A Discrete-Event Network Simulator

Object model

ns-3 is fundamentally a C++ object system. Objects can be declared and instantiated as usual, per C++ rules. ns-3 also adds some features to traditional C++ objects, as described below, to provide greater functionality and features. This manual chapter is intended to introduce the reader to the ns-3 object model.

This section describes the C++ class design for ns-3 objects. In brief, several design patterns in use include classic object-oriented design (polymorphic interfaces and implementations), separation of interface and implementation, the non-virtual public interface design pattern, an object aggregation facility, and reference counting for memory management. Those familiar with component models such as COM or Bonobo will recognize elements of the design in the ns-3 object aggregation model, although the ns-3 design is not strictly in accordance with either.

Object-oriented behavior

C++ objects, in general, provide common object-oriented capabilities (abstraction, encapsulation, inheritance, and polymorphism) that are part of classic object-oriented design. ns-3 objects make use of these properties; for instance:

class Address
  Address ();
  Address (uint8_t type, const uint8_t *buffer, uint8_t len);
  Address (const Address & address);
  Address &operator = (const Address &address);
  uint8_t m_type;
  uint8_t m_len;

Object base classes

There are three special base classes used in ns-3. Classes that inherit from these base classes can instantiate objects with special properties. These base classes are:

  • class Object
  • class ObjectBase
  • class SimpleRefCount

It is not required that ns-3 objects inherit from these class, but those that do get special properties. Classes deriving from class Object get the following properties.

  • the ns-3 type and attribute system (see Configuration and Attributes)
  • an object aggregation system
  • a smart-pointer reference counting system (class Ptr)

Classes that derive from class ObjectBase get the first two properties above, but do not get smart pointers. Classes that derive from class SimpleRefCount: get only the smart-pointer reference counting system.

In practice, class Object is the variant of the three above that the ns-3 developer will most commonly encounter.

Memory management and class Ptr

Memory management in a C++ program is a complex process, and is often done incorrectly or inconsistently. We have settled on a reference counting design described as follows.

All objects using reference counting maintain an internal reference count to determine when an object can safely delete itself. Each time that a pointer is obtained to an interface, the object’s reference count is incremented by calling Ref(). It is the obligation of the user of the pointer to explicitly Unref() the pointer when done. When the reference count falls to zero, the object is deleted.

  • When the client code obtains a pointer from the object itself through object creation, or via GetObject, it does not have to increment the reference count.
  • When client code obtains a pointer from another source (e.g., copying a pointer) it must call Ref() to increment the reference count.
  • All users of the object pointer must call Unref() to release the reference.

The burden for calling Unref() is somewhat relieved by the use of the reference counting smart pointer class described below.

Users using a low-level API who wish to explicitly allocate non-reference-counted objects on the heap, using operator new, are responsible for deleting such objects.

Reference counting smart pointer (Ptr)

Calling Ref() and Unref() all the time would be cumbersome, so ns-3 provides a smart pointer class Ptr similar to Boost::intrusive_ptr. This smart-pointer class assumes that the underlying type provides a pair of Ref and Unref methods that are expected to increment and decrement the internal refcount of the object instance.

This implementation allows you to manipulate the smart pointer as if it was a normal pointer: you can compare it with zero, compare it against other pointers, assign zero to it, etc.

It is possible to extract the raw pointer from this smart pointer with the GetPointer() and PeekPointer() methods.

If you want to store a newed object into a smart pointer, we recommend you to use the CreateObject template functions to create the object and store it in a smart pointer to avoid memory leaks. These functions are really small convenience functions and their goal is just to save you a small bit of typing.

CreateObject and Create

Objects in C++ may be statically, dynamically, or automatically created. This holds true for ns-3 also, but some objects in the system have some additional frameworks available. Specifically, reference counted objects are usually allocated using a templated Create or CreateObject method, as follows.

For objects deriving from class Object:

Ptr<WifiNetDevice> device = CreateObject<WifiNetDevice> ();

Please do not create such objects using operator new; create them using CreateObject() instead.

For objects deriving from class SimpleRefCount, or other objects that support usage of the smart pointer class, a templated helper function is available and recommended to be used:

Ptr<B> b = Create<B> ();

This is simply a wrapper around operator new that correctly handles the reference counting system.

In summary, use Create<B> if B is not an object but just uses reference counting (e.g. Packet), and use CreateObject<B> if B derives from ns3::Object.


The ns-3 object aggregation system is motivated in strong part by a recognition that a common use case for ns-2 has been the use of inheritance and polymorphism to extend protocol models. For instance, specialized versions of TCP such as RenoTcpAgent derive from (and override functions from) class TcpAgent.

However, two problems that have arisen in the ns-2 model are downcasts and “weak base class.” Downcasting refers to the procedure of using a base class pointer to an object and querying it at run time to find out type information, used to explicitly cast the pointer to a subclass pointer so that the subclass API can be used. Weak base class refers to the problems that arise when a class cannot be effectively reused (derived from) because it lacks necessary functionality, leading the developer to have to modify the base class and causing proliferation of base class API calls, some of which may not be semantically correct for all subclasses.

ns-3 is using a version of the query interface design pattern to avoid these problems. This design is based on elements of the Component Object Model and GNOME Bonobo although full binary-level compatibility of replaceable components is not supported and we have tried to simplify the syntax and impact on model developers.


Aggregation example

Node is a good example of the use of aggregation in ns-3. Note that there are not derived classes of Nodes in ns-3 such as class InternetNode. Instead, components (protocols) are aggregated to a node. Let’s look at how some Ipv4 protocols are added to a node.:

static void
AddIpv4Stack(Ptr<Node> node)
  Ptr<Ipv4L3Protocol> ipv4 = CreateObject<Ipv4L3Protocol> ();
  ipv4->SetNode (node);
  node->AggregateObject (ipv4);
  Ptr<Ipv4Impl> ipv4Impl = CreateObject<Ipv4Impl> ();
  ipv4Impl->SetIpv4 (ipv4);
  node->AggregateObject (ipv4Impl);

Note that the Ipv4 protocols are created using CreateObject(). Then, they are aggregated to the node. In this manner, the Node base class does not need to be edited to allow users with a base class Node pointer to access the Ipv4 interface; users may ask the node for a pointer to its Ipv4 interface at runtime. How the user asks the node is described in the next subsection.

Note that it is a programming error to aggregate more than one object of the same type to an ns3::Object. So, for instance, aggregation is not an option for storing all of the active sockets of a node.

GetObject example

GetObject is a type-safe way to achieve a safe downcasting and to allow interfaces to be found on an object.

Consider a node pointer m_node that points to a Node object that has an implementation of IPv4 previously aggregated to it. The client code wishes to configure a default route. To do so, it must access an object within the node that has an interface to the IP forwarding configuration. It performs the following:

Ptr<Ipv4> ipv4 = m_node->GetObject<Ipv4> ();

If the node in fact does not have an Ipv4 object aggregated to it, then the method will return null. Therefore, it is good practice to check the return value from such a function call. If successful, the user can now use the Ptr to the Ipv4 object that was previously aggregated to the node.

Another example of how one might use aggregation is to add optional models to objects. For instance, an existing Node object may have an “Energy Model” object aggregated to it at run time (without modifying and recompiling the node class). An existing model (such as a wireless net device) can then later “GetObject” for the energy model and act appropriately if the interface has been either built in to the underlying Node object or aggregated to it at run time. However, other nodes need not know anything about energy models.

We hope that this mode of programming will require much less need for developers to modify the base classes.

Object factories

A common use case is to create lots of similarly configured objects. One can repeatedly call CreateObject() but there is also a factory design pattern in use in the ns-3 system. It is heavily used in the “helper” API.

Class ObjectFactory can be used to instantiate objects and to configure the attributes on those objects:

void SetTypeId (TypeId tid);
void Set (std::string name, const AttributeValue &value);
Ptr<T> Create (void) const;

The first method allows one to use the ns-3 TypeId system to specify the type of objects created. The second allows one to set attributes on the objects to be created, and the third allows one to create the objects themselves.

For example:

ObjectFactory factory;
// Make this factory create objects of type FriisPropagationLossModel
factory.SetTypeId ("ns3::FriisPropagationLossModel")
// Make this factory object change a default value of an attribute, for
// subsequently created objects
factory.Set ("SystemLoss", DoubleValue (2.0));
// Create one such object
Ptr<Object> object = factory.Create ();
factory.Set ("SystemLoss", DoubleValue (3.0));
// Create another object with a different SystemLoss
Ptr<Object> object = factory.Create ();


A question that has arisen several times is, “If I have a base class pointer (Ptr) to an object and I want the derived class pointer, should I downcast (via C++ dynamic cast) to get the derived pointer, or should I use the object aggregation system to GetObject<> () to find a Ptr to the interface to the subclass API?”

The answer to this is that in many situations, both techniques will work. ns-3 provides a templated function for making the syntax of Object dynamic casting much more user friendly:

template <typename T1, typename T2>
DynamicCast (Ptr<T2> const&p)
  return Ptr<T1> (dynamic_cast<T1 *> (PeekPointer (p)));

DynamicCast works when the programmer has a base type pointer and is testing against a subclass pointer. GetObject works when looking for different objects aggregated, but also works with subclasses, in the same way as DynamicCast. If unsure, the programmer should use GetObject, as it works in all cases. If the programmer knows the class hierarchy of the object under consideration, it is more direct to just use DynamicCast.