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Crashproof C++

Copyright (C) 1997, 2001 by Steve Litt


This page is of historical value only. It was written to address the Borland Turbo C++ of the 20th century, so much of it isn't relevant, or even accurate, for modern compilers, so please do not rely on it. This page is no longer being maintained.

Steve Litt is the author of Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist, Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist, and Samba Unleashed.

char ychFname[13];
strcpy(ychFname, "c:\\mydir\\setup.set");
cout << "What are the odds that I will see this message?\n";
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Under construction would be an understatement for this page. Here is a bare-bones, bound to be changed, list of suggestions for taking the crash out of C++.

Some versons of the gcc C++ compiler that you find in some Linux distros cannot compile C++ code with the standard command. If no C++ compiles on your system, try the following command:

g++ -lstdc++ myprogram.cpp
The -lstdc++ argument solves the problem.

Use const at every opportunity

Const is your most powerful anti-crash weapon. Use it at every opportunity. An additional benefit is that it makes your code self-documenting. For instance, look at this:

const char *add2strings(const char *sz1, const char *sz2);

Such a declaration guarantee's that no matter what wierd things go on within the function, it can't harm the application programmer's two strings sz1 and sz2. If any memory corruption occurs, it will be to variables within the function's scope. This, of course, greatly reduces side effect bugs. Of course, if the program has global variables, all bets are off...

Furthermore, the declaration of the return pointer as const means that the application programmer can't "reach inside" the function to corrupt its scope. For instance, if the return value is a static array of 40 characters, if the return wasn't static the application programmer could do this:

char *pchName = add2strings("Philbinoff", "James");
strcat(pchName, " is the name of the first author of the three books");
cout << "I just corrupted an internal variable of add2strings. ";
cout << "Will I see this message?\n";
cout << "Will it crash later in the program? Who knows!\n";

Fortunately, because add2strings() returns a const pointer, you'll get a compiler error on this:

char *pchName = add2strings("Philbinoff", "James");

Even if you declared pchName as a const char *, the moment you modified its contents with strcat() you'd get a compile error. The const keyword helps the programmer keep any errors localized, thus greatly reducing the likelihood of side-effect errors.

Be very careful with string manipulation

My experience tells me the number one cause of "memory tromp" -- hangs, GPF's and other nasty and hard to find problems, is string manipulation. In the bad-old-days of C, this was unavoidable. Now, it shouldn't be a problem.

If you can, make a string class

Have you ever used strings in other languages? Isn't it nice? The penalty for a mistake is not a GPF on the other side of the program that occurs in some sites but not others. In other languages either it works or it doesn't, but you know right away. You can achieve the same level of confidence in your strings by using a string class.

There are many implementations of string classes. Stroustrup describes a simple one in chapter/section 7.11 of his book, The C++ Programming Language, Second Edition (ISBN0-201-53992-6). Your organization may make its own. Whatever you use, it should have provisions to output to and input from streams, concatenate, search/replace, etc, WITHOUT the application programmmer having to resort to pointer arithmetic. Such an implementation might use the plus sign for concatenation.

The Poor Man's String Class

If your organization hasn't made a string class, you can have many of the benefits by using C++ string streams. A string steam is a stream that writes to a string instead of a file. You can declare it without giving a maximum length, and you can keep appending strings to it. For instance:
//***** Create nametag string ******
ostrstream ost; 
ost << "My name is " << ychFname;
ost.put(0);                  //null terminate the string 
//***** Also create a nametag with the last name after first *****
ost.seekp(ost.tellp()-1);    //get rid of the null termination
ost << " " << ychLname;
ost.put(0);                  //null terminate the string

Avoid buffer overrun

Even if you don't use a string class, there are still ways you can intelligently handle zero terminated strings. The following is not one of them:
char *pchPerson = "Magdelena Alexandra de la Romero";
char ychName[20];
strcpy(ychName, pchPerson); //CRUNCH!
cout << ychName << '\n';    //what this will output is anybody's guess.
Now handle it intelligently with strncpy instead
char *pchPerson = "Magdelena Alexandra de la Romero";
char ychName[20];
strncpy(ychName, pchPerson, sizeof(ychName)-1);
ychName[sizeof(ychName)-1] = '\0';
cout << ychName << '\n';    //Magdelena Alexandra
Here's another way that won't corrupt memory:
char *pchPerson = "Magdelena Alexandra de la Romero";
char pchName = new char[strlen(pchPerson) + 1];
strcpy(pchName, pchPerson);
cout << pchName << '\n'; //Magdelena Alexandra de la Romero
//***** Of course, sooner or later pchName must be deleted *****
  pchName = 0;

Protect your stack

Local Variables Come Off the Stack

My biggest gripe about C++ is that local variables come off the stack. If you have a local instance of a class with a large buffer or lots of small variables, and you declare it as a local variable, you could use up your stack and cause the program to act erratically, probably at some other point in the program.
//***** This might cause a big problem *****
class bufferhandler
 void zero(){*buf='\0';};
 void put(const char *pch){strncpy(buf, pch, sizeof(buf)-1);};
 const char *get(){return(buf);};
 char buf[2000];
void myprocess(void)
 bufferhandler bh1;           //2000+ bytes gone from the stack
 bufferhandler bh2;           //Another 2000+ gone. Will there be enough?
 bh1.put("Steve was here");
 bh2.put("Sylvia was here");
 /* . . . */
One way around this (though I think it's ugly) is to use pointers:
void myprocess(void)
 bufferhandler *pbh1 = new bufferhandler; //4 bytes gone for the pointer
 bufferhandler *pbh2 = new bufferhandler; //Another 4 gone. Stack is cool.
 pbh1->put("Steve was here");
 pbh2->put("Fred was here");
 /* . . . */
 //***** be sure to delete the pointers *****

Don't Make This Bonehead Mistake

I occasionally make this goof. I forget the local variable is on the stack, and pass a pointer to that local variable it back as the function return. If the code using the returned pointer doesn't write to that pointer's contents, this won't crash the program. However, sometimes, depending on the memory map, the returned value will magically change as something else on the stack overwrites the now out of scope variable.

The last time I did this (1994), it created a bug that occurred once every few days :-(. It took myself and two other people a week (off and on) to narrow it to returning a local string. Now I'm EXTREMELY careful not to make this goof.

//***** BONEHEAD MISTAKE *****
char *addstrings(const char *sz1, const char *sz2)
 char ychDst[100];    //life would be easier if I had made this static
 strncpy(ychDst, sz1, sizeof(ychDst) - 1);
 strncpy(ychDst + n1, sz2, sizeof(ychDst) - strlen(sz1) - 1);
 ychDst[sizeof(ychDst) - 1] = '\0';
 return(ychDst];      //BONEHEAD

"Just Say No" to Memory Leak

This subject rates a page of its own.

Forget C

Forget you ever knew printf(). Use cout <<. Of course, scanf() was flirting with disaster even in the rough and ready C days. Use cin >>, or make your own input routines or classes. What about that wonderful sprintf()? Instead of this:

#include <iostream.h>
#include <stdio.h>
/* . . . */
char ychString[100];
sprintf(ychString, "%s, %s %c", ychLname, ychFname, *ychMname);
cout << ychString << '\n';

Try This:

#include <iostream.h>
#include <strstream.h>
/* . . . */
ostrstream ost;
ost << ychLname << ", " << ychFname << " " << *ychMname;
ost.put(0); //null terminate the string cout
cout << ost.str() << '\n';

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Copyright (C)1997 by Steve Litt. -- Legal