Using C++ classes in critical software

The first C++ feature I’m going to suggest for use in safety-critical software is classes in place of structs. Here are the rules:

  1. You may use class instead of struct
  2. Within class declarations, as well as declaring data members, you may declare function members and constructors (but not operators)
  3. You may use the private: and public: modifiers
  4. All data members in a class should be declared private
  5. Every class must have at least one constructor
  6. Each constructor of a class must initialize all the data members of the class
  7. If you declare a single-argument constructor, it must be declared explicit
  8. If you declare a copy constructor, it must be declared private.

That’s all I want you to use, for now at least. Don’t use inheritance or the virtual keyword. Don’t use default parameters, or function overloading. Try to avoid overloading constructors too. Why no overloading or default parameters? Well, one of the few really big mistakes that the designers of C++ made was to introduce these features without at the same time massively restricting automatic type conversion. These features interact very badly. Is there any one out there who really understands the C++ rules for resolving ambiguity when a function call matches more than one declaration?

Some years ago, when I was reviewing a large body of C++ code, the most common error I found was that someone had left out a parameter in a function call. The compiler was silently type-converting the other parameters to match a different overload of the same function, and the resulting behaviour was not what the programmer had intended.

Why do I insist that single-argument constructors must be explicit? Because if you don’t, then the compiler is free to use the constructor to perform automatic type conversions. Repeat after me: automatic type conversions are evil.

Why the restriction on user-defined copy constructors? Well, if you don’t declare a copy constructor, then the compiler will generate one, which will just copy the object field-by-field. This is the obvious semantics that we expect when copying an object. The usual purpose of user-defined copy constructors is to perform side-effects related to memory management. For example, you might write a copy constructor that, instead of copying a pointer field, creates a fresh copy of the object pointed to and points to that copy instead. That’s fine in an application that is free to use dynamically-allocated memory. But we don’t use dynamic memory allocation in critical software, except possibly during the initialization phase. So there is no place in critical code for copy constructors of this form. On the other hand, it is occasionally useful to make it impossible to compile code that tries to copy an object of some class, which you can achieve by declaring a private copy constructor.

What do we gain by using C++ classes instead of structs? The major gains are encapsulation and more predictable execution. If you follow the rules above, then you have precise control over how the data members of your objects can be modified (because the data members are declared private). You also prevent the declaration or creation of uninitialized and partly-initialized objects, which are a major cause of unpredictable execution. The rule that requires every class to have at least one constructor prevents you from declaring a variable of the class without initializing it. The rule that constructors must initialize all data members prevents you from creating partly-initialized objects. Of course, you still have to make sure that your constructor really does initialize all members – but you only have to do this in one place, not everywhere you declare a variable of that class.

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