A Concept and Template Meta-programming Approach to Session Types in C++

16 minute read



Programs communicate – whether with other programs or humans. Software developers write programs with a protocol in mind. Sometimes there’s documentation for the protocol. But there’s no mechanism that keeps implementation and documentation in sync. Bugs occur when protocols diverge.

Many of us already use type systems. But naive approaches to typing fall short of guaranteeing that an implementation speaks a protocol. For example: Suppose two threads T1 and T2 communicate over a channel chan. T1 and T2 play a guessing game. T1 guesses a number (int) and T2 informs T1 if the guess is right (bool). We might type chan as Chan<std::variant<int, bool>>. This isn’t helpful, though. If T1 sends a bool the program should not compile, yet it does.

Session types are a tool that solves this problem. This post discusses an implementation of session types in C++. You’ll learn more about how you can use session types to specify protocols. You’ll also see some features in C++ (concepts and template meta-programming) you might not know how to use today.

All code is available on GitHub.

Motivating Example: IO

Instead of two threads playing a guessing game, let’s make a game for humans. First, the computer generates a random number between 1 and 100. Second, the computer prompts the user to guess the number. Then, the user enters a guess. Next, the computer evaluates the user’s guess. If the guess is correct then the program sends a congratulatory message and exits. If the guess is wrong then the program asks the user if they give up. The user keeps guessing the generated number until they get it right or give up.

This listing shows how we might specify this protocol with session types:

using GuessingGameProtocol =
    Rec<Choose<QueryUserProtocol<Choose<KeepPlayingProtocol, Var<Z>>>,

template <HasDual P>
using QueryUserProtocol = Send<std::string, Recv<int, P>>;

using KeepPlayingProtocol = Send<std::string, Recv<std::string, Var<Z>>>;

using ExitProtocol = Choose<ExitUserLost, ExitUserWon>;
using ExitUserLost = Send<std::string, Send<int, Send<std::string, Send<std::ostream&(std::ostream&), Z>>>>;
using ExitUserWon = Send<std::string, Send<std::ostream&(std::ostream &), Z>>;

Let’s unpack:

  • Rec<P> introduces a recursive protocol. It allows the protocol to repeat itself using Var.
  • Choose<P1, P2> allows the implementation to make a choice between protocols P1 and P2. Choose<QueryUserProtocol<...>, ExitProtocol> represents a choice between asking the user for another guess and terminating.
  • Send<T1, P> represents that the implementation sends a value of type T1 then executes the protocol P. Similarly, Recv receives.
  • Var<N> accepts a natural number – either Z or Succ<M> – and returns to the recursive environment N levels out.

Here’s what an implementation of this protocol might look like:

int main() {
  std::default_random_engine generator;

  std::uniform_int_distribution distribution(1,10);
  const auto the_number = distribution(generator);

  auto keep_going = true;
  auto guess = 0;

  Chan<GuessingGameProtocol, decltype(&std::cin), decltype(&std::cout)> chan(&std::cin, &std::cout);

  while (keep_going) {
    auto c1 = chan.enter().choose1();
    auto c2 = c1 << "Guess: ";
    auto c3 = c2 >> guess;

    keep_going = guess != the_number;
    if (keep_going) {
      auto c4 = c3.choose1();
      auto c5 = c4 << "Incorrect. Keep playing? (y/n) ";
      std::string response;
      auto c6 = c5 >> response;
      keep_going = response != "n";

      chan = c6.ret();
    } else {
      chan = c3.choose2().ret();

  if (guess != the_number) {
    auto ce = chan.enter().choose2().choose1();
    ce << "You lose. I was thinking of " << the_number << "." << std::endl;
  } else {
    auto ce = chan.enter().choose2().choose2();
    ce << "You win!" << std::endl;

Some explanations are in order:

  • The Chan type represents a session typed communication channel. It encapsulates some other input and output mechanisms. In this case, cin and cout.
  • Programs operate on a Chan by calling methods. Following a method call, it is illegal to reuse the Chan – doing so triggers a run time error. Operations return new channels that speak the proper protocol.
  • chan.enter() enters a recursive context.
  • Chan<Choose<P1, P2>>::choose1() returns a channel that speaks P1. Chan<Choose<P1, P2>>::choose2() returns a channel that speaks P2.
  • Chan<Recv<T, P>>::operator>>(T &t) reads a value from the channel’s input stream into t. It returns a channel that speaks P. operator<<(const T &t) behaves similarly.
  • Chan<Var<N>>::ret() returns a channel that speaks the Nth recursive protocol defined in the original type.

Combined, this provides a stronger guarantee than what we had before: Programs always send the right shaped data for the protocol, or send nothing.

Motivating Example: Multithreaded Communication

When two threads communicate over a channel it’s important that they speak the same protocol. Our intuition tells us that every Send<T, ...> should have a corresponding Recv<T, ...>, etc. We call this duality. We desire that our type system only allow two threads to communicate over the channel if they are each other’s duals.

This next listing shows part an implementation of program with two threads: T1 and T2. T1 sends a value to T2, who responds with that value doubled.

#include <cstdio>
#include <iostream>
#include <memory>
#include "sesstypes.hh"
#include "concurrentmedium.hh"

using Protocol = Rec<Send<int, Recv<int, Var<Z>>>>;

void log(const std::string &tname, const std::string &action, int val) {
    printf("%s %s %d\n", tname.c_str(), action.c_str(), val);

void log(const std::string &tname, const std::string &action) {
    printf("%s %s\n", tname.c_str(), action.c_str());

struct {
    template <typename CommunicationMedium>
    void operator()(Chan<Protocol, CommunicationMedium, CommunicationMedium> chan) {
        int val;

        auto c = chan.enter();
        for (int i = 0; i < 5; i++) {
            auto c1 = c << i;
            log("T1", "sent", i);

            int val;
            auto c2 = c1 >> val;
            log("T1", "received", val);

            c = c2.ret().enter();
        log("T1", "done", -1);
} t1;

int main() {
    auto chan = std::make_shared<ConcurrentMedium<ProtocolTypes<Protocol>>>();
    auto threads = connect<Protocol>(t1, t2, chan);

Critically, we are only allowed to call connect<Protocol>(t1, t2) if t2 is the dual of t1. This requirement is enforced at compile time.

A C++ Implementation

Now that we have a better idea about what session types are, let’s see how they are implemented.

Session Types

Duality with C++ Concepts

Duality is critical to our concurrent motivating example. The idea that a type has a dual can be captured using a concept. Concepts are named boolean predicates that restrict template parameters.

Take the definition of the Recv type:

template <typename T, HasDual P>
struct Recv {
    using dual = Send<T, typename P::dual>;

Recv defines dual as its opposite, Send. Since Recv requires that the protocol P has a dual, we constrain P to types where HasDual evaluates to true.

Here’s the implementation of HasDual:

template <typename T>
concept HasDual = requires { typename T::dual; };

This introduces another new feature of C++: The requires expression. requires { typename T::dual; } evaluates to true if typename T::dual compiles. Otherwise, it evaluates to false. (By the way, it’s illegal for a requires expression to always fail to compile.)

Concepts are great because they improve compiler error messages. We’ve all seen the error vomit C++ compilers produce when template expansion fails. Concepts eliminate much of the noise to help us debug.

Natural Numbers with Template Meta-Programming

Remember that Var uses a natural number to decide how many levels of recursion to return from. Let’s see how our natural numbers are implemented.

Here’s a naive way to implement natural numbers:

struct Z {};

template <typename T>
struct Succ {};

This definition allows us to write real natural numbers like Succ<Succ<Z>>. The problem is that it also allows us to write things that aren’t natural numbers, like Succ<int>. Given that this post is about radical type checking, we should not be satisfied with this.

Instead, we use template metaprogramming to enforce that a type is a natural number. There are two ways for a type to be a natural number:

  1. It is Z.
  2. It is Succ<M> and M is a natural number.

Here’s how we define a concept IsNat to check that a type is a natural number:

template <typename T>
struct IsNatImpl : std::false_type {};

template <>
struct IsNatImpl<Z> : std::true_type {};

template <typename M>
struct IsNatImpl<Succ<M>>
    : std::conditional_t<
      > {};

template <typename T>
concept IsNat = IsNatImpl<T>::value;

The type_traits header provides std::true_type and std::false_type as canonical representations of true and false at the type level. The default implementation of IsNatImpl inherits from false_type, so its value member is false. The Z specialization inherits from true_type, so its value member is true.

The last specialization is kind of tricky. conditional_t<Condition, A, B> is A when Condition is true and B otherwise. So we recursively check that IsNatImpl<M>::value is true. If so, then Succ<M> is a natural number, and so we inherit from true_type.

This lets us write a more correct version of natural numbers:

template <typename T>
struct Succ;

// Code for IsNat.

template <>
struct Succ<Z> {};

template <IsNat M>
struct Succ<M> {};

The Chan Type

Here we discuss the implementation of the Chan type. Since recursion is the hardest thing that we have to support we’ll describe it first. It has far-reaching implications.

The idea is to represent a channel as a Chan<Protocol, E>. Protocol is the protocol type. For example, Recv<int, Send<int, Z>>. E (for environment) is kind of like a stack. Here’s what I mean:

template <HasDual P, typename IT, typename OT, typename E>
class Chan<Rec<P>, IT, OT, E> : ChanBase<IT, OT> {
    using ChanBase<IT, OT>::ChanBase;

    Chan<P, IT, OT, std::pair<Rec<P>, E>> enter() {
        // Implementation not shown.

So, Chan is specialized on recursive protocols. It provides only one method, enter. This makes it impossible to try to read from a recursive protocol, for example. The enter method for a protcol Rec<P> pushes P onto a stack. Since this all occurs in the type system, we represent the stack as a std::pair.

This allows us to define Var<N>, which pops N levels from the environment:

template <HasDual P, typename IT, typename OT, typename E>
class Chan<Var<Z>, IT, OT, std::pair<P, E>> : ChanBase<IT, OT> {
    using ChanBase<IT, OT>::ChanBase;

    Chan<P, IT, OT, E> ret() {
        // Implementation not shown.

template <typename T, HasDual P, typename IT, typename OT, typename E>
class Chan<Var<Succ<T>>, IT, OT, std::pair<P, E>> : ChanBase<IT, OT> {
    using ChanBase<IT, OT>::ChanBase;

    Chan<Var<T>, IT, OT, E> ret() {
        // Implementation not shown.

This is sort of recursive. In the base case, ret returns a channel whose protocol is the top of the environment stack. Otherwise, for Var<N>, ret returns a channel that also speaks Var. Only this time, it’s Var<N - 1>.

Chan is specialized for all of the types with duals. For example, here’s Chan<Recv<...>, ...>:

template <typename T, HasDual P, typename IT, typename OT, typename E>
class Chan<Recv<T, P>, IT, OT, E> : ChanBase<IT, OT> {
    using ChanBase<IT, OT>::ChanBase;

    Chan<P, IT, OT, E> operator>>(T &t) {
        if (ChanBase<IT, OT>::used) {
            throw ChannelReusedError();

        ChanBase<IT, OT>::used = true;
        (*ChanBase<IT, OT>::input) >> t;
        return Chan<P, IT, OT, E>(ChanBase<IT, OT>::input, ChanBase<IT, OT>::output);

Since it’s specialized, the only thing we can do with a Chan<Recv<...>> is use operator>>. This prevents a large number of mistakes – we can’t send an integer at an unexpected time, for example.

Concurrent Communication Primitive

The second motivating example uses ConcurrentMedium to create a Chan, instead of cin and cout. This allows two threads to communicate over a channel. This section describes the design of ConcurrentMedium.


  1. Two threads can both read and write data to a Chan.
  2. Threads do not read their own write. If a thread attempts to read its own write, it blocks until another write is available.
  3. Threads may only read a write once. If a thread attempts to read a write twice, it blocks until a new write is available.
  4. Every write is observed by the next read. If a thread attempts to write data before the last write is read, it blocks until a read occurs.


We store writes in a std::variant. This is a type-safe union. So, the type ConcurrentMedium<std::variant<int, std::string>> can communicate values with types of int or std::string.

This listing shows this implementation:

template <typename... Ts>
class ConcurrentMedium<std::variant<Ts...>> {
        : was_read(true), writers_waiting(0), readers_waiting(0) {}

    template <typename T>
    ConcurrentMedium& operator<<(const T &value) {
        std::unique_lock held_lock(lock);
        while (!was_read) {
            // Needs to be in a while loop to ignore "spurious wakeups".
            // https://en.cppreference.com/w/cpp/thread/condition_variable/wait

        data = value;
        was_read = false;
        write_source = std::this_thread::get_id();

        if (readers_waiting > 0) {

        return *this;

    template <typename T>
    ConcurrentMedium& operator>>(T &datum) {
        std::unique_lock held_lock(lock);
        while (write_source == std::this_thread::get_id() || was_read) {

        datum = std::get<T>(data);
        was_read = true;

        if (writers_waiting > 0) {

        return *this;

    std::mutex lock;

    int readers_waiting;
    std::condition_variable reader_cv;

    int writers_waiting;
    std::condition_variable writer_cv;

    std::variant<Ts...> data;
    std::thread::id write_source;
    bool was_read;

Problem 1: How to Ensure Reads/Writes are Type Safe?

You may notice a small problem with operator>> and operator<<: They accept any type T, but we are only able to read/write T if it is part of the variant.

