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Why do C++ folks make things so complicated?

  John      2011-12-31 15:45:39      1,710    0    0

This morning Miroslav Bajtoš asked “Why do C++ folks make things so complicated?” in response to my article on regular expressions in C++. Other people asked similar questions yesterday.

My response has two parts:

  1. Why I believe C++ libraries are often complicated.
  2. Why I don’t think it has to be that way.

Why would someone be using C++ in the first place? Most likely because they need performance or fine-grained control that they cannot get somewhere else. A Ruby programmer, for example, can make a design decision that makes code 10% slower but much easier to use. “Hey, if you want the best performance possible, why are you using Ruby? Didn’t you come here because you wanted convenience?” But the C++ programmer can’t say that. It’s not turtles all the way down. Often C++ is the last human-generated language in a technology stack before you hit metal.

This weekend The Register quoted Herb Sutter saying “The world is built on C++.” The article goes on to mention some of the foundational software written in C++.

Apple’s Mac OS X, Adobe Illustrator, Facebook, Google’s Chrome browser, the Apache MapReduce clustered data-processing architecture, Microsoft Windows 7 and Internet Explorer, Firefox, and MySQL — to name just a handful — are written in part or in their entirety with C++.

Certainly there is a lot of software implemented in higher-level languages, but those high-level languages are almost always implemented in C or C++. When there’s no lower-level language to appeal to, you have to offer a lot of options, even if 90% of users won’t need those options.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean all C++ libraries have to be complicated. The argument above says that the lowest layers have to be complicated and they’re written in C++.  But why couldn’t the next layer up also be written in C++?

Some time in the 90’s I ran across an article called “Top C++.” I’ve tried unsuccessfully since then to find a copy of  it. As I recall, the article proposed dividing C++ conceptually into two languages: Top C++ and Bottom C++. Explicit memory management, for example, would be in Bottom C++. Top C++ would be a higher-level language. You could, for example, tell a compiler that you intend to write Top C++ and it could warn you if you use features designated as Bottom C++.

Of course you could slip from Top C++ into Bottom C++ if you really needed to, and that’s the beauty of using one language for high-level and low-level code. Application code in C++ would use Top C++ features by default, but could deliberately drop down a level when necessary. A section of Bottom C++ could be marked with comments or compiler pragmas and justified in a code review. Instead of having to cross a language barrier, you simply cross a convention barrier.

I thought this was a great idea. I’ve followed this approach throughout my career, writing high-level C++ on top of low-level C++ libraries. To some extent I put on my Bottom C++ hat when I’m writing library code and my Top C++ hat when I’m writing applications.

But most of the world has decided that’s not the way to go. If you’re writing C++, it might as well be Bottom C++. Instead of Top C++, write VB or some other higher-level language. There’s very little interest in high-level C++.

I imagine this decision has more to do with management than technology. It’s easier to have people either write C++ or not. If you’re writing C++, then use any language feature any time. I suppose this is a stable equilibrium and that the Top/Bottom C++ partition is not.




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