I’ve been looking for a good analogy of what programming in C++ feels like and I remembered this 1990 Tim Burton movie, Edward Scissorhands.

It’s a darker version of Pinocchio, shot in suburban settings. In this poster, the scary guy (Johnny Depp) is trying to gently hug Winona Ryder but his clumsy scissor-hands are making it very dangerous for both of them. His face is already covered with deep scars.

Having scissors for hands in not all that bad. Edward has many talents: he can, for instance, create stunning dog hairdos.

I often have these kinds of thoughts after attending C++ conferences: this time it was Going Native 2013. The previous year, the excitement was all about the shiny new C++11 Standard. This year it was more of a reality check. Don’t get me wrong — there were many stunning dog hairdos on display (I mean C++ code that was elegant and simple) but the bulk of the conference was about how to avoid mutilation and how to deliver first aid in case of accidental amputation.

Little shop of horrors

There was so much talk about how not to use C++ that it occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t the problem of incompetent programmers, but that straightforward C++ is plain wrong. So if you just learn the primitives of the language and try to use them, you’re doomed.

C++ has an excuse for that: backward compatibility — in particular compatibility with C. You might think of the C subset of C++ as bona fide assembly language which you shouldn’t use it in day-to-day programming, except that it’s right there on the surface. If you reach blindly into your C++ toolbox, you’re likely to come up with naked pointers, for loops, and all this ugly stuff.

A well known example of what not to do is to use malloc to dynamically allocate memory, and free to deallocate it. malloc takes a count of bytes and returns a void pointer, which you have to cast to something more usable — it would be hard to come up with worse API for memory management. Here’s an example of really bad (but almost correct, if it weren’t for the possibility of null pointer dereference) code:

struct Pod {
    int count;
    int * counters;
};

int n = 10;
Pod * pod = (Pod *) malloc (sizeof Pod);
pod->count = n
pod->counters = (int *) malloc (n * sizeof(int));
...
free (pod->counters);
free (pod);

Hopefully, nobody writes code like this in C++, although I’m sure there are a lot of legacy apps with such constructs, so don’t laugh.

C++ “solved” the problem of redundant casting and error-prone size calculations by replacing malloc and free with new and delete. The corrected C++ version of the code above would be:

struct Pod {
    int count;
    int * counters;
};

int n = 10;
Pod * pod = new Pod;
pod->count = n;
pod->counters = new int [n];
...
delete [] pod->counters;
delete pod;

BTW, the null pointer dereference problem is solved too, because new will throw an exception when the system runs out of memory. There is still a slight chance of a memory leak if the second new fails (But how often does that happen? Hint: how big can n get?) So here’s the really correct version of the code:

class Snd { // Sophisticated New Data
public:
    Snd (int n) : _count(n), _counters(new int [n]) {}
    ~Snd () { delete [] _counters; }
private:
    int _count;
    int * _counters;
};

Snd * snd = new Snd (10);
...
delete snd;

Are we done yet? Of course not! The code is not exception safe.

The C++ lore is that you should avoid naked pointers, avoid arrays, avoid delete. So the remedy for the lameness of malloc is operator new, which is also broken because it returns a dangerous pointer and pointers are bad.

We all know (and have scars on our faces to prove it) that you should use the Standard Library containers and smart pointers whenever possible. Oh, and use value semantics for passing things around. No wait! Value semantics comes with a performance penalty because of excessive copying. So what about shared_ptr and vectors of shared_ptr? But that adds the overhead of reference counting! No, here’s a new idea: move semantics and rvalue references.

I can go on and on like this (and I often do!). Do you see the pattern? Every remedy breeds another remedy. It’s no longer just the C subset that should be avoided. Every new language feature or library addition comes with a new series of gotchas. And you know a new feature is badly designed if Scott Meyers has a talk about it. (His latest was about the pitfalls of, you guessed it, move semantics.)

The Philosophy of C++

Bjarne Stroustrup keeps stressing how important backward compatibility is for C++. It’s one of the pillars of the C++ philosophy. Considering how much legacy code there is, it makes perfect sense. Compatibility, though, takes a very heavy toll on the evolution of the language. If nature were as serious about backward compatibility as C++ is, humans would still have tails, gills, flippers, antennae, and external skeletons on top of internal ones — they all made sense at some point in the evolution.