The way we’re going to solve this problem is to create a concept AssignableToVariant<T, V> that is true whenever T can be written to the variant V. AssignableToVariant is written by using a template meta-program called OneOf. Here are the implementations:

template <typename T, typename V>
struct OneOf : public std::false_type {};

template <typename T, typename... Ts>
struct OneOf<T, std::variant<Ts...>> : public std::conditional_t<
        (std::is_same_v<T, Ts> || ...),

template <typename T, typename V>
concept AssignableToVariant = OneOf<T, V>::value;

This is similar to IsNatImpl. The syntax (std::is_same_v<T, Ts> || ...) is called a fold expression. It essentially rewrites the original expression into (std::is_same_v<T, Ts[0]> || ... || std::is_same_v<T, Ts[N]>), although Ts[0] is not real syntax.

These are the updated signatures for operator<< and operator>>:

template <AssignableToVariant<std::variant<Ts...>> T>
ConcurrentMedium& operator<<(const T &value);

template <AssignableToVariant<std::variant<Ts...>> T>
ConcurrentMedium& operator>>(T &value);

Problem 2: How to Create a ConcurrentMedium For an Arbitrary Protocol?

ConcurrentMedium is hard to use. If we have a protocol Send<int, Read<std::string, ...>>, it is time-consuming and error-prone to keep writing ConcurrentMedium<std::variant<int, std::string, ...>>. Plus, we have to exert effort to keep the variant and the protocol in sync. To solve this problem, we’ll create another template meta-program called ProtocolTypes. ProtocolTypes<Send<int, Read<std::string, ...>>> automatically creates a std::variant<int, std::string, ...>.

Here’s the implementation:

template <typename Variant, typename T>
struct ProtocolTypesImpl;

template <typename... Ts, typename T, HasDual P>
struct ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<Ts...>, Recv<T, P>> {
    using type = typename ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<T, Ts...>, P>::type;

template <typename... Ts>
struct ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<Ts...>, Z> {
  using type = std::variant<Z, Ts...>;

template <typename... Ts, typename T, HasDual P>
struct ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<Ts...>, Send<T, P>> {
    using type = typename ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<T, Ts...>, P>::type;

template <typename... Ts, HasDual P>
struct ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<Ts...>, Rec<P>> {
    using type = typename ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<Ts...>, P>::type;

template <typename... Ts, IsNat N>
struct ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<Ts...>, Var<N>> {
    using type = std::variant<Ts...>;

template <HasDual P>
using ProtocolTypes =  ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<>, P>::type;

Of course, there’s a small problem with this implementation. Namely, if we have a protocol Send<int, Recv<int, Z>>, we create a std::variant<int, int>. Then, std::get<int>(data) is illegal because the type int does not uniquely index the variant. We need all types to be unique.

Once again, we use a template meta-program to implement this idea:

template <typename T, typename... Ts>
struct Unique : std::type_identity<T> {};

template <typename... Ts, typename U, typename... Us>
struct Unique<std::variant<Ts...>, U, Us...>
    : std::conditional_t<(std::is_same_v<U, Ts> || ...),
                         Unique<std::variant<Ts...>, Us...>,
                         Unique<std::variant<Ts..., U>, Us...>> {};

template <typename T>
struct MakeUniqueVariantImpl;

template <typename... Ts>
struct MakeUniqueVariantImpl<std::variant<Ts...>> {
    using type = typename Unique<std::variant<>, Ts...>::type;

template <typename T>
using MakeUniqueVariant = typename MakeUniqueVariantImpl<T>::type;

And we revise ProtocolTypes:

using ProtocolTypes = MakeUniqueVariant<ProtocolTypesImpl<std::variant<>, P>::type>;

Now we can easily type a ConcurrentMedium: ConcurrentMedium<ProtocolTypes<Protocol>>.



There are (at least) two important ways this approach is not sound:

  • Users can accidentally reuse channels. We mitigate this risk by raising an exception in this event. An affine type system could help solve this problem. Someone has already shown how to implement this in C++. I left this unimplemented for this post for two reasons. First, the approach isn’t sound either. It relies on automatic template type inference. But if users manually specify template types then the code passes all type checking incorrectly. Second, it’s complex. It’s too distracting for this blog post.
  • Liveliness is not guaranteed. Programs could simply never send (or receive) values over a channel. This can be mitigated by linear types, which require that a variable be used exactly once.


    This approach does help us describe communications between exactly two entities. But here are some scenarios that this specific approach doesn’t help:

  • Communications between several threads.
  • Asynchronous communication.