Friday, 20 November 2015

Code Craft-Embedding C++: Hidden Activities?

What is an embedded system? The general definition is a computer system dedicated to a specific purpose, i.e. not a general purpose system usable for different tasks. That is a very broad definition. I was just skimming the C++ coding guidelines for the Joint Strike Fighter. That’s a pretty big embedded system and the first DOD project that allowed C++! When you use an ATM to get money you’re using an embedded system. Those are basically hardened PCs. Then at the small end we have all the Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets.

The previous articles about embedding C++ discussing classes, virtual functions, and macros garnered many comments. I find both the positive and critical comments rewarding. More importantly, the critical comments point me toward issues or questions that need to be addressed, which is what got me onto the topic for this article. So thank you, all.

Let’s take a look at when embedded systems should or should not use C++, taking a hard look at the claim that there may be hidden activities ripe to upset your carefully planned code execution.

Limits of Embedded Development Boards

Embedded systems are often thought of as having limited resources, e.g. memory, processing power. Having real-time constraints is another requirement frequently brought up. While those do occur in embedded systems they are not defining characteristics.

At some point a processor or memory limits preclude using C++, and often even C. Vendors might resort to a restricted version of C on some processors to provide a high-level language capability, an effort that would be silly for C++.

But we’ve not hit the limit on the boards used in these articles. We see with the Arduino Uno and its relatives that C++ is usable. The Uno is restricted to a subset of C++, in part because the developers did not have a C++ standard library available. (If you really want one, there are ports of the STL for the Uno.) The compiler in the Uno toolset supports C++11 and there is some support for C++14, but I haven’t explored the latter to know what is usable. There are capabilities in C++11, and C+14, that improve C++ use in embedded systems.

The Due, a larger Arduino board I’ve used to contrast with the Uno, does have the full standard library. Switch over to the Raspberry Pi, or equivalents, where you not only get the GCC toolset but can run Eclipse on the board, and it feels like the sky’s the limit.

Should You C++?

While all the above is valid, it misses a critical point. The issue isn’t whether you can use C++ on the smaller systems but whether solving the problem needs C++’s capabilities. What I’m suggesting is changing the question from “Can you use C++?” to “Should you use C++?”

We’ve addressed some of the really basic objections to using C++. Code bloat is not the great explosion folks imagine. Virtual functions are not super slow. But the comments raise other issues. One comment advised against using C++ because of the hidden activities. Specifically mentioned were copy constructors, side effects, hidden allocation, and unexpected operations.

What is a copy constructor, and why do we need one? It’s a constructor that makes a copy of an existing instance. Any time a copy is made the copy constructor is called. Recall that all constructors initialize instances so they are ready to be used.

A copy constructor is required if you pass a parameter by value. That’s a copy. Returning a value from a function causes a copy, although a decent compiler will optimize it away. Assignment also involves making a copy.

With built in types the cost of a copy is low, except maybe if you are using long doubles at 16 bytes a value. For large data structures a copy can be expensive and can be tricky. Rather than bemoan that C++ does copies, we need to recognize they are a necessity. That recognition means we can work to avoid them and get them right when they are needed.

One way to avoid copies is to pass structures by reference. In C, passing by pointer is a pass by reference. C++ allows that and introduces the reference operator. The reference operator is not just syntactic sugar. For example, references eliminate the dangling pointer problem since you cannot have a null reference.

Which brings up the ownership problem with pointers and the questions they raise for data structure copies. Quite frequently, even in C++, a data structure contains a pointer to another data structure. When you make a copy who owns the structure at the end of the pointer? Do you copy the pointer or the data? If you just copy the pointer you are sharing data between the two copies. One copy can modify the data in the other copy. That is usually not a good thing. Copying the data might be expensive. Also, who ultimately decides when the target of a pointer is deleted, or even if it should be deleted?

C++ doesn’t introduce a problem with copy constructors; it highlights a requirement that needs to be addressed, sometimes by looking to the problem requirements. What is needed by the solution when a copy is made?

Copying Data

In my robotics work I use an inertial measurement unit (IMU) to help track position and bearing, the robot’s pose. Inside the IMU are an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a compass. The accelerometer and gyroscope both provide data as a triple of data, i.e. measurements in x, y, and z axis. There are a number of operations that need to be done on that data to make it usable, many more than we want to look at here. But we can look at how to handle this triple of data and to add a triple of values together. This is done with the gyroscope since it reports the angular rate of change per unit of time. By accumulating those readings you can obtain, theoretically, the bearing of the robot.

C++ Implementation

Here’s the declaration of the class Triple and the overloaded addition operator:

class Triple {
        Triple() = default; // C++11 use default constructor despite other constructors being declared
        Triple(const Triple& t);    // copy constructor so we can track usage
        Triple(const int x, const int y, const int z);

        const Triple& operator +=(const Triple& rhs);

        int x() const;
        int y() const;
        int z() const;
        int mX { 0 };   // C++11 member initialization
        int mY { 0 };
        int mZ { 0 };

inline Triple operator+(const Triple& lhs, const Triple& rhs);

I’m using a number of C++11 features here. They’re marked, and the implications for most are obvious if you are familiar with earlier versions of C++. The line with Triple() = default; probably isn’t obvious. It requests that the compiler generate the default constructor. Without it we couldn’t create a variable with no arguments on the constructor: Triple t3;. Normally the default constructor is only created by the compiler when no other constructors are defined. Since Triple has two other constructors there would be no default constructor. I requested one using the notation so variables could be created without arguments.

