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Introduction to ACF (Another C++ Framework)

, 27 May 2004
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This article introduces ACF, a C++ framework which brings the .NET framework to standard C++.

The latest version can be found here (ACF homepage).

Abstract

This article provides an introduction to ACF, a C++ framework which brings the .NET framework to standard C++. Knowledge of C++ and the .NET Framework is assumed.

Contents

  • What is ACF
  • Why ACF
  • Getting started
  • Basic type system
  • Exceptions
  • Arrays and collections
  • Delegates and events
  • Strings and text
  • I/O
  • Threading
  • History
  • Contact

What is ACF

ACF (Another C++ Framework), is a C++ framework designed to bring the power and RAD of the .NET framework to standard C++. ACF does this by implementing the features and APIs of the .NET framework in standard C++, and at the same time takes advantage of C++ unique features such as templates.

Why ACF

The .NET framework is definitely the future development platform of Microsoft, and C# is the best programming language for that platform. However, today there are thousands of existing C++ projects and developers. These projects are not likely to be totally rewritten for .NET, and the developers are facing the headache choice between the RAD and benefits of C# and the .NET framework, and the performance and control of C++. Apparently, the C++ community need a bridge now before moving to .NET in the future.

The solution from Microsoft is Managed C++. MC++ tries to bring C++ to .NET, the result is that C++ code can be compiled to IL, and managed code can easily interop with native code. However, MC++ may not be a good choice for many projects and developers. First, C++ is almost the symbol of performance and control, but JIT and GC are very slow, and the runtime is also too huge for many applications. Second, C++ is already very complex and hard to learn and use, MC++ adds to it.

ACF tries to solve this problem from another side - bring .NET to C++. By implementing the .NET framework in standard C++, ACF helps existing C++ projects and developers:

  1. ACF can be used in existing or new C++ projects (ACF works seamlessly with MFC/ATL/STL, etc), and everything compiles to machine code.
  2. Developers can use existing C++ skills, and at the same time use concepts and APIs that are very close to the .NET framework. Their new skills are reusable across C#, C++ and MC++ (for example, they always use String::Format to build formatted strings).
  3. ACF also helps when porting code between C++ and C#.

Getting started

Currently, ACF is developed under Visual C++ 2003, you'd better get it before we move on (if you are still using Visual C++ 6.0, throw it away since it is not very standards conformant and its template support is very limited). The first step will be to build ACF if not done before. For example, to build the Corlib, open Corlib.sln (under "{...}\Acf\src\Corlib", where {...} is the directory which contains ACF) with Visual Studio and build it. Like using other C++ libraries, you need to setup the include and library directories in your development environment before using ACF in your applications. The include directory for Corlib is "{...}\Acf\src\Corlib", library directory is "{...}\Acf\lib".

The "hello world" program can be written as follows:

#include <AcfCorlib.h>
int main() {
    Acf::Console::WriteLine(L"hello, world");
}

To compile this program, you need to turn on "treat wchar_t as built-in type" and "enable runtime type info" compiler options, and link to the multithreaded CRT. This is required for all ACF projects.

ACF is organized into a number of namespaces, following the design of the .NET framework. The Acf namespace corresponds to the System namespace in the .NET framework. AcfCorlib.h is the header file for the Corlib. Before we can write more useful applications, let's look into the type system of ACF.

Basic type system

There are some significant differences between the C++ type system and the C#/CLI type system, this affects how ACF type system is implemented.

C++ does not have a unified type system. Primitive types are "magic"; types are not required to inherit from a common root; and MI is allowed. C++ also has a very flexible memory model, the developers control how and when to allocate/free memory.

C#/CLI has an unified type system. All types directly or indirectly inherit from System.Object; MI is not allowed, but a type can implement multiple interfaces. Types can be value types or reference types. Instances of value types directly contain data; instances of reference types are allocated on the GC heap and are automatically reclaimed. The translation between value types and reference types is called boxing/unboxing, which is handled by the compiler and the runtime.

