The Developer’s Cry

Yet another blog by a hobbyist programmer

Putting the fun back in C with array slicing and dicing

Last month I wrote about putting the fun back in C. This brings me back to a recurring theme: using C/C++ as if it were a scripting language. About two years ago I developed the so-called oolib for C++ that does just this. The library doesn’t get the attention it presumably deserves, but on the other hand, I did find it exhibits certain rather big performance problems. So, it’s back to the drawing board and let’s see what we can do about that.

For putting the fun back in C, what we need is:

As you can see, I really like borrowing feats from other languages. You can do these things with the STL, but I can’t tell you enough how much I dislike the STL for its horrible API and dreadful syntax. It doesn’t make things easy, nor does it make things fun.

The problem with the string class in oolib is that its UTF-8 strings decode to unicode all the time, wasting cycles. Moreover, it’s making too many copies of objects, copies which in turn are destructed and freed again. All of this adds up to a significant performance hit. While this could be patched, I’m going to redesign a couple of things. Before we can write a good string class, we should have a look at arrays. This is because a string is essentially an array of bytes.

Arrays in C are just a pointer to a sequence of bytes. It is up to the programmer to get the size right; no bounds checking is done by the language. This is great for close-to-the-metal programming, but we expect an array class to be a little more “friendly”;

That slice() method is very interesting. An array slice is “a part of an array”. As such, it can be described with just a pointer and a length. Because of the way slices work, you can make a high performance pop() operation that simply decreases the slice’s length. Similarly for pop(0); simply increment the pointer. Another example, imagine that splitting a string is just slicing it. The resulting array of strings are really just slices that point at places in the original string.

If we allow access via a raw pointer into the array, then the slice provides merely a view of a section of the array. Changing an element in the slice would affect the underlying array. We might also choose to provide a copy of the array section. This is an important design decision to make, because it determines how arrays and slices interact, and how we would deal with them.
For example, in Go arrays are very static, and slices are like raw pointers into the array. Python slices behave like copies, although array assignment in Python behaves like a reference.

You’d be surprised in how many different ways one might design the internals of arrays and slices. After lots of rewriting, I finally settled on the following:

In pseudo-code:

array {
    backend {
        T *data;
        uint cap;

    shared_ptr<backend> arr;
    uint offset, len;

The copy-on-write behavior is implemented with help of std::shared_ptr.

Although the internals are kind of complicated, it is simply a joy to use. Having a decent array class that acts much like a scripting language puts the fun back in C.

Just for the hack of it (and for interoperability with STL algorithms), I also added a random access iterator. Writing STL-compatible iterators is not funny—maybe a good topic for another blog post, some other time.