The little tail that could
For the past year or so, I have been dedicating some of my free time to the design and implementation of a C++11 library for dealing with Unicode, that I decided to dub ‘ogonek’.
Now, for some background, I have a very poor opinion of many C++ APIs out there. Boost is pretty much the only one that I hold in high regard in that respect—even though I do have my complaints about it.
For my own API, the first things I set in stone were the design goals and a few golden rules to produce an API “the way I like it”. I feel like at least the first one should be the rule everywhere, but as I learned after all this time, it is not.
I am following them in my interface design, and listing them here for others to get an understanding of why some things are the way they are, and maybe to adapt them for their own designs.
The pit of success
I really like the pit of success/pit of despair analogy. Some languages/APIs make it really easy for you to mess up—a small mistake and you fall into the pit of despair. They require a lot of care to do things right. You are basically walking on the border of the pit of despair, and once you fall in, it takes effort to get out of it.
Some other languages/APIs make it hard to mess up and instead lead you naturally to good solutions. This is called “pushing you into the pit of success”. If you want to do something that is questionable and dangerous with one of these languages/APIs, you need to work for and climb out of the pit of success.
As should be obvious by now, I have a strong dislike for pit of despair APIs, and a strong preference for pit of success APIs. Ogonek’s API is designed to be a pit of success API.
Validity and correctnesss come first; speed is irrelevant in the face of those. But don’t get me wrong—none of this means that I am “designing for slow”. Efficiency is still a valid concern, and I have indeed made several design decisions that stem from a need for efficiency, but always within the bounds of correctness.
In the end, I am striving for having my cake and eating it too: I want a design that favours correctness and allows efficient implementations. That may be a lot to ask for, but I believe I can achieve such a design that enforces correctness and allows efficiency enough for many tasks.
In few words, whenever the choice between a correct design and an efficient design must be made, I pick the correct design. Whenever I can pick both, I pick both.
As you will see from the rest of this article, this pit of success idea is the overarching theme of most decisions I made in the API and is highly pervasive throughout it.
Explicit is better than implicit
If you care about correctness, you don’t want all kinds of stuff happening behind your back as that makes it harder to keep track of what is happening and makes it easier for mistakes to go unnoticed.
Some people prefer “convenience” APIs that sort of guess what you meant to do and if they guess wrong you get to debug that later. Oh, the joy. Needless to say, I don’t like those.
Ogonek won’t be like that—it will make no guesses as to what you meant. Don’t expect the library to make any arbitrary decisions in your name—if you don’t care about some details important for correctness, ogonek is not suited for you.
I know this might make the API harder to learn, because it will require some people to be aware of certain things that they never came across before. I think this is a good thing. It means that if you try to do something without a minimal understanding of it, the code will likely not compile and you will be forced to go and grab some fundamental domain knowledge. Once again, it’s the pit of success idea at work.
Implicit is better than explicit
At this point you may be thinking if this heading is an editorial mistake. It isn’t. While I argued for making some operations explicit, I don’t have a fetish for unnecessarily verbose code. There are many operations that can be performed implicitly because they aren’t lossy, surprising, dangerous, or unreasonably inefficient.
These operations that can be implicit are especially common if you follow the pit of success rule in designing the API as there will be less ways of truly messing up. And with this the API ends pushing you even harder into the pit of success, since it gives you less surface area to make mistakes.
In those operations there is usually no choice to be made by the user, and forcing them to explicitly choose the single alternative available is annoying and only adds clutter to the code.
In short, operations on ogonek are automated whenever that does not reduce flexibility or functionality, and require explicit intervention otherwise.
Fail fast, fail loudly
So what happens whenever the user makes a mistake? Well, something will fail, sometime. There are several possible times for that failure to manifest itself. For what concerns API design, the relevant possibilities are, in chronological order, as follows.
Compilation time—some mistakes can be detected by the compiler. The most common of such mistakes are either syntactic errors or type errors. Syntactic errors don’t have much influence in API design, but type errors are very important. The more information that is encoded in types, the more things can be checked automatically by the compiler.
Linkage time—these are either boring or really annoying to fix. There used to be a common idiom in C++03—private copy constructors without a definition—that would cause some rare mistakes to manifest themselves at linkage time, but I don’t think there is anything useful about this kind of errors for driving modern API design or implementation.
Testing time—this is when violated assertions manifest themselves. Some assertions will always be hit when wrong code is used, and as usual produce a nasty error message in some test log. Those are very useful to have, because they point out bad code as soon as it runs, every time it runs. While not explicitly part of the language-level interface, those assertions do form part of the effective interface of the library, and they serve to enforce it beyond what is possible to enforce through type-checking.
