C Object Oriented Programming

Object oriented programming, polymorphism in particular, is essential to nearly any large, complex software system. Without it, decoupling different system components is difficult. (Update in 2017: I no longer agree with this statement.) C doesn’t come with object oriented capabilities, so large C programs tend to grow their own out of C’s primitives. This includes huge C projects like the Linux kernel, BSD kernels, and SQLite.

Starting Simple

Suppose you’re writing a function pass_match() that takes an input stream, an output stream, and a pattern. It works sort of like grep. It passes to the output each line of input that matches the pattern. The pattern string contains a shell glob pattern to be handled by POSIX fnmatch(). Here’s what the interface looks like.

void pass_match(FILE *in, FILE *out, const char *pattern);

Glob patterns are simple enough that pre-compilation, as would be done for a regular expression, is unnecessary. The bare string is enough.

Some time later the customer wants the program to support regular expressions in addition to shell-style glob patterns. For efficiency’s sake, regular expressions need to be pre-compiled and so will not be passed to the function as a string. It will instead be a POSIX regex_t object. A quick-and-dirty approach might be to accept both and match whichever one isn’t NULL.

void pass_match(FILE *in, FILE *out, const char *pattern, regex_t *re);

Bleh. This is ugly and won’t scale well. What happens when more kinds of filters are needed? It would be much better to accept a single object that covers both cases, and possibly even another kind of filter in the future.

A Generalized Filter

One of the most common ways to customize the the behavior of a function in C is to pass a function pointer. For example, the final argument to qsort() is a comparator that determines how objects get sorted.

For pass_match(), this function would accept a string and return a boolean value deciding if the string should be passed to the output stream. It gets called once on each line of input.

void pass_match(FILE *in, FILE *out, bool (*match)(const char *));

However, this has one of the same problems as qsort(): the passed function lacks context. It needs a pattern string or regex_t object to operate on. In other languages these would be attached to the function as a closure, but C doesn’t have closures. It would need to be smuggled in via a global variable, which is not good.

static regex_t regex;  // BAD!!!

bool regex_match(const char *string)
{
    return regexec(&regex, string, 0, NULL, 0) == 0;
}

Because of the global variable, in practice pass_match() would be neither reentrant nor thread-safe. We could take a lesson from GNU’s qsort_r() and accept a context to be passed to the filter function. This simulates a closure.

void pass_match(FILE *in, FILE *out,
                bool (*match)(const char *, void *), void *context);

The provided context pointer would be passed to the filter function as the second argument, and no global variables are needed. This would probably be good enough for most purposes and it’s about as simple as possible. The interface to pass_match() would cover any kind of filter.

But wouldn’t it be nice to package the function and context together as one object?

More Abstraction

How about putting the context on a struct and making an interface out of that? Here’s a tagged union that behaves as one or the other.

enum filter_type { GLOB, REGEX };

struct filter {
    enum filter_type type;
    union {
        const char *pattern;
        regex_t regex;
    } context;
};

There’s one function for interacting with this struct: filter_match(). It checks the type member and calls the correct function with the correct context.

bool filter_match(struct filter *filter, const char *string)
{
    switch (filter->type) {
    case GLOB:
        return fnmatch(filter->context.pattern, string, 0) == 0;
    case REGEX:
        return regexec(&filter->context.regex, string, 0, NULL, 0) == 0;
    }
    abort(); // programmer error
}

And the pass_match() API now looks like this. This will be the final change to pass_match(), both in implementation and interface.

void pass_match(FILE *input, FILE *output, struct filter *filter);

It still doesn’t care how the filter works, so it’s good enough to cover all future cases. It just calls filter_match() on the pointer it was given. However, the switch and tagged union aren’t friendly to extension. Really, it’s outright hostile. We finally have some degree of polymorphism, but it’s crude. It’s like building duct tape into a design. Adding new behavior means adding another switch case. This is a step backwards. We can do better.

Methods

With the switch we’re no longer taking advantage of function pointers. So what about putting a function pointer on the struct?

struct filter {
    bool (*match)(struct filter *, const char *);
};

The filter itself is passed as the first argument, providing context. In object oriented languages, that’s the implicit this argument. To avoid requiring the caller to worry about this detail, we’ll hide it in a new switch-free version of filter_match().

bool filter_match(struct filter *filter, const char *string)
{
    return filter->match(filter, string);
}

Notice we’re still lacking the actual context, the pattern string or the regex object. Those will be different structs that embed the filter struct.

struct filter_regex {
    struct filter filter;
    regex_t regex;
};

struct filter_glob {
    struct filter filter;
    const char *pattern;
};

For both the original filter struct is the first member. This is critical. We’re going to be using a trick called type punning. The first member is guaranteed to be positioned at the beginning of the struct, so a pointer to a struct filter_glob is also a pointer to a struct filter. Notice any resemblance to inheritance?

