How Sutter’s Wrong About const in C++ 11

Herb Sutter recently gave a talk about how the const keyword and the mutable keyword have subtle but profoundly different semantics in C++ 11. In a nutshell, he says that C++ 11 corrects the wishy-washy definition of const in C++ 98; const used to mean “logically constant,” but now it means thread-safe. And mutable now means thread-safe as well. His summary slide says:

const == mutable == thread safe (bitwise const or internally synchronized)

Editor’s note: Since this post was written, Herb has updated his slide. See Herb’s note in the comment stream below.

Now, I think Herb’s talk is quite informative, and I don’t dispute the core of what he was trying to convey. It’s a good insight, well worth the community’s attention. I learned something important; I recommend that you watch the talk. Using const well is an essential skill. But I think in his enthusiasm about the way the language has evolved to make semantics clearer, Herb does us a disservice by oversimplifying.

When Herb uses the C++ == operator to boil his point down to a pithy summary, he’s implying true equivalence; what’s on one side of the operator is, for all intents and purposes, identical to or indistinguishable from what’s on the other side. And while const and mutable and thread-safe are highly related concepts, they are not equivalent enough to each other for ==.

To understand why, answer the following question: Why would good code use const and/or mutable even if it’s single-threaded?

Ah. I imagine you nodding your head sagely. You see where I’m going, don’t you?

These two keywords don’t just define semantics for cross-thread access; they define the semantics a variable or object supports when accessed by various scopes (e.g., subroutines or code blocks) on the same thread. If you pass a const Widget & to a function, that function can’t call Widget::modifyState() even if it’s the only thread in the universe. If you declare a m_lazy_init member variable to be mutable, you are telling the compiler to let you change it where it would normally be disallowed, including on the same thread.

So: const means unchangeable in whatever scope sees const (including many threads), which is why it also implies thread-safe (if all threads see const); mutable means changing safely in one or many threads, which is why it also implies thread-safe (if all threads see const). In C++ 98, these semantics were a bit loose. You could use them carelessly, cast away parts of their guarantees, and generally operate as a law unto yourself. In C++ 11 the semantics of const and mutable are explicit and exacting; the standard library demands thread-safe copy construction. As a result, their role in thread safety is clarified, and we all write better code. Mutexes and atomics and certain kinds of queues are inherently safe to change from any thread; they deserve and require the mutable keyword.

Instead of Herb’s final equation, I’d propose a Venn diagram:

The const and mutable keywords are not equivalent in C++ 11, but they do share guarantees about thread safety.

The const and mutable keywords are not equivalent in C++ 11, but they do share guarantees about thread safety.