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The Basics of C Programming

        Tech | Programming

Pointers: Why?

Imagine that you would like to create a text editor -- a program that lets you edit normal ASCII text files, like "vi" on UNIX or "Notepad" on Windows. A text editor is a fairly common thing for someone to create because, if you think about it, a text editor is probably a programmer's most commonly used piece of software. The text editor is a programmer's intimate link to the computer -- it is where you enter all of your thoughts and then manipulate them. Obviously, with anything you use that often and work with that closely, you want it to be just right. Therefore many programmers create their own editors and customize them to suit their individual working styles and preferences.

So one day you sit down to begin working on your editor. After thinking about the features you want, you begin to think about the "data structure" for your editor. That is, you begin thinking about how you will store the document you are editing in memory so that you can manipulate it in your program. What you need is a way to store the information you are entering in a form that can be manipulated quickly and easily. You believe that one way to do that is to organize the data on the basis of lines of characters. Given what we have discussed so far, the only thing you have at your disposal at this point is an array. You think, "Well, a typical line is 80 characters long, and a typical file is no more than 1,000 lines long." You therefore declare a two-dimensional array, like this:

char doc[1000][80];

This declaration requests an array of 1,000 80-character lines. This array has a total size of 80,000 characters.

As you think about your editor and its data structure some more, however, you might realize three things:

  • Some documents are long lists. Every line is short, but there are thousands of lines.
  • Some special-purpose text files have very long lines. For example, a certain data file might have lines containing 542 characters, with each character representing the amino acid pairs in segments of DNA.
  • In most modern editors, you can open multiple files at one time.

Let's say you set a maximum of 10 open files at once, a maximum line length of 1,000 characters and a maximum file size of 50,000 lines. Your declaration now looks like this:

char doc[50000][1000][10];

That doesn't seem like an unreasonable thing, until you pull out your calculator, multiply 50,000 by 1,000 by 10 and realize the array contains 500 million characters! Most computers today are going to have a problem with an array that size. They simply do not have the RAM, or even the virtual memory space, to support an array that large. If users were to try to run three or four copies of this program simultaneously on even the largest multi-user system, it would put a severe strain on the facilities.

Even if the computer would accept a request for such a large array, you can see that it is an extravagant waste of space. It seems strange to declare a 500 million character array when, in the vast majority of cases, you will run this editor to look at 100 line files that consume at most 4,000 or 5,000 bytes. The problem with an array is the fact that you have to declare it to have its maximum size in every dimension from the beginning. Those maximum sizes often multiply together to form very large numbers. Also, if you happen to need to be able to edit an odd file with a 2,000 character line in it, you are out of luck. There is really no way for you to predict and handle the maximum line length of a text file, because, technically, that number is infinite.

Pointers are designed to solve this problem. With pointers, you can create dynamic data structures. Instead of declaring your worst-case memory consumption up-front in an array, you instead allocate memory from the heap while the program is running. That way you can use the exact amount of memory a document needs, with no waste. In addition, when you close a document you can return the memory to the heap so that other parts of the program can use it. With pointers, memory can be recycled while the program is running.

By the way, if you read the previous discussion and one of the big questions you have is, "What IS a byte, really?," then the article How Bits and Bytes Work will help you understand the concepts, as well as things like "mega," "giga" and "tera." Go take a look and then come back.