Run time—the difference between this and testing time is subtle. Some mistakes won’t manifest at any previous stage, and will manifest under very unique or unusual circumstances. Unless you are lucky, these can slip through testing and end up in the final product, undetected until some user finds it and hopefully files a bug report.
The longer an error is allowed to remain, the more code will be built around it, and that increases the likelihood of a fix affecting a large portion of other code.
In ogonek I strive to have as many errors as possible manifest themselves upon compilation. This means encoding more and more information in types. This certainly involves some template meta-programming, but so far always in healthy doses.
A very important property that is encoded in some ogonek types is whether they represent a well-formed sequence. All externally provided sequences are considered of unknown well-formedness. Some processes, like validating or decoding, accept such sequences and return sequences that are thus statically known well-formed. Some functions accept only well-formed sequences as input, and using them with sequences of types that have not been blessed by the well-formedness gods will cause a compiler error—hopefully I can make it a descriptive one—and force you to think about whether your input is known to be valid or not.
As a side effect of this, I can do some efficiency improvements. Some operations
accept sequences regardless of their well-formedness, like initialising an
instance of ogonek’s core string type (named
text). Having information about
well-formedness available statically, I can make a validation function that is a
no-op when the input is known well-formed, and performs regular validation
otherwise. I really like this because I get both correctness and efficiency from
I also keep track of other properties statically in a similar manner, in order to enforce some other invariants and enable some other optimisations, but well-formedness is the most important one.
You are not alone
One thing that really annoys me when I look at a C++ API is seeing a complete disregard for interoperation with the standard library. An API designed in a vacuum will cause you pain when you need to use it with other code. If it cannot work with the standard library that is really annoying, because the standard library is used everywhere (it is, isn’t it?).
I want ogonek to integrate nicely with the existing language features and with the existing standard library. That means supporting the use with standard algorithms and containers by providing and consuming iterators, and supporting the use of iostreams.
So, ogonek will toss you into this sanitised world where you can only do things that won’t hurt you. However, sometimes you really want to walk on the edge of the pit, instead of jumping straight into it.
Maybe you don’t want to validate that string you obtained from that library as you are sure is well-formed, even though the library provided it as some old dusty type that won’t be considered well-formed by ogonek. Maybe you want to access the underlying storage of that string and mess directly with the bytes and not the code points. “I know what I am doing.” you say, hoping those won’t be your last words.
Well, if you want to walk on the edge, I can allow that. The C++ ecosystem has been around for a long time before ogonek, and sometimes you really need to get out of the sweet and cozy safety bubble to interoperate with some old code, or to implement some algorithm in the most performant manner. Ogonek caters for this by providing escape hatches for most safety mechanisms.
If you have a sequence that you know is well-formed because, say, it was returned by a library that never produces ill-formed sequences, you can simply mark it as well-formed without actually performing the validation. Remember though, that you are walking on the edge here. This is functionality that can be misused, and when that happens, there is nothing the library can do to help.
Some other escape hatches are more like airlocks, though. You can get out of the safety bubble, but if you want back in, you need to go through decontamination in the airlock.
As an example of such a mechanism, imagine you want to access the underlying
storage of the
text type in ogonek, in order to, for example pass some bytes
directly to a legacy function. The normal interface for the string exposes code
points, but many legacy functions out there take bytes in some known encoding
In this case, you have two options. If you want the underlying storage merely to
look at it, you can simply obtain a
const view of it, but if you want to
perform some mutation on that storage, you cannot do that in-place—that
would allow you to violate one of the invariants of the string type, namely the
one that says the storage is always well-formed.
In order to achieve such direct mutation of the storage without breaking
invariants, the only way to get a mutable view of the storage is to move it out
text object. That leaves an empty text—empty text still
holds the invariants—and the old storage moved into an external object.
That object can be modified in any way desired, and after that it can be
reassigned to the old text that was empty, or used to initialise a new one. This
reassignment or initialisation is the decontamination procedure. It enforces the
text invariants by validating the storage again for well-formedness. As you
may have guessed, you can also escape this validation if you are sure the
mutation didn’t produce an ill-formed sequence by using the aforementioned
validation escape hatch.
Altogether, I really like the direction that these few rules drove the API towards. It takes some extra effort to implement, but in the end I get an API that has many, many correctness checks made by the compiler, and still keeps reasonable efficiency.
I can have my cake and eat a significant portion of it.