Rationale Behind C++ Commandments (5) – OOP design

The idea of bundling code and program into a layout (classes) and injecting it with different data (objects) leads to a ‘new’ way (newer than C) of organizing our programs through the worldview of objects.

Every unit is seen as

  • a state: all member variables
  • possible actions: methods = member functions.

that is ready to interact with other objects.


Encapsulation (through access control)

The first improvement upon OOP is privacy (data encapsulation). You can have finer controls of what to share and with who. In C++, your options are:

  • public: everybody
  • private: only within yourself (internal use)
  • protected: only shared with descendants (inheritance discussed below)

Granting certain class as friend (anywhere in the class declaration with friend class F) exposes the non-public sections specifically to the friend F. This is often a ‘loophole’ to access control that finds few legitimate uses other than testing.

friend functions are traditionally used in binary (2-input) operator overloading, but the modern wisdom is to screw it and just leave it out there as free functions!

protected has very few good uses other than preventing heap delete through base pointer non-polymorphically (child destructor not called: BAD) by making the base destructor non-public (i.e. meaning it’d be impossible to have base objects on stack) while letting the child chain the parent’s destructor (child can’t access it if it’s marked as private).

protected member variables are almost always a bad idea.


Inheritance

The second improvement is to allow classes to build on top of existing ones. What gets interesting (and difficult) is when the child ‘improve’ on the parent by either by replacing what they have (member variables) and what they do (methods) with their own.

Static data members inherit REFERENCES to the parent!

Inheritance AT LEAST always inherits an interface (can optionally inherit implementation).

Base implementation MUST NOT be inheritedpure virtual methods
Base implementation inherited by defaultvirtual
Base implementation MUST be inheritednon-virtual (and not shadow it)

Shadowing

Whenever the member (function or variable) name is used in any form (even with different argument types or signatures), the parent member with the same name will be hidden. The behavior is called shadowing, and it applies unless you’ve overridden ALL versions (signatures) of virutal parent methods which shares the same function name mentioned in child.

  • Any non-overriden method with the same name as the parent appearing in the child will shadow all parent methods with the same name regardless of whether they are declared virtual and overriden at child.
  • You can unhide parent methods with the same name (but different signature) by using Parent::f(..) declared at the child class.
  • Shadowing implies there’s always one parent version and one child version stored separately under all conditions {static or non-static}x{function or variable}
  • Static members don’t really ‘shadow’ because there’s only one global storage for each (parent and child) if you declare the same variable name again in the child. There’s nothing to hide because you cannot cast or slice a namespace! With static members, you have to be explicit about which class you are calling from with SRO like Parent::var or Child::var so there’s no potential for ambiguities.

Overriding

Just like C, C++ uses static binding that takes the programmer’s word for it for their declared types, especially through handles. Overriding is a concept only needed when you plan to upcast your objects (child accessed through pointer/reference) to handle a broader class of objects but intend to the underlying object’s own version (usually child) of the methods (especially destructors) called by default.

We do this by declaring the parent method virtual and implement the child versions (must be of the same function signature). Overriding only make sense for non-static methods because

  • data members cannot be overridden (it’d confusing if it’s possible. We down-delegate functions/behavior but not the data/state). It’s better off hiding data members behind getters/setters to declare the intention.
  • static members and methods behaves like static variable/functions (living in .data or .bss) using namespaces, so we can only refer to them with SRO by the class names like Parent::f() and Child::a, not a class type like Parent p; p.f() and Child c; c.a. There’s no object c for you to upcast to Parent so there’s place for polymorphic behavior.

Overriding involves leaving clues in objects so the upcasted references can figure out the correct methods of the underlying objects to call. In C++ it’s done with having a vtable (pointers to overridable methods, often stored in .rodata with string literals) for each class in the hierarchy and each object contains a pointer to the vtable that matches its underlying class.

[38] virtual only applies to methods’ signatures (function name and the data types in the argument list). vtable do not keep track of argument’s default values (if assigned) for efficiency (it’ll always read the static upcast, aka parent methods’ default values).


Classes (after considering inheritance)

Design relationships

  • class behaves through public methods
  • Inheritance at least always inherits an interface
  • IS-A relationship is done with public-inheritance
  • … (incomplete, will update later)

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Rationale Behind C++ Commandments (4) – Method Signature System

Function signature system, which allows users to use the same function name in different functions as long as they differ in the combination of

  • input arguments types
  • const modifiers counts as a different input argument type
  • object const-ness (whether it’s const-method or not) – this only make sense with classes

and C++ will figure out what to call by matching the call with the available combinations (signatures).

C does not allow the same function name to be used in different places, so under the hood, it’s done through name mangling (generating a unique ‘under-the-hood’ function name based on the signature). This mechanism has a lot of implications that a professional programmer should observe:

  • since C does not mangle its names in the object code, they’ll need to be wrapped around with extern “C” block in a C++ program so C++ won’t pervert (mangle) their function names with input arguments.
  • [24] parameter defaulting might be ambiguous with another function that does not have the said parameter (the compiler will cry about it)
  • [26] access controls/levels must play no part in resolving signatures because access level must not change the meaning of a program!

C++ resolve function overloading using signatures within its local namespace. Function overloading works for both

  • free functions (free functions are at the root namespace), as well as
  • classes (the name of the class itself is the namespace)

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Rationale Behind C++ Commandments (3) – Classes came from emulating POD data types through struct and namespaces

In structured programming (like C and C++), the building abstractions is program (functions) and data (variables).