C++ has become an extremely complex language. There are countless ways of doing the same thing — almost all of them either plain wrong, dangerous, unmaintainable, or all of the above. The problem is that most code compiles and even runs. The mistakes and shortcomings are discovered much later, often after the product has been released.

You might say: Well, that’s the nature of programming. If you think so, you should seriously look at Haskell. Your first reaction will be: I don’t know how to implement the first thing (other than the factorial and Fibonacci numbers) in this extremely restrictive language. This is totally different from the C++ experience, where you can start hacking from day one. What you don’t realize is that it will take you 10 years, if you’re lucky, to discover the “right way” of programming in C++ (if there even is such thing). And guess what, the better a C++ programmer you are, the more functional your programs look like. Ask any C++ guru and they will tell you: avoid mutation, avoid side effects, don’t use loops, avoid class hierarchies and inheritance. But you will need strict discipline and total control over your collaborators to pull that off because C++ is so permissive.

Haskell is not permissive, it won’t let you — or your coworkers — write unsafe code. Yes, initially you’ll be scratching your head trying to implement something in Haskell that you could hack in C++ in 10 minutes. If you’re lucky, and you work for Sean Parent or other exceptional programmer, he will code review your hacks and show you how not to program in C++. Otherwise, you might be kept in the dark for decades accumulating self-inflicted wounds and dreaming of dog hairdos.

Resource Management

I started this post with examples of resource management (strictly speaking, memory management), because this is one of my personal favorites. I’ve been advocating and writing about it since the nineties (see bibliography at the end). Obviously I have failed because 20 years later resource management techniques are still not universally known. Bjarne Stroustrup felt obliged to spend half of his opening talk explaining resource management to the crowd of advanced C++ programmers. Again, one could blame incompetent programmers for not accepting resource management as the foundation of C++ programming. The problem though is that there is nothing in the language that would tell a programmer that something is amiss in the code I listed in the beginning of this post. In fact it often feels like learning the correct techniques is like learning a new language.

Why is it so hard? Because in C++ the bulk of resource management is memory management. In fact it has to be stressed repeatedly that garbage collection would not solve the problem of managing resources: There will always be file handles, window handles, open databases and transactions, etc. These are important resources, but their management is overshadowed by the tedium of memory management. The reason C++ doesn’t have garbage collection is not because it can’t be done in an efficient way, but because C++ itself is hostile to GC. The compiler and the runtime have to always assume the worst — not only that any pointer can alias any other pointer but that a memory address can be stored as an integer or its lower bits could be used as bitfields (that’s why only conservative garbage collectors are considered for C++).

It’s a common but false belief that reference counting (using shared pointers in particular) is better than garbage collection. There is actual research showing that the two approaches are just two sides of the same coin. You should realize that deleting a shared pointer may lead to an arbitrary long pause in program execution, with similar performance characteristics as a garbage sweep. It’s not only because every serious reference counting algorithm must be able to deal with cycles, but also because every time a reference count goes to zero on a piece of data a whole graph of pointers reachable from that object has to be traversed. A data structure built with shared pointers might take a long time to delete and, except for simple cases, you’ll never know which shared pointer will go out of scope last and trigger it.

Careful resource management and spare use of shared_ptr might still be defendable for single-treaded programs, but the moment you start using concurrency, you’re in big trouble. Every increment or decrement of the counter requires locking! This locking is usually implemented with atomic variables, but so are mutexes! Don’t be fooled: accessing atomic variables is expensive. Which brings me to the central problem with C++.

Concurrency and Parallelism

It’s been 8 years since Herb Sutter famously exclaimed: The Free Lunch is Over! Ever since then the big C++ oil tanker has been slowly changing its course. It’s not like concurrency was invented in 2005. Posix threads have been defined in 1995. Microsoft introduced threads in Windows 95 and multiprocessor support in Windows NT. Still, concurrency has only been acknowledged in the C++ Standard in 2011.

C++11 had to start from scratch. It had to define the memory model: when and in what order memory writes from multiple threads become visible to other threads. For all practical purposes, the C++ memory model was copied from Java (minus some controversial guarantees that Java made about behavior under data races). In a nutshell, C++ programs are sequentially consistent if there are no data races. However, since C++ had to compete with the assembly language, the full memory model includes so called weak atomics, which I would describe as portable data races, and recommend staying away from.

