The Unreasonable Effectiveness of C

For years I've tried my damnedest to get away from C. Too simple, too many details to manage, too old and crufty, too low level. I've had intense and torrid love affairs with Java, C++, and Erlang. I've built things I'm proud of with all of them, and yet each has broken my heart. They've made promises they couldn't keep, created cultures that focus on the wrong things, and made devastating tradeoffs that eventually make you suffer painfully. And I keep crawling back to C.

C is the total package. It is the only language that's highly productive, extremely fast, has great tooling everywhere, a large community, a highly professional culture, and is truly honest about its tradeoffs.

Other languages can get you to a working state faster, but in the long run, when performance and reliability are important, C will save you time and headaches. I'm painfully learning that lesson once again.

Simple and Expressive

C is a fantastic high level language. I'll repeat that. C is a fantastic high level language. It's not as high level as Java or C#, and certainly no where near as high level as Erlang, Python, or Javascript. But it's as high level as C++, and far far simpler. Sure C++ offers more abstraction, but it doesn't present a high level of abstraction away from C. With C++ you still have to know everything you knew in C, plus a bunch of other ridiculous shit.

"When someone says: 'I want a programming language in which I need only say what I wish done', give him a lollipop."

- Alan J. Perlis

That we have a hard time thinking of lower level languages we'd use instead of C isn't because C is low level. It's because C is so damn successful as an abstraction over the underlying machine and making that high level, it's made most low level languages irrelevant. C is that good at what it does.

The syntax and semantics of C is amazingly powerful and expressive. It makes it easy to reason about high level algorithms and low level hardware at the same time. Its semantics are so simple and the syntax so powerful it lowers the cognitive load substantially, letting the programmer focus on what's important.

It's blown everything else away to the point it's moved the bar and redefined what we think of as a low level language. That's damn impressive.

Simpler Code, Simpler Types

C is a weak, statically typed language and its type system is quite simple. Unlike C++ or Java, you don't have classes where you define all sorts of new runtime behaviors of types. You are pretty much limited to structs and unions and all callers must be very explicit about how they use the types, callers get very little for free.

"You wanted a banana but what you got was a gorilla holding the banana and the entire jungle."

- Joe Armstrong

What sounds like a weakness ends up being a virtue: the "surface area" of C APIs tend to be simple and small. Instead of massive frameworks, there is a strong tendency and culture to create small libraries that are lightweight abstractions over simple types.

Contrast this to OO languages where codebases tend to evolve massive interdependent interfaces of complex types, where the arguments and return types are more complex types and the complexity is fractal, each type is a class defined in terms of methods with arguments and return types or more complex return types.

It's not that OO type systems force fractal complexity to happen, but they encourage it, they make it easier to do the wrong thing. C doesn't make it impossible, but it makes it harder. C tends to breed simpler, shallower types with fewer dependencies that are easier to understand and debug.

Speed King

C is the fastest language out there, both in micro and in full stack benchmarks. And it isn't just the fastest in runtime, it's also consistently the most efficient for memory consumption and startup time. And when you need to make a tradeoff between space and time, C doesn't hide the details from you, it's easy to reason about both.

"Trying to outsmart a compiler defeats much of the purpose of using one."

- Kernighan & Plauger, The Elements of Programming Style

Every time there is a claim of "near C" performance from a higher level language like Java or Haskell, it becomes a sick joke when you see the details. They have to do awkward backflips of syntax, use special knowledge of "smart" compilers and VM internals to get that performance, to the point that the simple expressive nature of the language is lost to strange optimizations that are version specific, and usually only stand up in micro-benchmarks.

When you write something to be fast in C, you know why it's fast, and it doesn't degrade significantly with different compilers or environments the way different VMs will, the way GC settings can radically affect performance and pauses, or the way interaction of one piece of code in an application will totally change the garbage collection profile for the rest.

The route to optimization in C is direct and simple, and when it's not, there are a host of profiler tools to help you understand why without having to understand the guts of a VM or the "sufficiently smart compiler". When using profilers for CPU, memory and IO, C is best at not obscuring what is really happening. The benchmarks, both micro and full stack, consistently prove C is still the king.

