch p from it.


But we can leverage the fact that it does have a pointer typedef. So if we place the newly devised persistency_type in the std::pointer_traits of the persistent_ptr, the __tree implementation behind std::map will have all the necessary information to properly function in a persistent memory context. So how is it done, exactly? Within persistent_ptr you can find:

/* The persistency type to be used with this pointer. */
using persistency_type = p<T>;

And this is all we could do within PMDK to help support more complex containers. The rest of the work has to be done within the standard library. The pointer_traits implementation is placed in the memory header file. The persistency_type has to be optional and have a default value, not to break existing code. There is a trick for that:

template <class _Ptr>
struct __has_persistency_type
    struct __two {char __lx; char __lxx;};
    template <class _Up> static __two __test(...);
    template <class _Up> static char __test(typename _Up::persistency_type* = 0);
    static const bool value = sizeof(__test<_Ptr>(0)) == 1;

template <class _Tp, class _Ptr, bool = __has_persistency_type<_Ptr>::value>
struct __pointer_traits_persistency_type
    typedef _Tp type;

template <class _Tp, class _Ptr>
struct __pointer_traits_persistency_type<_Tp, _Ptr, true>
    typedef typename _Ptr::persistency_type type;

This piece of code, that might look like gibberish at first, but actually it is a nifty trick. If _Ptr defines a persistency_type type, the __test<_Ptr>(0)will first resolve to the function returningchar, therefore the sizeofcall will return one, setting thebool valueto true. Thanks to this__pointer_traits_persistency_type::typewill resolve to the_Ptr::persistency_typeonly when it is available. Otherwise it will not alter the type. As I said, a nifty trick. Now that we have this, let’s use it in the__tree.

typedef typename __rebind_persistency_type<pointer, bool>::type bool_type;

pointer __right_;
__parent_pointer __parent_;
bool_type __is_black_;

The __rebind_persistency_type is a helper for simple type change. Here this means that for pointer being pmem::obj::persistent_ptr, bool_type is in fact std::pointer_traits<pointer>::persistency_type<bool>::type so in fact pmem::obj::p<bool>. All in one clean line. This, in a big shortcut is how we adapted the containers from libc++.


It is always better to reuse well written and tested code, than to write everything from scratch. At least as a first attempt. The upside to the approach we have taken is that all standard library containers could be adapted with little effort and it doesn’t brake legacy code. The downside is that this is a non-standard approach that will not hit upstream in the nearest future. You can see the changes made to libc++ in our repo under pmem. Please note that this is an experimental implementation and should NOT be used in a production environment.

[This entry was edited on 2017-12-11 to reflect the name change from NVML to PMDK.]
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