C++11 also defined primitives for thread creation and management, and basic synchronization primitives as defined by Dijkstra and Hoare back in the 1960s, such as mutexes and condition variables. One could argue whether these are indeed the right building blocks for synchronization, but maybe that doesn’t really matter because they are known not to be composable anyway. The composable abstraction for synchronization is STM (Software Transactional Memory), which is hard to implement correctly and efficiently in an imperative language. There is an STM study group in the Standards Committee, so there is a chance it might one day become part of the Standard. But because C++ offers no control over effects, it will be very hard to use properly.

There was also a misguided and confusing attempt at providing support for task-based parallelism with async tasks and non-composable futures (both seriously considered for deprecation in C++14). Thread-local variables were also standardized making task-based approach that much harder. Locks and condition variables are also tied to threads, not tasks. So that was pretty much a disaster. The Standards Committee has the work cut out for them for many years ahead. That includes task-based composable parallelism, communication channels to replace futures (one would hope), task cancellation and, probably longer term, data-driven parallelism, including GPU support. A derivative of Microsoft PPL and Intel TBB should become part of the Standard (hopefully not Microsoft AMP).

Let’s take a great leap of faith and assume that all these things will be standardized and implemented by, say, 2015. Even if that happens, I still don’t think people will be able to use C++ for mainstream parallel programming. C++ has been designed for single thread programming, and parallel programming requires a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change. Two words: data races. Imperative languages offer no protection against data races — maybe with the exception of D.

In C++, data is shared between threads by default, is mutable by default, and functions have side effects almost by default. All those pointers and references create fertile grounds for data races, and the vulnerability of data structures and functions to races is in no way reflected in the type system. In C++, even if you have a const reference to an object, there is no guarantee that another thread won’t modify it. Still worse, any references inside a const object are mutable by default.

D at least has the notion of deep constness and immutability (no thread can change an immutable data structure). Another nod towards concurrency from D is the ability to define pure functions. Also, in D, mutable objects are not shared between threads by default. It is a step in the right direction, even though it imposes runtime cost for shared objects. Most importantly though, threads are not a good abstraction for parallel programming, so this approach won’t work with lightweight tasks and work-stealing queues, where tasks are passed between threads.

But C++ doesn’t support any of this and it doesn’t look like it ever will.

Of course, you might recognize all these pro-concurrency and parallelism features as functional programming — immutability and pure functions in particular. At the risk of sounding repetitive: Haskell is way ahead of the curve with respect to parallelism, including GPU programming. That was the reason I so easily converted to Haskell after years of evangelizing good programming practices in C++. Every programmer who’s serious about concurrency and parallelism should learn enough Haskell to understand how it deals with it. There is an excellent book by Simon Marlow, Parallel and Concurrent Programming in Haskell. After you read it, you will either start using functional techniques in your C++ programming, or realize what an impedance mismatch there is between parallel programming and an imperative language, and you will switch to Haskell.

Conclusions

I believe that the C++ language and its philosophy are in direct conflict with the requirements of parallel programming. This conflict is responsible for the very slow uptake of parallel programming in mainstream software development. The power of multicore processors, vector units, and GPUs is being squandered by the industry because of an obsolete programming paradigm.

Bibliography

Here I put together some of my publications about resource management:

  1. Bartosz Milewski, “Resource Management in C++,” Journal of Object Oriented Programming, March/April 1997, Vol. 10, No 1. p. 14-22. This is still pre-unique_ptr, so I’m using auto_ptr for what it’s worth. Since you can’t have vectors of auto_ptr I implemented an auto_vector.
  2. C++ Report in September 1998 and February 1999 (still using auto_ptr).
  3. C++ in Action (still auto_ptr), Addison Wesley 2001. See an excerpt from this book that talks about resource management.
  4. Walking Down Memory Lane, with Andrei Alexandrescu, CUJ October 2005 (using unique_ptr)
  5. unique_ptr–How Unique is it?, WordPress, 2009

Here are some of my blogs criticizing the C++11 approach to concurrency:

  1. Async Tasks in C++11: Not Quite There Yet
  2. Broken promises–C++0x futures
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