Quality Matters: Diagnostic Measures

Quality Matters: Diagnostic Measures

By Matthew Wilson

Overload, 18(95):, February 2010

How do we catch problems early? Matthew Wilson investigates the recls library.

This instalment, like the last, involves getting my hands dirty examining another (open-source) library; this time it's recls [ RECLS ], which provides recursive file-system searching via a (largely) platform-independent API. recls , which stands for rec ursive ls , was my first venture into open-source libraries that involved compilation of source (as opposed to pure header-only libraries), and it still bears the scars of the early mistakes I made, so there're rich pickings to be had. (I should also mention that recls was the exemplar project for a series of instalments of my former CUJ column, 'Positive Integration', between 2003 and 2005; all these instalments are available online from Dr Dobb's Journal ; a list of them all is given in http://synesis.com.au/publications.html#columns . I'll attempt as little duplication with them as possible.)

I'll begin with an introduction to recursive search, illustrating why it is such an onerous task using operating system APIs (OS APIs), and give some examples of how it's made easier with recls . This will be followed by an introduction to the recls architecture: core API, core implementation, and language mappings. The various design decisions will be covered, to give you an understanding of some of the pros and cons to be discussed later.

Then we'll get all 'Software Quality' on it, examining the API, the implementation and the C++ mapping(s). Each examination will cover the extant version (1.8), the new version (1.9) that should be released by the time you read this, and further improvements required in future versions. Naturally, the discussion will be framed by our aspects of software quality [ QM#1 ]: as well as the usual discussions of intrinsic characteristics , the problem area - interaction with the file-system and the complexity of the library - dictates the use of (removable) diagnostic measures and applied assurance measures . It is in the application of the latter two that the meat of this month's learning resides (for me in particular).


recls had a proprietary precursor in the dim and distant past, which I originally wrote to obviate the two main issues with recursive file-system search:

  • Handling directories: remembering where you are
  • Differences in the way file information is obtained between UNIX and Windows

Let's look at a couple of examples to illustrate. Listings 1 and 2 print all files under a given search directory, in UNIX and Windows respectively. Both examples suffer the first issue, since the search APIs yield only the name of the entry (file/directory) retrieved, requiring you to remember the full directory where you have just searched, in order to append each directory name and recurse again.

The second problem can be seen in the extra processing on UNIX. The UNIX search API - opendir() / readdir() - provides only the file name. To find out whether the entry you've just retrieved is a file or a directory you must issue another system call, stat() ; you also have to call this to find out file size, timestamps, and so forth. Conversely, the Windows search API - FindFirstFile() / FindNextFile() - includes all such information in the WIN32_FIND_DATA structure that the search functions fill out each time an entry is found.

As I hope both examples clearly illustrate, with either operating system you've got to put in a lot of work just to do a basic search. The mundane preparation of the search directory (appended with the search-all pattern *.* in Windows) and the elision of the dots directories - . and .. - dominate the code. And neither of these are terribly good exemplars: I've assumed everything not a regular file is a directory on UNIX, which does not always hold, and I've horribly overloaded the return value of the worker function list_all_files_r() to indicate an error condition. More robust versions would do it better, but would include even more code. The intrinsic software evaluations are not all that impressive:

  • Correctness : Impossible to establish. As defined in the second instalment [ QM#2 ], correctness cannot be established for any library that provides an abstraction over the file-system on a multitasking operating system, so we won't discuss that characteristic further.
  • Robustness : The size of the code and the fiddly effort work against it.
  • Efficiency : A moot point with file-system searching, as the disk latency and seek times far outweigh any but the largest inefficiencies in code; interestingly, programs and languages can still have an effect [ DDJ-BLOG-RECLS ].
  • Portability : Obviously they're not portable (outside their operating system families); though you can obtain software that emulates the APIs, such as UNIXem [ UNIXem ] and WINE [ WINE ].
  • Expressiveness : Not by any stretch of the term.
  • Flexibility : The units of currency are C-style strings, struct dirent , and WIN32_FIND_DATA : no flexibility.
  • Modularity : No modularity issues.
  • Discoverability : Pretty good for C APIs, with only two and one data type(s), and four and three system functions, needed for UNIX and Windows, respectively.
  • Transparency : The transparency of the client code is pretty ordinary.

So let's look at the alternative. Listings 3 and 4 show the same functionality obtained via recls ' core API, in a step-wise manner (via Recls_Search() ) and a callback manner (via Recls_SearchProcess() ) respectively. Listing 5 shows the same functionality obtained via recls C++ mapping (the new unified form available in version 1.9).

Clearly, each example has benefited from the use of a dedicated library, compared to the first two. Each is more expressive, for three reasons. First, the abstraction level of recursive file-system search has been raised. Second, the evident increased level of portability: indeed none of the examples exhibit any platform-dependencies. Finally, the flexibility of the recls ' types: note that we can pass entry instances, or their path fields, directly to FastFormat [ FF-1 , FF-2 , FF-3 ]. These factors also contribute to a likely increase in robustness, most particularly in the removal of the fiddly code for handling search directory, dots directories and file information. I'd also argue strongly that the transparency of the code is improved.

