Arrays considered somewhat harmful

Arrays considered somewhat harmful

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I got a moral question from an author of programming language textbooks the other day requesting my opinions on whether or not beginner programmers should be taught how to use arrays.

Rather than actually answer that question, I gave him a long list of my opinions about arrays, how I use arrays, how we expect arrays to be used in the future, and so on. This gets a bit long, but like Pascal, I didn't have time to make it shorter. 

Let me start by saying when you definitely should not use arrays, and then wax more philosophical about the future of modern programming and the role of the array in the coming world.

You probably should not return an array as the value of a public method or property, particularly when the information content of the array is logically immutable. Let me give you an example of where we got that horridly wrong in a very visible way in the framework.  If you take a look at the documentation for System.Type, you'll find that just looking at the method descriptions gives one a sense of existential dread. One sees a whole lot of sentences like "Returns an array of Type objects that represent the constraints on the current generic type parameter." Almost every method on System.Type returns an array it seems. 

Now think about how that must be implemented. When you call, say, GetConstructors() on typeof(string), the implementation cannot possibly do this, as sensible as it seems.

public class Type {
   private ConstructorInfo[] ctorInfos;
   public ConstructorInfo[] GetConstructors()
   {
     if (ctorInfos == null) ctorInfos = GoGetConstructorInfosFromMetadata();
     return ctorInfos;
   }

Why? Because now the caller can take that array and replace the contents of it with whatever they please. Returning an array means that you have to make a fresh copy of the array every time you return it. You get called a hundred times, you’d better make a hundred array instances, no matter how large they are. It’s a performance nightmare – particularly if, like me, you are considering using reflection to build a compiler. Do you have any idea how many times a second I try to get type information out of reflection?  Not nearly as many times as I could; every time I do it’s another freakin’ array allocation!

The frameworks designers were not foolish people; unfortunately, we did not have generic types in .NET 1.0. clearly the sensible thing now for GetConstructors() to return is IList<ConstructorInfo>. You can build yourself a nice read-only collection object once, and then just pass out references to it as much as you want.

What is the root cause of this malaise? It is simple to state: The caller is requesting values.  The callee fulfills the request by handing back variables.

An array is a collection of variables. The caller doesn’t want variables, but it’ll take them if that’s the only way to get the values. But in this case, as in most cases, neither the callee nor the caller wants those variables to ever vary. Why on earth is the callee passing back variables then? Variables vary. Therefore, a fresh, different variable must be passed back every time, so that if it does vary, nothing bad happens to anyone else who has requested the same values.

If you are writing such an API, wrap the array in a ReadOnlyCollection<T> and return an IEnumerable<T> or an IList<T> or something, but not an array.  (And of course, do not simply cast the array to IEnumerable<T> and think you’re done!  That is still passing out variables; the caller can simply cast back to array!  Only pass out an array if it is wrapped up by a read-only object.)

That’s the situation at present. What are the implications of array characteristics for the future of programming and programming languages?

Parallelism Problems

The physics aspects of Moore’s so-called “Law” are failing, as they eventually must. Clock speeds have stopped increasing, transistor density has stopped increasing. The laws of thermodynamics and the Uncertainty Principle are seeing to that. But manufacturing costs per chip are still falling, which means that our only hope of Moore’s "Law" continuing to hold over the coming decades is to cram more and more processors into each box. 

We’re going to need programming languages that allow mere mortals to write code that is parallelizable to multiple cores.

Side-effecting change is the enemy of parallelization. Parallelizing in a world with observable side effects means locks, and locks means choosing between implementing lock ordering and dealing with random crashes or deadlocks. Lock ordering requires global knowledge of the program. Programs are becoming increasingly complex, to the point where one person cannot reasonably and confidently have global knowledge. Indeed, we prefer programming languages to have the property that programs in them can be understood by understanding one part at a time, not having to swallow the whole thing in one gulp.

Therefore we tools providers need to create ways for people to program effectively without causing observable side effects.

Of all the sort of “basic” types, arrays most strongly work against this goal. An array’s whole purpose is to be a mass of mutable state. Mutable state is hard for both humans and compilers to reason about. It will be hard for us to write compilers in the future that generate performant multi-core programs if developers use a lot of arrays.

Now, one might reasonably point out that List<T> is a mass of mutable state too. But at least one could create a threadsafe list class, or an immutable list class, or a list class that has transactional integrity, or uses some form of isolation or whatever. We have an extensibility model for lists because lists are classes. We have no ability to make an “immutable array”. Arrays are what they are and they’re never going to change.

Conceptual Problems

We want C# to be a language in which one can draw a line between code that implements a mechanism and code that implements a policy.

The “C” programming language is all about mechanisms. It lays bare almost exactly what the processor is actually doing, providing only the thinnest abstraction over the memory model. And though we want you to be able to write programs like that in C#, most of the time people should be writing code in the “policy” realm. That is, code that emphasizes what the code is supposed to do, not how it does it.

Coding which is more declarative than imperative, coding which avoids side effects, coding which emphasizes algorithms and purposes over mechanisms, that kind of coding is the future in a world of parallelism. (And you’ll note that LINQ is designed to be declarative, strongly abstract away from mechanisms, and be free of side effects.)

Arrays work against all of these factors. Arrays demand imperative code, arrays are all about side effects, arrays make you write code which emphasizes how the code works, not what the code is doing or why it is doing it. Arrays make optimizing for things like “swapping two values” easy, but destroy the larger ability to optimize for parallelism.

Practical Problems

And finally, given that arrays are mutable by design, the way an array restricts that mutability is deeply weird. All the contents of the collection are mutable, but the size is fixed.  What is up with that? Does that solve a problem anyone actually has?

For this reason alone I do almost no programming with arrays anymore. Arrays simply do not model any problem that I have at all well – I rarely need a collection which has the rather contradictory properties of being completely mutable, and at the same time, fixed in size. If I want to mutate a collection it is almost always to add something to it or remove something from it, not to change what value an index maps to.

We have a class or interface for everything I need. If I need a sequence I’ll use IEnumerable<T>, if I need a mapping from contiguous numbers to data I’ll use a List<T>, if I need a mapping across arbitrary data I’ll use a Dictionary<K,V>, if I need a set I’ll use a HashSet<T>. I simply don’t need arrays for anything, so I almost never use them. They don’t solve a problem I have better than the other tools at my disposal.

Pedagogic Problems

It is important that beginning programmers understand arrays; it is an important and widely used concept. But it is also important to me that they understand the weaknesses and shortcomings of arrays. In almost every case, there is a better tool to use than an array.

The difficulty is, pedagogically, that it is hard to discuss the merits of those tools without already having down concepts like classes, interfaces, generics, asymptotic performance, query expressions, and so on. It’s a hard problem for the writer and for the teacher. Fortunately, for me, it's not a problem that I personally have to solve.

  • I'm not saying that I agree particularly much with the BCL teams decision to have "IsReadOnly" on ICollection (and hence IList). But that decisions at least makes returning a readonly IList valid and actually it fit well with the rest of the framework.

    Now I would have liked both "obviously" read-only containers and separated input/output streams, but that's more taste than anything else.

    Great post anyhow.

  • > Arrays simply do not model any problem that I have at all well

    Then, of course, don't use arrays. However, arrays (vectors and matrices) do model problems that scientists and engineers have, and nothing else models them as well or efficiently. So to call arrays harmful is to exclude a large and important class of applications simply because you don't happen to work on them. It would be more reasonable to note there is a need for immutable arrays not met by our current languages.

  • If you answer and then explain you're a good person.

    If you explain instead of answering you're a weasel, tut.

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