Friday, March 27, 2009

C - A New Golden Age

I've been noticing a new trend lately - more people seem to be eschewing C++ and moving to C. There seems to be several major reasons why this is happening, and it's an interesting story of the evolution of programming.

One major reason is simplicity - C is substantially simpler than C++. Furthermore, given the level of complexity, including ABI issues, there are very real arguments as to if the complexity is worth the benefits. At least one start-up I know had made a policy to use C over C++ for their real-time systems. Given the need for memory intensive, CPU bound processes, one is often forced to use non-VM languages like C, C++. Given the practical choice between the two, choosing the former can be a better choice!

The other reason is interoperability - C has a standardized application binary interface (ABI) that is the system-default binary interface on Unices. Furthermore, C's ABI does not change, and will not change. Compare and contrast to C++ which does not have cross-vendor compatibility (soon apparently), and may not be compatible across point releases (GCC 4.1 not compatible with GCC 4.2 for example).

As a corollary to the last note, many people are opting to use more 'scripting' or higher level languages - such as Python, Ruby, Lisp or OCaml. All these languages natively interface directly with C, but not always with C++. If they do support C++ they support a subset - such as no exceptions - thus forcing one to wrap C++ libraries to play nice. One can write the memory-intensive, CPU bound parts in C, and write the higher level logic in Python, thus getting the benefits of both worlds when necessary.

It seems like now is the time for a new Renaissance of C - there are many libraries out there which provide highly advanced functionality wrapped up in C (eg: gtk++, gnome, libapr). Basing your next performance sensitive project on C may be the seemingly anachronism your team needs to escape C++ compile hell.

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