On the negative side, modularity has been reduced, since we now depend on recls and (albeit indirectly for Listings 3 and 4) on STLSoft [ STLSOFT ].

So, pretty good so far. However, the picture is not perfect. recls has some unpleasant characteristics, and they're not all addressed yet, even with the latest release. The purpose of this instalment is to use the flaws in recls to illustrate software quality issues involved in writing non-trivial software libraries with unpredictable operating-system interactions. Let's dig in.

The recls library

The recls architecture is comprised of three major parts:

  • The core library API (C)
  • The core library implementation (C and C++)
  • Various language mappings (including C++/STL, C#, COM D, Java, Python, Ruby)

As I've mentioned numerous times previously [ QM#3 , !(C ^ C++) ], I prefer a C-API wherever possible, because it:

  • Avoids C++ ABI issues; see Part 2 of Imperfect C++ [ IC++ ] for more on this
  • Tends to be more discoverable, even though it doesn't, in and of itself, tend to engender expressiveness, flexibility or robustness in client code; that's what C++ wrappers are for!
  • Allows for interoperability with a wide range of languages.

In the case of recls , the interoperability was the clincher, although I'm starting to withdraw from this position somewhat, as I'll discuss later.

The recls core API

The two main entities in recls are the search and the entry . A search comprises a root directory, a search specification, and a set of flags that moderate the search behaviour and the type of information retrieved. An entry is a file-system entry that is found as a result of executing the search at a given time. It provides read-only access to the full path, the drive (on Windows), the directory, the file (name and/or extension), the size (for files), the file-system-specific attributes, the timestamps, as well as other useful pseudo-properties such as search-relative path.

The "search" type

The search type is not visible to client code, and is manipulated as an opaque handle, hrecls_t , via API functions. The search type has a state, which is a non-reversible/non-resettable position referring to an item within the directory tree under the given search directory. (Note that the state reflects a localised snapshot: it remembers which file it's on, but what is the next file can change depending on external operating-system action. On a long enumeration it is possible to omit an item that was removed after it commenced and include an item that was not present at the time of commencement, just as is the case with manual enumeration.)

The API functions of concern include:

  • Recls_Search() - as used in Listing 3.
  • Recls_SearchFeedback() - same as Recls_Search() , plus callback function to notify each directory searched.
  • Recls_SearchClose() - as used in Listing 3.
  • Recls_GetNext() - advances the search position without retrieving the details for the entry at the new position.
  • Recls_GetDetails() - retrieves the details for the entry at the current search position.
  • Recls_GetNextDetails() - advances the search position and retrieves the details for the entry at the new position.
  • Recls_SearchFtp() - like Recls_Search() but searches FTP servers; Windows-only.

The "entry" type

In contrast, the entry type is only semi-opaque. The API functions that retrieve the entry details from a search handle are defined in terms of the handle type recls_entry_t (aka recls::entry_t in C++ compilation units), as in:

      RECLS_API Recls_GetDetails(  
        hrecls_t        hSrch  
      , recls_entry_t*  phEntry  

In the same vein, the API functions that elicit individual characteristics about an entry do so in terms of the handle type, as in:

      RECLS_FNDECL(size_t) Recls_GetPathProperty(  
        recls_entry_t hEntry  
      , recls_char_t* buffer  
      , size_t        cchBuffer  

Thus, it is possible to write application code in an operating system-independent manner. However, because different operating systems provide different file-system entry information, and application programmers may want access to that information, the underlying type for recls_entry_t , struct recls_entryinfo_t , is defined in the API (see Listing 6).

You may have noted, from Listing 3, another reason to use the recls_entryinfo_t struct : it leads to more succinct code. That's because string access shims [ XSTL , FF-2 , IC++ ] are defined for the recls_strptrs_t type, as in:

      # if defined(RECLS_CHAR_TYPE_IS_WCHAR)  
      inline wchar_t const* c_str_data_w(  
      # else /* ? RECLS_CHAR_TYPE_IS_WCHAR */  
      inline char const* c_str_data_a(  
      # endif /* RECLS_CHAR_TYPE_IS_WCHAR */  
        recls_strptrs_t const& ptrs  
      return ptrs.begin;  
      # if defined(RECLS_CHAR_TYPE_IS_WCHAR)  
      inline size_t c_str_len_w(  
      # else /* ? RECLS_CHAR_TYPE_IS_WCHAR */  
      inline size_t c_str_len_a(  
      # endif /* RECLS_CHAR_TYPE_IS_WCHAR */  
        recls_strptrs_t const& ptrs  
      return static_cast<size_t>(  
         ptrs.end - ptrs.begin);  

So when we write

      ff::fmtln(std::cout, "    {0}", entry->path);  

the FastFormat application layer [ FF-1 , FF-2 , FF-3 ] knows to invoke stlsoft::c_str_data_a() and stlsoft::c_str_len_a() (or the widestring equivalents, in a widestring build) to elicit the string slice representing the path.

