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What is Inline Function in C++?

What is Inline Function in C++?

This blog will attempt to explore the concept of inline functions in C++. We’ll discuss, in depth, what they are, how they work, when they might be helpful, as well as cover some potential drawbacks of using inline functions.

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What is an Inline Function?

An inline function is a function in computer programming that is expanded in line at the point where it is called rather than being executed through a separate function call. In other words, the function’s code is inserted directly into the calling code, just like a macro. Using inline functions improves the performance of a program, as it reduces the overhead of function calls. This is because the function’s code is included directly in the calling code, eliminating the need for a separate call to function and the associated overhead of setting up and tearing down a function call. Inline functions are often used for small, frequently called functions, such as accessors or mutators for class member variables. However, it is up to the compiler to decide whether or not a function should undergo inlining, based on various factors, such as the function’s size and complexity.

Simply prefix the function definition with the inline keyword to declare it as inline as shown below:

inline int add(int a, int b) {
    return a + b;
}

Advantages of Inline Functions in C++

Advantages of Inline Functions in C++

Inline function advantages in C++ include the following:

  • Performance – As mentioned, the key advantage of inline functions is enhanced performance. Inline functions can result in faster code execution since it avoids the overhead of function calls.
  • Reduced Code Size – Since the code for an inline function is inserted directly into the calling code, it can result in smaller executable code.
  • Avoiding Function Call Overhead – When a C++ function is called, the CPU must save the current state of the program that includes the location of the next instruction to be performed, contents of any registers that the function may need, and location of the stack pointer. The CPU must restore this state when the function returns before continuing execution. Using inline functions removes this complexity.
  • Better Debugging – Since inline functions are expanded in line at the point where they are called, it can be easier to debug code that uses inline functions. This is because the function’s code is visible in the calling code, making it easier to step through and understand.
  • Encapsulation – Inline functions are useful for encapsulating functionality within a class or namespace, making code easier to manage and maintain. This may help in avoiding naming conflicts and improving code organization.

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Disadvantages of Inline Functions in C++

It’s worth nothing, however, that inline functions are not always the best solution for every situation. For example, very large or complex inline functions may actually harm the performance and increase the code size, so it’s important to use inline functions judiciously and with a good understanding of how they work. Inline function disadvantages in C++ include the following:

  • Code Bloat – Inline functions are expanded at each point where they are called, leading to larger executable code. If an inline function is called many times throughout a program, the resulting code bloat can actually hurt the performance by causing instruction cache misses and page faults.
  • Increased Compilation Time –  When a function is declared inline, the compiler must generate code for the function at every point where it is called. This can increase the compilation time, especially for large programs with many inline functions.
  • Limited Optimization Opportunities –  Since inline functions are expanded directly into the calling code, the compiler has limited opportunities to optimize them. For example, the compiler may not be able to perform loop unrolling or other optimizations that require knowledge of the function’s control flow.
  • Breaking Binary Compatibility –  If an inline function is changed, all the code that calls that particular function must be recompiled to take advantage of the changes. This can break the binary compatibility with the existing code, making it a problem when distributing libraries or other software components.

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Examples of Inline Functions in C++

To better understand this concept , let’s look at a simple inline function example given below.

#include <iostream>
inline int add(int a, int b) {
    return a + b;
}
int main() {
    int x = 5;
    int y = 3;
    int sum = add(x, y);
    std::cout << "The sum of " << x << " and " << y << " is " << sum << std::endl;
    return 0;
}

Here, the inline function “add” is defined to return the sum of two integer parameters. When the “add” function call in encountered by the compiler in the main function, it replaces the body of the function, resulting in the following code:

int main() {
  int x = 5;
  int y = 3;
  int sum = x + y;
  std::cout << "The sum of " << x << " and " << y << " is " << sum << std::endl;
  return 0;
}

As you can see, the function call overhead is eliminated, potentially improving the program’s performance.

When Should You Use Inline Functions in C++?

When Should You Use Inline Functions in C++?

Inline functions are a useful tool in C++, but they should be used judiciously and with care. Inline functions should be used when their benefits, like improved performance or encapsulation, outweigh their drawbacks, like increased code size or compilation time. It’s important to test and measure the performance impact of using inline functions in your specific codebase to determine if they are truly beneficial in your particular situation. Given below are some situations where using inline functions may be appropriate.

  • Small Functions – Inline functions are best suited for small functions that are called frequently, such as simple getter or setter functions. These functions are often used to access or modify object member variables. By inlining these functions, you can avoid the overhead of a function call.
  • Performance-Critical Code – In some performance-critical code, the overhead of a function call can be a significant bottleneck. In these cases, inlining the function can help improve the performance.
  • Templates – In C++, templates are used to define generic functions or classes that can work with different data types. Inline functions are often used in template code to avoid linker errors and improve performance.
  • Encapsulation – Inlining the functions can help encapsulate the functionality within a class or namespace. This can improve the code organization and help prevent naming conflicts.

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Understanding the Role of Compiler in Inlining

The compiler’s job in inlining entails not only assessing whether or not a function must be inlined but also generating the code for an inline function when called. The decision to inline a function is based on several criteria, including the function’s size and complexity, frequency of use, and the optimization level provided by the compiler. 

When a function is defined inline, the compiler generates a duplicate of the function’s code at each position where the function is called. The compiler then optimizes the produced code, like any other code; a procedure that is similar to macro substitution. Nevertheless, there are certain distinctions. Inline functions, for instance, can still include local variables and be debugged like any other function.

It’s worth mentioning that the compiler ultimately decides whether or not to inline a function. Even if a function is declared inline, the compiler may choose not to inline it if it determines that inlining would be inefficient. Similarly, if the compiler decides that inlining will increase speed, it may inline a function that has not been declared inline.

To explicitly request an inline function, the β€œinline” keyword can be used in the function declaration. However, this is only a hint to the compiler, and it does not guarantee that the function will be inlined. Alternatively, some compilers provide additional attributes or pragmas to control inlining behavior, such as β€œ_attribute((always_inline))” in GCC or β€œ_forceinline” in Microsoft Visual C++. 

Conclusion

Inline functions C++ can be a powerful tool for optimizing your code and improving its organization. Having a knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of inline functions can help you make informed decisions about when and how to use them in your projects. Remember to balance the performance improvements, maintain code clarity, and trust in your compiler’s ability to make the right inlining decisions.

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About the Author

Senior Consultant Analytics & Data Science

Presenting Sahil Mattoo, a Senior Consultant Analytics & Data Science at Eli Lilly and Company is an accomplished professional with 14 years of experience across data science, analytics, and technical leadership domains, demonstrates a remarkable ability to drive business insights. Sahil holds a Post Graduate Program in Business Analytics and Business Intelligence from Great Lakes Institute of Management.