Thursday, April 9, 2015

What’s so great about classes?

Classes are there to help you organize your code and to reason about your programs. You could roughly equivalently say that classes are there to help you avoid making mistakes and to help you find bugs after you do make a mistake. In this way, classes significantly help maintenance.

A class is the representation of an idea, a concept, in the code. An object of a class represents a particular example of the idea in the code. Without classes, a reader of the code would have to guess about the relationships among data items and functions – classes make such relationships explicit and “understood” by compilers. With classes, more of the high-level structure of your program is reflected in the code, not just in the comments.

A well-designed class presents a clean and simple interface to its users, hiding its representation and saving its users from having to know about that representation. If the representation shouldn’t be hidden – say, because users should be able to change any data member any way they like – you can think of that class as “just a plain old data structure”; for example:

Note that even data structures can benefit from auxiliary functions, such as constructors. When designing a class, it is often useful to consider what’s true for every object of the class and at all times. Such a property is called an invariant. For example, the invariant of a vector could be that (a) its representation consists of a pointer to a number of elements and (b) that number of elements is stored in an integer. It is the job of every constructor to establish the class invariant, so that every member function can rely on it. Every member function must leave the invariant valid upon exit. This kind of thinking is particularly useful for classes that manage resources such as locks, sockets, and files. For example, a file handle class will have the invariant that it holds a pointer to an open file. The file handle constructor opens the file. Destructors free resources acquired by constructors. For example, the destructor for a file handle closes the file opened by the constructor:

If you haven’t programmed with classes, you will find parts of this explanation obscure and you’ll underestimate the usefulness of classes. Look for examples. Like all good textbooks, TC++PL has lots of examples; for example, see A Tour of the Standard Library. Most modern C++ libraries consist (among other things) of classes and a library tutorial is one of the best places to look for examples of useful classes.

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