Each type, glob and regex, needs its own match method.

static bool
method_match_regex(struct filter *filter, const char *string)
{
    struct filter_regex *regex = (struct filter_regex *) filter;
    return regexec(&regex->regex, string, 0, NULL, 0) == 0;
}

static bool
method_match_glob(struct filter *filter, const char *string)
{
    struct filter_glob *glob = (struct filter_glob *) filter;
    return fnmatch(glob->pattern, string, 0) == 0;
}

I’ve prefixed them with method_ to indicate their intended usage. I declared these static because they’re completely private. Other parts of the program will only be accessing them through a function pointer on the struct. This means we need some constructors in order to set up those function pointers. (For simplicity, I’m not error checking.)

struct filter *filter_regex_create(const char *pattern)
{
    struct filter_regex *regex = malloc(sizeof(*regex));
    regcomp(&regex->regex, pattern, REG_EXTENDED);
    regex->filter.match = method_match_regex;
    return &regex->filter;
}

struct filter *filter_glob_create(const char *pattern)
{
    struct filter_glob *glob = malloc(sizeof(*glob));
    glob->pattern = pattern;
    glob->filter.match = method_match_glob;
    return &glob->filter;
}

Now this is real polymorphism. It’s really simple from the user’s perspective. They call the correct constructor and get a filter object that has the desired behavior. This object can be passed around trivially, and no other part of the program worries about how it’s implemented. Best of all, since each method is a separate function rather than a switch case, new kinds of filter subtypes can be defined independently. Users can create their own filter types that work just as well as the two “built-in” filters.

Cleaning Up

Oops, the regex filter needs to be cleaned up when it’s done, but the user, by design, won’t know how to do it. Let’s add a free() method.

struct filter {
    bool (*match)(struct filter *, const char *);
    void (*free)(struct filter *);
};

void filter_free(struct filter *filter)
{
    return filter->free(filter);
}

And the methods for each. These would also be assigned in the constructor.

static void
method_free_regex(struct filter *f)
{
    struct filter_regex *regex = (struct filter_regex *) f;
    regfree(&regex->regex);
    free(f);
}

static void
method_free_glob(struct filter *f)
{
    free(f);
}

The glob constructor should perhaps strdup() its pattern as a private copy, in which case it would be freed here.

Object Composition

A good rule of thumb is to prefer composition over inheritance. Having tidy filter objects opens up some interesting possibilities for composition. Here’s an AND filter that composes two arbitrary filter objects. It only matches when both its subfilters match. It supports short circuiting, so put the faster, or most discriminating, filter first in the constructor (user’s responsibility).

struct filter_and {
    struct filter filter;
    struct filter *sub[2];
};

static bool
method_match_and(struct filter *f, const char *s)
{
    struct filter_and *and = (struct filter_and *) f;
    return filter_match(and->sub[0], s) && filter_match(and->sub[1], s);
}

static void
method_free_and(struct filter *f)
{
    struct filter_and *and = (struct filter_and *) f;
    filter_free(and->sub[0]);
    filter_free(and->sub[1]);
    free(f);
}

struct filter *filter_and(struct filter *a, struct filter *b)
{
    struct filter_and *and = malloc(sizeof(*and));
    and->sub[0] = a;
    and->sub[1] = b;
    and->filter.match = method_match_and;
    and->filter.free = method_free_and;
    return &and->filter;
}

It can combine a regex filter and a glob filter, or two regex filters, or two glob filters, or even other AND filters. It doesn’t care what the subfilters are. Also, the free() method here frees its subfilters. This means that the user doesn’t need to keep hold of every filter created, just the “top” one in the composition.

To make composition filters easier to use, here are two “constant” filters. These are statically allocated, shared, and are never actually freed.

static bool
method_match_any(struct filter *f, const char *string)
{
    return true;
}

static bool
method_match_none(struct filter *f, const char *string)
{
    return false;
}

static void
method_free_noop(struct filter *f)
{
}

struct filter FILTER_ANY  = { method_match_any,  method_free_noop };
struct filter FILTER_NONE = { method_match_none, method_free_noop };

The FILTER_NONE filter will generally be used with a (theoretical) filter_or() and FILTER_ANY will generally be used with the previously defined filter_and().

