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Archive for October, 2009

On the flight to the ISO C standards meeting this morning, I was reading this month’s issue of CACM, and found that Sir C.A.R. (Tony) Hoare wrote a nice piece called Retrospective: An Axiomatic Basis for Computer Programming.

Hoare has long been a noted proponent of axioms and formal proofs of program correctness. In that light, the following passage on testing and axioms struck me as well put and I thought I’d share it (emphasis added):

One thing I got spectacularly wrong. I could see that programs were getting larger, and I thought that testing would be an increasingly ineffective way of removing errors from them. I did not realize that the success of tests is that they test the programmer, not the program. Rigorous testing regimes rapidly persuade error-prone programmers (like me) to remove themselves from the profession. Failure in test immediately punishes any lapse in programming concentration, and (just as important) the failure count enables implementers to resist management pressure for premature delivery of unreliable code [or forces management to be explicitly unreasonable in the face of bug bar data and specific failure cases having an objective severity –hps]. The experience, judgment, and intuition of programmers who have survived the rigors of testing are what make programs of the present day useful, efficient, and (nearly) correct. Formal methods for achieving correctness must support the intuitive judgment of programmers, not replace it.

My basic mistake was to set up proof in opposition to testing, where in fact both of them are valuable and mutually supportive ways of accumulating evidence of the correctness and serviceability of programs. …

He also mentions many other useful observations and reminds, including the value of assertions to find, not run-time errors, but programming bugs. (See also C++ Coding Standards Item 68: Assert liberally to document internal assumptions and invariants.)

The whole article is good reading, and not long. Recommended.

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How interesting.

I’m at the ISO C++ meeting in Santa Cruz, CA, USA this week. Ten minutes ago we had a committee straw poll about whether we should remove, deprecate, or leave as-is the export template feature for C++0x. The general sentiment was to remove or deprecate it, with deprecation getting the strongest support because it’s safer per ISO procedure. Deprecation would not remove it from C++0x, but would put the world on notice that the committee is considering removing it from a future standard.

Note: Nothing is happening to export at this meeting. The effect of this straw poll of the committee was to give guidance to the core language working group (CWG) on the committee’s general sentiment on this issue. The CWG is taking this as guidance to produce a detailed proposal to take some action on export at our next meeting in Pittsburgh in March.

I’ll write a longer trip report in the next week, but this was worth noting in real time because it’s the first time export template has been discussed in committee since the highly controversial discussion of my and Tom Plum’s proposal to remove export at the Oxford meeting in 2003.

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I’ve opened up a short concurrency poll to get a sense of what concurrency issues are top-of-mind for programmers, and I’d appreciate it if you could take a few minutes to participate. Some questions are about what you want to learn more about, others about your tools of choice in specific areas, and a few are slightly whimsical. I plan to use the results as input to topics to cover in future Effective Concurrency articles and talks, so by participating you’ll help influence the direction of future EC topics.

There are about 28 questions, each asking for just a word or a phrase in answer. Here again is the link: http://www.surveygizmo.com/s/193214/apw36

Thank you in advance for taking a few minutes to participate. If you’re interested in receiving a summary of the survey results, please leave your email address at the end of the survey and I’ll send you a copy (your email will not be used for any other purpose).

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I recently received the following reader question (slightly edited):

About the (Stroustrup) approach of implementing IsDerivedFrom at page 27 in your book More Exceptional C++: […] why the second pointer assignment in:

static void Constraints(D* p)
{
B* pb=p; // okay, D better inherit from B…
pb=p; // huh? why this again?
}

Isn’t the initialization ” B* pb=p ” enough? What does the second assignment bring to the picture?

Excellent question. Interestingly, here’s the exact text from the book, which contains an additional comment that was intended to answer this specific question (emphasis added):

static void Constraints(D* p)
{
B* pb = p;
pb = p; // suppress warnings about unused variables
}

The reason for the redundant assignment is to try to shut up some compilers that issue warnings about unused variables. In a normal function, this is a helpful warning because, dollars to donuts, it’s a mistake and the programmer meant to use the variable but forgot or accidentally used some other variable instead. In this case, without the second line, pb is declared but never mentioned again, and by adding the extra line that mentions it one more time after its declaration, some compilers stop complaining.

