Opaque pointer

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In computer programming, an opaque pointer is a special case of opaque data type, a datatype that is declared to be a pointer to a record or data structure of some unspecified type.

Opaque pointers are present in several programming languages including Ada, C, C++ and Modula-2.

If the language is strongly typed, programs and procedures that have no other information about an opaque pointer type T can still declare variables, arrays, and record fields of type T, assign values of that type, and compare those values for equality. However, they will not be able to de-reference such a pointer, and can only change the object's content by calling some procedure that has the missing information.

Opaque pointers are a way to hide the implementation details of an interface from ordinary clients, so that the implementation may be changed without the need to recompile the modules using it.[1] This is important for providing binary code compatibility through different versions of a shared library, for example.

This technique is sometimes referred to as "handle classes"[2], the "Pimpl idiom" (for "pointer to implementation idiom")[3], "Compiler firewall idiom"[4] or "Cheshire Cat", especially among the C++ community.[2]




package Library_Interface is
   type Handle is limited private;
   -- Operations...
   type Hidden_Implementation;    -- Defined in the package body
   type Handle is access Hidden_Implementation;
end Library_Interface;

The type Handle is an opaque pointer to the real implementation, that is not defined in the specification. Note that the type is not only private (to forbid the clients from accessing the type directly, and only through the operations), but also limited (to avoid the copy of the data structure, and thus preventing dangling references).

package body Library_Interface is
   type Hidden_Implementation is record
      ...    -- The actual implementation can be anything
   end record;
   -- Definition of the operations...
end Library_Interface;

These types are sometimes called "Taft types"—named after Tucker Taft, the main designer of Ada 95—because they were introduced in the so-called Taft Amendment to Ada 83.[5]


In the example below, the copy assignment operator takes its argument by value to eliminate the creation of an unnecessary temporary object.
//header file:
class Handle {
    struct CheshireCat;  // Not defined here
    CheshireCat *smile;  // Handle
    Handle();                           // Constructor
    Handle( const Handle & );           // Copy constructor
    Handle& operator=( Handle );        // Copy assignment operator
    ~Handle();                          // Destructor
    // Other operations...
//CPP file:
#include "handle.h"
struct Handle::CheshireCat {
    // The actual implementation can be anything
    // ...
    : smile( new CheshireCat )
    // do nothing
Handle::Handle( const Handle &other )
    : smile( new CheshireCat( *other.smile ))
    // do nothing
Handle &Handle::operator=( Handle other ) {
    std::swap( this->smile, other.smile );
    return *this;
Handle::~Handle() {
    delete smile;

One type of opaque pointer commonly used in C++ class declarations is the d-pointer. The d-pointer is the only private data member of the class and points to an instance of a struct defined in the class's implementation file. Named by Arnt Gulbrandsen of Trolltech, this method allows class declarations to omit private data members, except for the d-pointer itself.[6] The result is that more of the class's implementation is hidden from view, that adding new data members to the private struct does not affect binary compatibility, and that the header file containing the class declaration only has to #include those other files that are needed for the class interface, rather than for its implementation. As a side benefit, compiles are faster because the header file changes less often. The d-pointer is heavily used in the Qt and KDE libraries.


/* cat.h */
typedef struct cat_t *cat_handle;
 * Even though the compiler doesn't know anything about the struct
 * at this point, it can use a pointer to that struct.
 * This function creates a cat object with the given smile value.
 * A result of NULL indicates an error.
cat_handle cat_Create(int smile);
 * This function destroys a cat object.
 * If called with NULL, no action is taken.
void cat_Destroy(cat_handle cat);
 * This function sets the smile value of a cat object to the
 * new value, and returns the old value.
 * A result of -1 indicates an error.
int cat_Smile(cat_handle cat, int newsmile);
/* cat.c */
#include "cat.h"
#include <stdlib.h>
struct cat_t {
  int smile;
/* Create a cat object */
cat_handle cat_Create(int smile)
  cat_handle result = malloc(sizeof(struct cat_t));
  if (result) {
    result->smile = smile;
  return result;
/* Destroy a cat object */
void cat_Destroy(cat_handle cat)
/* Set the smile value of a cat */
int cat_Smile(cat_handle cat, int newsmile)
  if (cat) {
    int t = cat->smile;
    cat->smile = newsmile;
    return t;
  return -1;

This example demonstrates a way to achieve the information hiding (encapsulation) aspect of Object-Oriented Programming using the C language. If someone wanted to change the declaration of struct cat_t, it would be unnecessary to recompile any other modules in the program that use the cat.h header file unless the API was also changed.


See Private class data pattern

See also

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