ACF tries to emulate the C#/CLI type system on C++ and at the same time retain performance. The result is a hybrid type system. In ACF, types include reference types and other types. Reference types are allocated on the heap, and managed using reference count (like COM). Reference types are required to inherit from a single root - Acf::Object. MI is only used to implement interfaces, and all reference interfaces are required to inherit from Acf::InterfaceBase. Other types include the primitive types (e.g. int, float), enum types and other C++ structures and classes. The following diagram shows the basic object model (green classes are value types, blue classes are reference types):

In ACF, there is no automatically boxing/unboxing since it requires compiler and runtime support. Developers have to define the value class and reference class separately and handle the boxing/unboxing requests (in C#/CLI, there is only one type, and boxing/unboxing are automatically handled). For example, Int32 is a value type and does not have a base. It has an instance int field and provides methods for parsing and formatting. The Int32Object reference type has an instance Int32 field and inherits from Acf::Object and implements interfaces such as IFormattable. (ACF uses X and XObject naming conversion to distinguish value types and their corresponding reference types, another example is Acf::Guid and Acf::GuidObject.)

The example:

int main() {
    int i = 123;
    ObjectPtr o = box(i); // boxing
    int j = unbox<int>(o); // unboxing
}

shows how boxing and unboxing are used. The box and unbox<T> functions are template functions under Acf namespace. The default implementation of box returns an instance of Acf::Boxed<T> which inherits from Acf::Object and acts as an object box. The box and unbox<T> functions should be overloaded for user-defined types that have separate value class and reference class definitions (for example, Int32 and Int32Object).

In ACF, all reference types are allocated on the heap via operator new. The new operator is overloaded so that it throws Acf::OutOfMemoryException when memory allocation fails. On successful allocation, the returned memory is cleared so there are no random bits. As stated, ACF uses reference count to manage object lifetime (all interfaces share the same reference count with their owner objects). When holding an object or an interface, you should call AddRef; when you are done, you should call Release. An object has an initial reference count 0 and is freed when its reference count goes back to 0. A smart pointer class, RefPtr<T>, is designed to do the AddRef/Release jobs automatically. As a common design philosophy, RefPtr<T> is treated as strong reference, and raw C++ pointer is treated as weak reference. We need to distinguish strong reference and weak reference because the reference count approach has problem dealing with cyclic reference. For example, if object A has a strong reference to object B, and object B has a strong reference back to object A, then these two objects form a cyclic reference and both will never be freed. This problem can be solved by letting B hold a weak reference to A (or reverse, depending on the scenario).

The following example shows how to define and use reference types:

#include <AcfCorlib.h>
using namespace Acf;

class Person : public Object {
public:
    StringPtr Name;
    int Age;
    
    Person() {
    }
    
protected:
    virtual ~Person() {
    }
};

int main() {
    StringPtr name = new String(L"Foo");

    RefPtr<Person> person = new Person();
    person->Name = name;
    person->Age = 25;

    Console::WriteLine(L"Name: {0}, Age: {1}", 
       person->Name, str(person->Age));
}

The class Person is a reference type and inherits from Acf::Object. It has two instance fields, Name (string) and Age (int). StringPtr is a typedef of RefPtr<String>. The destructor is protected so this type cannot be allocated on stack (reference types shall always be allocated on the heap).

In the main function, the first statement defines and allocates a new string instance. Next, a new Person instance is allocated and its fields are changed. Then, Console::WriteLine is used to format and print the person's name and age (the format string is defined by the .NET framework).

Exceptions

ACF uses exceptional handling as its basic error raising and handling mechanism. In the .NET framework, exceptions are also reference types and collected by GC. In ACF, exceptions are value types. This is because in C++, the preferred way to throw and catch exceptions is throw MyException() and catch (const MyException& e). Acf::Exception is the base class for all exceptions. Common exception classes include ArgumentNullException, IOException, FormatException, etc.

