Custom Stream Buffers

A stream buffer is the vegetated land adjacent to a streambank.


Stream buffers are strips of trees and other vegetation that improve water quality by filtering pollutants from stormwater runoff such as oil, fertilizers, pesticides; reduce flooding and erosion by stabilizing stream banks; moderate stream temperature and sunlight, keeping fish and other aquatic life healthy; provide nesting and foraging habitat for many species of birds and animals.

Yeah, OK - not those stream buffers. I’d like to talk a bit about the beloved, intuitive, C++ standard library kind, the ones everybody loves (to hate) and understands (not).

When I was a wee C++ apprentice (pre-C++98), I was taught that when designing your API don’t take a file-name or assume a standard input/output stream. Instead, take a std::istream& or std::ostream& (or std::iostream) and thus support any such (derived) stream.

Recently, while working on integrating two libraries, I came across an interesting challenge.

One library, Encoder, the encoding library, expected an std::ostream& to write data too (it thus naturally supported file serialization given a std::ofstream): Encoder::encode(std::ostream& os);

The other library, call it the device library, provided a C-style write function such as int device_write_callback(const char* buf, int sz).

I needed to get the encoding library to encode my data and write the encoded data into the device using this API. The easiest solution is of course:

Encoder encoder; 
// fill encoder with data...

std::ostringstream ostr;
auto buf_str = ostr.str(); // makes another COPY!
device_write_callback(buf_str.c_str(), buf_str.size());

This works, but has a major drawback: the encoder will first encode all the data into an internal in-memory buffer. Only after this is allocated and done, will the entire thing be written to the device. If our encoded data is very large, this can consume copious amounts of memory.

To make matters worse, ostr.str() returns an additional copy of that giant buffer!

What we’d like is to create a std::ostream that instead of writing to a memory buffer, directly calls the device-writer function.

One option is to use Boost.Iostreams. If you already have Boost in your project that is a valid way to go, but if you don’t, or don’t want the extra power and complexity that it brings, it turns out we can get the same benefit by rolling our own little streambuf.

Custom Stream Buffers

The standard provides two ready made stream buffers std::basic_filebuf and std::basic_stringbuf which are the basis of std::basic_fstream and std:: basic_stringstream respectively.

We will create our own class derived from std::streambuf and pass that to a generic std::ostream.

A thorough review of iostreams and stream-buffers is way beyond the scope of this post (or my knowledge for that matter). So here’s how to create a simple little streambuf to avoid the extraneous memory allocations (at least on your side) and just call the callback with whatever data is ready to be written:

template <typename Callback>
struct callback_ostreambuf : public std::streambuf
    using callback_t = Callback;
    callback_ostreambuf(Callback cb, void* user_data = nullptr): 
       callback_(cb), user_data_(user_data) {}

    std::streamsize xsputn(const char_type* s, std::streamsize n) override 
        return callback_(s, n, user_data_); // returns the number of characters successfully written.

    int_type overflow(int_type ch) override 
        return callback_(&ch, 1, user_data_); // returns the number of characters successfully written.

    Callback callback_;
    void* user_data_;

Basically, we derive our class from std::streambuf and override the two virtual functions xsputn() and overflow(). The default (base) implementations of the rest of the streambuf methods will eventually reach these two functions: one writes a single character and the other several (in fact, the default implementation of std::streambuf::xsputn() calls std::streambuf::overflow() n-times).

A few things to note:

  1. The class is templated on a Callback type. Although we know the desired signature of the write callback (since we have to call it in the methods and they must return the number of characters successfully written), we use a template type parameter as the callback type so we can also pass capturing lambdas as our callbacks.
  2. In the code above, I made the write function be a callback that also accepts a void* user_data argument. This is useful with C-style APIs but not always necessary (and not really relevant for the discussion here).

We can also add a little helper make function:

template <typename Callback>
auto make_callback_ostreambuf(Callback cb, void* user_data = nullptr)
    return callback_ostreambuf<Callback>(cb, user_data);

We can now use our class like this:

auto cbsbuf = make_callback_ostreambuf([](const void* buf, std::streamsize sz, void* user_data)
    std::cout.write(reinterpret_cast<const char*>(buf), sz);
    return sz; // return the numbers of characters written.
std::ostream ostr(&cbsbuf);
ostr << "TEST " << 42; // Write string and integer

Although somewhat contrived, this will print TEST 42 to the console. In fact in such a lambda we can call any other device writing API regardless of the actual signature of that API.

Sweet 17 and beyond

The code above should work with C++11 and C++14 (up to some minor fixes). In fact, without the lambdas it’ll should also work with pre-C++11 compilers (the iostream library is pre-C++98!).
However, there are a few issues with the code above that make it less modern and type safe than it could be.

For starters, make_callback_ostreambuf() is an ugly API wart. The only reason we need it is so that we don’t need to write callback_ostreambuf<decltype(callback_fun)> my_streambuf(callback_fun); where we must specify the type to the template class (i.e. <decltype(callback_fun)>).

C++17 will bring us class template deduction so with a C++17 conforming compiler we will be able to declare callback_ostreambuf my_streambuf(callback_fun); and the callback type will be deduced automatically just like with make_callback_ostreambuf().

A more subtle annoyance is that there is actually no static type enforcement on the callback type. It is called Callable but it is only assumed that:

  1. it is a callable;
  2. it has the correct arity (number of args);
  3. it has the correct return type;
  4. all the args have the correct types.

