Microsoft DLL export and C++ templates

The other day I stumbled upon a really dark corner of the Microsoft dllexport/dllimport machinery. I can vividly see Windows toolchain engineers waking up in the middle of the night from a nightmare where they had to patch yet another crack in this DLL symbol export mess. This one has to do with the interaction of dllexport and C++ templates.

It all started with a user reporting duplicate symbol errors when he tried to split the XSD-generated code into two DLLs. The duplicate symbols were reported when linking the second DLL that depends on the “base” DLL and pointed to the destructor and assignment operator of a template instantiation, let’s say std::vector<int>. There were two additional strange things about this case: the errors only occurred in the debug build and there were a number of other users that have done a similar thing but never got any errors. The fact that the errors only appeared in the debug build got me thinking that in the release build these functions were inlined. The second strange aspect was harder to figure out: there was something special about this particular codebase that caused the error. After some investigation the following code fragment in the first DLL turned out to make the difference (BASE_EXPORT expands to either __declspec(dllexport) or __declspec(dllimport)):

class BASE_EXPORT ints: public std::vector<int>

As it turns out (see at the end of the General Rules and Limitations article in MSDN), if an exported class inherits from a template instantiation that is not explicitly exported (yes, you can export certain instantiations of a template, see below), then the compiler implicitly applies dllexport to this template instantiation. So the above code fragment exports both the ints class and the std::vector<int> instantiation. On the surface this automatic exporting looks like a good idea. After all, if you export the derived class you will also need to export all its public bases since they are part of the interface. In the case of the non-template bases you need to use the export mechanism explicitly which makes sense. In the case of templates, you don’t want to have to explicitly export every instantiation. Plus, as pointed out in the MSDN article above, it is not always possible.

But here is the other half of the picture: in the second DLL there is a source code file that doesn’t know anything about the ints class (that is, it doesn’t include the ints declaration). It also happens to use std::vector<int> in a fairly common way:

void f ()
  std::vector<int> v;

When the second DLL is linked, we end up with two sets of symbols for std::vector<int>: the first is exported from the “base” DLL and the second set is the result of the template instantiation in the above source code file. Duplicate symbol errors ensue.

At first it might seem puzzling that the same doesn’t happen with ordinary classes that contain inline functions. What if a class is exported from one DLL and then we use it in another? This doesn’t lead to errors even when inline functions are not inlined because in order to use the class we need to include its declaration. Once we do that all of its functions become imported from the first DLL and instead of “instantiating” an inline function the compiler simply uses the imported version from the first DLL. We get errors in the above scenario because when VC++ compiles the source file in the second DLL it has no knowledge of the fact that the functions it is about to instantiate were exported from the “base” DLL which this DLL happens to link to.

In standard C++ the toolchain is required to weed out the duplicate symbols that result from instantiations of the same template. When DLLs are involved, VC++ is unable to meet this requirement.

There is no clean way to work around this. In the scenario described above we can add an explicit import declaration for the std::vector<int> instantiation:

template class __declspec(dllimport) std::vector<int>;
void f ()
  std::vector<int> v;

Normally one would collect such manual imports in one header file and then include this file into every source file in the DLL.

The major issue with this approach, apart from having to manually track imports, is that if you have two independent DLLs that each happen to auto-export std::vector<int> and you need to link to both of them, there is nothing you can do without changing at least one of those DLLs.

It also appears that Microsoft itself suffered from this pitfall as evident from the Exporting String Classes Using CStringT article in MSDN. The solution that it describes seems to be specific to this particular case, not that I could understand it fully.

3 Responses to “Microsoft DLL export and C++ templates”

  1. Ian Says:

    Can this issue be resolved instead by using /FORCE:MULTIPLE as a linker option? We had a similar sounding problem with a library and this was the solution suggested.

  2. Boris Kolpackov Says:


    Interesting, I didn’t know about this option. I tried to add it to the test case and it turned the duplicate symbol errors into warnings plus issued this one:

    warning LNK4088: image being generated due to /FORCE option; image may not run

    While I think the image will run fine in this particular case (the two DLLs will simply use their own instantiations of the functions), this may no be the case in other cases (e.g., if a template has static data members; in this case each DLL will end up with its own version).

    The other problem with this approach is that it will also mask other, unrelated, duplicate symbol errors. The user can always read through the list of warnings to make sure nothing suspicious is there but that can quickly become too much since this will have to be done after every change to the code.

    However, this seems like the only viable work around for the case of two independent DLLs that I described above.

    Thanks for the information!

  3. Maxim Yegorushkin Says:

    Nice post.

    However, Microsoft toolchain is lacking love and totally archaic (sorry windows developers).

    gcc employs a much more interesting solution: