When to use inline function and when not to use it?


I know that inline is a hint or request to compiler and its used to avoid function call overheads.

So on what basis one can determine whether a function is a candidate for inlining or not ? In which case one should avoid inlining ?

12/30/2013 7:01:11 PM

Accepted Answer

Avoiding the cost of a function call is only half the story.


  • use inline instead of #define
  • very small functions are good candidates for inline: faster code and smaller executables (more chances to stay in the code cache)
  • the function is small and called very often


  • large functions: leads to larger executables, which significantly impairs performance regardless of the faster execution that results from the calling overhead
  • inline functions that are I/O bound
  • the function is seldom used
  • constructors and destructors: even when empty, the compiler generates code for them
  • breaking binary compatibility when developing libraries:
    • inline an existing function
    • change an inline function or make an inline function non-inline: prior version of the library call the old implementation

when developing a library, in order to make a class extensible in the future you should:

  • add non-inline virtual destructor even if the body is empty
  • make all constructors non-inline
  • write non-inline implementations of the copy constructor and assignment operator unless the class cannot be copied by value

Remember that the inline keyword is a hint to the compiler: the compiler may decide not to inline a function and it can decide to inline functions that were not marked inline in the first place. I generally avoid marking function inline (apart maybe when writing very very small functions).

About performance, the wise approach is (as always) to profile the application, then eventually inline a set of functions representing a bottleneck.


EDIT: Bjarne Stroustrup, The C++ Programming Language:

A function can be defined to be inline. For example:

inline int fac(int n)
  return (n < 2) ? 1 : n * fac(n-1);

The inline specifier is a hint to the compiler that it should attempt to generate code for a call of fac() inline rather than laying down the code for the function once and then calling through the usual function call mechanism. A clever compiler can generate the constant 720 for a call fac(6). The possibility of mutually recursive inline functions, inline functions that recurse or not depending on input, etc., makes it impossible to guarantee that every call of an inline function is actually inlined. The degree of cleverness of a compiler cannot be legislated, so one compiler might generate 720, another 6 * fac(5), and yet another an un-inlined call fac(6).

To make inlining possible in the absence of unusually clever compilation and linking facilities, the definition–and not just the declaration–of an inline function must be in scope (§9.2). An inline especifier does not affect the semantics of a function. In particular, an inline function still has a unique address and so has static variables (§7.1.2) of an inline function.

EDIT2: ISO-IEC 14882-1998, 7.1.2 Function specifiers

A function declaration (8.3.5, 9.3, 11.4) with an inline specifier declares an inline function. The inline specifier indicates to the implementation that inline substitution of the function body at the point of call is to be preferred to the usual function call mechanism. An implementation is not required to perform this inline substitution at the point of call; however, even if this inline substitution is omitted, the other rules for inline functions defined by 7.1.2 shall still be respected.

12/20/2009 6:26:01 PM

inline has very little to do with optimization. inline is an instruction to the compiler not to produce an error if the function given definition occurs multiple times in the program and a promise that the definition will occur in every translation that it is used and everywhere it does appear it will have exactly the same definition.

Given the above rules, inline is suitable for short functions whose body doesn't necessitate including extra dependencies over what just a declaration would need. Every time the defintion is encountered it must be parsed and code for its body may be generated so it implies some compiler overhead over a function defined only once in a single source file.

A compiler may inline (i.e. replace a call to the function with code that performs that action of that function) any function call that it chooses. It used to be the case that it "obviously" couldn't inline a function that wasn't declared in the same translation unit as the call but with the increasing use of link time optimization even this isn't true now. Equally true is the fact that functions marked inline may not be inlined.

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