Duck typing galore!
Any deviation from these will be rewarded with a compilation error or various wanrnings. However, to make matters worse, these errors and warnings will be shown at the point of duck-type usage, i.e. inside the method implementations of our class and not at the point of call at the class ctor.

Ironically, had we made our class non-template and decided to support only function-pointer callbacks, the compiler would have warned us of a type mismatch at the ctor call.

Using SFINAE it is, in fact, possible to decompose the Callable type into various types of callables (e.g. function pointers, class member operator(), etc.) and static_assert correct conversions. While demonstrating some very clever template meta programming (TMP) techniques is appealing, the resulting code would be several times larger and many more times more obscure than our current 20 line class.

There is however a glimmer of hope. Part of the raison-d’être of C++ concepts, which may be available as soon as C++20, is to allow more powerful and expressive static type checking and allow the compiler to warn at the point of usage. Concepts would allow us to precisely describe the callback type for proper type checking. I quiver in anticipation.

To create a custom streambuf:

  1. Derive your class from std::streambuf;
  2. Override the two virtual functions xsputn() and overflow().
    (You can even get away with overriding only overflow() and the default xsputn() will call it n times).

(see what I did? put the TL;DR at the end… mwahahaha)


Custom Stream Buffer View

So we have a buffer with our encoded data. Maybe we saved it, maybe we sent it over the network. At some point we’d like to decode from such a buffer. We have a large contiguous memory buffer and we’d like to read from it. Our decoding library, again, sports a std::istream interface for decoding. How can we provide it with such a stream?

As before, the obvious option is to create a std::istringstream initialized with our buffer. However, inspecting the docs for std::istringstream shows that both the ctor and the std::istringstream::str(<string>) methods create copies of the data, something we’d like to avoid for very large buffers.

What we want is an “istring_viewstream” that will stream a view of our buffer just like C++17 std::string_view is to std::string.

Fortunately, that’s pretty short work:

template <typename Byte = char>
class istreambuf_view : public std::streambuf
    using byte = Byte;
    static_assert(1 == sizeof(byte), "sizeof buffer element type 1.");

    istreambuf_view(const byte* data, size_t len) :     // ptr + size
        begin_(data), end_(data + len), current_(data)

    istreambuf_view(const byte* beg, const byte* end) : // begin + end
        begin_(beg), end_(end), current_(beg)

    int_type underflow() override
        return (current_ == end_ ? traits_type::eof() : traits_type::to_int_type(*current_));

    int_type uflow() override
        return (current_ == end_ ? traits_type::eof() : traits_type::to_int_type(*current_++));

    int_type pbackfail(int_type ch) override
        if (current_ == begin_ || (ch != traits_type::eof() && ch != current_[-1]))
            return traits_type::eof();

        return traits_type::to_int_type(*--current_);

    std::streamsize showmanyc() override
        return end_ - current_;

    const byte* const begin_;
    const byte* const end_;
    const byte* current_;

Again, we derive our class istreambuf_view from std::streambuf and this time override a different set of virtual functions. All this class really does is manage 3 pointers.

The usage is quite straight forward:

auto buffer = "TEST 42"s;
auto view_buf = istreambuf_view<>(, buffer.size());
std::istream istr(&view_buf);

std::string str;
int v = 0;
istr >> str >> v; // Read string and then integer
assert("TEST" == str && 42 == v);

A few things to note:

  1. The class is templated on a Byte type. Any 1-byte type should work and this is static_asserted.
  2. The default character type is char. Using that we get the aptly named “diamond operator” <>.
  3. For convenience I added two constructors, one for pointer+size and the other for a begin+end.

Sweet 17

In this case too, C++17 will come to our aid and slightly simplify our code. With either class template deduction or user-defined deduction guides we will be able to drop the diamond operator in the default case and remain with the cleaner auto view_buf = istreambuf_view(, buffer.size());

A natural extension to this class would be to also accept a std::string_view or GSL’s various span flavors.


In the Feb. 2017 ISO C++ mailing, Peter Sommerlad proposes:
P0408R1 - Efficient Access to basic stringbuf’s Buffer.

From the paper:
Streams have been the oldest part of the C++ standard library and their specification doesn’t take into account many things introduced since C++11. One of the oversights is that there is no non-copying access to the internal buffer of a basic_stringbuf which makes at least the obtaining of the output results from an ostringstream inefficient, because a copy is always made… This paper proposes to adjust the API of basic_stringbuf and the corresponding stream class templates to allow accessing the underlying string more efficiently.

If accepted this would allow direct access, a-la string_view, to a streambuf’s underlying buffer and avoid the additional copy created by calling str() as mentioned in the Custom Stream Buffers section above.

Alternatively, Peter Sommerlad points me to another proposal of his: P0448R0 - A strstream replacement using span<charT> as buffer which proposes “a class template basic_spanbuf and the corresponding stream class templates to enable the use of streams on externally provided memory buffers. No ownership or re-allocation support is given. For those features we have string-based streams.”

If accepted this would allow creating a streambuf object basic_spanbuf as a direct view over our external buffer in the Custom Stream Buffer View example.

Good luck Peter!



Iostreams are much maligned, but they go back a long way and for better or worse they shall remain with us for a while yet. Many idioms build upon them and occasionally one needs to dip a toe into these frigid waters. This post is not intended as a comprehensive tutorial but mostly as a public pasteboard where I can come and remember how to do these things in a few years instead of rummaging and collecting this info again elsewhere. I hope you find it useful too.


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