What Should Go Into the C++ Standard Library

By Titus Winters ([email protected]), @TitusWinters

About the Author - Titus holds a PhD in Computer Science Education from UC Riverside. He created most of Google’s internal C++ coursework, and plays an active role in the C++ mentoring program that serves several thousand Google C++ engineers. He has been deeply involved in C++ library infrastructure since 2011, through the Google C++ Library Team and now Abseil. He chairs the Library Evolution Working Group (LEWG) - the sub-committee of the C++ Standard that focuses on the design of the C++ standard library.

A few interesting pieces on the direction and design for C++ have circulated recently. First off, I strongly recommend everyone read through Direction for ISO C++ ; it provides a lot of excellent detail and suggestions, as well as some much-needed guidance on how the language should evolve. In particular, I think it’s really important to note “No language can be everything for everybody,” the technical “pillars” upon which C++ rests, and the call to remind everyone to go read “The Design and Evolution of C++”. The Direction Group is very rightly showing concern about the breadth of things being proposed for the standard, as well as how to maintain velocity and stability as we continue to move forward at an ever more rapid pace.

Batteries Included?

An interesting piece by Guy Davidson also specifically focuses on what should be included in the C++ Standard Library, with emphasis on a proposed Graphics library. Guy (again, rightly) is concerned with what can and cannot be done with C++ easily and out of the box. Guy argues we should aim for “batteries included,” a much more all-inclusive approach than what is currently standardized. Especially when you compare C++ to other languages, there’s a pretty strong argument to be made for a more inclusive and even all-encompassing standard library - look at the richness of the standard libraries for Java or Python.

Interestingly, the Graphics library proposal is mentioned specifically in both of these pieces. In the Direction Group’s paper, Graphics is forwarded as a way to make C++ more accessible for beginners. In Guy’s piece, it’s an exemplar of the “batteries included” philosophy, drawing comparisons from other languages and trying to make C++ feel more fully-featured out of the box.

I don’t agree with either of those conclusions. But the reasoning behind this objection requires a little bit of a detour. Please bear with me.

Literate and Algorithmic Thinking

I’ve done studies on what undergraduate CS1 students know and think about CS when they show up, day 1. If you ask such students what it means to program on day 1, in a majority of cases they have basically no idea. The popular vision of programmers and hackers comes from movies like The Matrix, Hackers, and Swordfish, or the “It’s a UNIX system” scene from Jurassic Park. Programming is like magic and the act of programming in popular culture has more to do with portrayals of magic than opening up a text editor. A skilled programmer, like Harry Potter as much as Neo, can do anything - and will probably be surrounded by some impressive visual effects in the process.

Then, we introduce them to “Hello World”. Java gives me a great punching bag here: “public static void main string bracket-bracket args, system dot out dot println, quote Hello World”. Yes, you can draw comparison between the boilerplate necessary there with the incantations within magic, but if we are being honest we turn off CS1 students from that very first program if we aren’t careful. “Don’t worry about all of this stuff” is not a great way to inspire curiosity and a desire to learn. Boilerplate is the enemy for intro programmers. For a day 1 use-case, I love Python. You must explain “Print doesn’t mean to the printer, it just means to the screen. And quotes are just like in prose - saying exactly this thing in quotes.” For kick-starting some simple demonstrations without boilerplate, that’s pretty hard to beat. C++ falls somewhere between the two - if we stick to Hello World and iostreams, it’s not too bad. The well-travelled path is pretty narrow (explaining strings vs. char*s, namespaces, ADL, operators, etc), but it’s certainly not as bad as Java.

Once we get past the first day, we need to start thinking about what it means to become a programmer. By “programmer”, I don’t mean an expert in any given language - most anyone that can call themselves a programmer knows that the syntax and details in a specific language is a largely separable thing from the effort to learn to be an algorithmic / programmatic thinker. That transition into algorithmic thinking transcends any particular language. It’s a cognitive shift, thinking in abstractions and control flow, more than learning the syntax and edge cases for any particular language.

For comparison, there’s a book called Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong that goes into great detail on the differences between oral and literate people and cultures, pointing out the significant cultural and cognitive shifts that happen when you transition to a world that relies on the written word and the ability to communicate ideas without being face to face. I cannot prove it, but I firmly and fundamentally believe that a shift of equal magnitude happens when you transition from a literate mindset to an algorithmic one.

Assuming that the magnitude of the shift to an algorithmic mindset comparable to becoming literate, consider how hard is it to become literate. How much effort do we put into making that transition easy, with cardboard books and whole genres devoted to helping learners make that transition? Why would we think that shifting from literate to algorithmic is any less difficult? Bringing this back to C++: why would we assume that the right tool for a high-performance super-professional domain can also satisfy an “easy reader” in the process of becoming an algorithmic thinker? To me, and certainly to most people I know, C++ isn’t a kid-friendly Goodnight Moon - it’s more of a Finnegan’s Wake. Simply put: developing an algorithmic mindset is hard on its own, even in a language that is designed to hold your hand. C++ is not well-suited for being a starter language - come to us when you’ve gotten over those first hurdles.

