Crash Course: resource management

Table of Contents

Introduction

Resource management is usually one of the most critical part of a software like a game. Solutions are often tuned to the particular application. There exist several approaches and all of them are perfectly fine as long as they fit the requirements of the piece of software in which they are used.
Examples are loading everything on start, loading on request, predictive loading, and so on.

EnTT doesn't pretend to offer a one-fits-all solution for the different cases. Instead, it offers a minimal and perhaps trivial cache that can be useful most of the time during prototyping and sometimes even in a production environment.
For those interested in the subject, the plan is to improve it considerably over time in terms of performance, memory usage and functionalities. Hoping to make it, of course, one step at a time.

The resource, the loader and the cache

There are three main actors in the model: the resource, the loader and the cache.

The resource is whatever users want it to be. An image, a video, an audio, whatever. There are no limits.
As a minimal example:

struct my_resource { const int value; };

A loader is a class the aim of which is to load a specific resource. It has to inherit directly from a dedicated base class as in the following example:

struct my_loader final: entt::resource_loader<my_loader, my_resource> {
    // ...
};

Where my_resource is the type of resources it creates.
A resource loader must also expose a public const member function named load that accepts a variable number of arguments and returns a shared pointer to a resource.
As an example:

struct my_loader: entt::resource_loader<my_loader, my_resource> {
    std::shared_ptr<my_resource> load(int value) const {
        // ...
        return std::shared_ptr<my_resource>(new my_resource{ value });
    }
};

In general, resource loaders should not have a state or retain data of any type. They should let the cache manage their resources instead.
As a side note, base class and CRTP idiom aren't strictly required with the current implementation. One could argue that a cache can easily work with loaders of any type. However, future changes won't be breaking ones by forcing the use of a base class today and that's why the model is already in its place.

Finally, a cache is a specialization of a class template tailored to a specific resource:

using my_cache = entt::resource_cache<my_resource>;

// ...

my_cache cache{};

The idea is to create different caches for different types of resources and to manage each one independently in the most appropriate way.
As a (very) trivial example, audio tracks can survive in most of the scenes of an application while meshes can be associated with a single scene and then discarded when users leave it.

A cache offers a set of basic functionalities to query its internal state and to organize it:

// gets the number of resources managed by a cache
const auto size = cache.size();

// checks if a cache contains at least a valid resource
const auto empty = cache.empty();

// clears a cache and discards its content
cache.clear();

Besides these member functions, a cache contains what is needed to load, use and discard resources of the given type.
Before exploring this part of the interface, it makes sense to mention how resources are identified. They have type id_type and therefore they can be created explicitly as in the following example:

constexpr auto identifier = "my/resource/identifier"_hs;
// this is equivalent to the following
constexpr entt::id_type hs = entt::hashed_string{"my/resource/identifier"};

The class hashed_string is described in a dedicated section, so I won't go in details here.

Resources are loaded and thus stored in a cache through the load member function. It accepts the loader to use as a template parameter, the resource identifier and the parameters used to construct the resource as arguments:

// uses the identifier declared above
cache.load<my_loader>(identifier, 0);

// uses a const char * directly as an identifier
cache.load<my_loader>("another/identifier"_hs, 42);

The function returns a handle to the resource, whether it already exists or is loaded. In case the loader returns an invalid pointer, the handle is invalid as well and therefore it can be easily used with an if statement:

if(entt::resource_handle handle = cache.load<my_loader>("another/identifier"_hs, 42); handle) {
    // ...
}

Before trying to load a resource, the contains member function can be used to know if a cache already contains a specific resource:

auto exists = cache.contains("my/identifier"_hs);

There exists also a member function to use to force a reload of an already existing resource if needed:

auto handle = cache.reload<my_loader>("another/identifier"_hs, 42);

As above, the function returns a handle to the resource that is invalid in case of errors. The reload member function is a kind of alias of the following snippet:

cache.discard(identifier);
cache.load<my_loader>(identifier, 42);

Where the discard member function is used to get rid of a resource if loaded. In case the cache doesn't contain a resource for the given identifier, discard does nothing and returns immediately.

So far, so good. Resources are finally loaded and stored within the cache.
They are returned to users in the form of handles. To get one of them later on:

auto handle = cache.handle("my/identifier"_hs);

The idea behind a handle is the same of the flyweight pattern. In other terms, resources aren't copied around. Instead, instances are shared between handles. Users of a resource own a handle that guarantees that a resource isn't destroyed until all the handles are destroyed, even if the resource itself is removed from the cache.
Handles are tiny objects both movable and copyable. They return the contained resource as a (possibly const) reference on request:

  • By means of the get member function:

    auto &resource = handle.get();
    
  • Using the proper cast operator:

    auto &resource = handle;
    
  • Through the dereference operator:

    auto &resource = *handle;
    

The resource can also be accessed directly using the arrow operator if required:

auto value = handle->value;

To test if a handle is still valid, the cast operator to bool allows users to use it in a guard:

if(handle) {
    // ...
}

Finally, in case there is the need to load a resource and thus to get a handle without storing the resource itself in the cache, users can rely on the temp member function template.
The declaration is similar to that of load, a (possibly invalid) handle for the resource is returned also in this case:

if(auto handle = cache.temp<my_loader>(42); handle) {
    // ...
}

Do not forget to test the handle for validity. Otherwise, getting a reference to the resource it points may result in undefined behavior.






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