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How will C code in 2045 look different from today?

August 5th, 2015 No comments

What constructs will be in such common use in C source code written by developers in 2045 that people looking at C written in 2015 will know it comes from a much earlier era (a previous post looked back at C written in 1986)?

C is a high level language that allows developers to get close to the hardware, so to get some idea of what everyday C might be like in 2045 we have to ask what everyday hardware will be like 10-20 years from now (the C standard committee waits for hardware feature to become established before adding features to support them).

I think the following hardware trends will have a big impact on the future appearance of C source code:

Power consumption: Runtime performance is an integral part of the design of C. In the past performance has been about program execution time and/or memory usage; the spread of mobile computing has created a third strand: electrical power consumption. A variety of techniques have been proposed for reducing program power consumption, including: type specifiers that enable developers to tell the compiler accuracy can be traded off against power in calculations involving a given variable and scaling cpu voltage/frequency in non-time critical code (researchers are currently trying to do this without developer involvement, but a storage/type specifier like register or inline would provide useful information to the compiler),

Unreliable hardware: running hardware at lower voltages (to reduce power consumption) increases the probability of noise having an effect on program output, as does use of smaller line widths in cpu fabrication (more chips per die increases manufacturer profits). Proposed solutions include adding type specifiers to variables that can tolerate holding approximate values or more making probabilistic assertions.

Non-volatile memory: Like most languages C has an implicit model of programs sitting on a slow storage device, e.g., hard disk, and being loaded into very fast storage for execution. Non-volatile storage could have a very dramatic impact on this view of the world. For years gaming consoles have stored code+data as a memory image in ROM for rapid loading, but being able to write to storage that is only an order of magnitude slower than main memory opens up all sorts of interesting opportunities. The concept of named address spaces defined in Programming languages – C – Extensions to support embedded processors is waiting to expand out of its current niche of C on embedded processors.

There is at least one language construct that is likely to be rarely seen by developers working in 2045: inline. The reason that today’s developers have been given the ability to define functions inline is that compilers are not yet good enough to reliably make good function inlining decisions, rather like they were not good enough to reliability make good register allocation decisions 30 years ago (ok, register can still be useful for developers using weird and wonderful processor architectures or brain dead compilers).

I have not yet said anything about parallel processing or multiprocessor hardware. The C11 Standard updated C99 to provide generic support (i.e., _Atomic plus associated sequence point wording updates and the threads library) for this kind of hardware. Support for a specific parallel/multiprocessor model will happen if a specific model becomes the industry standard (rather like IEEE floating-point not being anointed by C90 because it was not yet what every hardware vendor used; other formats were on their last legs and by C99 could be treated as dead).