Home > Uncategorized > C++ goes for too big to fail

C++ goes for too big to fail

December 8th, 2008

If you believe the Whorfian hypothesis that language effects thought, even in one of its weaker forms, then major changes to a programming language will effect the shape of the code its users write.

I was at the first International C++ Standard meeting in London during 1991 and coming from a C Standard background I could not believe the number of new constructs being invented (the C committee had a stated principle that a construct be supported by at least one implementation before it be considered for inclusion in the standard; ok, this was not always followed to the letter). The C++ committee members continued to design away, putting in a huge amount of effort, and the document was ratified before the end of the century.

The standard is currently undergoing a major revision and the amount of language design going on puts the original committee to shame. With over 1,300 pages in the latest draft nobodies favorite construct is omitted. The UK C++ panel has over 10 people actively working on producing comments and may produce over 1,000 on the latest draft.

With so many people committed to the approach being taken in the development of the revised C++ Standard its current direction is very unlikely to change. The fact that most ‘real world’ developers only understand a fraction of what is contained in the existing standard has not stopped it being very widely used and generally considered as a ‘success’. What is the big deal over a doubling of the number of pages in a language definition, the majority of developers will continue to use the small subset that they each individually have used for years.

The large number of syntactic ambiguities make it is very difficult to parse C++ (semantic information is required to resolve the ambiguities and the code to do this is an at least an order of magnitude bigger than the lexer+parser). This difficulty is why there are so few source code analysis tools available for C++, compared to C and Java which are much much easier to parse. The difficulty of producing tools means that researchers rarely analyse C++ code and only reasonably well funded efforts are capably of producing worthwhile static analysis tools.

Like many of the active committee members I have mixed feelings about this feature bloat. Yes it is bad, but it will keep us all actively employed on interesting projects for many years to come. As the current financial crisis has shown, one of the advantages of being big and not understood is that you might get to being too big to fail.

Tags: , , ,
Comments are closed.