Time and size

You may have looked at Listing 6 and wondered about the definitions of recls_time_t and recls_filesize_t . Here's where the platform-independence falls down. With 1.8 (and earlier), the time and size types were defined as follows:

      #if defined(RECLS_PLATFORM_IS_UNIX)  
      typedef time_t         recls_time_t;  
      typedef off_t          recls_filesize_t;  
      #elif defined(RECLS_PLATFORM_IS_WINDOWS)  
      typedef FILETIME       recls_time_t;  
      typedef ULARGE_INTEGER recls_filesize_t;  
      . . .  

The decision to do this was pretty much a fallback, as I didn't think of better alternatives at the time. (If memory serves, the size type results from a time when I was still interested in maintaining compatibility with C++ compilers that did not have 64-bit integer types.) No-one's actually ever complained about this, so either no-one's using time/size information for multi-platform programming or they've learned to live with it. I've learned to live with the size thing by using conversion shims [ IC++ , XSTL ] to abstract away the difference between the UNIX and Windows types, as in:

      ff::fmtln("size of {0} is {1}", entry->path,  

But it's still a pain, and a reduction in the transparency of client code. Time is more of a pain, and is considerably less easy to work around.

Both of these detract significantly from the discoverability of the library, and require change. With 1.9 I've redefined recls_filesize_t to be a 64-bit unsigned integer, and invoke the conversion shim internally. Alas, I've run out of time with the time attribute, and the inconsistent, platform-dependent time types abide. This will be addressed with 1.10, hopefully sometime later this year.

Intrinsic quality

Let's do a quick check-list of the intrinsic software quality of the core API, and client code that uses it.

  • Robustness : Robustness is improved due to increased expressiveness and portability.
  • Portability : Much improved over the OS APIs; time type is still not portable
  • Expressiveness : Good.
  • Efficiency : Moot.
  • Flexibility : Good: entry type and string types all insertable into FastFormat (and similar libraries).
  • Modularity : Dependency on recls headers and binaries; C++ mapping also depends on STLSoft .
  • Discoverability : Pretty simple and straightforward API.
  • Transparency : The transparency of the client code is much improved.

So, from a purely API perspective, clear wins for using recls are expressiveness and portability, with some flexibility thrown in the mix.

The recls core implementation

Unfortunately, the cheery picture I've painted thus far starts to peel and crack when we look at the implementation, which is hideously opaque (!transparent).

Implementation language: C or C++?

The first thing to note is that the implementation language is C++. There are two reasons. First, and most significantly, this was so I could use a large number of components from STLSoft to assist in the implementation. The main ones are:

  • winstl::basic_findfile_sequence : for finding directories to navigate the directory tree; for finding files that match a pattern within a given search directory.
  • inetstl::basic_findfile_sequence : for finding files that match a pattern within a given FTP search directory.
  • unixstl::readdir_sequence : for finding directories to navigate the directory tree.
  • unixstl::glob_sequence : for finding files that match a pattern within a given search directory.
  • platformstl::filesystem_traits : for writing path manipulation code in a platform-independent manner.

The other reason was that there is some runtime polymorphism going on inside, allowing for file search and FTP search (Windows-only) to share much of the same surrounding code. Thus, a search begun with Recls_SearchFtp() can be manipulated in exactly the same way as one begun with Recls_Search() by client code (and mapping layers). I've long outgrown the perverse pleasure one gets from writing polymorphic code in C, so it had to be C++.

While the first reason did prove itself, in that I was able to implement a large amount of functionality in a relatively short amount of time, I'm not sure that I would do the same again. Some of the code in there is insanely baroque. For example, the constructor of the internal class ReclsFileSearchDirectoryNode (Listing 7).

This is really, really horrible. As Aussies like to say, ' How embarrassment? '

The class clearly has a large number of member variables; there are member initialiser-list ordering dependencies; even conditionally-compiled different constructors of the member variables! The constructor body contains static assertions to ensure that the member ordering issues do not bite, but that hardly makes up for all the rest of it. Like many codebases, there were good reasons for each of these individual steps, but the end result is a big mess. I can tell you that adding new features to this codebase is a problem.

There are also some per-class memory allocation routines. In particular, the file entry instance type recls_entryinfo_t (see Listing 6) is of variable length, so that the path, search directory and (for Windows) the short file strings, along with the array of string slices that constitute the directory parts, are all allocated in a single block. This adds further complexity. Unlike the monstrous constructor shown above, however, I would defend this tactic for the entry info. Because it is immutable, and reference-counted (via a hidden prefixed field), it means that all of the complexity involved in dealing with the instances is encapsulated in one place, after which it can be copied easily (via adding a reference) and eventually released via a single call to free() . I've used this technique many times in the past, and I think it fine. (I may be deluding myself through habit, of course.)

Intrinsic quality

Let's do a quick check-list of the intrinsic software quality of the core implementation.

  • Robustness : Robustness is kind of anyone's guess, and for the most part has been ironed out due to defects manifesting much higher up in application code; that's not the way to find it!
  • Portability : Obviously there are platform-specifics contained within the implementation, but it is nonetheless portable across a wide range of UNIX and Windows platforms, so we'd have to concede that it's portability is good. It is not, however, portable to any other kinds of operating systems, and would require work to achieve that.
  • Efficiency : Moot. I must admit that if you look through the implementation, you can see instances where I've spent effort to achieve performances in the small which are, in all likelihood, irrelevant compared to those of the system calls. Worse, these have compounded the lack of transparency of the code.
  • Expressiveness : Despite using some pretty expressive components with which to write this, the overall effect in some cases is still overpoweringly complex.
  • Flexibility : n/a
  • Modularity : Dependent on STLSoft [ STLSOFT ] (100% header-only). This shouldn't be a problem to C++ programmers.
  • Discoverability : n/a
  • Transparency : Pretty poor. My paying job involves a lot of reviewing of other people's code, so it's fair to say this doesn't even come close to the worst I've seen. On the other hand, it doesn't meet the standards for transparency that I advise my clients to adopt, and I would not accept my writing code like this these days.

For anyone who can be bothered to download 1.8 and 1.9, you'll see a lot more files in the src/ directory for 1.9, as a consequence of my having started to pare away the components from each other. In 1.8, there were sixteen .cpp files, and I think I can say that six were good, eight were moderate, and two were bad. The refactoring has helped a lot, such that out of the 21 .cpp files in the source directory, eleven are good, eight are moderate, and only two are bad. The numbers back up what I'm trying to do, which is to separate out all parts that are clear and good, or semi-clear and semi-good, in order to reduce the overall cost if/when a full refactoring happens. Of course, as shown above, the bad is still really bad. But now the badness is not impinging on the good.

As well as the refactoring reason - letting me see the wood for the trees - there's another reason for splitting up the files, which we'll get to in a minute or two.

The recls C++ mapping(s)

In versions prior to 1.9 recls has shipped with two separate mappings for C++ client code:

  • The "C++" mapping, which provides an Iterator [ GOF ] pattern enumeration interface.
  • The STL mapping, which provides STL collections [ XSTL ], to be consumed in idiomatic STL manner, as shown in Listing 5.

Enumerating with the original C++ mapping would look something like that shown in Listing 8.

The provision of both reflected recls ' secondary role as a research and writing vehicle for my CUJ column, and also because, at the time (2003), STL was still somewhat novel and unfamiliar to some C++ programmers. In the 6+ years since, I've found myself using the C++ mapping for enumeration in commercial projects precisely zero times, and I've not had much feedback from users making much use of it, either.

So, given that I was already making significant breaking changes, and (temporarily) dropping other mappings, I decided to take the opportunity and merge the best features from the two mappings. Simplistically, the utility functions come from the former "C++" mapping, and the collections come from the former STL mapping.

Consequently, version 1.9 supports only a single C++ mapping, which is comprised of six types:

  • recls::directory_parts - a collection of strings representing the directory parts of a path, e.g. ["/", "home/", "matthew/"] for the path "/home/matthew/.bashrc"
  • recls::entry - a type representing all the information about a file-system entry, including path, drive (Windows), directory, file (name and/or extension), size, timestamps, file attributes, search-relative path, and so on.
  • recls::ftp_search_sequence - equivalent to recls::search_sequence for searching FTP servers (Windows only).
  • recls::search_sequence - a collection of entries matching a search specification and search flags under a given search root.
  • recls::root_sequence - a collection of all the roots on the file-system: always ["/"] for UNIX; all drives on Windows, e.g. ["B:\", "C:\", "H:\", "I:\", "J:\", "K:\", "L:\", "M:\", "O:\", "P:\", "S:\", "V:\", "W:\", "Z:\"] on my current system.
  • recls::recls_exception

and (a growing list; 1.9 is still being polished as I write this) of utility functions:

  • recls::calculate_directory_size() - calculates the total size of all files in the given directory and all its subdirectories.
  • recls::create_directory() - attempts to create a directory, and reports on the number of path parts existing before and after the operation.
  • recls::combine_paths() - combines two path fragments.
  • recls::derive_relative_path() - derives the relative path between two paths.
  • recls::is_directory_empty() - determines whether a directory and all its subdirectories are empty of files.
  • recls::remove_directory() - attempts to remove a directory, and reports on the number of path parts existing before and after the operation.
  • recls::squeeze_path() - squeezes a path into a fixed width for display.
  • recls::stat() - retrieves the entry matching a given path.
  • recls::wildcardsAll() - retrieves the 'search all' pattern for the current operating environment.


The other change is that now you just include <recls/recls.hpp>, which serves two purposes:

  • It includes all the headers from all components
  • It introduces all the necessary names from the recls::cpp namespace into the recls namespace

The result is just a whole lot less to type, or to think about. More discoverable, if you will.


One other thing to note. In the last chapter (35) of Imperfect C++ [ IC++ ], I described a set of (largely) portable techniques I'd devised for defining highly efficient properties (as we know them from C# and Ruby) for C++. So, for all compilers that support them (which is pretty much everything better than VC++ 6, which is pretty much everything of import these days), you have the option to elicit entry information via getters, as in

    std::string srp = entry.get_search_relative_path();  
    uint64_t    sz  = entry.get_size();  
    ????        ct  = entry.get_creation_time();  
    // Still platform-dependent ;-/  
    bool        ro  = entry.is_readonly();  

or via properties, as in:

    std::string srp = entry.SearchPelativePath;  
    uint64_t    sz  = entry.Size;  
    ????        ct  = entry.CreationTime;  
    // Still platform-dependent ;-/  
    bool        ro  = entry.IsReadOnly;  

if you like that kind of thing. (Which I do.)


Let's do a quick check-list of the intrinsic software quality of the new C++ mapping.

  • Robustness : Very high: all resources are managed via RAII. Anything that fails does so according to the Principle Of Most Surprise [ XSTL ], via a thrown exception.
  • Portability : Apart from platform-dependent time type (to be changed in 1.10), it is otherwise portable.
  • Efficiency : Moot.
  • Expressiveness : Good.
  • Flexibility : Excellent. Anything that has a meaningful string form is interpreted via string access shims [ XSTL , FF-2 , IC++ ]
  • Modularity : Dependent on STLSoft [ STLSOFT ] (100% header-only). This shouldn't be a problem to C++ programmers.
  • Discoverability : Better than either previous mapping ("C++" or STL). Much better than core API. Much, much better than OS APIs.
  • Transparency : Actually very good. Assuming you understand the principles of STL extension - you've got Extended STL [ XSTL ], right? - and C++ properties - you've got Imperfect C++ [ IC++ ], right? - then it's very clear, tight, straightforward (see Listing 9). To be honest, looking over it again as I write this I'm amazed how something so neat (nay, might one even say beautiful) could be layered over such an opaque scary mess. I guess that's the magic of abstraction.

Other mappings

I mentioned earlier that interoperability was a major motivator in choosing to provide a C API. In many cases, that's worked really well. For example, I've been able to rewrite the C++ interface for 1.9 with very little concern for changes in the core API between 1.8 and 1.9. The COM mapping was similarly implemented with very little difficulty against the core API; the fact that, in hindsight, I think the COM mapping implementation stinks is immaterial. I'm also pretty happy with the Python and Ruby mappings, although both will definitely benefit from a brush up when I update them to 1.9.

There have been problems with the model however. First, the rather mundane issue that being all in one distribution, every time I update, say the Ruby mapping, I have to release the entire suite of core library and all mappings. This is just painful, and also muddies the waters for users of a subset of the facilities.

Second, and more significantly, with some languages the advantage of not having to reproduce the non-trivial search logic is outweighed by the hassles attendant in writing and maintaining the mapping code, and in distributing the resulting software. The clearest example of this is the .NET mapping. As well as the tiresome P/Invoke issues, a C# mapping requires an underlying C library to be packaged in a separate DLL. On top of the obvious issues to .NET security, the underlying DLL has to managed manually, and one finds oneself still in 'DLL Hell'. (That's the classical version of DLL Hell, not the newer and often more vexing .NET-specific DLL Hell; but that's another story.) As a consequence of these factors, I spent some time last year rewriting recls for .NET from scratch, entirely in C#, in part necessitated by some commercial activities. The result, called recls 100% .NET [ RECLS-100%-NET ] was documented in an article I wrote for DDJ late last year [ DDJ-RECLS ]. I may do other rewrites in the future, depending on how well version 1.9 plays with the other language mappings.

Quality assurance

If you remember back to [ QM#2 ], when we cannot prove correctness we must rely on gathering evidence for robustness. A library like recls , with admittedly questionable robustness in the core implementation, positively cries out for us to do so.

To hand, we have (removable) diagnostic measures and/or applied assurance measures ([ QM#1 ]). To save you scrabbling through back issues, I'll reiterate the lists now. (Removable) diagnostic measures can include:

  • Code coverage constructs
  • Contract enforcements
  • Diagnostic logging constructs
  • Static assertions

Applied assurance measures can include:

  • Automated functional testing
  • Performance profiling and testing
  • User acceptance testing (UAT)
  • Scratch testing
  • Smoke testing
  • Code coverage analysis/testing
  • Review (manual and automated)
  • Coding standards
  • Code metrics (manual and automated)
  • Multi-target compilation

Most/all of these can help us with a library like recls to reach a point of confidence at which we can ' adjudge [it] to behave according to the expectations of its stakeholders ' [ QM#2 ].

First, I'll discuss the items to which the library has been subjected in the past:

  • Contract enforcements. Though not yet going beyond debug-build assertions, recls has been using contract enforcements since its inception.
  • Diagnostic logging. Until version 1.9, recls has had a debug-build-only tracing, to syslog() (UNIX) / OutputDebugString() (Windows).
  • Static assertions. recls has used static assertions [ IC++ ] since inception.
  • Automated functional testing. Some parts of the library, such as recls::combine_paths() , recls::derive_relative_path() and recls::squeeze_path() , have behaviour that is (wholly or in part) predictable and independent of the system on which they're executed. In version 1.8 (and 1.9), unit tests are included to exercise them. (Note: in version 1.8, some of the squeeze-path tests fail on some edge cases: I've not fixed them because they're not super relevant, they're fixed in 1.9, and I didn't have time to spare!)
  • Performance profiling. I have done this from time to time, and still do, and it's rare that the (C++) recls library performs with any measurable difference from manually written search functions (such as Listings 1 & 2). Surprisingly, the same can't be said for other languages, but that's another story ... [ DDJ-RECLS-BLOG ]
  • Scratch/smoke testing. Pretty much all the time. Trying keeping a programmer from debugging is like trying to keep a small child from mining its nose.
  • Review. In my opinion, there's no better microscope of review than writing articles or books about one's own software, and recls has had its fair share of that, which has had good effect on the API and on the (1.9) C++ mapping. Bucking the trend, however, is the core implementation, and I assume that's because it's just such a mess.
  • Coding standards. I have a rigidly consistent, albeit slowly evolving, coding standard, so I think it's reasonable to claim that recls has been subject to this effect as much as any commercial code. As the cult of celebrity proves, however, there're plenty of ways to be ugly that aren't immediately apparent.
  • Code metrics. Until I started compiling this list, it'd never occurred to me to subject the recls codebase to my own code analysis tools. As I'm only hours away from giving the Overload editor another bout of dilatory apoplexy, I guess that'll have to wait for another time. I'll try and incorporate it into a wider study of several libraries in a future instalment.
  • Multi-target compilation. This one's been ticked off from day one, even if much of my UNIX development is done on Windows, using the UNIXem [ UNIXem ] UNIX emulation library.

On reflection, this is not a bad list, and I guess it helps to explain why recls has become the pretty reliable thing it's been for the last 6+ years. As Steve McConnell says ' Successful quality assurance programs use several different techniques to detect different kinds of errors ' [ CC ].

Nonetheless, the coverage is incomplete, occasional defects still occur, and I remain unsure about the behaviour of significant parts of the software under a range of conditions. More needs to be done.

Several measures either have not been used before, or have been used in a limited fashion. The two I believe are now most important are:

  • Code coverage
  • Diagnostic logging

Diagnostic logging

I hope you've noticed that many of my libraries work together without actually being coupled to each other. b64 , FastFormat , Pantheios [ PAN ], recls , and others work together without having any knowledge of each other. A major reason for this is that they all represent strings as an abstract concept, namely string access shims [ XSTL , FF-2 , IC++ ]. But that's only a part of it. I think modularity is a huge part of the negative-decision making process of programmers - coupling brings hassle - so much so that I'll be devoting a whole instalment to the subject later this year.

The problem with working with any orthogonal layer of software service such as diagnostic logging, or indeed with any other software component, is that it is a design-time decision that imposes code time, build time and, in many cases, deployment time consequences. Adding diagnostic logging to recls would be extremely easy to do by implementing in terms of Pantheios , which is a robust, efficient and flexible logging API library, as in:

      RECLS_API Recls_Stat(  
        recls_char_t const* path  
      , recls_uint32_t      flags  
      , recls_entry_t*      phEntry  
        pan::log_DEBUG("Recls_Stat(path=", path  
          , ", flags="  
          , pan::integer(flag, pan::fmt::fullHex)  
          , ", ...)");  

The costs of converting flags to a (hexadecimal) string, combining all the string fragments into a single statement, and emitting to the output stream would be paid only if the DEBUG level is enabled; otherwise there's effectively zero cost, on the order of a handful of processor cycles.

Sounds great. The only problem with that is that building and using recls would involve one of two things:

  • Pantheios is bundled with recls , and the recls build command builds them both. This would increase the download size of recls by a factor of four, and increase the build time by about a factor of ten.
  • Users would be obliged to separately download and build Pantheios , including configuring the recls -expected environment variable, before building recls . My experience with such situations with other peoples' open source libraries is not encouraging, and I can't imagine most potential users wanting to take that on.

