[cfe-dev] Current state of libcxx compatibility with libstdc++

Martin J. O'Riordan via cfe-dev cfe-dev at lists.llvm.org
Tue Aug 9 12:29:38 PDT 2016

Thanks David, this is very interesting to me.

For many years I had given training on using C++ effectively, and sadly I
have had to teach my classes "not" to use Standard C++ types when passing
information between a function caller and the callee for libraries because
of versionability.

For instance, it seems to me (ideally) that we should be able to write
something like:

   extern std::list<int> foo(std::list<int>);

and provide this as a portable interface between a 3rd party library
(provided as a '.a', '.so', '.lib' or '.dll'), but I have learned through
painful experience that this is usually not the case.  It may be "source"
compatible, but the real world requires "binary" compatible.

So while the compiler writers go to extreme measures to ensure that "source
code in" yields a binary compatible "object code out", the people who
maintain the C++ libraries do not generally ensure the same constraints.

Now this is not to say that Version N+1 is worse than Version N, because in
general the implementers ensure that Version N+1 is faster/smaller/better
than its predecessor; but unfortunately this often means that internal
implementation details such as the introduction of a new clever helper
template class, results in radically different "actual" implementations,
even though the "black box" appears to be the same from the perspective of
the compilee (invented term?).

Many times I have found that this breaks my natural interface expression
which I find really sad, because for many years I had tried to teach people
to use the Standard containers and other Standard abstractions, because they
are better tested, more performant, and generally better than crafting your
own.  But the sad bit is that the "roll your own" is generally more
portable, and this means I have 2 solutions:

  o  Use a C compatible interface for my libraries
  o  Use my own "home cooked" alternatives for Standard containers

I don't like either solution.  The first means that I cannot use C++ to
express natural version portable interfaces between my library
implementations and my library consumers, and after 30 years of advocating
the benefits of C++ I find this truly painful.  While the second means that
I have deliberately had to do exactly what I have been teaching is "wrong"
and introduce my own (well-intended) alternative implementations to the
Standard types that are possibly (and probably) wrong in some unintended

This has been a big problem for me in the past, and while I have not yet
checked LibC++ v3.8 to v3.9, the transition from v3.6 to v3.7 had a very big
impact, almost trebling the in-memory image for applications as simple as:

  #include <iostream>

  int main() {
    std::cout << "Hello World" << std::endl;

And while the interface as expressed in the headers for the Standard C++
interface was 100% correct, the choices behind the scenes had terrible
consequences for space requirements, which for an embedded system is
critical.  The changes from v3.7 to v3.8 had a profound negative impact on
legacy C code that was being compiled using the new set of C++ headers (e/g/
'<math.h>') so that I had to deliberately break from LibC++ in this regard
and implement a more truly "C compatible" variant.  A very large amount of
embedded system code is trivially "ported" from C to C++ expecting that the
term "C compatible" means what it says on the can - but it doesn't.

When using VC++, I have found that almost every revision introduces altered
implementation strategies for the Standard C++ interafaces that breaks
binary compatibility between versions, and requires that the library and its
consumer are built with the same version.  In the Open Source world this is
not a truly breaking issues, but it is a big issues when 3rd parties are
making a living by providing libraries for others to use.  And if you have
no access to the source code, you are bound to the compiler version that the
3rd party library provider used to build their libraries.

I am not picking on VC++, it is my favourite workday compiler, and it is the
compiler that I most often use (having a long legacy with that compiler).
But the same issues arise between distributions of GCC too, and indeed other
C++ implementations including CLang/LLVM/LibC++.

So this has gone off on a tangent from whether or not LibC++ should be
binary compatible with 'libstdc++' (sorry for hijacking that discussion) -
and for the record I don't think that they "should" be, and I don't think
that they "can" be - but it does raise the broader issue regarding whether
successive versions of a C++ library from the same vendor (LLVM/CLang in
this case) should be binary compatible.  And this is a trade-off - either we
have 100% implementation hiding (i.e. a true black-box interface) which will
incur a runtime penalty (space and/or time) - or we have a compromise which
allows the implementer to provide more efficient (space/time)
implementations with successive revisions, but at the expense of binary

There is no perfect answer.


-----Original Message-----
From: Dr D. Chisnall [mailto:dc552 at hermes.cam.ac.uk] On Behalf Of David
Sent: 09 August 2016 17:04
To: Martin.ORiordan at Movidius.com
Cc: Clang Dev <cfe-dev at lists.llvm.org>
Subject: Re: [cfe-dev] Current state of libcxx compatibility with libstdc++

On 9 Aug 2016, at 16:45, Martin J. O'Riordan via cfe-dev
<cfe-dev at lists.llvm.org> wrote:
> It is usually not even possible to pass Standard C++ objects between
libraries that have been built with different versions of the "same"
implementation of Standard C++ libraries, as it is not at all unusual for
the library implementator to refactor the implementation of the Standard
types, with a substantial amount of the implementation residing in the
> The compilers themselves generally go to considerable lengths to ensure
that the same code compiled with different versions of the compiler are
binary compatible, but the C++ Standard Library headers usually break object
compatibility because the code is "not" the same code.
> I haven't checked recently (v3.8 to v3.9), but this is usually the case
from one release of CLang's own LibC++ to another.

Binary (backwards) compatibility is most definitely a goal for libc++.
Please file bugs if you find them - any ABI-breaking changes should be
behind #ifdefs so that downstream users can enable them on their own
timescales.  I believe libstdc++ also tries to provide these guarantees,
though they did need some ABI-breaking changes for c++11 compatibility.


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