Proxy references

The story of std::vector<bool>

When we want to refer to an object of type T somewhere in memory, we can form a reference to that object using the language built-in reference T&. This also holds true for containers, which often maintain larger portions of memory containing many objects of type T. Given an index, we can obtain a reference to one such T living in memory:

std::vector<T> obj(100);
T& ref = obj[42];

The reference ref of type T& refers to an actual object of type T which is truly manifested in memory.

Sometimes however, we choose to store the value of a T in a different way in memory, not as an object of type T. The most prominent example of such a case is std::vector<bool>, which uses bitfields to store the values of the booleans, thus decreasing the memory required for the data structure. However, since std::vector<bool> does not store objects of type bool in memory, we can now longer form a bool& to one of the vectors elements:

std::vector<bool> obj(100);
bool& ref = obj[42]; // compile error

The proposed solution in this case is to replace the bool& by an object representing a reference to a bool. Such an object is called a proxy reference. Because some standard containers may use proxy references for some contained types, when we write generic code, it is advisable to use the corresponding reference alias provided by them, or to use a forwarding reference:

std::vector<T> obj(100);
std::vector<T>::reference ref1 = obj[42]; // works for any T including bool
auto&&                    ref2 = obj[42]; // binds to T& for real references,
                                          // or proxy references returned by value

Although std::vector<bool> is notorious for this behavior of its references, more such data structures exist (e.g. std::bitset) or started to appear in recent C++ standards and its proposals. E.g. in the area of text encodings, or the zip range adaptors.

Working with proxy references

A proxy reference is usually a value-type with reference semantic. Thus, a proxy reference can be freely created, copied, moved and destroyed. Their sole purpose is to give access to a value they refer to. They usually encapsulate a reference to some storage and computations to be performed when writing or reading through the proxy reference. Write access to a referred value of type T is typically given via an assignment operator from T. Read access is given by a (non-explicit) conversion operator to T.

std::vector<bool> v(100);
auto&& ref = v[42];

ref = true;    // write: invokes std::vector<bool>::reference::operator=(bool)
bool b1 = ref; // read:  invokes std::vector<bool>::reference::operator bool()

auto  ref2 = ref;  // takes a copy of the proxy reference (!!!)
auto& ref3 = ref2; // references (via the language build-in l-value reference) the proxy reference ref2

for (auto&& ref : v) {
   bool b = ref;
   ref = !b;

Mind, that we explicitly state bool as the type of the resulting value on access. If we use auto instead, we would take a copy of the reference object, not the value.

Proxy references in LLAMA

By handing out references to contained objects on access, LLAMA views are similar to standard C++ containers. For references to whole records, LLAMA views hand out record references. Although a record reference models a reference to a “struct” (= record) in memory, this struct is not physically manifested in memory. This allows mappings the freedom to arbitrarily arrange how the data for a struct is stored. A record reference in LLAMA is thus a proxy reference to a “struct”.

auto view = llama::allocView(mapping);
auto rr1 = view(1, 2, 3); // rr1 is a RecordRef, a proxy reference (assuming this access is not terminal)
auto rr2 = rr1(color{});  // same here

An exception to this are the load() and store() member functions of a record reference. We might change this in the future.

Pixel p = rr.load(); // read access;         // write access

Similarly, some mappings choose a different in-memory representation for the field types in the leaves of the record dimension. Examples are the Bytesplit, ChangeType, BitPackedIntSoa or BitPackedFloatSoa mappings. These mappings even return a proxy reference for terminal accesses:

auto&& ref = rr(color{}, r{}); // may be a float& or a proxy reference object, depending on the mapping

Thus, when you want to write truly generic code with LLAMA’s views, please keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Each non-terminal access on a view returns a record reference, which is a value-type with reference semantic.

  • Each terminal access on a view may return an l-value reference or a proxy reference. Thus use auto&& to handle both cases.

  • Explicitly specify the type of copies of individual fields you want to make from references obtains from a LLAMA view. This avoids accidentally coping a proxy reference.


Proxy references in LLAMA fulfill the following concept:

template <typename R>
concept ProxyReference = std::is_copy_constructible_v<R> && std::is_copy_assignable_v<R>
    && requires(R r) {
    typename R::value_type;
    { static_cast<typename R::value_type>(r) } -> std::same_as<typename R::value_type>;
    { r = typename R::value_type{} } -> std::same_as<R&>;
} && AdlTwoStepSwappable<R>;

That is, a proxy reference can be copied, which should make the original and the copy refer to the same element. It can be assigned to another proxy reference, which should transfer the referred value, not where the proxy reference is referring to! A proxy references provides a member type value_type, which indicates the type of the values which can be loaded and stored through the proxy reference. Furthermore, a proxy reference can be converted to its value type (thus calling operator value_type ()) or assigned an instance of its value type. Finally, two proxy references can be swapped using the ADL two-step idiom, swapping their referred values:

using std::swap;
swap(pr1, pr2);

Arithmetic on proxy references and ProxyRefOpMixin

An additional feature of normal references in C++ is that they can be used as operands for certain operators:

auto&& ref = ...;
T = ref + T(42); // works for normal and proxy references
ref++;           // normally, works only for normal references
ref *= 2;        // -||-
                 // both work in LLAMA due to llama::ProxyRefOpMixin

Proxy references cannot be used in compound assignment and increment/decrement operators unless they provide overloads for these operators. To cover this case, LLAMA provides the CRTP mixin llama::ProxyRefOpMixin, which a proxy reference type can inherit from, to supply the necessary operators. All proxy reference types in LLAMA inherit from llama::ProxyRefOpMixin to supply the necessary operators. If you define your own computed mappings returning proxy references, make sure to inherit your proxy reference types from llama::ProxyRefOpMixin.

Member functions and proxy references

Given a class with a member function:

struct Rng {
    double next();
    RngState state() const;

    RngState m_state;

We can naturally call a member function of that class on a reference to an instance in memory in C++:

std::vector<Rng> v = ...;
Rng& rng = v[i]; // reference to Rng instance
RngState s = rng.state();
double n =;

However, this is not possible with proxy references:

using RecordDim = Rng;
auto v = llama::allocView(m); // where the mapping m uses proxy references
auto&& rng = v[i];            // proxy reference to Rng instance
RngState s = rng.state();     // compilation error
double n =;        // no member function state()/next() in proxy reference class

We can workaround this limitation for const member functions by materializing the proxy reference into a temporary value:

auto&& rng = v[i]; // proxy reference to Rng instance
RngState s = (static_cast<Rng>(rng)).state();
double n = (static_cast<Rng>(rng)).next(); // silent error: updates temporary, not instance at rng!

This invokes the conversion operator of the proxy reference and we call the member function on a temporary. However, for mutating member functions, the best possible solution so far is to load the instance into a local copy, call the mutating member function, and store back the local copy.

auto&& rng = v[i];     // proxy reference to Rng instance
Rng rngCopy = rng;     // local copy
double n =; // modify local copy
rng = rngCopy;         // store back modified instance

This is also how llama::ProxyRefOpMixin is implemented.

In order to allow rng to forward the call .next() to a different object than itself, C++ would require a frequently discussed, but not standardized, extension: smart references.

Implementing proxy references

A good explanation on how to implement proxy references is given here. In addition to that, proxy references used with LLAMA should inherit from llama::ProxyRefOpMixin and satisfy the concept llama::ProxyReference.