There's the further issue that users may already have their own logging libraries, and prefer to use them to Pantheios . (<vainglory>Ok, I'm playing devil's advocate here, since who could imagine such a situation!</vainglory> But the general point stands.)

I think the answer is rather to allow a user to opt-in to a diagnostic logging library if they chose. In C, the only ways to do this are:

  • Compile in a dependency on an declared function that is externally defined. This requires the user to define a function such as recls_logging_callback() . While this is a viable technique when no others suffice, it does leave as many users as not wondering what they've done wrong when they get linker errors the first time they attempt to use your library.
  • Provide an API function with which a user can specify a callback at runtime.

I've opted for the second approach. Version 1.9 introduces the new API function Recls_SetApiLogFunction() :

      typedef void (  
         RECLS_CALLCONV_DEFAULT   *recls_log_pfn_t)(  
        int                 severity  
      , recls_char_t const* fmt  
      , va_list             args  
      struct recls_log_severities_t  
        /** An array of severities, ranked as follows:  
          * - [0] - Fatal condition  
          * - [1] - Error condition  
          * - [2] - Warning condition  
          * - [3] - Informational condition  
          * - [4] - Debug0 condition  
          * - [5] - Debug1 condition  
          * - [6] - Debug2 condition  
          * Specifying an element with a value <0   
            disables logging for that severity.  
        int severities[7];  
      #ifdef __cplusplus  
        . . . // ctors
      RECLS_FNDECL(void) Recls_SetApiLogFunction(  
        recls_log_pfn_t               pfn  
      , int                           flags  
      , recls_log_severities_t const* severities  

With this, the user can specify a log function, and a optional list of severity translations. By default, the severity translations are those compatible with Pantheios . And recls_log_pfn_t just so happens to have the same signature as pantheios_logvprintf() , the Pantheios (C) API function . But nothing within recls depends on, or knows anything about, Pantheios , so there's no coupling. You can just as easily define your own API logging function.

Code coverage

Well, I hope you've made it this far, because this is the meat of this instalment. We're going to see some code coverage in action. I'll be using the xCover library [ XCOVER ], which I discussed in a CVu article in March 2009 [ XCOVER-CVu ]. As CVu online is available only to members, non-ACCU members should seriously think about joining this great organisation.

xCover works, for those compilers that support it (VC++ 7+, GCC 4.3+), by borrowing the non-standard __COUNTER__ pre-processor symbol in marking execution points, and using it to record the passage of the thread of execution through the different branches of the code. At a given sequence point, usually before program exit, the xCover library can be asked to report on which execution points have not been executed. In combination with an automated functional test, this can be used to indicate code which may be unused.

Consider the test program in Listing 10, which exercises the functional aspects of the Recls_CombinePaths() API function. It's written in C, but the same principle applies to a C++ test program. (If you're interested, the functional testing is done with the xTests library [ XTESTS ], a simple C/C++ unit/component test library that I bundle with all my other open-source libraries).

XCOVER_REPORT_GROUP_COVERAGE() is the salient statement. This requests that xCover report on all the uncovered marked execution points pertaining to the group "recls.core.extended.combine_paths". This grouping is applied to those parts of the codebase associated with combining paths by using xCover constructs. In this way, you divide your codebase logically, in order to support code coverage testing in association with automated functional testing. (You can also request for an overall coverage report, or reports by source file, from within smoke tests, or your running application, as you see fit. It's just that I prefer to associate it with automated functional testing.)

At the moment - and this is why 1.9 is not yet released - I haven't yet got the implementation file refactoring done in such a fashion that the various functionality is properly separated. So, running the test program from Listing 10 with Visual C++ 9 as I write this, I get output along the lines of Figure 1.

        ..\..\bin\recls.1.test.unit.api.combine_paths.vc9.mt.exe --verbosity=2
[Start of group recls.core.extended.combine_paths]:
Uncovered code at index 6 in file ../../src/api.extended.cpp, between lines 88 and 483
Uncovered code at index 7 in file ../../src/api.extended.cpp, between lines 88 and 483
. . .
Uncovered code at index 35 in file ../../src/api.extended.cpp, between lines 88 and 483
Uncovered code at index 38 in file ../../src/api.extended.cpp, between lines 502 and 783
. . .
Uncovered code at index 67 in file ../../src/api.extended.cpp, between lines 502 and 783
[End of group recls.core.extended.combine_paths]:
Figure 1

All of these are false positives from other core functions defined in the same implementation file: the Recls_CombinePaths() function is fully covered by test.unit.api.combine_paths.c.

Obviously I've some work to go, and that'll probably also entail adding further refinements to the xCover library, to make this work easier. When it's all nicely boxed off, I'll do a proper tutorial instalment about combining code coverage and automated functional testing. Despite the in-progress nature of the technology, I hope you get the clear point that the two techniques - code coverage analysis and automated functional testing - are a great partnership in applied quality assurance. The functional analysis makes sure that whatever you test behaves correctly, and the code coverage analysis makes sure that everything of relevance is tested.

