Category: "C++"

Alchemy: Message Interface

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This is an entry for the continuing series of blog entries that documents the design and implementation process of a library. This library is called, Network Alchemy[^]. Alchemy performs data serialization and it is written in C++.

I presented the design and initial implementation of the Datum[^] object in my previous Alchemy post. A Datum object provides the user with a natural interface to access each data field. This entry focuses on the message body that will contain the Datum objects, as well as a message buffer to store the data. I prefer to get a basis prototype up and running as soon as possible in early design & development in order to observe potential design issues that were not initially considered. In fact, with a first pass implementation that has had relatively little time invested, I am more willing to throw away work if it will lead to a better solution.

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Alchemy: Typelist Operations

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This is an entry for the continuing series of blog entries that documents the design and implementation process of a library. This library is called, Network Alchemy[^]. Alchemy performs data serialization and it is written in C++.

I discussed the Typelist with greater detail in my previous post. However, up to this point I haven't demonstrated any practical uses for the Typelist. In this entry, I will further develop operations for use with the Typelist. In order to implement the final operations in this entry, I will need to rely on, and apply the operations that are developed at the beginning in order to create a simple and elegant solution.

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Typelist Operations

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I would like to devote this entry to further discuss the Typelist data type. Previously, I explored the Typelist[^] for use in my network library, Alchemy[^]. I decided that it would be a better construct for managing type info than the std::tuple. The primary reason is the is no data associated with the types placed within the. On the other hand, std::tuple manages data values internally, similar to std::pair. However, this extra storage would cause some challenging conflicts for problems that we will be solving in the near future. I would not have foreseen this, had I not already created an initial version of this library as a proof of concept. I will be sure to elaborate more on this topic when it becomes more relevant.

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Preprocessor Code Generation

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I really do not like MACROs in C and C++, at least the way they have been traditionally used starting with C. Many of these uses are antiquated because of better feature support with C++. The primary uses are inline function calls and constant declarations. With the possibility of MACRO instantiation side-effects, and all of the different ways a programmer can use a function, it is very difficult to write it correctly for all scenarios. And when a problem does occur, you cannot be certain what is being generated and compiled unless you look at the output from the preprocessor to determine if it is what you had intended.

However, there is still one use of MACROs, that I think makes them too valuable for the preprocessor to be removed altogether. This use is code generation in definitions. What I mean by that, is hiding cumbersome boiler-plate definitions that cannot easily be replicated without resorting to manual cut-and-paste editing. Cut-and-Paste is notorious for its likelihood of introducing bugs. I want to discuss some of the features that cannot be matched without the preprocessor, and set some guidelines that will help keep problems caused by preprocessor misuse to a minimum.

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C++: < type_traits > header

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For this entry, I would like to introduce the type_traits header file. This file contains utility templates that greatly simplify work when writing template-based libraries. This is especially true for libraries that employ template meta-programming. The header file is available with C++ TR1 and above. This library provides tools to identify types, their qualifying properties and even peel-off properties one-by-one programmatically at compile-time. There are also transformation meta-functions that provide basic meta-programming operations such as a compile-time conditional.

The definitions in type_traits will save us a lot of time implementing Alchemy. As I introduce some of the tools that are available in the header, I will also demonstrate how these operations can be implemented. This will help you understand how to construct variations of the same type of solution when applying it in a different context. As an example of this, I will create a construct that behaves similarly to the tertiary operator, but is evaluated at compile-time.

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Type Lists

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Previously I had discussed the tuple data type. The tuple is a general purpose container that can be comprised of any sequence of types. Both the types and the values can be accessed by index or traversing similar to a linked list.

The TypeList is a category of types that are very similar to the tuple, except no data is stored within the type list. Whether the final implementation is constructed in the form of a linked list, an array, or even a tree, they are all typically referred to as Typelists. I believe that the Typelist construct is credited to Andrei Alexandrescu. He first published an article in the C/C++ Users Journal, but a more thorough description can be found in his book, Modern C++ Design.

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C++: Tuple

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During my design analysis for my Network Alchemy implementation I thought that the tuple may be the answer to allow me to iterate over the types defined in a network message definition. Tuples are data structures that are a generalization of the std::pair. Rather than having a limitation of 2 items in a tuple, potentially any number of items can be constructed within a custom tuple definition. The upper-limit will most likely be associated with the limit of your compilers ability to recurse down within a nested template structure. Conceptually, a tuple is similar to a compile-time linked list. If a tuple were implemented in terms of the std::pair, it would be constructed like this:

C++

#include < utility >
using std::pair;
 
pair< int ,
      pair< float,
            pair< char, long >
          >
    > tuple;

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Desired Alchemy Syntax

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When I create a new library, I like to approach the design from two different directions. The first is the traditional route, analyzing the functionality that I need and designing a suitable interface to access those features. I also may write a set of pseudo-code that demonstrates what it would look like to use the library. Generally with writing unit tests I get to cover this second option. It is all the better if I write the tests while developing the interface. Then I discover if the interface is a clunky collection of garbage or an joy to work with.

Alchemy is a unique API, in that I don't actually want there to appear to be a library at work. One goal that I set for alchemy is to facilitate the proper handling of network data without requiring much work on the users part. In this sense, I need to work backwards. I would like to take the proposed syntax, and attempt to design my library API to meet the target syntax. The expressive ability of C++ is one of the things that I really like at the language.

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Byte Sex

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Byte-gender; not, "Yes! Please!"
Good! Now that I have your attention let's solve a relatively simple problem, byte sex. A less sensational name for this concept is byte endianess. This is one of those concepts that you should at least be aware of, even if you don't have to pay much attention to it in your day-to-day work. Each CPU architecture has it's own definition for memory. One of these properties is the endianess format of data registers. This is the first issue that I address for Network Alchemy.

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My Unit Test Environment

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I discussed the merits of selecting a suitable unit test framework for your development project in my previous post. I described the qualities that I found most valuable in the test framework that I use, CxxTest. The qualities are xUnit framework, portability, simplicity, and flexibility. There are other frameworks for C++ that contain many more features, however, rarely have I had to expand on what is provided in order to test something. Moreover, CxxTest is lightweight enough, that other test tools can be integrated with it, such as Google's GMock library.

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