Header Files, Compilers, and Static Type Checks

Have you ever thought to yourself, “why does C++ have header files”?  I had never thought about it much until recently and decided to do some research into why some languages (C, C++, Objective C etc.) use header files but other languages do not (e.g. C# and Java).

Header files, in case you do not have much experience with them, are where you put declarations and definitions.  You declare constants, function signatures, type definitions (like structs) etc.  In C, all these declarations go into a .h file and then you put the implementation of your functions in .c files.

Here’s an example of a header file called mainproj.h:

#ifndef MAINPROJ_H__
#define MAINPROJ_H__

extern const char const *one_hit_wonder;

void MyFN( int left, int back, int right );

Here is a corresponding source file mainproj.c:

#include "mainproj.h"

const char const *one_hit_wonder = "Yazz";

void MyFN( int left, int back, int right )
    printf( "The only way is up, baby\n" );

Notice that the header only has the function definition for MyFN and it also does not specify what one_hit_wonder is set to. But why do we do this in C but not in Java?  Both are compiled and statically typed.  Ask GOOGLE!

A great MSDN blog post by Eric Lippert called “How Many Passes” was very helpful.  The main idea I got out of the article is that header files are necessary because of Static Typing.  To enforce type checks, the compiler needs to know things like function signatures to guarantee functions never get called with the wrong argument types.

Eric lists two reasons for header files:

  1. Compilers can be designed to do a single pass over the source code instead of multiple passes.
  2. Programmers can compile a single source file instead of all the files.

Single Pass Compilation

In a language like C#, which is statically typed but has no header files, the compiler needs to run over all the source code once to collect declarations and function signatures and then a second time to actually compile the function bodies (where all the real work of a program happens) using the declarations it knows about to do type checks.

It makes sense to me that C and C++ would have header files because they are quite old languages and the CPU and Memory resources required to do multiple passes in this way would be very expensive on computers of that era.  Nowadays, computers have more resources and the process is less of a problem.

Single file compilation

One interesting other benefit of header files though is that a programmer can compile a single file.  Java and C# can not do that: compilation occurs at the project level, not the file level.  So if a single file is changed, all files must be re-compiled.  That makes sense because the compiler needs to check every file in order to get the declarations.  In languages with header files, you can only compile the file that changed because you have header files to guarantee type checks between files.

Relevance Today

Interesting as this may be, is it relevant today if you only do Java, C#, or a dynamic language?  Actually it does!

For instance, consider TypeScript and Flow which both bring gradual typing to JavaScript. Both systems have a concept of Declaration files.  What do they do?  You guessed it!  Type declarations, function signatures, etc.

TypeScript Declaration file:

module Zoo {
  function fooFn(bar: string): void;

Flow Declaration file:

declare module Zoo {
  declare function fooFn(bar: string): void;

To me, these look an awful lot like header files!

As we see, header files are not dead!  They are alive and well in many strategies for Type Checking.

Header Files, Compilers, and Static Type Checks

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