Program Structure

The following are some excerpts from [15] relevant to program structure and organisation.


Most programs are too complicated - that is, more complex than they need to be to solve their problems efficiently. Why? Mostly it's because of bad design, but I will skip that issue here because it's a big one. But programs are often complicated at the microscopic level, and that is something I can address here.

Rule 1. You can't tell where a program is going to spend its time. Bottlenecks occur in surprising places, so don't try to second guess and put in a speed hack until you've proven that's where the bottleneck is.

Rule 2. Measure. Don't tune for speed until you've measured, and even then don't unless one part of the code overwhelms the rest.

Rule 3. Fancy algorithms are slow when n is small, and n is usually small. Fancy algorithms have big constants. Until you know that n is frequently going to be big, don't get fancy. (Even if n does get big, use Rule 2 first.) For example, binary trees are always faster than splay trees for workaday problems.

Rule 4. Fancy algorithms are buggier than simple ones, and they're much harder to implement. Use simple algorithms as well as simple data structures.

The following data structures are a complete list for almost all practical programs:

Of course, you must also be prepared to collect these into compound data structures. For instance, a symbol table might be implemented as a hash table containing linked lists of arrays of characters.

Rule 5. Data dominates. If you've chosen the right data structures and organized things well, the algorithms will almost always be self-evident. Data structures, not algorithms, are central to programming. (See Brooks p. 102.)

Rule 6. There is no Rule 6.

Programming with data.

Algorithms, or details of algorithms, can often be encoded compactly, efficiently and expressively as data rather than, say, as lots of if statements. The reason is that the complexity of the job at hand, if it is due to a combination of independent details, can be encoded. A classic example of this is parsing tables, which encode the grammar of a programming language in a form interpretable by a fixed, fairly simple piece of code. Finite state machines are particularly amenable to this form of attack, but almost any program that involves the `parsing' of some abstract sort of input into a sequence of some independent `actions' can be constructed profitably as a data-driven algorithm.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this kind of design is that the tables can sometimes be generated by another program - a parser generator, in the classical case. As a more earthy example, if an operating system is driven by a set of tables that connect I/O requests to the appropriate device drivers, the system may be `configured' by a program that reads a description of the particular devices connected to the machine in question and prints the corresponding tables.

One of the reasons data-driven programs are not common, at least among beginners, is the tyranny of Pascal. Pascal, like its creator, believes firmly in the separation of code and data. It therefore (at least in its original form) has no ability to create initialized data. This flies in the face of the theories of Turing and von Neumann, which define the basic principles of the stored-program computer. Code and data are the same, or at least they can be. How else can you explain how a compiler works? (Functional languages have a similar problem with I/O.)

Function pointers

Another result of the tyranny of Pascal is that beginners don't use function pointers. (You can't have function-valued variables in Pascal.) Using function pointers to encode complexity has some interesting properties.

Some of the complexity is passed to the routine pointed to. The routine must obey some standard protocol - it's one of a set of routines invoked identically - but beyond that, what it does is its business alone. The complexity is distributed.

There is this idea of a protocol, in that all functions used similarly must behave similarly. This makes for easy documentation, testing, growth and even making the program run distributed over a network - the protocol can be encoded as remote procedure calls.

I argue that clear use of function pointers is the heart of object-oriented programming. Given a set of operations you want to perform on data, and a set of data types you want to respond to those operations, the easiest way to put the program together is with a group of function pointers for each type. This, in a nutshell, defines class and method. The O-O languages give you more of course - prettier syntax, derived types and so on - but conceptually they provide little extra.

Combining data-driven programs with function pointers leads to an astonishingly expressive way of working, a way that, in my experience, has often led to pleasant surprises. Even without a special O-O language, you can get 90% of the benefit for no extra work and be more in control of the result. I cannot recommend an implementation style more highly. All the programs I have organized this way have survived comfortably after much development - far better than with less disciplined approaches. Maybe that's it: the discipline it forces pays off handsomely in the long run.