Better Enums

Reflective compile-time enums for C++

Open-source under the BSD license

Version 0.11.3

To install, just add enum.h to your project.

Visit the GitHub repo for issues, feedback, and the latest development.

Download enum.h GitHub

Design decisions FAQ

Better Enums pushes at the edges of what is possible in standard C++, and I've had to make some difficult decisions as a result. You can imagine the set of potential reflective enum implementations as a space, with axes such as "concise syntax," "uniform interface," "compilation speed," "run-time performance," and so on. As is typical in engineering, the constraints are such that as you move to extremes along one axis, you have to retreat along others — for example, some desirable aspects of concise syntax conflict with having a uniform interface, which is nonetheless good for teachability, and compile-time performance is, in some ways, at odds with run-time performance.

So, there are many variations possible on Better Enums, and, in fact, I have tried and maintained a few. This page describes how I chose the one that is published. The choices are debatable, but I am attempting to record the debate. Hopefully, this will either convince you that I have made a good choice, or, if you disagree, you will have a good starting point for discussion, or even for implementing an alternative.

I am always looking for new arguments and approaches. If you have an idea, comment, criticism, please do let me know.


Why do enum members have underscores?

Enum members such as _to_string occupy the same scope as the names of constants declared by the user. I chose to prefix members with underscores to lessen the chances of collision. For example, take _valid, and suppose it was valid instead. That would make this enum impossible:

BETTER_ENUM(Status, char, valid, invalid)

because the constant Status::valid would clash with the member Status::valid.

Of course, users could try to declare constants with underscores as well, but I find it easier to ask users not to do that, rather than ask them to worry about a potentially growing set of reserved names, which they wouldn't fully know even for a single version of Better Enums, without frequently looking at the API documentation.

Alternatives to this involve separating the namespaces occupied by members and constants. I don't think increasing nesting is an option, since nobody wants to write Status::values::valid or Status::operations::valid. I don't think moving constants out of Status is a good idea, since scoped constants is a feature of Better Enums, which is especially important for C++98 usage.

This leaves the possibility of moving the operations performed by the members into traits types, i.e. something like traits<Status>::valid. That is an interesting option, and it has its own section. I have tried it, but the verbosity increase is much greater than the benefit of dropping underscores, so I chose not to do it.

Why does Better Enums use a macro at all?

Better Enums needs to turn the names of declared constants into strings, and I don't believe there is any way to do this in standard C++ except by using the preprocessor's macro parameter stringization operator (#). So, at the top level, Better Enums has to provide a macro. I am, however, trying to keep the user-facing macros to a minimum; in particular there is only one.

I think that's the best that is possible. Furthermore, apart from the macro itself, the declaration looks very similar to a C++11 enum declaration, with an underlying type, comma-separated constant list, and the same support for initializers as built-in enums. So, I am trying to keep even this one macro out of the user's way. I wouldn't accept any change that involved turning the declaration into a preprocessor sequence or tuple, i.e. something like

BETTER_ENUM(Channel, int, (Red)(Green)((Blue)(5)))

even if it promised extra capabilities.

Better Enums uses additional macros internally, for two main purposes: to do the actual work of stringizing the declared constants and assembling them into arrays, and to configure itself by detecting which compiler it is running on.

I am not a fan of gratuitous macros, but in these cases they are unavoidable, and, indeed, I am grateful for the stringization operator.

Why is it not possible to declare a Better Enum inside a class?

This is due to an interaction between linkage and constexpr.

  1. Better Enums is a header-only library that declares arrays with static storage, such as the array of constant names for each declared enum. Such arrays can be declared in namespace scope, in class scope, or in function scope, but they also need to be defined somewhere.

    If BETTER_ENUM is to be usable in both namespace and class scope, it already can't assume that it can declare arrays in namespace scope, since if BETTER_ENUM is used in a class, its entire expansion will be enclosed in the declaration of that class.

    That leaves class scope and function scope. If the arrays are declared in class scope, there needs to be a separate definition of them in some translation unit. This is too burdensome for the user, because the separate definition would involve repetition of the constants in the macro parameter list, creating exactly the type of maintenance problem that Better Enums is trying to eliminate.

    Function scope is the only viable option remaining after considering linkage constraints. Each array can be wrapped in a static function, which has a static local variable, which is initialized with the array. The functions can be called to get references to the arrays.


  2. These arrays need to be accessible to constexpr code in C++11, and constexpr functions are not allowed to have static local variables.

Ironically, this seems like one place where C++98 is more "flexible," but only for the reason that compile-time usage of Better Enums is not supported in C++98.

Should Better Enums provide enum "objects" or traits types?

A Better Enum value is an "object," whose memory representation is the same as its underlying type. For example,

BETTER_ENUM(Channel, int, Red, Green, Blue)

expands to something like

struct Channel {
    enum _enumerated : int { Red, Green, Blue };
    int _value;
    // Strings array, _to_string, _from_string, etc.

There is an alternative interpretation, in which the Better Enums library generates enum traits instead, i.e. the generated arrays and members sit alongside built-in enums instead of wrapping them:

BETTER_ENUM(Channel, int, Red, Green, Blue)


enum class Channel : int { Red, Green, Blue };

template <>
struct ::better_enums::traits<Channel> {
    using _enumerated = Channel;
    // Strings array, to_string, from_string, etc.

There are a number of advantages to the traits approach.

However, it also introduces some difficulties.

Despite the disadvantages listed just above, I consider the traits approach interesting — it's a close call. There is an out-of-date branch containing a traits version of Better Enums. You can see some of the usage in its samples directory. I may update it from time to time, especially if there is interest.

Why does Better Enums use linear scans for lookup?

It seems that Better Enums needs to use the same algorithms at compile time as at run time, because I have not found a way (and doubt there is one) to determine, during the execution of a constexpr function, whether it is executing at compile time or at run time. So, whatever data structures I use to accelerate lookup, I have to generate them at compile time, to be available as early as possible.

I tried to generate various data structures at compile time, but so far, generation has been too slow. The fastest algorithm so far, a compile-time merge sort based on template parameter packs, took over 100ms to run on the constant set of a large enum. I would have to run three of these per enum — for the constants, for the names, and for the names with case-insensitive comparison. This results in a 300ms slowdown per enum, which is not acceptable, given that on my system the same compiler takes 370ms to process iostream, and less than 10ms to process an enum without acceleration data structures. Declaring five large enums with accelerated lookup would take 1.5 seconds of compilation time. This doesn't scale to large projects with many translation units.

I am continuing to look for faster algorithms or better approaches, so faster lookup may be coming to Better Enums in the future.

So far, I have tried Boost.MPL sort, Eric Niebler's Meta sort, my own selection sort based on constexpr, and an insertion and merge sort based on parameter packs. I cannot use (Boost?).Hana sort, because that requires C++14. I am also considering various hash table-like data structures, and providing two sets of interfaces for compile-time and run-time usage, which is something I would really rather not have to do. The latter option would be worth considering, however, if I measured a significant improvement in running time from better data structures — something I haven't gotten to yet because there doesn't seem to be a data structure to measure that is not disqualified by the speed of generation.

Why not use indices for the representation?

Representing Better Enum values by their indices in the declaration list seems like a tempting solution for the problem of having multiple constants with the same numeric value. It also speeds up some operations. For example, if a Better Enum is simply an index, then getting its string representation is simply indexing an array, rather than some kind of data structure lookup.

// Representations 0, 1, 2, 3 instead of 1, 2, 3, 1.
BETTER_ENUM(Kind, int, A = 1, B, C, D = A)

Choosing this approach has serious drawbacks.