Here’s a simple program that composes multiple glob filters into a single filter, one for each program argument.

int main(int argc, char **argv)
{
    struct filter *filter = &FILTER_ANY;
    for (char **p = argv + 1; *p; p++)
        filter = filter_and(filter_glob_create(*p), filter);
    pass_match(stdin, stdout, filter);
    filter_free(filter);
    return 0;
}

Notice only one call to filter_free() is needed to clean up the entire filter.

Multiple Inheritance

As I mentioned before, the filter struct must be the first member of filter subtype structs in order for type punning to work. If we want to “inherit” from two different types like this, they would both need to be in this position: a contradiction.

Fortunately type punning can be generalized such that it the first-member constraint isn’t necessary. This is commonly done through a container_of() macro. Here’s a C99-conforming definition.

#include <stddef.h>

#define container_of(ptr, type, member) \
    ((type *)((char *)(ptr) - offsetof(type, member)))

Given a pointer to a member of a struct, the container_of() macro allows us to back out to the containing struct. Suppose the regex struct was defined differently, so that the regex_t member came first.

struct filter_regex {
    regex_t regex;
    struct filter filter;
};

The constructor remains unchanged. The casts in the methods change to the macro.

static bool
method_match_regex(struct filter *f, const char *string)
{
    struct filter_regex *regex = container_of(f, struct filter_regex, filter);
    return regexec(&regex->regex, string, 0, NULL, 0) == 0;
}

static void
method_free_regex(struct filter *f)
{
    struct filter_regex *regex = container_of(f, struct filter_regex, filter);
    regfree(&regex->regex);
    free(f);

}

It’s a constant, compile-time computed offset, so there should be no practical performance impact. The filter can now participate freely in other intrusive data structures, like linked lists and such. It’s analogous to multiple inheritance.

Vtables

Say we want to add a third method, clone(), to the filter API, to make an independent copy of a filter, one that will need to be separately freed. It will be like the copy assignment operator in C++. Each kind of filter will need to define an appropriate “method” for it. As long as new methods like this are added at the end, this doesn’t break the API, but it does break the ABI regardless.

struct filter {
    bool (*match)(struct filter *, const char *);
    void (*free)(struct filter *);
    struct filter *(*clone)(struct filter *);
};

The filter object is starting to get big. It’s got three pointers — 24 bytes on modern systems — and these pointers are the same between all instances of the same type. That’s a lot of redundancy. Instead, these pointers could be shared between instances in a common table called a virtual method table, commonly known as a vtable.

Here’s a vtable version of the filter API. The overhead is now only one pointer regardless of the number of methods in the interface.

struct filter {
    struct filter_vtable *vtable;
};

struct filter_vtable {
    bool (*match)(struct filter *, const char *);
    void (*free)(struct filter *);
    struct filter *(*clone)(struct filter *);
};

Each type creates its own vtable and links to it in the constructor. Here’s the regex filter re-written for the new vtable API and clone method. This is all the tricks in one basket for a big object oriented C finale!

struct filter *filter_regex_create(const char *pattern);

struct filter_regex {
    regex_t regex;
    const char *pattern;
    struct filter filter;
};

static bool
method_match_regex(struct filter *f, const char *string)
{
    struct filter_regex *regex = container_of(f, struct filter_regex, filter);
    return regexec(&regex->regex, string, 0, NULL, 0) == 0;
}

static void
method_free_regex(struct filter *f)
{
    struct filter_regex *regex = container_of(f, struct filter_regex, filter);
    regfree(&regex->regex);
    free(f);
}

static struct filter *
method_clone_regex(struct filter *f)
{
    struct filter_regex *regex = container_of(f, struct filter_regex, filter);
    return filter_regex_create(regex->pattern);
}

/* vtable */
struct filter_vtable filter_regex_vtable = {
    method_match_regex, method_free_regex, method_clone_regex
};

/* constructor */
struct filter *filter_regex_create(const char *pattern)
{
    struct filter_regex *regex = malloc(sizeof(*regex));
    regex->pattern = pattern;
    regcomp(&regex->regex, pattern, REG_EXTENDED);
    regex->filter.vtable = &filter_regex_vtable;
    return &regex->filter;
}

This is almost exactly what’s going on behind the scenes in C++. When a method/function is declared virtual, and therefore dispatches based on the run-time type of its left-most argument, it’s listed in the vtables for classes that implement it. Otherwise it’s just a normal function. This is why functions need to be declared virtual ahead of time in C++.

In conclusion, it’s relatively easy to get the core benefits of object oriented programming in plain old C. It doesn’t require heavy use of macros, nor do users of these systems need to know that underneath it’s an object system, unless they want to extend it for themselves.

Here’s the whole example program once if you’re interested in poking:

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null program

Chris Wellons