Such things are, as we all know, trivially simple to achieve in other languages (e.g. C#, Java). But despite being harder in C++, they are possible, and we should work towards using them whenever it's worth the effort, as it (almost always) is with a general-purpose open-source library.


I've examined a well-established open-source library, recls , and criticised it in terms of intrinsic quality characteristics, for the core API, core implementation, and the C++ mapping. Where it has come up short I have made adjustments in the forthcoming version 1.9 release, or have identified improvements to be made in subsequent versions.

I have examined the suite of (removable) diagnostic measures and applied assurance measures and have reported on the ongoing work to refine code coverage analysis, in combination with automated functional testing, in the recls library, this work to be revisited at a future time in this forum when it is mature. n

'Quality Matters' online

As mentioned last time, there's a (glacially) slowly developing website for the column - at http://www.quality-matters-to.us/. It now contains some useful links and several definitions from the first three instalments. By the time you read this I hope to have the blog set up. But that's pretty much my web capacity exhausted, so once again I'd ask for any willing ACCU member to offer what I hope would be a small amount of pertinent skills to tart it up, add a discussion board, and what not. Your rewards will be eternal gratitude, endless plaudits, and free copies of my next book. (Or, if you prefer, a promise not to give you free copies of my next book.)


As always, my friend Garth Lancaster, has kindly given of his time to read this at the end of a long working week just before my deadline, without complaint (to my manners) and with salient criticisms (of my writing). He does want me to point out that ' How embarrassment? ' is a playful part of the Australian vernacular, originating from a comedy show, and is not representative of an endemic poor standard of grammar.

I must also thank, and apologise to, not only Ric Parkin, as editor, but also all his band of reviewers, as I've really pushed them to the wire with my shocking lateness this time. Perhaps Ric will henceforth borrow some wisdom from my wife, and start artificially bringing due dates and times forward in order to effect a magical eleventh hour delivery with time to spare.


[!(C ^ C++)] !(C ^ C++), Matthew Wilson, CVu, November 2008

[CC] Code Complete, 2nd Edition, Steve McConnell, Microsoft Press, 2004

[DDJ-RECLS-BLOG] http://dobbscodetalk.com/index.php?option=com_myblog&show=Recursive-search-examples-pt2-C.html&Itemid=29

[FF-1] 'An Introduction to FastFormat, part 1: The State of the Art', Matthew Wilson, Overload 89, February 2009

[FF-2] 'An Introduction to FastFormat, part 2: Custom Argument and Sink Types', Matthew Wilson, Overload 90, April 2009

[FF-3] 'An Introduction to FastFormat, part 3: Solving Real Problems, Quickly', Matthew Wilson, Overload 91, June 2009

[IC++] Imperfect C++: Practical Solutions for Real-Life Programming, Matthew Wilson, Addison-Wesley, 2004

[PAN] http://pantheios.org/

[QM#1] 'Quality Matters, Part 1: Introductions, and Nomenclature', Matthew Wilson, Overload 92, August 2009

[QM#2] 'Quality Matters, Part 2: Correctness, Robustness and Reliability', Matthew Wilson, Overload 93, October 2009

[QM#3] 'Quality Matters, Part 3: A Case Study in Quality', Matthew Wilson, Overload 94, December 2009

[RECLS] http://recls.org/

[STLSOFT] The STLSoft libraries are a collection of (mostly well written, mostly badly documented) C and C++, 100% header-only, thin faades and STL extensions that are used in much of my commercial and open-source programming; available from http://stlsoft.org/

[UNIXem] A simple UNIX emulation library for Windows; available from http://www.synesis.com.au/software/unixem.html

[WINE] http://www.winehq.org/

[XCOVER] http://xcover.org/

[XCOVER-CVu] 'xCover: Code Coverage for C/C++', Matthew Wilson, CVu, March 2009; http://accu.org/index.php/journals/c250/

[XSTL] Extended STL, volume 1: Collections and Iterators, Matthew Wilson, Addison-Wesley, 2007

[XTESTS] http://xtests.org/


All numbered listings are at the end of the article:

  1. Recursive file search using UNIX's opendir()/readdir() API
  2. Recursive file search using Windows' FindFirstFile()/ FindNextFile() API
  3. Stepwise recursive file search using recls ' core API
  4. Callback recursive file search using recls ' core API
  5. Recursive file search using recls ' C++ mapping
  6. Definition of recls_entryinfo_t and associated types
  7. Extract of the implementation ofReclsFileSearchDirectoryNode
  8. Example application code using pre-1.9 "C++" mapping
  9. Samples of the implementation of the C++ mapping.
  10. Unit-test program using xCover for code coverage analysis

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