Category Archives: Software Development

Historical observation of the day

From Joe Celko’s Thinking in Sets, talking about the different conventions of capitalisation between programming languages:

COBOL is all uppercase because it was first used on punch cards, which only have uppercase. C was first written on Teletype terminals for mini computers, which have a shift key, but the touch is so hard and so long that you have to hit the keys vertically; you cannot type with your fingertips. C was designed for two-finger typists, pushing the keys with strokes from their elbows rather than the wrist or fingertips. SQL and modern language idioms are based on the ease of text formatters and electronic keyboards that respond to fingertip touch.

Book Review: 21st Century C

I recently got back into C programming as part of my day job, and I decided to pick up a few books to refresh my memory. 21st Century C by Ben Klemens wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but it caught my eye due to the unusual title, if nothing else. People assume that C is an ossified language from an earlier time, but the author’s bold contention is that much has changed in the last decade or so (primarily with the 1999 ISO standard update) and that there is plenty new to learn. It’s an intriguing idea, but does it live up to reality?

Klemens is certainly right that most people haven’t kept up to date with the changes to the C standards. However, there’s a very good reason for that: most people who are using C professionally are doing it in environments where there isn’t a choice. The only new projects for which C is an appealing choice are cases where the code needs to compile on legacy platforms. Perhaps some projects that are using C for historical reasons could update, but there’s usually a lot of resistance to changing idioms while maintaining legacy code. Perhaps more awareness of what people are missing out on could swing more projects in favour of using C99 (or even the updated 2011 standard), but I’m not holding my breath.

So if we put aside the idea that C is a much-improved language due for a renaissance, how does the book stack up? Overall I’d say not that bad, although it doesn’t seem all that clear on who its target audience is. People who use C on a daily basis will find something of value in the big picture, but too much time is spent re-treading familiar ground. People who don’t know C but want to learn (if there are any) will find it lacking in introductory material. Though it covers new standards, it’s definitely not a book for language lawyers. Perhaps it will work best for someone like me, who used to use C but haven’t picked it up for a while, although even there the usefulness is patchy.

The book is framed using a device that is all too common in technical books, and that I hate: the author takes a preferred hobby of theirs (in this case, punk rock) and proceeds to apply aspects of it to the material presented (often just as a way of setting the scene for chapters, but sometimes as direct analogies to technical concepts). This rarely works all that well. For a start, authors tend to choose things that they care about (and that they want the world to know they care about) rather than things that make for good exposition. Secondly, it tends to strike a discordant note with the rest of the content of the book. A good technical book can have personality, but rarely is it good because of the personality it presents. In this case the references to music don’t add anything of value.

The first half of the book is spent on material that has nothing to do with C as such: how to install libraries, how to use version control, and how to package code using Autotools. This works better than you might expect, but a lot of it feels like filler. Once again, the author seems vague about his target audience: some attention is paid to options for compiling code on Windows, but not enough for anyone to fully adapt the techniques shown. It would be better to abandon Windows and declare this a UNIX book, or to give comprehensive guidance for Windows best practices.

The second half settles down into the material where the book has something unique to offer: best practices for writing C, with particular reference to the 1999 and 2011 revisions to the standard. Even this part of the book I found to be patchy. There are some sensible idioms making use of variadic macros, anonymous structs and the _Generic operator that have some potential. On the other hand, the author’s attempts to make C look like Python seem to be missing the point, and his descriptions betray confusion on one or two technical points.

As one example, the author provides the following code for freeing several pointers in one line:

#define Fn_apply(type, fn, ...) {                                      \
    void *stopper_for_apply = (int[]){0};                              \  
    type **list_for_apply = (type*[]){__VA_ARGS__, stopper_for_apply}; \
    for (int i=0; list_for_apply[i] != stopper_for_apply; i++)         \
         fn(list_for_apply[i]);                                        \
#define Free_all(...) Fn_apply(void, free, __VA_ARGS__);
int main(){
    double *x= malloc(10);
    double *y= malloc(100);
    double *z= malloc(1000);
    Free_all(x, y, z);

The only advantage this gives is that you save yourself a couple of lines when you have a list of pointers to be freed all in one place. However, it has a significant drawback: NULL is used to terminate the variable-length list, so if any of the pointers in the list is NULL you will leak memory. This is an important change to the semantics of free() (which is deliberately defined such that free(NULL) is a no-op) and turns a safe function into a dangerous one. This kind of C-Python hybrid is cute but doesn’t solve any of the problems of C in the real world.

Edit: The paragraph above is completely wrong, as Ben points out in the comments. Mea culpa.

Probably the best way to look at a book like this is to treat it like Alexandrescu’s Modern C++ Design (which is admittedly a far better book): as a source of inspiration and ideas, without applying any of the techniques directly. It’s great to keep abreast of the changes in the world of C, even if few people can use that knowledge just now. And although this book has its weak points and a lot of padding, it might be the only game in town.

Fame at last

The other day I was reading Arista Warrior, which is another in the stupidly-named but otherwise rather good “warrior” series, this time focused on the networking products provided by my employer (opinions are mine and not theirs, etc. etc.) I found it very useful for two reasons: firstly, it’s good to hear what people outside the company have to say about Arista, particularly people who are old hands with Cisco kit. More surprisingly perhaps, I actually find it quite a good way of getting a broader knowledge of the products we produce. As a software engineer I tend to end up focused on one small part of the feature set, and there are a whole bunch of features I’ve never even switched on.

So three cheers to Gary Donahue for a good book, but that’s not actually why I’m writing about this. What I did feel like mildly boasting about is a sentence that caught my eye in the section about extending the UI of the switch by writing your own Python plugins:

Sure it’s a useless modification, but what if your company demanded something like “Property of GAD Technology – Unauthorized use is prohibited” at the end of every command’s output? You could do that with EOS. What if you wanted to display bytes per second instead of bits per second on some command output? (EOS is actually so cool that it converts the displayed values between bps, Kbps, Mbps, and Gbps, on the fly in show interface commands.) ….

The bit about displaying values scaled into Kbps, Mbps etc. is what drew my attention. This was actually a feature I implemented, way back when I originally joined the company. In fact, it was my first mentored project with the company, which is something we do to get every engineer quickly through the steps of adding a real feature to the product, but on an easy task without too many dependencies. Little did I know that my work would eventually be immortalised with a couple of lines in an O’Reilly book.

So, join Arista and you too could get a passing mention in a book. Actually, there’s a serious point behind this: right from the beginning, the work you do is visible and adds value to our customers. To be sure, not everything is quite so immediate as making the interface more usable, but everything we do is focused on adding value for the people who use the products. This is one of my favourite things about the company.