10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About the CDT

The Eclipse C/C++ Development Tooling, the CDT, has been around for a long time and is used by an incredible number of developers, but we don’t talk about it that much. That’s why we were excited with the opportunity to show off a little of what we’ve been working on in this newsletter. To start, here’s 10 thing you probably didn’t know about the CDT that you probably should.

1. C and C++ isn’t dead yet, far from it

If you are a follower of the TIOBE Programming Community Index, you would know this already. C and Java have been neck and neck for a long time as the two most “popular” languages in our industry. A lot of people find it hard to believe that C keeps such a high profile, but when you consider that pretty much all operating systems are still written in C and that the vast majority of Linux apps are still written in C or C++ and embedded devices are almost exclusively C and C++, it adds up.

Even the mobile industry still relies on C and it’s relatives C++ and Objective-C for apps. Apple’s iOS, of course, uses Objective-C as it’s standard language. Android has support for native C/C++ applications, especially for games. And the new BlackBerry 10 uses C++ in combination with the Qt framework for it’s main environment. Mobile devices demand good performing apps that are good on power. It’s still hard to beat C when trying to get the most out of those little CPUs.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is certainly raising big headlines these days, and with good reason. Of course, for us in the embedded industry, IoT isn’t really anything that new. A lot of the devices we’re talking about as the Things already exist and are programmed in C.

But as the internet grows up, you start to see how you can leverage all the data that we’ve been generating on those devices, to analyze that data and control those devices from anywhere in the world. It’s a very compelling story and I expect some really interesting libraries and applications written in C and C++ running on those devices. And it will be exciting to see how with Eclipse, we can build an IDE that lets you create these systems in multiple languages all throughout the stack.

2. CDT is 12 years old

I often think back to that first CDT summit in the summer of 2001 where it all started. It was held in a conference room back at QNX’s old headquarters in south Kanata, Ontario, Canada. I was there as part of the team from Rational and I was yearning to get “down and dirty” in IDE business after years of playing in the “ahead of it’s time” modeling space. I was pretty sure that a C/C++ IDE for Eclipse would be pretty popular and the team from QNX was looking for a community to help with the one they had built. It was a perfect match.

12 years later, we’re still going strong. Lots of committers and contributors have come and gone, but the mission is still the same: build a community driven IDE that helps make the lives of developers who work on C/C++ applications better. We have all been proud to participate in that mission.

3. CDT had 2 million downloads in Juno

That’s an incredible number, isn't it? I remember the first time we gathered download stats, I was thrilled to see it in the 10s of thousands. It was a sign of success. But year after year the number grew and grew. Juno SR-1, that SR being by far the most popular of the three releases we do a year, almost hit 1 million. Add in the half a million each for the June release and SR-2, wow. I’m very proud of that number.

I also follow Stack Overflow and various social media outlets for people’s comments and questions about the CDT and I see a lot of sentiment that we’re heading in the right direction. A famous game engine architect tweeted a few days ago that he was finding that Eclipse with CDT is perfectly usable these days. He seems to think it’s today’s hardware, however I know that’s because of all the performance optimizations we’ve done. There’s no doubting we still have usability issues and have trouble handling some of the more unstructured projects out there, but we have come a long way.

4. CDT has a full C/C++ parser and index database

OK, so yeah, this is my baby. After the first CDT summit, our team at Rational took on the job of building real C and C++ parsers and an index database for the CDT. In our minds, it is very important that in order to build good tooling in an IDE, you had to have deep knowledge of the user’s code. Source navigation, being able to find the definition of a symbol, or to find all references to a function, and so on, as well as good context aware content assist are key values that a text editor simply isn’t going to give you for C++, at least not without a lot of set up and other tools.

And trust me, while it is valuable, it sure is hard to build. I remember senior management laughing a bit at us trying and there have been a lot of doubters and a lot of doubts by ourselves that we could pull it off, but when you’re editing files, not noticing the index running and then have control click (Open Declaration) work in the code you just wrote, we got it right.

It took a lot of hard work and the CDT frankly wasn’t very good in this area for the first half of it’s life. But since I rewrote the indexer when I joined QNX in 2005 by minimizing the amount of parsing it had to do, and maximized the use of heuristics, I’ve been pretty happy with it. And as my fellow CDT contributors continue to work on improving accuracy while managing the trade off with performance, it keeps getting better. And that includes adding in new language features as the C++ standard picks up a renewed drive towards modernization with C++11 and the upcoming C++14.

5. CDT has a static analyzer called Codan

The CDT parsers started life to support the source navigation features and content assist. But as we realized what we had built, a pretty fast and accurate parser, we started to dream bigger.

Those of you who work on C/C++ projects know it can take quite some time for a build to complete. Even incremental builds, which minimize compilation, still have to go through a lengthy link phase to hook up all the symbol references to create a working executable. That’s a long time to wait to see if you have errors in your code, and it’s an even longer time to see if you’ve fixed them properly. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use the CDT parsers to let you know as you type that your code has errors in it. JDT can do this since it has a real compiler in it. Are the CDT’s parsers that good.