Faster Build-Run-Debug Cycles

Critically important to developer efficiency and productivity is the "build, run, debug" cycle. The faster the cycle is, the more interactive development is, and the more you stay in the state of flow and on task. C has the fastest development interactivity of any mainstream statically typed language.

"Optimism is an occupational hazard of programming; feedback is the treatment."

- Kent Beck

Because the build, run, debug cycle is not a core feature of a language, it's more about the tooling around it, this cycle is something that tends to be overlooked. It's hard to overstate the importance of the cycle for productivity. Sadly it's something that gets left out of most programming language discussions, where the focus tends to be only on lines of code and source writability/readability. The reality is the tooling and interactivity cycle of C is the fastest of any comparable language.

Ubiquitous Debuggers and Useful Crash Dumps

For pretty much any system you'd ever want to port to, there are readily available C debuggers and crash dump tools. These are invaluable to quickly finding the source of problems. And yes, there will be problems.

"Error, no keyboard -- press F1 to continue."

With any other language there might not be a usable debugger available and less likely a useful crash dump tool, and there is a really good chance for any heavy lifting you are interfacing with C code anyway. Now you have to debug the interface between the other language and the C code, and you often lose a ton of context, making it a cumbersome, error prone process, and often completely useless in practice.

With pure C code, you can see call stacks, variables, arguments, thread locals, globals, basically everything in memory. This is ridiculously helpful especially when you have something that went wrong days into a long running server process and isn't otherwise reproducible. If you lose this context in a higher level language, prepare for much pain.

Callable from Anywhere

C has a standardized application binary interface (ABI) that is supported by every OS, language and platform in existence. And it requires no runtime or other inherent overhead. This means the code you write in C isn't just valuable to callers from C code, but to every conceivable library, language and environment in existence.

"Portability is a result of few concepts and complete definition"

- J. Palme

You can use C code in standalone executables, scripting languages, kernel code, embedded code, as a DLL, even callable from SQL. It's the Lingua Franca of systems programming and pluggable libraries. If you want to write something once and have it usable from the most environments and use cases possible, C is the only sane choice.

Yes. It has Flaws

There are many "flaws" in C. It has no bounds checking, it's easy to corrupt anything in memory, there are dangling pointers and memory/resource leaks, bolted-on support for concurrency, no modules, no namespaces. Error handling can be painfully cumbersome and verbose. It's easy to make a whole class of errors where the call stack is smashed and hostile inputs take over your process. Closures? HA!

"When all else fails, read the instructions."

- L. Lasellio

Its flaws are very very well known, and this is a virtue. All languages and implementations have gotchas and hangups. C is just far more upfront about it. And there are a ton of static and runtime tools to help you deal with the most common and dangerous mistakes. That some of the most heavily used and reliable software in the world is built on C is proof that the flaws are overblown, and easy to detect and fix.

At Couchbase we recently spent easily 2+ man/months dealing with a crash in the Erlang VM. We wasted a ton of time tracking down something that was in the core Erlang implementation, never sure what was happening or why, thinking perhaps the flaw was something in our own plug-in C code, hoping it was something we could find and fix. It wasn't, it was a race condition bug in core Erlang. We only found the problem via code inspection of Erlang. This is a fundamental problem in any language that abstracts away too much of the computer.

Initially for performance reasons, we started increasingly rewriting more of the Couchbase code in C, and choosing it as the first option for more new features. But amazingly it's proven much more predictable when we'll hit issues and how to debug and fix them. In the long run, it's more productive.

I always have it in the back of my head that I want to make a slightly better C. Just to clean up some of the rough edges and fix some of the more egregious problems. But getting everything to fit, top to bottom, syntax, semantics, tooling, etc., might not be possible or even worth the effort. As it stands today, C is unreasonably effective, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Follow me on Twitter for more of my coding opinions and updates on Couchbase progress.

Posted January 8, 2013 1:00 PM