Enable std::unique_ptr [[clang::trivial_abi]]


Consider the follow snippets

void raw_func(Foo* raw_arg) { ... }
void smart_func(std::unique_ptr<Foo> smart_arg) { ... }

Foo* raw_ptr_retval() { ... }
std::unique_ptr<Foo*> smart_ptr_retval() { ... }

The argument raw_arg could be passed in a register but smart_arg could not, due to current implementation.

Specifically, in the smart_arg case, the caller secretly constructs a temporary std::unique_ptr in its stack-frame, and then passes a pointer to it to the callee in a hidden parameter. Similarly, the return value from smart_ptr_retval is secretly allocated in the caller and passed as a secret reference to the callee.


std::unique_ptr is passed directly in a register.


  • Annotate the two definitions of std::unique_ptr with clang::trivial_abi attribute.
  • Put the attribuate behind a flag because this change has potential compilation and runtime breakages.

This comes with some side effects:

  • std::unique_ptr parameters will now be destroyed by callees, rather than callers. It is worth noting that destruction by callee is not unique to the use of trivial_abi attribute. In most Microsoft’s ABIs, arguments are always destroyed by the callee.

    Consequently, this may change the destruction order for function parameters to an order that is non-conforming to the standard. For example:

    struct A { ~A(); };
    struct B { ~B(); };
    struct C { C(A, unique_ptr<B>, A) {} };
    C c{{}, make_unique<B>, {}};

    In a conforming implementation, the destruction order for C::C’s parameters is required to be ~A(), ~B(), ~A() but with this mode enabled, we’ll instead see ~B(), ~A(), ~A().

  • Reduced code-size.

Performance impact

Google has measured performance improvements of up to 1.6% on some large server macrobenchmarks, and a small reduction in binary sizes.

This also affects null pointer optimization

Clang’s optimizer can now figure out when a std::unique_ptr is known to contain non-null. (Actually, this has been a missed optimization all along.)

struct Foo {
std::unique_ptr<Foo> make_foo();
void do_nothing(const Foo&)

void bar() {
  auto x = make_foo();

With this change, ~Foo() will be called even if make_foo returns unique_ptr<Foo>(nullptr). The compiler can now assume that x.get() cannot be null by the end of bar(), because the deference of x would be UB if it were nullptr. (This dereference would not have caused a segfault, because no load is generated for dereferencing a pointer to a reference. This can be detected with -fsanitize=null).

Potential breakages

The following breakages were discovered by enabling this change and fixing the resulting issues in a large code base.

  • Compilation failures
  • Function definitions now require complete type T for parameters with type std::unique_ptr<T>. The following code will no longer compile.

    class Foo;
    void func(std::unique_ptr<Foo> arg) { /* never use `arg` directly */ }
  • Fix: Remove forward-declaration of Foo and include its proper header.

  • Runtime Failures
  • Lifetime of std::unique_ptr<> arguments end earlier (at the end of the callee’s body, rather than at the end of the full expression containing the call).

    util::Status run_worker(std::unique_ptr<Foo>);
    void func() {
       std::unique_ptr<Foo> smart_foo = ...;
       Foo* owned_foo = smart_foo.get();
       // Currently, the following would "work" because the argument to run_worker() is deleted at the end of func()
       // With the new calling convention, it will be deleted at the end of run_worker(),
       // making this an access to freed memory.
                // <<<Crash expected here
  • Lifetime of local returned std::unique_ptr<> ends earlier.

    Spot the bug:

    std::unique_ptr<Foo> create_and_subscribe(Bar* subscriber) {
      auto foo = std::make_unique<Foo>();
      subscriber->sub([&foo] { foo->do_thing();} );
      return foo;

    One could point out this is an obvious stack-use-after return bug. With the current calling convention, running this code with ASAN enabled, however, would not yield any “issue”. So is this a bug in ASAN? (Spoiler: No)

    This currently would “work” only because the storage for foo is in the caller’s stackframe. In other words, &foo in callee and &foo in the caller are the same address.

ASAN can be used to detect both of these.