Well the answer is yes and no, but it does work in a lot of cases. We can pick up on a most syntax errors and have started adding checkers to validate the semantics of the code as well. And that includes the ever troublesome for C programmers, the accidental assignment in a condition, = instead of ==, which is syntactically valid, but hardly ever what you want to do and something that almost every C programmer has been burned with.

code analysis

And as we continue our work at improving the accuracy of the parsers and kill off the false positives which are inevitable in static analysis tools, we think this is a huge reason why users would want to use the CDT, and something few other C/C++ IDEs do well if at all.

6. CDT does refactoring and other cool tricks

You thought semantic analysis was hard for C and C++. How about refactoring? One of the things that makes refactoring hard for our languages is the macro preprocessor that takes your source code and converts it into something potentially very different. Given that refactoring works at the source level, the preprocessor is it’s number one enemy.

But if you minimize the use of it and keep your code clean, you can take advantage of the refactorings we’ve added over the years. Of course, you can never have an IDE these days without rename refactoring, including in-line rename refactoring just as JDT does. But we have others, like extracting constants which gives numbers a name, critical for embedded programming. And we have the ability to generate code, including generating your traditional getters and setters and implementing methods defined in a class.

7. CDT has unit test support

If you’re a Java programmer, you are very likely familiar with JDT’s JUnit support. CDT has something similar in a familiar UI.

run configurations

It starts with a launch configuration which supports three popular C++ Unit test frameworks: Google Tests, Qt Test, and Boost.Test, and it is extensible so we should see others added in the future. Generally these launch the application under test and gathers the results by watching the programs output. It then formats the results and presents it in a Unit Test view.

unit test

8. CDT is very interested in Qt

Qt is a C++ framework that is quickly becoming the cross platform standard for writing C++ applications for both desktop and mobile devices. It has a rich set of APIs and does a lot to simplify C++ programming, especially with memory management.

It also offers some added semantics around asynchronous programming with the ability to declare methods as slots or signals. You can connect a signal emitted from one object to a slot implemented for another. You often see this in UI frameworks and network programming, but the added syntax that Qt provides, through some magic macros and a special preprocessor, makes it simple to work with.

However, that special syntax needs support from your IDE and we’ve started adding that to the CDT. We’ll also be adding support for Qt’s build system, qmake, which generates makefiles and helps manage the special build needed to run it’s preprocessor. Our intention is to ensure Eclipse and the CDT is a good alternative IDE for Qt developers and allow them to take advantage of the great ecosystem Eclipse provides.

9. CDT is very interested in LLVM/Clang

It’s been one of those long-time dreams of supporting development for Apple’s operating systems using the CDT. It’s been hard to get off the ground because of the need to support Objective-C. Syntax and keyword highlighting is one thing, but writing a parser and adding support in the index has been an insurmountable hurdle.

The LLVM compiler stack and their C/C++/Objective-C compiler Clang has opened up possibilities that just weren’t available to us with standard gcc environment. First of all, LLVM and friends have a BSD-style license. gcc is GPL. For Eclipse projects, that a monumental difference. It means we can potentially integrate with LLVM technologies without affecting our license.

And one of those technologies we are keenly interested in is an API for the Clang parser. The possibility exists for us to use Clang and maybe even it’s backend LLVM as an alternative for CDT’s internal parsers and indexer. And that would not only give us support for new languages, like Objective-C, but also give us access to Clang’s static analysis capability.

It’s exciting to think of the possibilities, but we all realize it’s a huge amount of work and right now, we don’t have the community resources to pursue it. But we hope to start with baby steps, first learn how to use this new pot of gold, and then see if there’s a clean path to bring it in. And we hope that along the way, we’ll find others interested in the same idea.

10. CDT is at the core of a really interesting Eclipse community

One of my earliest EclipseCon memories was a meeting that I got invited to to discuss two competing proposals for Fortran support in Eclipse. Fortran you say? Once I got to meet and hang out with these guys (and get them to work together), I soon learned of another community of developers I had forgotten about since leaving university, high performance computing. These guys get to play with the coolest toys, the big iron, those massively parallel machines you hear about in the Top 500 Supercomputers list.

Well, these guys need an IDE and Eclipse is perfect for them. And the cool thing is that they use CDT as a core piece for a lot of their tooling. If you ever get a chance, check out the Parallel Tools Project, and check out how they’re handling debugging an application that spans 100,000 processors. It ain’t easy!

The other key project that the CDT works with is the Linux Tools Project. In a lot of ways, Linux has driven the C/C++ open source tools business. Without it, the gcc compiler and the gdb debugger would never have been the industry standards they are today.

Well, there also happens to be a lot of other tools that Linux provides. The Linux Tools Project focuses on providing access to these tools through Eclipse including Valgrind run-time analysis, Gcov code coverage, Gprof system profiler, and LTTng system tracing.

And, of course, most programs written for Linux are written in C or C++ so there is a huge overlap between the communities. So much so, that as Linux tools become popular on Windows and Mac, such as we saw with the autoconf build tools, we have been able to migrate that functionality down into the CDT and made available to the larger audience.

There’s no end in sight

You always wonder how long a project can go on for. After 12+ years, there is no sign that the CDT is finished. Far from it. As long as C and it’s family of high performance, close to the metal languages continue to find work in the systems of today, the CDT will be there to support the developers who get to play there.

About the Author
Doug Schaefer

Doug Schaefer
BlackBerry/QNX