Arrays and collections

Arrays and collections in ACF are different from the .NET framework ones, because C++ provides good template and template specialization support (especially partial specialization).

Array<T> is the array class in ACF (currently multidimensional arrays are not supported). The actual class declaration is Array<T, Tr>, where Tr is the collection traits class (there are default implementations for most classes). The collection traits control how to pass parameters, how to clear elements, how to compare two elements, and how to generate hash code. This technique is used by all ACF collection classes and interfaces.

Here are two array examples:

RefPtr<Array<int> > array1 = Array<int>::Build(3, 1, 2, 5, 4);
Array<int>::Sort(array1);

RefPtr<Array<StringPtr> > array2 = new Array<StringPtr>(2);
array2->Item[0] = str(L"hello");
array2->Item[1] = str(L"world");

The first example builds an int array with 5 elements and sorts it. The second example creates a string array with two elements and sets the elements. The Item[0] syntax is a Visual C++ language extension which represents an indexed property. It is translated into array1->set_Item(0, str(L"hello")) at compile time.

The other collection classes and interfaces in ACF (under namespace Acf::Collections) are just like the .NET framework ones, except they are template based. Here are some examples:

RefPtr<List<int> > list = new List<int>();
list->Add(10);
list->Add(20);

RefPtr<Dictionary<StringPtr, int> > map = new Dictionary<StringPtr, int>();
map->Item[str(L"s1")] = 1;
map->Item[str(L"s2")] = 10;

C# has a foreach statement to enumerate over arrays and collections and many developers like it very much. ACF defines a FOREACH macro to emulate this feature. For example, given an array which stores int, we can enumerate the array as follows:

FOREACH (int, n, array) {
    Console::WriteLine(n);
}

Delegates and events

Delegates and events are so attractive features of C# and the .NET framework that ACF definitely cannot miss them.

The delegate definition in ACF is quite different from C#/CLI. For example, the EventHandler delegate definition in C# is as follows:

delegate void EventHandler(object sender, EventArgs e);

In ACF it is like:

typedef Delegate2<void, Object*, EventArgs*>   EventHandler;

Here DelegateN<R, P1, P2, ..., Pn> is the delegate class in ACF, where N is the number of the function parameters and R is the function return type. To invoke a delegate, call the instance method Invoke with the function parameters.

In C#, it is very easy to define and consume events, but in ACF, it's a little complex since there is no compiler support. To define an event, use the ACF_DECLARE_EVENT macro.

Here is an example on how to use delegates and events in ACF:

typedef Delegate2<void, Object*, EventArgs*>   EventHandler;
typedef RefPtr<EventHandler>   EventHandlerPtr;

class Button : public Object {
public:
    ACF_DECLARE_EVENT(EventHandler, Click)

protected:
    void OnClick(EventArgs* e) {
        if (Click != null)
            Click->Invoke(this, e);
    }
};

class Form1 : public Object {
private:
    RefPtr<Button> _button;

public:
    Form1() {
        this->_button = new Button();

        EventHandlerPtr h1 = new EventHandler(this, Form1::ButtonClickHandler);
        this->_button->add_Click(h1);

        EventHandlerPtr h2 = new EventHandler(Form1::StaticButtonClickHandler);
        this->_button->add_Click(h2);
    }

private:
    void ButtonClickHandler(Object* sender, EventArgs* e) {
        std::cout << "Button clicked!" << std::endl;
    }

    static void StaticButtonClickHandler(Object* sender, EventArgs* e) {
        std::cout << "Static: Button clicked!" << std::endl;
    }
};

The ACF_DECLARE_EVENT macro actually generates the following code:

class Button : public Object {
private:    
    RefPtr<EventHandler> Click;
    
public:
    void add_Click(EventHandler* h) {
        LOCK (this)
            this->Click = EventHandler::Combine(this->Click, h);
    }
    void remove_Click(EventHandler* h) {
        LOCK (this)
            this->Click = EventHandler::Remove(this->Click, h);
    }
};

