Tag Archives: boost

Boost Graph Library: modernization

Modern C++ (C++11 and later) can greatly simplify generic templated C++ code. I’ve recently been playing around with modernizing the Boost Graph Library code. The experience is similar to how I modernized the libsigc++ code, though I have not gone nearly into that much depth yet. The BGL is currently a big messy jumble of code that isn’t getting much love, and modernizing it could start to let its accumulated wisdom shine through, while also freeing it of other boost dependencies.

Please note that this is just an experiment in my own fork that even I am not pursuing particularly seriously. These changes are not likely to ever be accepted into the BGL because it would mean requiring modern C++ compilers. Personally, I think that’s the only way to move forward. I also think that Boost’s monolithic release process, and lack of a real versioning strategy, holds its libraries back from evolving. At the least, I think only a small set of generally-useful libraries should be released together, and I think that set should drop anything that’s now been moved into the standard library. BGL seems to have been stagnant for the last decade, so there doesn’t seem to be much to lose.

I’ve modernized the example code (and also tried to remove the “using namespace boost” lines), and done some work to modernize the boost graph code itself.

At the least, liberal use of auto can let you delete lots of ugly type declarations that really exist just to make things compile rather than to provide useful clues to the reader. For instance, auto makes the example code less cluttered with magic incantations. Range-based for loops simplify more code – for instance, in the examples.The simpler code is then easier to understand, letting you see the useful work underneath the boiler plate.

I’ve jumped right into C++17 and used structured bindings (and in the examples) because they are particularly helpful with the BGL API, which has many methods that return the begin and end of a range inside a std::pair. This lets us avoid some more type declarations. However, in the examples, I used a make_range_pair() utility function in many places instead, so I could use a simple range-based for. I guess that the range library would provide a type to use instead, maybe as part of the standard library one day.

I also replaced most uses of the boost type traits (some from boost::mpl) with the std:: equivalents. For instance, std::is_same instead of boost::is_same. It should now be possible to remove the boost::mpl dependency completely with a little work.

I’ve also tried putting all of BGL in the boost::graph namespace, instead of just in the boost namespace, but the API currently expects application code to use “using namespace boost”, to make its generic API work, and this makes that even more obvious.

As a next step, I guess that the boost graph implementation code could be simplified much more by use of decltype(auto). As I was modernizing libsigc++, I sometimes found templates that were used only by specializations that were used only by typedefs that were no longer needed, because they could be replaced by decltype(auto) return types. You have to pull at the threads one by one.

Boost Graph Library and C++ >17

I’ve recently been looking at the Boost Graph Library (BGL), by reading through the excellent BGL book and playing with the BGL examples, which are mostly from the book.  Although it  was written 15 years ago, in 2001, it doesn’t feel dated because it uses techniques being actively discussed now for C++17 or later. And there’s a clear lineage from then to now.

For instance, I’ve been watching the charming Programming Conversations videos by Alexander Stepanov, who brought generic programming to C++ by designing the STL. At some early point in the videos, he mentioned the idea of concepts, which he expected to be in C++17, and showed how he mimicked the simpler concepts syntax (without the checking) with some #defines. Unfortunately, that proposal, by Andrew Sutton, has recently been rejected for C++17, though it seems likely to succeed after C++17. Andrew Sutton demonstrates the proposed syntax wonderfully in this C++Now 2015 Keynote video. He has implemented C++ concepts in gcc 6, and I’ve played with it very superficially for libsigc++.

I’ve written and maintained lots of C++ template code and I’ve never liked how each template makes only implicit requirements of its types. I would feel more comfortable if I could express those requirements in a concept and have the compiler tell me if my template’s types don’t “model” the concept. Eventually compiler errors will then mention problems at that higher level instead of spewing details about exactly how compilation failed. And eventually, C++ might allow checking of semantics as well as just syntax. I can even imagine tools that would analyze template code and suggest that it should require certain concepts for its types, a little like how the latest compilers can suggest that I use the override keyword on virtual method overloads. This means more checking at compile time, and that makes me happy. However, I understand why it would need multiple compilers to implement it before it would be accepted into C++17.

Anyway, I started reading that BGL book and immediately noticed the foreword by the same Alexandar Stepanov, which mentions generic programming ideas such as concepts. The BGL uses concepts, though with minimal checking, and the book uses these to show the structure of the API. Furthermore, as I tried to get some simple changes into the BGL, I noticed that the same Andrew Sutton had been a maintainer of the BGL.

I began playing with the BGL by converting its example code to modern C++, replacing as many of those verbose traits typedefs and awkward tie() calls, with the auto keyword and range-based for loops. The result looks far clearer to me, letting us see how the API could be improved further. For instance, the BGL’s use of generic free-standing functions can seem a little unconstrained to people used to knowing exactly what method they can call on what object, particularly as the BGL puts everything in the boost namespace instead of boost::graph). But Bjarne Stroustrup’s Unified Call proposal (apparently rejected for C++17 too) would improve that. For instance, num_vertices(graph), could be written as graph.num_vertices() and Concepts would let the compiler know if that should be allowed.

So, though the BGL source code seems to have had very little attention over the last 15 years, and now looks almost abandoned, it’s clearly been an inspiration for the most current trends in C++, such as Concepts and Unified Calling. All the work on C++11 and C++14 has drained the swamp so much that these old ideas are now more obviously necessary.