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Object-orientation in C — Part 1

Object-orientation in C -- Part 1, 6.0 out of 10 based on 1 rating
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Object-orientation is about classes and objects. A class is an abstract data type:

  • data type: because it defines a new type to work with by providing data and operations on this data, but also
  • abstract: because it encapsulates this data and hides implementation details behind an hopefully nice and clean interface.

An object then is an instance of a class. Of course, each class can have as many objects as needed by the application.

OO and polymorphism go hand in hand. Polymorphism means:

  • one interface, which has
  • multiple (~poly) implementations (~forms ~morphs).

A base (top-level) class defines the interface while sub-classes implement the interface. Sub-classes can also inherit properties of their base class(es). This is also called inheritance.

It is interesting to mention that a class without inheritance is a black box. No one can ‘look’ inside the class. This is not true when a class is sub-classed, and therefor, such a class is called a white box. Black box has preference over white box.

The main benefits of OO are:

  • code re-use (code of the base class can be re-used by sub-classes — implementation inheritance), and
  • more generic code: it allows developers to write ‘against’ an interface i.e. without having to think about specific interface-implementations. Sub-classes, in this context better called ‘subtypes’, implement the interface of a base class or ‘supertype’ — interface inheritance.

Class re-use is of course possible but tends to be more difficult than expected. The reason is because a class has good ‘outside-in’ but bad ‘inside-out’ coupling (a class uses other classes which again use other classes etc.). Low-coupling and as a consequence high cohesion (being good in one thing) leads to class re-use. (You might want to read about component-based software engineering in which loosely coupled components are composed into a system.)

Object-orientation in C

In C – and this in contrast with many other languages such as C++, Java, Python, Ruby etc. – there is no explicit support for object-orientation. But do not worry, there are (not very difficult) solutions.

A simple class without inheritance/polymorphism support

If you want to have an abstract data type with operations then here is a simple way to do this:

#ifndef MY_CLASS_H
#define MY_CLASS_H

struct my_class;

/* 'constuctors' and 'destructor' */
struct my_class * my_class_alloc1(void);
struct my_class * my_class_alloc2(int x, int y);
void my_class_free(struct my_class * c);

/* operations */
void my_class_operation1(struct my_class * c);
int my_class_operation2(struct my_class * c);


The clue is to use a C forward declaration struct my_class;. The user of this class (or C module) is unable to see the struct definition (which resides in the my_class.c file) and only works with an opaque pointer. All ‘private’ functions belong in another (non-exported) header file.

A consequence of not being able to see the struct definition is that users can only rely on alloc and de-alloc functions to create and destroy objects.

Addendum: better abstraction in C?

In C++ a class definition is always visible – even private and protected functions and members. If we forget about technical reasons (friends, inheritance etc.) then – from the point of view of a user – why do we see these private/protected functions and members?

Part 2

In Part 2 we elaborate on this subject and show you some real inheritance and polymorphism!


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  1. Joris Lijssens says


    Object-oriented design patterns in the kernel, part 1 :

    Object-oriented design patterns in the kernel, part 2 ;

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