Kevin's Blog

Simple group structures via templates in C++

The code for this post can be found on GitHub.

If you enjoyed the previous post on Simple Higher Order Functions in C++ you already got a taste of templates in C++. In this post we have a look at how we can implement compile-time groups in C++11. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of groups, you can read about them on Wikipedia or Wolfram MathWold.

For this example we look at O(1), a rather simple group structure. A possible incarnation of O(1) is ({1, -1}, ×). Here we call our elements A and B and for simplicity we omit the group operation sign. We want AA=A, BB=A, AB=B, and BA=B. A is the identity of the group. This group is also cyclic with order 1 and B being the generator.

First we create two types representing A and B:

struct A {};
struct B {};

Next we need a type representing the binary group operation. That type should have two template parameters representing the left- and the right-hand side of the operator. We also need a type definition (here an alias) inside the type to specify the result of the operation.

template <typename LHS, typename RHS>
struct Op {};

template <>
struct Op<A, A> {
  using result = A;

template <>
struct Op<A, B> {
  using result = B;

// and so on…

We can verify that this does indeed work using static assertions. Assuming we have put our definitions from above in a file called group.h, the following program is sufficient to check that what we did is correct.

#include "group.h"

#include <type_traits>

static_assert(std::is_same<Op<A, A>::result, A>::value, "A × A = A");
static_assert(std::is_same<Op<A, B>::result, B>::value, "A × B = B");
static_assert(std::is_same<Op<B, A>::result, B>::value, "B × A = B");
static_assert(std::is_same<Op<B, B>::result, A>::value, "B × B = A");

save it as and compile it with c++ -O3 -std=c++11 -o test_group.o The fact that is compiles implies correctness. Pretty cool, huh?

At this point, we are already able to use the result of a calculation as input for another one but there is a lot of syntactic overhead. For a simple example like ABA, we could write Op<Op<A, B>::result, A>::result. For n operands, we have to write ::result n-1 times.

When we defined our base case in the previous example, we did not specify a result type so using anything but A or B would fail. If instead we write

template <typename LHS, typename RHS>
struct Op {
  using result = typename Op<typename LHS::result,
                             typename RHS::result>::result;

it allows for expressions where both sides are the results of operations like

static_assert(std::is_same<Op<Op<A, B>, Op<B, A>>::result, A>::value,
              "(AB)(BA) = A");

A simple modification to our initial definition of our types A and B will allow for more flexibility without having to specify all possible cases (Op<A, Op<…>>, Op<Op<…>, A>, …) manually:

struct A { using result = A; };
struct B { using result = B; };

Now we can even write

using x = Op<Op<Op<Op<Op<A, B>, A>, A>, B>, A>::result;
static_assert(std::is_same<x, A>::value, "ABAABA = A");

which is a significant improvement over how we had to do it before. Now we only have to write ::result once independent of how many operations we perform. However, we still have to write Op<…> n-1 times for n operations.

Variadic templates

are awesome. They allow us to write functions and even types that take arbitrary numbers of (type) parameters. As an example think about this function:

int sum(int x, int y) {
  return x + y;

we can improve it with templates to take an arbitrary input type that supports addition:

template <typename T>
T sum(T lhs, T rhs) {
  return lhs + rhs;

but for summation of more than two values we would have to write another function or repeatedly apply sum. Writing a function for every possible case (three parameters, four parameters, …) is not only tiresome and unmaintainable it is also impossible as the number of parameters goes to infinity. Repeatedly applying the function works better but who really wants to write sum(sum(sum(sum(sum(…)…)…)…)…)?

With just four lines of code, we are able to solve that problem:

template <typename T, typename... Ts>
T sum(T head, Ts... tail) {
  return head + sum(tail...);

The three dots (... not ) indicate the use of what is called a parameter pack. Parameter packs are at the core of variadic templates. You can find an excellent and comprehensive description on

If you call sum(1, 2, 3, 4) somewhere in your code, your compiler should theoretically generate sum functions taking four, three, and two parameters. However, modern compilers are smart enough to not actually do this and optimise most of it away. In fact, the generated assembly file (clang option -S) for this program is only a few lines long and contains no function calls whatsoever.

#include "variadic.h"

int main() {
  return sum(1, 2, 3, 4);

Back to our group

In order to apply what we’ve learned about variadic templates and parameter packs to our original problem we just need to consider one difference between functions and types: There is no type overloading in C++. In the sum example it was okay to first define the base case (two parameters) and then specify the more common case but when working with types we must define the most common case first:

template <typename...>
struct Op {};

Our initial definition then becomes a specialisation of this template:

``cpp template struct Op { using result = typename Op<typename LHS::result, typename Op::result>::result; }; ```

Notice how we use the same recursive structure as in the above example. Functional programmers will recognise this pattern as a fold.

And indeed, this assertion holds, showing that our code works the way we want it to

  std::is_same<Op<A, A, A, B, A, B, B, A>::result, B>::value,


Using a somewhat contrived example of an O(1) group, we have learned how to implement compile-time calculations on arbitrary structures. We also had a look at parameter packs and variadic templates that allow us to write very generic and highly re-usable code.

Questions, remarks, …

Do you have any questions? Is anything unclear? Did I get something wrong? Is something horribly imprecise? Please let me know! Send an email to kevin at this domain or write an issue on the GitHub repo.