In Form1's constructor, two delegates are created, one attaches to a static method and another attaches to an instance method. For the instance method, the delegate also needs a reference to the object (here it is Form1). Since Form1 has a strong reference to Button, and Button has a strong reference to Click, so, if Click has a strong reference to Form1, then a cyclic reference is formed. However, in other cases, the delegates may really need strong references to the objects. So, the constructors of the delegate classes are overloaded for both T* and RefPtr<T>. If you pass a T* when constructing a delegate (typically using the this pointer), the delegate will hold a weak reference to the object. Otherwise, it'll hold a strong reference.

Strings and text

The String and StringBuilder classes provide basic string manipulations. The Acf::Text namespace also provides classes for encoding and decoding text, as the .NET framework. Here is a simple example:

StringPtr s = String::Format(L"Text: {0} {1}", s1, obj);

EncodingPtr enc = Encoding::get_Default();
RefPtr<Array<byte> > bytes = enc->GetBytes(s);

The str function converts numerical values and C-style strings to String.

int a = 10;
float b = 15.2;
const char* c = "hello";

StringPtr s = String::Format(L"{0}{1}{2}", str(a), str(b), str(c));

I/O

The Acf::IO namespace contains classes for reading and writing streams and files (currently ACF does not support asynchronous file I/O).

For example, to read text from a file, you can write code as follows:

StringPtr path = new String(L"C:\in.txt");
StreamReaderPtr reader = new StreamReader(path);
StringPtr text = reader->ReadToEnd();

ACF supports basic streams including FileStream and MemoryStream, and readers/writers including BinaryReader/BinaryWriter, TextReader/TextWriter, StreamReader/StreamWriter and StringReader/StringWriter.

ACF also supports simple file system management via Path, File and Directory classes.

Threading

ACF provides basic support for writing multithreaded applications. The following code shows how to create and start worker threads:

static void WorkerThreadProc() {
    ...
}

class MyObject : public Object {
public:
    void WorkerThreadProc() {
        ...
    }
};

int main()
{
    ThreadPtr thread1 = new Thread(WorkerThreadProc);
    thread1->Start();

    RefPtr<MyObject> obj = new MyObject();

    ThreadStartPtr start = new ThreadStart(obj, MyObject::WorkerThreadProc);
    ThreadPtr thread2 = new Thread(start);
    thread2->Start();

    ...
}

To synchronize data access, use the LOCK macro or the Interlocked, Monitor, AutoResetEvent, ManualResetEvent or Mutex classes.

History

  • 5/25/2004, version 0.2.
  • 4/25/2004, version 0.1.

Contact

Your feedback and suggestions are key factors to make this framework better, please feel free to send them to Yingle Jia (yljia@msn.com). You can also visit his weblog at http://blogs.wwwcoder.com/yljia/.

License

This article has no explicit license attached to it but may contain usage terms in the article text or the download files themselves. If in doubt please contact the author via the discussion board below.

A list of licenses authors might use can be found here

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About the Author

Yingle Jia
Web Developer
China China
Yingle Jia is a software engineer located in Beijing, China. He currently works at IBM CSDL (China Software Development Lab). His interests include C++/COM/C#/.NET/XML, etc. He likes coding and writing.
 
He is the creator of ACF (Another C++ Framework) project. See http://acfproj.sourceforge.net/.
 
He also has a blog at http://blogs.wwwcoder.com/yljia/

Comments and Discussions

 
GeneralExcellent, but some issues. PinmemberTomM26-Apr-04 17:18 
GeneralRe: Excellent, but some issues. PinsussYingle Jia26-Apr-04 18:32 
GeneralRe: Excellent, but some issues. PinmemberAnthony_Yio26-Apr-04 21:00 
GeneralRe: Excellent, but some issues. PinmemberKevin McFarlane27-Apr-04 1:46 

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