A Fascinating Conversation

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment

“A Conversation with Bjarne Stroustrup, Carl Hewitt, and Dave Ungar” is the most fascinating technical video I’ve seen in years. The primary focus of the discussion was how to write applications that efficiently leverage multicore processors. Because of the diversity of views, the video is so engrossing that I watched it three times. I also downloaded the MP3 podcast of the discussion and saved it to a USB stick for the drive to/from work.

When pure physics started limiting the enormous CPU clock speed gains being achieved in the 90s, vertical scaling came to an abrupt halt and horizontal scaling kicked into gear. The number of cores per processor started going up, and it still is today.

Cores vs clock speed

There was much discussion over the difference between a “lock” and “synchronization“. As the figure below illustrates, main memory is physically shared between the cores in a multicore processor. Thus, even if your programming language shields this fact from you by supporting high level, task-based, message passing instead of low-level cooperative threading with locks, some physical form of under-the-hood memory synchronization must be performed in order for the cores to communicate with each other through shared memory without data races.


Here is my layman’s take on each participant’s view of the solution to the multicore efficiency issue:

  • Hewitt: We need new, revolutionary, actor-based programming languages that abandon the traditional, sequential Von Neumann model. The current crop of languages just don’t cut it as the number of cores per processor keeps steadily increasing.
  • Ungar: We need incoherent, unsynchronized hardware memory architectures with background cache error correction. Build a reliable system out of unreliable parts.
  • Stroustrup: Revolutions happen much less than people seem to think. We need to build up and experiment with efficient concurrency abstractions in layered libraries that increasingly hide locks and core-to-memory synchronization details from programmers (the C++ threads-to-tasks-to-“next?” approach).


Hopelessly Irreducible

October 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Some of the parody accounts on Twitter are hilariously creative. Take “InfoSec Taylor Swift” for example:


The key word in Ms. Swift’s aphorism is “irreducible“. Being one of those things that isn’t objectively measurable (it’s funny how many things in real life are unmeasurable), one man’s “irreducible” is another man’s “reducible“.

I’ve discovered that many people, especially penny-obsessed managers, are so quick to assume and accept irreducibility in a complex system that they don’t even attempt to reduce its complexity:

  • It takes time (which directly maps into expense) and hard mental labor to unravel complexity.
  • In macho org cultures, irreducible complexity is often seen as intelligent sophistication, a badge of honor, a step toward lofty guru status.

Conversely, it is easier and less time consuming (which again directly maps into expense) to concoct an irreducible complex monolith than it is to thoughtfully build a reducible complex system of smoothly interacting parts.


The #noprograms Revolution

October 16, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve been developing software in the aerospace and defense industry for 30+ years. Because of the sizes of, and innate System-of-Systems nature of, the solutions in this domain, the processes used to develop them are by necessity, heavyweight. Oh sure, agile/lean techniques can be used effectively in the teeny-tiny-small deep down in the bowels of some of these programs, but to assume “scaling agile” will work in a domain with hundreds of programmers from multiple contractors working on the same distributed system is naive at best, and downright disingenuous at worst.

The most ridiculous examples of inapplicable development practices to the aerospace and defense industry are #noestimates” and “#noprojects“. The “#noprojects” cult is so far off base that they don’t even acknowledge the existence of “programs” – which are a way of organizing a large set of inter-dependent “#noprojects” into, well, a larger grained mission-critical entity worth tens of millions of dollars. It’s like before there were classes and namespaces(packages) added to a programming language to accommodate increasing software system size, there were only “functions” for organizing the structure of a program – and having functions as your only organizing mechanism doesn’t scale well to large software systems.

Hell, the #noprojects people are akin to #noclasses and #nonamespaces people, of which there are thankfully, #nomembers. Really hardcore #noprojects people are perhaps even more loony. They are equivalent to a hypothetical #nofunctionsallowed crowd that demands monolithic, straight-line code only. Line number 1 straight to line number 5,000,000 – and you can’t use loops or “ifs” because they don’t add value and #nofunctionsallowed is all about “maximizing the amount of work not done“.