Under the hood, especially in von-Neumann architecture’s perspective, functions and variables are both just data (a stream of numbers) that can be moved and manipulated the same way just like data. It’s all up to how the program designer and the hardware choose to give meaning to the bit stream.


Namespaces

In C, we can only scope our variables 3 ways: global, static (stays within same file/translation unit) and local. Sharing variables across functions in different translation units can only be done through

  • globals (pollutes namespace and it’s difficult to keep track of who is doing what to the variables and the state at any time)
  • passing (the more solid way that gives tighter control and clearer data flow, but managing how to pass many variables in many places is messy, even with struct syntax)

Bundling program with data gives a new way to tightly control the scope of variables: you can specify a group functions allowed to share the same set of variables in the bundle WITHOUT PASSING arguments.

The toolchain modified to recognize the user-defined scope boundaries which bundles program and data into packages, thus reducing root namespace pollution. The is implemented as namespace keyword in C++

Organizing with namespaces is basically justifying the mentality of using globals (in place of passing variables around intended functions) except it’s in a more controlled manner to keep the damages at bay. The same nasty things with gloabls can still appear if we didn’t design the namespace boundaries tightly so certain functions have access to variables that’s not intended for it.

Therefore, namespaces works nearly identical to a super-simple purely static class (see below) except you lose inheritance and access modifiers in classes in exchange for allowing anonymous namespaces.

Basically namespaces + structs + inheritance + encapsulation (access modifiers) = classes


Classes

Classes extends the idea of namespaces by allowing objects (each assigned their own storage space for the variables following the same variable layout) to be instantiated, so they behave like POD (Plain Old Data) in C. We should observe that when overloading operators

  • [15] allow (a=b)=c chaining by returning *this for operator=
  • [21] disallow rvalue assignment (a+b)=c by returning const object

In the most primitive form (no dynamic binding and types, aka virtuals and RTTI), function (method) info is not stored within instantiated objects as the compiler will sort out what classes/namespace they belong to. So it screams struct in C!

C struct is what makes (instantiates) objects from classes!

Note that C structs do not allow ‘static fields’ because static members is solely a construct of namespaces idea in C++! C++ has chosen to expand structs to be synonymous to classes that defaults to private access (if not specified) so code written as C structs behaves as expected in C++.

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Rationale Behind C++ Commandments (2) – Philosophy of C

Everything is seen as a bitstream

  • pointers are just integers to memory locations
    – [25] integer and pointers might be indistinguishable in signature resolution
  • code (CPU instructions) and addresses are treated the same way as a stream of data
    – concept of function pointers leads to lambda (functors)
    – classes came from structs containing data and function pointers (combined with namespaces)!
  • unchecked type declarations: the compiler trusts your interpretations of data
    – leads to run-time features such as overriding (virtual methods)
  • handles (pointers and references) has unrestricted power
    – [29] can const_cast it away if the handle is exposed (bad idea)

Performance-first design choice

  • do not pay performance penalty for features not used
    – static compilation and binding by default
    – unchecked type declarations (see above)
  • static compilation: the compiler tries to know everything at compile time
  • static binding by default (cheapest)
    – pay extra to use virtual methods (overriding)
    – [38] default parameter values are statically bound and not stored in vtable (i.e. overridden child method’s default values are ignored and parent’s default values are used ONLY WHEN called through up-casts)
  • inline is at the mercy of the optimizer (which can choose to emit an object if decided inlining is counter-productive). Mechanism that forces a function pointer to exist (pointing the function, virtual functions creates the pointer in vtable)

Toolchain

  1. preprocessor (parser & macros)
  2. compiler (create object files per translation unit, which is .c file in C)
    – access control (encapsulation) extends the old trick of emulating private in C++ through macros by marking functions as static (local within translation unit) in C.
  3. linker (combine object files and adjust the addresses)

Templates behaves like a combination of macros (copy-and-paste with parameters) except it’s spread across the toolchain like inline optimizations:

  • Code bloat (one copy per type combination)
  • Can only live in the header files (it’s a template, not realized code, so no object is emitted like a .cpp file)

Parsing (language design)

  • most vexing parse [Effective STL Item 6]: if something can be interpreted as a function declaration, it will be interpreted as a function declaration

Plain Old Data Types (C++ classes tried to emulate in their operator overloading behavior)

  • [15] allow (a=b)=c chaining by returning *this for operator=
  • [21] disallow rvalue assignment (a+b)=c by returning const object

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Rationale Behind C++ Commandments (1) – Introduction

If you’ve programmed in (or studied) C++ long enough, like you have read Scott Meyers’s Effective C++, which is a book organized in, jokingly, commandments like ‘thou shall make destructors virtual’. There’s a lot of stuff to remember.

I’ve found an approach to make the ideas stick: by understanding the rationale behind these commandments through the lens of ‘What would you do if you were to make C++ (features) out of C?

C++ is not a language designed from scratch. A lot of quirks and oddities in C++ came straight from the philosophy and the language features naturally available in C. With the right jargons (concepts), you will find a lot of the seemingly counter-intuitive behavior ‘it ought to be like this because of (insert design choice here)‘.

This is what we are going to explore in the “Rational Behind C++ Commandments” (RBCC) blog post series which came from my notes when I was going through Scott Meyer’s book. Once you get the ideas, you should be able to come up with the rules in Effective C on your own (so you don’t have to blindly remember them).

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