Approaching it from another angle: according to P0939, C++ cannot afford to be all things to all people. Hopefully nobody disagrees when I say that C++ is a language that prioritizes efficiency and performance above pretty much everything else - including user-friendliness, ease of use, etc. Citing P0939 and P0684 - one of the few perspectives I expect everyone on the Committee to agree with is that “C++ leaves no room for another language between itself and the hardware”, and that you don’t pay for what you don’t use. Protections against programmer error can be costly, and are thus not a priority for C++. That’s all perfectly fine, so long as we keep that in mind and stay true to that philosophy. In many respects this is what makes C++ the important language it is: when efficiency counts, this is the language you go to. We will not make you pay for having your hand held.

If we know that we cannot be the one language for all tasks, and we know that we are focused on performance above all else - why are we thinking that a Graphics library to make it easy to visualize things for novices is a good fit?

As an educator, I don’t buy it.

What Makes C++ Special?

There’s a separate chain of reasoning that concerns me with Guy’s “Batteries Included” approach. Some of this was presented in Corentin’s reply to Guy’s article, but I’ve got a bit of a different approach and experience with it.

One of the other things that C++ has been good at, historically, is stability. In many respects I think we take that too far - I regularly leave standards meetings frustrated at our inability to fix mistakes, but I do also see the value that stability provides the community. At the committee level we pay pretty close attention to what will break user code (well, at least well-behaved user code, see P0921), up to and including support for pre-compiled code depending on an ever-changing standard library. That is, we provide not just API (source level) compatibility over time, we almost always provide ABI (binary level) compatibility. And that means that a huge number of possible changes are infeasible: if it involves how a type is represented in memory, it will not change for decades.

My friend Matt Kulukundis spoke at CPPCon about work that Google has been doing on hashing - a huge amount of performance and memory savings is available beyond what is provided by std::unordered_map. However, the standard can never realize those savings: even a change to std::hash is infeasible because we have to maintain binary compatibility with code compiled years ago with a sub-par approach to hashing. The implementation for std::hash as it stands leaves little room for important things like hash-flood mitigation. As a community, we’re paying in both resources and safety because of our addiction to binary compatibility.

Even ignoring binary compatibility, the standard is very reticent to make changes that might break existing code. As an example (one of many, I assure you), numerous proposals to resolve issues with std::function have circulated in the past few years. One of my favorite gripes is that it is the only type (AFAIK) in the standard library that is not thread-compatible: calls to const methods from multiple threads can still cause race conditions. This inconsistency is because the specification of the call operator is slightly bogus: even when called in a const context, std::function is perfectly willing to call non-const call operators, potentially mutating the contained callable. This defect was pointed out years ago, and it was pointed out that the only code that would be broken by fixing this would be code that is not thread safe and likely buggy. The committee was unwilling to break existing code - even at that early date.

Given this demonstration of prioritizing efficiency and stability, why would something as high-level and changeable as Graphics be a good fit for the standard? I often legitimately question whether hashed associative containers are a good fit for C++, given the potential for advancement that we’ve seen in the last few years. Anything complex enough that research tasks on how to optimize it are still ongoing should probably not be in the C++ standard. At least, not until we figure out how to deal with change a little more aggressively.

Dependency Management, not Standardization

The section of Guy’s “Batteries Included” piece that resonates with me is this: it isn’t that the standard has to provide these things, but that there needs to be some mechanism to readily distribute libraries and dependencies in the C++ community. It is far past time that we as a community find an answer that is somewhere between “this is chaos” and “this is in the standard”. This is particularly hard in C++, where the preponderance of build flags, preprocessor directives, build systems, compilers, standard library variants makes true portability challenging (to say the least). But I know it can be done. It will require library providers to be more clear about what compatibility they promise, and library consumers to understand what they are asking, but it can be done.

So, what should go in the standard library? Fundamentals. Things that can only be done with compiler support, or compile-time things that are so subtle that only the standard should be trusted to get it right. Vocabulary. Time, vector, string. Concurrency. Mutex, future, executors. The wide array of “sometimes useful data structure” and “random metaprogramming” could and should be shuffled off into a semi-standard repository of available but distinct utility libraries. Those may themselves have different design and stability philosophies, like Boost or Abseil - the principles that make the standard what it is are not necessarily universal even if they are good for the standard. Graphics is too much - many won’t want it, and those that think they do may not understand what they are asking for.

Graphics won’t make C++ a teaching language - learning to be an algorithmic thinker should be done in a language that has fewer sharp edges. C++ won’t make Graphics easy, and tying any sort of Graphics API to the legacy constraints of C++ won’t make for a great API in that space. But using the Graphics API as a high-value seed for a centralized repository of C++ dependencies … that would go a long way toward solving some very real problems.

Subscribe to the Abseil Blog