But hey, if you don’t need any “projects” to build a successful product from the gecko, then by extrapolation you don’t need any “programs” for organizing your projects. Hence, the inimitable BD00 proposes to “scale up” the “#noprojects” movement. We’ll start a revolutionary #noprograms movement, or equivalently, #justcode . We’ll leapfrog both the #noestimates and #noprojects movements at once. W00t!


Dude, Cut Me Some Slack

October 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Since I enjoyed reading Tom DeMarco’s “Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork and the Myth of Total Efficiency” years ago, this diagram in  Jamshid Gharajedaghi’s “Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity” brought back some fond memories of that book:


The diagram shows the slow, insidious erosion in flexibility that occurs in a complex system when efficiency and optimization initiatives are relentlessly applied to the system by its uninformed stewards. As the “slack” is stretched out of the system due to increasing internal pressure, it: 1) loses its robustness to external stressors, 2) the tension between connected nodes increases, and 3) the inter-node couplings harden. At the system breaking point, one or more of the connections crack open, the nodes fly apart, and the conglomeration ceases to function as a whole – a system. I hate when that happens!

Not Just Expert Friendly

October 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Check out this snippet from one of Bjarne Stroustrup’s CppCon keynote slides:

expert friendly

Now take a glance at one of Herb Sutter’s CppCon talk slides:

Complexity Anonymous

Bjarne’s talk was  titled “Make Simple Tasks Simple” and Herb’s talk was tiled “Back To The Basics!: Modern C++ Style“. Since I abhor unessential complexity, I absolutely love the fact that these two dedicated gentlemen are spearheading the effort to evolve C++ in two directions simultaneously: increasing both expert-friendliness AND novice-friendliness.

By counterbalancing the introduction of advanced features like variadic templates and forwarding references with simpler features like range-for loops, nullptr, and brace-initialization, I think Bjarne and Herb (and perhaps other community members I don’t know about) are marvelously succeeding at the monumental task of herding cats. To understand what I mean, take a look at another one of Herb’s slides:

cats in a dot

Do you see that teeny tiny dot at the end of the big arrow down on the lower right edge of the circle? Well, I don’t come anywhere close to qualifying for membership with the cats inside that dot… and I’d speculate that most advanced feature proposals and idiom ideas, whether they are understandable/teachable to mere mortals or not, originate from the really smart cats within that dot.


By gently but doggedly communicating the need for lowering the barriers to entry for potentially new C++ users while still navigating the language forward into unchartered waters, I’m grateful to Herb and Bjarne. Because of these men, the ISO C++ committee actually works – and it is indeed amazing for any committee to “work“.

On The Origin Of Features

October 5, 2014 8 comments

Thanks to an angel on the blog staff at the ISO C++ web site, my last C++ post garnered quite a few hits that were sourced from that site. Thus, I’m following it up with another post based on the content of Bjarne Stroustrup’s brilliant and intimate book, “The Design And Evolution Of C++“.

The drawing below was generated from a larger, historical languages chart provided by Bjarne in D&E. It reminds me of a couple of insightful quotes:

“Complex systems will evolve from simple systems much more rapidly if there are stable intermediate forms than if there are not.” — Simon, H. 1982. The Sciences of the Artificial.

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked… A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.” — Gall, J. 1986. Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail.


Cpp Lineage

A we can see from the figure, “Simula67” and “C” were the ultimate ancestral parents of the C++ programming language. Actually, as detailed in my last post, “frustration” and “unwavering conviction” were the true parents of creation, but they’re not languages so they don’t show up on the chart. :)

To complement the language-lineage figure, I compiled this table of early C++ features and their origins from D&E:

Feature Origin

Finally, if you were wondering what Mr. Stroustrup’s personal feature-filtering criteria were (and still are 30+ years later!), here is the list:

Feature Rejection

If you consider yourself a dedicated C++ programmer who has never read D&E and my latest 2 posts haven’t convinced you to buy the book, then, well, you might not be a dedicated C++ programmer.