Sometimes, however, we’re intentionally not using the variable, such as in this case where the only purpose of the function is to ensure that code that tries to convert a D* to a B* is compilable. (Note: There are other/better ways to achieve this. See the rest of Item 27 for superior approaches.)

However, in practice even the line “pb = p;” doesn’t shut compilers up very much, because many will still notice that now the second assigned value isn’t used, and will helpfully remind you that you probably didn’t mean to write an apparently useless “dead write” that is never read again. Most compilers offer a compiler-specific #pragma or other nonportable extension to silence this warning, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a portable way to suppress the warning that will work on all compilers?

Here’s a simple one-liner that works on all compilers I tried, and should not incur any overhead: Define an empty function template that takes any object by reference, but doesn’t actually do anything with it and so the empty function body should compile down to nothing. Let’s call it “ignore” – you can put it into your project namespace to avoid collisions on that common name.

  template<class T> void ignore( const T& ) { }

Note that ignore<T>’s parameter does not need a name; in fact, it had better not have a name or else you’ll get the same compiler warning as before about an unused variables, only in a new place.

Using ignore is easy. When you want to suppress the compiler warning, just write:

  static void Constraints(D* p)
  {
    B* pb = p;
    ignore(pb); // portably suppresses the warning
  }

Now all compilers I tried agree that the variable is “used” and stop complaining about pb.

[Oct 20: Updated  to add "const" on ignore<T>'s parameter to also handle rvalues.]

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Astute readers may have noticed that Terry Crowley’s name frequently crops up in the Acknowledgments section of my Effective Concurrency columns. Who is Terry? To answer, Mary-Jo Foley profiles him this week.

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This month’s Effective Concurrency column, Avoid Exposing Concurrency – Hide It Inside Synchronous Methods, is now live on DDJ’s website.

From the article:

You have a mass of existing code and want to add concurrency. Where do you start?

Let’s say you need to migrate existing code to take advantage of concurrent execution or scale on parallel hardware. In that case, you’ll probably find yourself in one of these two common situations, which are actually more similar than different:

  • Migrating an application: You’re an application developer, and you want to migrate your existing synchronous application to be able to benefit from concurrency.
  • Migrating a library or framework: You’re a developer on a team that produces a library or framework used by other teams or external customers, and you want to let the library take advantage of concurrency on behalf of the application without requiring application code rewrites.

You have a mountain of opportunities and obstacles before you. Where do you start?

I hope you enjoy it. Finally, here are links to previous Effective Concurrency columns:

The Pillars of Concurrency (Aug 2007)

How Much Scalability Do You Have or Need? (Sep 2007)

Use Critical Sections (Preferably Locks) to Eliminate Races (Oct 2007)

Apply Critical Sections Consistently (Nov 2007)

Avoid Calling Unknown Code While Inside a Critical Section (Dec 2007)

Use Lock Hierarchies to Avoid Deadlock (Jan 2008)

Break Amdahl’s Law! (Feb 2008)

Going Superlinear (Mar 2008)

Super Linearity and the Bigger Machine (Apr 2008)

Interrupt Politely (May 2008)

Maximize Locality, Minimize Contention (Jun 2008)

Choose Concurrency-Friendly Data Structures (Jul 2008)

The Many Faces of Deadlock (Aug 2008)

Lock-Free Code: A False Sense of Security (Sep 2008)

Writing Lock-Free Code: A Corrected Queue (Oct 2008)

Writing a Generalized Concurrent Queue (Nov 2008)

Understanding Parallel Performance (Dec 2008)

Measuring Parallel Performance: Optimizing a Concurrent Queue (Jan 2009)

volatile vs. volatile (Feb 2009)

Sharing Is the Root of All Contention (Mar 2009)

Use Threads Correctly = Isolation + Asynchronous Messages (Apr 2009)

Use Thread Pools Correctly: Keep Tasks Short and Nonblocking (Apr 2009)

Eliminate False Sharing (May 2009)

Break Up and Interleave Work to Keep Threads Responsive (Jun 2009)

The Power of “In Progress” (Jul 2009)

Design for Manycore Systems (Aug 2009)

Avoid Exposing Concurrency – Hide It Inside Synchronous Methods (Oct 2009)

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