The next constructor, Triple(const Triple& t), is the copy constructor. It is not needed for this class since C++ would have generated one by default that would have worked fine for this simple class. I created it to show how one works and illustrate where it is invoked. This uses a new C++11 feature where a constructor can invoke another constructor to handle the initialization. This came into being to avoid code duplication, which often led to errors, or the use of a class member to perform initialization.

The final constructor allows us to initialize a Triple with three values. Those three values are stored in the data members of the class.

The next function overloads the plus equals operator. It turns out that the most effective way to implement the actual addition operator, seen a few lines below, is to first implement this operator.

The remaining functions are getters because they allow us to get data from the class. Some classes also have setters that allow setting class values. We don’t want them in Triple.

Here are the implementations of the arithmetic operators:

inline const Triple& Triple::operator +=(const Triple& rhs) {
        mX += rhs.mX;
        mY += rhs.mY;
        mZ += rhs.mZ;
        return *this;

inline Triple operator+(const Triple& lhs, const Triple& rhs) {
        Triple left { lhs };
        left += rhs;
        return left;

The first operator is straightforward; it simply applies the plus equal operator to each value in the class and returns the instance as a reference. This operator modifies the data in the calling object so the returned reference is valid.

The addition operator uses the plus equal operator in its implementation. Here is where the copy constructor comes into play. We have to create a new object to hold the result so one is created from the lhs value. That’s a copy.

The rhs is added to the new object using plus equal operator and the result returned by value, not by reference. The return is another copy. It cannot be returned by reference because the result object, left, was created inside the function.

There are two possible copies in any arithmetic operator. However, C++ in the standard specifically allows compilers to optimize away the copy for the return value. This is the return value optimization. You’re welcome to try adjusting the code, but there is no way you can avoid creating a copy or two somewhere during this operation.

This code will run on an Arduino, but I created it and ran it on Linux so I could step through the operations to verify where the copy constructor was called and where it wasn’t.

How do you use this? Pretty much the same as any arithmetic operation:

        Triple t1 { 1, 2, 3 };
        Triple t2 { 10, 20, 30 };

        Triple t3 { t1 + t2 };

C Implementation

What would a similar implementation look like in C? How about this:

struct Triple {
        int mX;
        int mY;
        int mZ;

void init(struct Triple* t, const int x, const int y, const int z) {
        t->mX = x;
        t->mY = y;
        t->mZ = z;
struct Triple add(struct Triple* lhs, struct Triple* rhs) {
        struct Triple result;
        result.mX = lhs->mX + rhs->mX;
        result.mY = lhs->mY + rhs->mY;
        result.mZ = lhs->mZ + rhs->mZ;
        return result;

Overall it looks shorter and neater. The struct Triple contains the three data items for the axis. The routine init sets them to user specified values. The add function adds two Triples and returns the result. The add routine avoids initializing result because we know its content will be overwritten by the addition operations. That’s a bit of a savings for C. There is still a copy when the function returns the value. You just don’t have any control of how that copy is done. In this simple situation it doesn’t matter but with a more complicated data structure, say, one with pointers, the copy might be more challenging. We’d probably need to resort to an output parameter using pass by reference with pointers instead of a return value.

Here is how it is used:

        struct Triple t1;
        init(&t1, 1, 2, 3);

        struct Triple t2;
        init(&t2, 10, 20, 30);

        struct Triple t3 = add(&t1, &t2);

Two values are created and initialized and then added. Simple, but you’ve got to remember to take the addresses of the structures and to assure the init routine is only called once.

Consider how the two different versions would look if you implemented a complicated expression. I’ll just say I know which I would prefer.

Wrap Up

I didn’t start this article intending to do a direct comparison between the two languages. I only wanted to illustrate that the copy constructor is, if you insist, a necessary evil. Copies occur in multiple places in both C++ and C. They become critical to understand in C++ when using user defined data types, i.e. classes. Copying in C is less obvious but still necessary.

Since I didn’t intend to make a comparison, I don’t have code size or timings for the two versions. As I pointed out and demonstrated in the article on virtual functions, comparing these simple examples on those parameters is often misleading. A C++ capability is used to solve a problem, not just as an exercise of the language features. Only if an equivalent solution in C is created is a comparison valid.

The Embedding C++ Project

Over at, I’ve created an Embedding C++project. The project will maintain a list of these articles in the project description as a form of Table of Contents. Each article will have a project log entry for additional discussion. Those interested can delve deeper into the topics, raise questions, and share additional findings.

The project also will serve as a place for supplementary material from myself or collaborators. For instance, someone might want to take the code and report the results for other Arduino boards or even other embedded systems. Stop by and see what’s happening.

Filed under: Hackaday Columns, Software Development

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