And In The Beginning…

September 30, 2014 5 comments

I’m on my second pass through Bjarne Stroustrup’s “The Design And Evolution Of C++“. In the book, which was published exactly 20 years ago in 1994, Bjarne discloses all of the “whys” and “hows” that drove the growth of C++ up to the time of the book’s publication.

DE Cover


In the beginning, before there was C++ there was the even-more-nerdly-named “C With Classes” (CWC). Bjarne’s motivation for creating CWC was, as many inventions are, rooted in frustration:

This was exactly the kind of problem that I had become determined never again to attack without the proper tools. – Bjarne Stroustrup

The problem Bjarne refers to in the above quote was: “the task of exploring if/how the UNIX kernel could be distributed over a network of LAN-connected computers“. The preceding “never again” problem was for achieving his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge University: “to study alternatives for the organization of system software for distributed systems“. Notice how the word “distributed” appears in both problems – and this was way back in the 70’s when bell bottoms were in fashion and prior to the rise of multi-core processor technology.

How To Unix

Even though he didn’t say why he chose the tool for his Cambridge Ph.D. thesis project, Bjarne used Nygaard and Dahl’s Simula programming language to code up a program for “simulating software running on a distributed system“. If you already know the history of C++, you won’t be surprised at Bjarne’s feelings for Simula or why he imported some of its key features into CWC:

It was a pleasure to write that simulator. The features of Simula were almost ideal for the purpose, and I was particularly impressed by the way the concepts of the language helped me think about the problems in my application. The class concept allowed me to map my application concepts into the language constructs in a direct way that made my code more readable than I had seen in any other language. The way Simula classes can act as co-routines made the inherent concurrency of my application easy to express.

Class hierarchies were used to express variants of application-level concepts. The use of class hierarchies was not heavy, though; the use of classes to express concurrency was much more important in the organization of my simulator.

During writing and initial debugging, I acquired a great respect for the expressiveness of Simula’s type system and its compiler’s ability to catch type errors.

In the above book quotes, we see the “whys” for:

  • The appearance of the “Classes” word in “C With Classes“.
  • CWC’s’s support for an object oriented programming style
  • CWC’s static type system.

In contrast to Simula’s elegant expressiveness, its compile time and runtime performance were abysmal (garbage collection + runtime type checking + built-in concurrency = slooow). The runtime performance was so poor that Bjarne had to rewrite his simulator in low-level BPCL at the last second in order to get any meaningful results out of the program to stuff into his Ph.D. thesis.

Although there were several other pragmatic reasons for the appearance of the “C” in “C With Classes” (flexibility, ubiquity of available compilers, direct mapping of data to the hardware, simple linkage and runtime systems), performance ultimately drove the decision to use the well known and proven C language as ground zero for CWC – despite its funky syntactic quirks and unsafe features.

Curiously, support for concurrency was provided in CWC’s very first library in 1980. Concurrency appeared in the form of a tasking library and built-in support for two special functions recognized by the preprocessor: call() and return(). If defined by the programmer for a class, these functions would get implicitly invoked prior to entry and prior to exit of every class member function except for the constructor/destructor. They were required by the monitor class in the tasking library to acquire and release a lock for precluding data races.  Interestingly, the call() and return() functions were later removed because “nobody used them but me“. We’d have to wait until 2011 for concurrency to return to C++ in the form of new libraries.

On exiting this post, I’d like to show you this e-mail exchange with Bjarne regarding the possibility of a book sequel in the near future:

DE Sequel

Why not join an e-mail campaign to get Bjarne started on D&E II? So, go ahead. E-mail Bjarne like I did and plead with him to start penning the sequel. The 20 year trek from 1994 to 2014 has got to be filled with as many great “hows” and “whys” as D&E I.

Categories: C++ Tags: , , ,

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