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Thinking in C++
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Bad guesses

There is one more important issue you should understand before we look at the general problems in creating a C library. Note that the CLib.h header file must be included in any file that refers to CStash because the compiler can’t even guess at what that structure looks like. However, it can guess at what a function looks like; this sounds like a feature but it turns out to be a major C pitfall.

Although you should always declare functions by including a header file, function declarations aren’t essential in C. It’s possible in C (but not in C++) to call a function that you haven’t declared. A good compiler will warn you that you probably ought to declare a function first, but it isn’t enforced by the C language standard. This is a dangerous practice, because the C compiler can assume that a function that you call with an int argument has an argument list containing int, even if it may actually contain a float. This can produce bugs that are very difficult to find, as you will see.

Each separate C implementation file (with an extension of .c) is a translation unit. That is, the compiler is run separately on each translation unit, and when it is running it is aware of only that unit. Thus, any information you provide by including header files is quite important because it determines the compiler’s understanding of the rest of your program. Declarations in header files are particularly important, because everywhere the header is included, the compiler will know exactly what to do. If, for example, you have a declaration in a header file that says void func(float), the compiler knows that if you call that function with an integer argument, it should convert the int to a float as it passes the argument (this is called promotion). Without the declaration, the C compiler would simply assume that a function func(int) existed, it wouldn’t do the promotion, and the wrong data would quietly be passed into func( ).

For each translation unit, the compiler creates an object file, with an extension of .o or .obj or something similar. These object files, along with the necessary start-up code, must be collected by the linker into the executable program. During linking, all the external references must be resolved. For example, in CLibTest.cpp, functions such as initialize( ) and fetch( ) are declared (that is, the compiler is told what they look like) and used, but not defined. They are defined elsewhere, in CLib.cpp. Thus, the calls in CLib.cpp are external references. The linker must, when it puts all the object files together, take the unresolved external references and find the addresses they actually refer to. Those addresses are put into the executable program to replace the external references.

It’s important to realize that in C, the external references that the linker searches for are simply function names, generally with an underscore in front of them. So all the linker has to do is match up the function name where it is called and the function body in the object file, and it’s done. If you accidentally made a call that the compiler interpreted as func(int) and there’s a function body for func(float) in some other object file, the linker will see _func in one place and _func in another, and it will think everything’s OK. The func( ) at the calling location will push an int onto the stack, and the func( ) function body will expect a float to be on the stack. If the function only reads the value and doesn’t write to it, it won’t blow up the stack. In fact, the float value it reads off the stack might even make some kind of sense. That’s worse because it’s harder to find the bug.

Thinking in C++
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire