Data Compression for the Kinect

Transmitting uncompressed Kinect depth and color data requires a network bandwidth of about 460Mbit/s. Using the RleCodec or the LZ4 library we achieve tremendous compression – a compression ratio of 10 or 22 respectively, at lightning speed – over 1600Mbytes/s. We achieve this not so much by the compression algorithms, but by removing undesirable effects (jitter, by the DiscreteMedianFilter) and redundancy (already sent data, by taking the Delta).

Introduction

From the start, one goal of the Kinect Client Server (KCS) project was to provide a version of the KCS viewer, called 3D-TV, from the Windows Store. Because of certification requirement 3.1 (V5.0)

“Windows Store apps must not communicate with local desktop applications or services via local mechanisms,..”

3D-TV has to connect to a KinectColorDepth server application on another PC. In practice, the network bandwidth that is required to transfer uncompressed Kinect depth and color data over Ethernet LAN using TCP is about 460Mbit/s, see e.g. the blog post on the jitter filter. This is a lot, and we would like to reduce it using data compression.

This is the final post in a series of three on the Kinect Client Server system, an Open Source project at CodePlex, where the source code of the software discussed here can be obtained.

What Do We Need?

Let’s first clarify the units of measurements we use.

Mega and Giga

There is some confusion regarding the terms Mega and Giga, as in Megabit.

  • For files 1 Megabit = 2^20 bits, and 1 Gigabit = 2^30 bits.
  • For network bandwidth, 1 megabit = 10^6 bits, and 1 gigabit = 10^9 bits.

Here we will use the units for network bandwidth. The Kinect produces a color frame of 4 bytes and a depth frame of 2 bytes at 30 frames per second. This amounts to:

30 FPS x 640×48 resolution x (2 depth bytes + 4 color bytes) x 8 bits = 442.4 Mbit/s = 55.3 Mbyte/s.

We have seen before that the actual network bandwidth is about 460Mbit/s, so network transport creates about 18Mbit/s overhead, or about 4%.

Since we are dealing with data here that is streamed at 30 FPS, time performance is more important than compression rate. It turns out that a compression rate of at least 2 (compressed file size is at most 50% of uncompressed size), in about 5ms satisfies all requirements.

Data Compression: Background, Existing Solutions

Theory

If you are looking for an introduction to data compression, you might want to take a look at Rui del-Negro’s excellent 3 part introduction to data compression. In short: there are lossless compression techniques and lossy compression techniques. The lossy ones achieve better compression, but at the expense of some loss of the original data. This loss can be a nuisance, or irrelevant, e.g. because it defines information that cannot be detected by our senses. Both types of compression are applied, often in combination, to images, video and sound.

The simplest compression technique is Run Length Encoding, a lossless compression technique. It simply replaces a sequence of identical tokens by one occurrence of the token and the count of occurrences. A very popular somewhat more complex family of compression techniques is the LZ (Lempel-Ziv) family (e.g. LZ, LZ77, LZ78, LZW) which is a dictionary based, lossless compression. For video, the MPEG family of codecs is a well known solution.

Existing Solutions

There are many, many data compression libraries, see e.g. Stephan Busch’s Squeeze Chart for an overview and bench marks. Before I decided to roll my own implementation of a compression algorithm, I checked out two other solutions: The Windows Media Codecs In Window Media Foundation. But consider the following fragment from the Windows Media Codecs documentation:

It seems as if the codecs are way too slow: max 8Mbit/s where we need 442Mbit/s. The WMF codecs obviously serve a different purpose.

The compression used for higher compression levels seems primarily of the lossy type. Since we have only 640×480 pixels I’m not sure whether it is a good idea to go ‘lossy’. It also seems that not all versions of Windows 8 support the WMF.

LZ4, an open source compression library. This is a very fast compression library, see image below, from the website:

So, LZ4 can compress a file to 50% at over 400MByte/s. That is absolutely great! I’ve downloaded the source and tried it on Kinect color and depth data. Results are shown and compared in the Performance section.

The RleCodec

I decided to write my own data compression codec, and chose the Run Length Encoding algorithm as a starting point. Why?

Well, I expected a custom algorithm, tailored to the situation at hand would outperform the general purpose LZ4 library. And the assumption turned out to be correct. A prototype implementation of the RleCodec supported by both the DiscreteMedianFilter and creating a Delta before compressing data really outperformed the LZ4 reference implementation, as can be read from the performance data in the Performance section.

It only dawned on me much later that removing undesired effects (like jitter, by the DiscreteMedianFilter) and redundant information (already sent data, by taking the Delta) before compressing and transmitting data is not an improvement of just the RLE algorithm, but should be applied before any compression and transmission takes place. So, I adjusted my approach and in the performance comparison below, we compare the core RLE and LZ4 algorithms, and see that LZ4 is indeed the better algorithm.

However, I expect that in time the data compression codec will be implemented as a GPU program, because there might be other image pre-processing steps that will also have to be executed at the GPU on the server machine; to copy the data to the GPU just for compression requires too much overhead. It seems to me that for GPU implementations the RLE algorithm will turn out the better choice. The LZ4 algorithm is a dictionary based algorithm, and creating and consulting a dictionary requires intensive interaction with global memory on the GPU, which is relatively expensive. An algorithm that can do its computations purely locally has an advantage.

Design

Lossless or Lossy

Shall we call the RleCodec a lossy or lossless compression codec? Of course, RLE is lossless, but when compressing the data, the KinectColorDepth server also applies the DiscreteMedianFilter and takes the Delta with the previous frame. Both reduce the information contained in the data. Since these steps are responsible for enormous reduction of compressed size, I am inclined to consider the resulting library a lossy compression library, noting that it only looses information we would like to lose, i.e. the jitter and data we already sent over the wire.

Implementation

Algorithm

In compressing, transmitting, and decompressing data the KinectColorDepth server application takes the following steps:

  1. Apply the DiscreteMedianFilter.
  2. Take the Delta of the current input with the previous input.
  3. Compress the data.
  4. Transmit the data over Ethernet using TCP.
  5. Decompress the data at the client side.
  6. Update the previous frame with the Delta.

Since the first frame has no predecessor, it is a Delta itself and send over the network as a whole.

Code

The RleCodec was implemented in C++ as a template class. Like with the DiscreteMedianFilter, traits classes have been defined to inject the properties that are specific to color and depth data at compile time.

The interface consists of:

  • A declaration that take the value type as the template argument.
  • A constructor that takes the number of elements (not the number of bytes) as an argument.
  • The size method that returns the byte size of the compressed data.
  • The data method that returns a shared_ptr to the compressed data.
  • The encode method that takes a vector of the data to compress, and stores the result in a private array.
  • The decode method that takes a vector, of sufficient size, to write the decompressed data into.

Like the DiscreteMedianFilter, the RleCodec uses channels and an offset to control the level of parallelism and to skip channels that do not contain information (specifically, the A (alpha or opacity) channel of the color data). Parallelism is implemented using concurrency::parallel_for from the PPL library.

Meta Programming

The RleCodec contains some meta programming in the form of template classes that roll out loops over the channels and offset during compilation. The idea is that removing logic that loops over channels and checks if a specific channel has to be processed or skipped will provide a performance gain. However, it turned out that this gain is only marginal (and a really thin margin :-) ). It seems as if the compiler obviates meta programming, except perhaps for very complicated cases.

Performance

How does our custom RLE codec perform in test environment and in the practice of transmitting Kinect data over a network? How does its performance compare to that of LZ4?. Let’s find out.

In Vitro Performance

In vitro performance tests evaluate in controlled and comparable circumstances the speed at which the algorithms compress and decompress data.

Timing

In order to get comparable timings for the two codecs, we measure the performance within the context of a small test program I wrote, the same program is used for both codecs. This makes the results comparable and sheds light on the usefulness of the codec in the context of transmitting Kinect data over a network.

Algorithm

In comparing the RleCodec and LZ4, both algorithms take advantage of working the delta of the input with the previous input. We use 3 subsequent depth frames and 3 subsequent color frames for a depth test and a color test. In a test the frames are processed following the sequence below:

  1. Compute delta of current frame from previous frame.
  2. Compress the delta.
  3. Measure the time it takes to compress the delta
  4. Decompress the delta
  5. Measure the time it takes to decompress the delta
  6. Update previous frame with the delta
  7. Check correctness, i.e. the equality of the current input with the updated previous input.

We run the sequence 1000 times and average the results. Averaging is useful for processing times, the compression factor will be the same in each run. The frames we used are not filtered (DiscreteMedianFilter).

Let’s first establish that the performance of these libraries are of very different order than the performance of the WMF codecs. Let’s also establish that compression speed and decompression speed is much more than sufficient: as noted above 50Mbyte/s would do.

For depth data, we see that the RleCodec delivers fastest compression. LZ4 delivers faster decompression, and obtains stronger compression.

The RleCodec was tested twice with the color data. In the first test we interpreted the color data as of type unsigned char. We used 3 channels with offset 4 to compress it. In the second test we interpreted the color data as unsigned int. We used 4 channels, with offset 4. We see that now the RleCodec runs about 4 times as fast as with char data. The compression strength is the same, however. So, for color data, the same picture arises as with depth data: times are of the same order, but LZ4 creates stronger compression.

The difference in naked compression ratios has limited relevance, however. We will see in the section on In Vivo testing that the effects of working with a Delta, an in particular of the DiscreteMedianFilter dwarfs these differences.

We note that the first depth frame yields lesser results both for time performance and compression ratio. The lesser (de)compression speed is due to the initialization of the PPL concurrency library. The lesser compression ratio is illustrative of the effect of processing a Delta: the first frame has no predecessor, hence there is no Delta and the full frame is compressed. The second frame does have a Delta, and the compression ratio improves by a factor of 2.4 – 2.5.

In Vivo Performance

In Vivo tests measure, in fact, the effect of the DiscreteMedianFilter on the data compression. In Vivo performance testing measures the required network bandwidth in various configurations:

  1. No compression, no filter (DiscreteMedianFilter).
  2. With compression, no filter.
  3. With compression, with filter, with noise.
  4. With compression, with filter, without noise.

We measure the use of the RleCodec and the LZ4 libraries. Measurements are made for a static scene. Measuring means here to read values from the Task Manager’s Performance tab (update speed = low).

Using a static scene is looking for rock bottom results. Since activity in the scene- people moving around can be expressed as a noise level, resulting compression will always be somewhere between the noiseless level and the “no compression, no filter” level. Increase will be about linear, given the definition of noise as a percentage of changed pixels.

The measurements in the table below are in Megabits per second, whereas the table above shows measurements in Megabytes per second. So, in order to compare the numbers, if so required, the entries in the table below have to be divided by 8. Note that 460Mbit/s is 57.5Mbyte/s.

What we see is that:

  • Compression of the delta reduces network bandwidth width 13* (RLE), or 33% (LZ4).
  • Application of the filter reduces it further with 53% (RLE), or 39% (LZ4).
  • Cancelling noise reduces it further with 24% (RLE), or 23% (LZ4).
  • We end up with a compression factor of about 10 (RLE), or 22 (LZ4).

:-).

What do we transmit at the no noise level? Just the jitter beyond the breadth of the DiscreteMedianFilter, a lot of zeroes, and some networking overhead.

As noted above, the differences between the core RleCodec and LZ4 are insignificant compared to the effects of the DiscreteMedianFilter and taking the Delta.

Conclusions

Using the RleCodec or the LZ4 library we achieve tremendous compression, a compression ratio of 10 or 22 respectively , at lightning speed – over 1600Mbytes/s. We achieve this not so much by the compression algorithms, but by removing undesirable effects (jitter, by the DiscreteMedianFilter) and redundancy (already sent data, by taking the Delta).

ToDo

There is always more to wish for, so what more do we want?

Navigation needs to be improved. At the moment it is somewhat jerky because of the reduction in depth information. If we periodically, say once a second, send a full (delta yes, filter no) frame, in order to have all information at the client’s end, we might remedy this effect.

A GPU implementation. Compute shader or C++ AMP based. But only in combination with other processing steps that really need the GPU.

Improve on RLE. RLE compresses only sequences of the same token. What would it take to store each literal only once, and insert a reference to the first occurrence at reencountering it? Or would that be reinventing LZ?

A Jitter Filter for the Kinect

This blog post introduces a filter for the jitter caused by the Kinect depth sensor. The filter works essentially by applying a dynamic threshold. Experience shows that a threshold works much better than averaging, which has the disadvantage of negatively influencing motion detection, and has only moderate results. The presented DiscreteMedianFilter removes the jitter. A problem that remains to be solved is the manifestation of depth shadows. Performance of the filter is fine. Performance is great in the absence of depth shadow countermeasures.

Introduction

Kinect depth images show considerable jitter, see e.g. the depth samples from the SDK. Jitter degrades image quality. But it also makes compression(Run Length Encoding) harder; compression for the Kinect Server System will be discussed in a separate blog post. For these reasons we want to reduce the jitter, if not eliminate it.

Kinect Depth Data

What are the characteristics of Kinect depth data?

Literature on Statistical Analysis of the Depth Sensor

Internet search delivers a number of papers reporting on thorough analysis of the depth sensor. In particular:

[1] A very extensive and accessible technical report by M.R. Andersen, T. Jensen, P. Lisouski, A.K. Mortensen, M.K. Hansen, T. Gregersen and P. Ahrendt: Kinect Depth Sensor Evaluation for Computer Vision Applications.

[2] An also well readable article by Kourosh Khoshelham and Sander Oude Elberink.

[3] A more technically oriented article by Jae-Han Park, Yong-Deuk Shin, Ji-Hun Bae and Moon-Hong Baeg.

[4] Of course, there is always the Wikipedia

These articles discuss the Kinect 360. I’ve not found any evidence that these results do not carry over to the Kinect for Windows, within the range ([0.8m - 4m]) of the Default mode.

Depth Data

We are interested in the depth properties of the 640×480 spatial image that the Kinect produces at 30 FPS in the Default range. From the he SDK documentation we know that the Kinect provides depth measurements in millimeters. A dept value measures the distance between a coordinate in the spatial image and the corresponding coordinate in the parallel plane at the depth sensor, see image below from the Kinect SDK Documentation.

Some characteristics:

1. Spatial resolution: at 0.8m the 640×480 (width x height) depth coordinates cover an approximately 87cmx63cm plane. The resolution is inversely proportional with the squared distance from the depth sensor. The sensor has an angular field of view of 57° horizontally and 43° vertically.

2. Depth resolution: the real world distance between 2 subsequent depth values the Kinect can deliver is about 2mm at 1m from the Kinect, about 2.5cm at 3m, and about 7cm at 5m. Resolution decreases quadratically as a function of the distance.

Jitter

The Kinect depth measurements are characterized by some uncertainty that is expressible as a random error. One can distinguish between errors in the x,y-plane on the one hand, and on the z-axis (depth values) on the other hand. It is the latter that is referenced to as the depth jitter. The random error in the x,y-plane is much smaller than the depth jitter. I suspect it manifests itself as the color jitter in the KinectColorDepthServer through the mapping of color onto depth, but that still has to be sorted out. Nevertheless, the filter described here is also applied to the color data, after mapping onto depth.

The depth jitter has the following characteristics:

1. The error in depth measurements: The jitter is about a few millimeters at 0.5m, up to 4cm at 5m, increasing quadratically over the distance from the camera.

2. The jitter is a walk over a small number of nearby discrete values. We have already seen this in a previous post in The Byte Kitchen Blog, where we found a variance over mainly 3 different values, and incidentally 4 different values. Of course, for very long measuring times, we may expect an increased variance.

3. The jitter is much larger at the boundaries of depth shadows. Visually, this is a pretty disturbing effect, but the explanation is simple. The Kinect emits an infra red beam for depth measurements which, of course, creates a shadow. The jitter on the edges of a depth shadow jumps from an object to its shadow on the background which is usually much further away. We cannot remove this jitter without removing the difference between an object and its background, so for now, I’ve left it as is.

The miniature below is a link to a graph in [2] (page 1450, or 14 of 18) of the depth resolution (blue) and size of the theoretical depth measurement error (red).

 

A Kinect Produces a Limited Set of Discrete Depth Values

It is not the goal of the current project to correct the Kinect depth data, we just want to send it over an Ethernet network. What helps a lot is, and you could see this one coming:

The Kinect produces a limited set of depth values.

The Kinect for Windows produces 345 different depth values in the Default range, not counting the special values for unknown, and out of range measurements. The depth values for my Kinect for Windows are (divide by 8 to get the depth distance in mm):

This is the number of values for the Kinect for Windows. I also checked the number of unique values for my Kinect 360, and it has a larger but also stable set of unique depth values. The number of depth values is 781, due to the larger range.

The fact that a Kinect produces a limited and small set of depth values makes live a lot easier: we can use a lookup table were we would otherwise have to use function approximation. The availability of a lookup table is also good news for the time performance of the filter.

A question might be: can you use the depth table of an arbitrary Kinect to work with any other Kinect? I assume that each Kinect has a slightly different table, and this assumption is based on the fact that my Kinect for Windows has slightly different values than my Kinect 360, for the same sub range. However, if you use an upper bound search (this filter uses std::upper_bound), you will find the first value equal to or larger than a value from an arbitrary Kinect, which will usually be a working approximation (better than having the jitter). Of course, an adaptive table would be better, and it is on the ToDo list.

Design

I’ve experimented with several approaches: sliding window of temporal averages, Bilateral Filter. But these were unsatisfactory:

- Reduction of Jitter is much less good compared to applying a threshold.

- Movement detection is as much reduced as the jitter, which is an undesirable effect.

A simple threshold, of about the size of the breadth of the error function proved the best solution. As noted above, the jitter typically is limited to a few values above and below the ‘real’ value. We could call the ‘real’ value the median of the jitter range, and describe this jitter range not in terms of the depth values themselves but of the enumeration of the sorted list of discrete depth values (see table). We get a Discrete Median Filter if we map all discrete values within the range onto the median of that range (minding the asymmetry of the sub ranges at the boundaries of our sorted list).

The DiscreteMedianFilter Removes Jitter

In practice we see no jitter anymore when the filter is applied: The DiscreteMedianFilter ends the jitter (period). However, the filter is not applicable to (edges of) depth shadows.

Noise

Actually, it turned out that this filter is in fact too good. If the Kinect registers a moving object, we get a moving depth shadow. The filter cannot deal with illegal depth values, so we are stuck with a depth shadow smear.

A modest level of noise solves this problem. In each frame 10% of the pixels the filter skips is selected at random, and updated. This works fine, but it should be regarded as a temporal solution: the real problem is, of course, the depth shadow, and that should be taken up.

Implementation

The Discrete Median Filter was implemented in C++, as a template class, with a traits template class (struct, actually); one specialization for the depth value type and one specialization for the color value type, to set the parameters that are typical for each data type, and a policy template which holds the variant of the algorithm that is typical for the depth and color data respectively. For evaluation purposes, I also implemented traits and policy classes for unsigned int.

So, the DiscreteMedianFilter class is a template that takes a value type argument. Its interface consists of a parameter free constructor and the Filter method that takes a pointer to an input array and a pointer to a state. The method changes the state where the input deviates from the state more than a specified radius.

Channels and Offset

Color data is made up of RGBA data channels: e.g. R is a channel. Working with channels is inspired on data compression. More on this subject in the blog post on data compression.

The advantages of working with channels for the DiscreteMedianFilter are:

1. We can skip the A channel since it is all zeroes

2. Per channel, changes of color due to sensor errors are usually expressible as small changes, which is not the case for the color as a whole, so we get better filtering results.

3. There are less values: 3 x 256 vs 2^32, so the probability of equal values is higher.

Note that the more values are found to be within the range of values that do not need change, the better time performance we get.

The individual channels are not processed in parallel (unlike in the compression library). We will show below that parallelism should not be required (but actually is, as long as we have noise).

Code

The code is complex at points, so it seems to me that printing the code here would raise more questions than it would answer. Interested people may download the code from The Byte Kitchen Open Sources at Codeplex. If you have a question about the code, please post a comment.

Performance

How much space and time do we need for filtering?

A small test program was built to run the filter on a number of generated arrays simulating subsequent depth and color frames. The program size never gets over 25.4 megabytes. The processing speed (without noise) is:

- About 0.77ms for an array of 1228800 bytes (640×480=307200 ARGB color values); 1530Mbyte/s

- About 0.36ms for an array of 640×480=307200 unsigned short depth values; 1615Mbyte/s.

So, this is all very fast, on a relatively small footprint: in a little more than 1ms we have filtered both the depth and the color data of a Kinect frame.

The simple test program and its synthetic data are not suitable for use with noise. So, we measured the time the KinectColorDepthServer needs for calls to the DiscreteMedianFilter. In this case the noise is set at 10% of the values that would otherwise be skipped. The times below are averaged over 25,000 calls:

- Depth: 6.7ms per call.

- Color: 19.3ms per call.

So, we may conclude that the noise is really a performance killer. Another reason to tackle the depth shadow issue. Nevertheless, we are still within the 33ms time window that is available for each frame at 30 FPS.

Does the DiscreteMedianFilter has any effect on the required network capacity? No, in both cases a capacity of 460Mbit/s is required for a completely static scene, compression is off. I do have the impression that the filter has a smoothing effect on instantaneous (as opposed to average) required network capacity.

To do

There is always more to wish for, so what more do we want?

- Resolve the need for the noise factor, i.e. do something about the depth shadows. This will increase performance greatly.

- Because of filtering, navigation through the scene is jerky. There are much less depth values in the image, so movement is not so smooth. This is to be helped by sending a full depth image every now and then. After all, the filter only replaces values that differ more than a threshold, the rest of the image is retained. Refreshing the overall picture now and then retains the richness of the depth image, helps to make noise superfluous, and smoothes navigation.

- Make the table of depth values adaptive. If a value is not present we replace the nearest value. Of course, we would then also like to save the new table to file, and load it at any subsequent program starts.

Kinect Client Server System V0.2

The Kinect Client Server System V0.2 adds the possibility to V0.1 to watch Kinect Color and Depth data over a network, and to navigate the rendered 3D scene.

To support data transfer over TCP, the Kinect Client Server System (KCS system) contains a custom build implementation of Run Length Encoding compression.

To both maximize compression and improve image quality the KCS system uses a jitter filter

Introduction

Version 0.1 of the KCS system allowed the display of Kinect data in a Windows Store app. This is a restricted scenario: for security reasons, a Windows Store app cannot make a network connection to the same PC it is running on, unless in software development scenarios. Version 0.2 overcomes this restriction by:

1. Support for viewing Kinect data from another PC.

2. Providing the 3D-TV viewer from the Windows Store (free of charge).

Of course, V0.2 is an open Source project, the code and binaries can be downloaded from The Byte Kitchen’s open Source project at CodePlex.

Usage

The easiest way to start using the KCS system v0.2 is to download 3D-TV from the Windows Store, navigate to the Help-About screen (via the ‘Settings’ popup), click on the link to the online manual and follow the stepwise instructions.

The general usage schema is depicted below.

The PC called Kinect server runs the KinectColorDepthServer application. In order for the client PC running 3D-TV to find the server PC on the network, the server PC must be connected to gigabit Ethernet (cabled computer network, say) with a network adapter carrying the IP address 192.168.0.20. The IP address of the Ethernet adaptor of the PC running 3D-TV must satisfy 192.168.0.xxx, where 0 <= x <=255. It is wise to expect that required data capacity is well over 100Megabit/second.

The online manual also provides a complete description of the keyboard keys to be used for navigating around a Kinect scene.

More information

In a few more blog posts, I will discuss more technical details of the new features in the KCS system V0.2, specifically the jitter filter that is to stabilize the Kinect imagery and help in data compression, and the data compression itself.

CX Reconsidered [3]: Components on a Thread

This is a series of blog posts that explore programming tactics which ascertain ‘a thin layer of CX’, as advertised and advised by Microsoft, and that thus maximize the use of ISO C++11(+).

This installment is about different approaches to having a component do its own thread management, and starts off by looking at various ways an application can be started up – assuming that different startup mechanics will lead to different ownership relations between an application and a component, hence different approaches to thread management.

This installment also considers some idioms involving C++11 concurrency, as defined in <thread> and <mutex>.

Introduction

It has been argued earlier in this series that threads are a vehicle by which CX dependencies, hence CX code constructs, propagate through your code. To stop this propagation (and preserve portability) we would like the Core component (the ISO C++ only area) to manage its own threads, and to run its operations on the threads its manages. This implies, so it seems, that for starters a component should not be instantiated on a CX thread.

We will consider several alternatives for starting a Xaml + CX application and find that one alternative stands out. We then discuss two models for thread management, and select the best fit. Finally we will walk through an example program.

Alternative Main() Functions

Each CX application has, just like each C# application, a main() function. In CX applications, the main() function is located in <Project Directory>Generated FilesApp.g.hpp, and it is decorated with “#ifndef DISABLE_XAML_GENERATED_MAIN”. So, if you as a developer define DISABLE_XAML_GENERATED_MAIN, and provide a custom main() function, your main() function will be called.

Steps to move to a custom main() function:

1. Add “#define DISABLE_XAML_GENERATED_MAIN” to the pch.h file.

2. Copy the main function from the App.g.hpp, to have a starting point.

3. Add a file, e.g. Main.cpp with the following code:

4. Then edit the main() function to suit your needs.

The standard main() function starts the Xaml application and instantiates an App class.

It is a conceivable scenario that along the App class a component is initialized, and a handle is passed to the App. The other way round is conceivable also: a handle to the App is passed to the Component.

Enumerating the alternatives systematically results in the following list, assuming that the component has an interface called ComponentClass:

1. Xaml owns all. The standard main() function instantiates the App class. In turn the App class instantiates the ComponentClass. Recall that App.g.hpp is generated, we cannot edit it meaningfully to initiate the ComponentClass.

2. Xaml owns the App. The standard main() function instantiates the App class, and calls a factory method in the component which instantiates the ComponentClass on a new thread.

3. App owns all. A custom main() function instantiates the Xaml UI, the App class and the ComponentClass, preferably on two threads.

4. App owns Xaml. A custom main() function instantiates the Xaml UI and the App class, and calls a factory method in the component which instantiates the ComponentClass on a new thread.

To have ownership means (here) to control the life cycle.

So, the summarize: using the standard main() function implies the Xaml UI owns the App class. Using a custom main() function implies the application owns the Xaml UI. In both cases there are two alternatives concerning ownership of the component: the owner also owns the component, or the component owns itself.

Central ownership reduces the number of threads involved, which simplifies data exchange. Decentralized ownership improves process stability, portability, and it keeps the CX layer thin.

We are primarily interested in alternatives in which the component does its own thread management, i.e. alternative 2. and 4. We conclude that a custom main() function does not add a relevant shift in ownership for our purposes and choose alternative 2. because it is simpler than 4.

Active Object or Asynchronous Programming?

How do you implement a component that runs on its own thread(s)? Well, I did some research and contemplated a bit on what I found, and now think there are two major approaches: the Active Object Pattern (Douglas C. Schmidt et al.), and some form of an Asynchronous Programming Model.

The Active Object Pattern

Central in this pattern by is a scheduler that dispatches methods corresponding to request messages on a queue that originated at external clients. Method execution can be asynchronous. (the image is a hyperlink to its source)

The following example implementation of the scheduler is proposed in the article (image is hyperlink):

As the comment in the code above mentions: the scheduler runs on its own thread.

What to think of this? To me it seems the Active Object pattern is a very thorough but heavyweight solution. I think it is less suitable for the current challenge. Central in the pattern is a message processing loop, that continuously consumes processor cycles. This is a solution for an environment that lacks just this kind of infrastructural facilities. Windows, iOS, OSX, Linux, or Android GUI platforms are not such type of environments; they (still) have a message loop that continuously consumes processor cycles. To me it seems better to keep it at one such a glutton.

Recently I also stumbled upon a criticism by Bjarne Stroustrup. In his keynote at Going Native 2013 he classified a central scheduler as a performance bottleneck; he sketched a scenario of a significant number of potent parallel processors waiting for this one scheduler to provide some work from a well stocked queue.

So, we would like a solution that is more of a flyweight, and inherently concurrent as well.

A Singleton of Asynchronous Methods

A Singleton class is a pretty perfect implementation of the concept of Component. In C++ it gets instantiated at first use, and gets destructed at program termination. If so required, a reset method can be implemented that returns the state of the object to startup values. In a sense you could say that a Singleton holds its own destiny, just like an Active Component eating away cycles. The Singleton does this by holding a private static handle to its single object. No other entity (except friends, if any) can get to it.

The advantage of a Singleton over an Active Component is in particular (in this discussion) that it does not consume any processor cycles when not executing any tasks. Moreover, it can be made concurrent to any required extent. Here we will propose an asynchronous programming (callback variant) approach. So, we cannot say that the component runs on its own thread; there is no ‘engine’ explicitly running in the component. But, we do can say that the component does its own thread management if it is capable of running its operations on threads it controls.

Some Details

Operations in the context of GUI driven programs generally are functions, properties (get, set methods) and callbacks (event handlers).

In implementing IoC with DI we will implement an asynchronous method call as an interface method that delegates the work to be done to another thread, that provides a callback to return results or error information (the caller has to provide the callback), and then immediately returns.

Events can be raised on either the component generated thread an event raising operation is running on, or on a dedicated thread.

The get and set methods implementing properties should, I think, be so simple to not warrant asynchronism. These simple methods, primarily only getting an setting private fields, do should synchronize access to the fields they interface to.

A component as described here may require a substantial amount of threads, in little time. In order to be able to provide these threads timely, the component may maintain a thread pool, or rather, a thread queue where it keeps a stock of ready to use threads.

The following example might seem an overkill of asynchronicity. In that case it is important to keep three statements in mind:

1. This is the era of asynchronous programming. So , programming constructs that provide asynchronicity will be visible.

2. The example is densely filled with asynchronous constructs due to its instructive nature.

3. The exemplified class is an interface class. It is responsible for thread management, hence a focal point of asynchronous constructs. It thus frees other classes, deeper in the component from such constructs.

Example Application

To show the above described principles at work, we will present a demo application. This demo application centers around a Joke-of-the-Day component. You can:

- Request a random joke from the seemingly endless collection of jokes available to the component (property get() function).

- Add a joke to the collection (property set() function). When you add a joke to the collection, interested subscribers immediately are send your joke (raising an event).

- Request a stand-up session. During a client specified period, jokes are presented at small random intervals (string callback). The time remaining for the session is reported at fixed intervals (primitive type callback).

The component is an ISO C++ static lib, suitable for use in a CX component or app.

The complete example application is available from here. In this section we explore a few highlights dealing with lifecycle management and thread management.

Singleton Pattern

As developed above, the component manages its own lifecycle, but the component does not run on a thread. Below is the singleton class. Just the parts relating to the singleton mechanics are shown. Since the ‘me’ pointer is private, the class’ object dies with the program.

The class implementation, simple as can be.

Asynchronous Method with Callback (IoC with DI)

Consider the following method:

The methods receives three arguments:

- Duration of the session.

- Callback for returning jokes to caller.

- Callback to report progress to caller.

First the method defines a lambda expression f. It is this lambda that does the work. Since every call of this method creates a new lambda object, we don’t need to synchronize access to this code.

The lambda:

- puts the current thread to sleep for a little while.

- Returns a joke (from the seemingly endless collection) using the inserted callback.

- Reports progress by setting a property. Access to this property has to be synchronized, as will be shown below.

- Returns the progress using the inserted callback.

Next the method creates a new thread for the lambda to run on.

Finally the method detaches the thread and returns to the caller. Now the thread runs in the background and is cleaned up by the system after termination. The thread will call on the caller with results, when it has them, using callbacks inserted by the caller. This is how IoC by DI is implemented here.

Now provisions for error handling has been added here. But the lambda could contain a try – catch construct. In addition, we could define a callback output parameter of type std::exception that the callback could throw if not void at return. The lambda can then just send a caught exception to the caller using the callback.

Property with Synchronized Access to Field

The STL contains a *very* elegant mechanism to synchronize access. Consider the following code:

We need only three extra lines of code to completely synchronize access to the m_progress field. One line to declare the mutex, and two lines to lock the field, one time when setting it, one time when reading it.

The great thing of a lock_guard is that it releases its mutex when it goes out of scope. Most elegant!

Events

The same techniques return in our event implementation. Consider the following code:

We have a vector of type newJokeEventHandler, which is a typdef of a std::function object that wraps a pointer to a void function that takes a string argument. Access to the vector is synchronized with a mutex. When an event handler is added, it is added to the end of the vector. When removed, we take care to not disrupt the order in the vector, because the token we returned to the caller is an index into the vector by which we remove it.

An event is raised e.g. in the setter of the ‘JokeOfTheDay’ property:

The m_raiseNewJokeEvent returns immediately since it is asynchronous, thus releasing the joke for reading and further updates.

In Conclusion

We have seen that a C++ component that holds its own lifetime and manages its thread can be easily developed. We do not need CX for this, the resulting code is portable. The resulting component is indeed flyweight – because of the elegant constructs provided by the STL for managing threads, and also because the component doesn’t consume any processor cycles when not processing anything. Indeed, applying the sizeof operator to a thread, mutex, or lock_guard yields 4 (x the size of a char) in each case, i.e. they all are minimum size handles to system resources.

Building a Midrange PC

For some time now, my children are complaining about their PCs. The systems fail when playing The Sims, editing videos, and playing some online games. In particular, the failure to do online games triggered me.

It is clear, the kids need new PCs, and these PCs have to satisfy the requirements stated below.

Requirements

Identical PCs for all Kids

All children need to get the same PC. Otherwise there will noticeable unfairness, hence noticeable drama.

Different PC for Each Kid

On the other hand, each kid has its own special wishes, and its PC needs to be customizable to accommodate these wishes (within reasonable limits).

We solve this paradox by delivering equal basis systems to all children. Each kid can then use its own savings to customize its PC.

Future Proof

The PCs need to be future proof. That is, not composed of outdated components. And we also want the parts that will last long to be of excellent quality.

Silent

The PCs need to be quiet. Except perhaps at incidental extreme performances. Well audible PCs are very irritating. I myself have some frequency dips in my hearing, due, I think, to learning to suppress the PC noise of early PCs, during more than just a couple of years.

Energy Consumption

A new PC should consume less energy than an older one. That should be obvious.

Component Re-Use

For some odd reason we’re drowning is displays, mice and keyboards, all well -re-usable. We can also strip the DVD writers (readers) from the old PCs. Look, DVD writers are hardly ever used, so, although they are very cheap (€ 15,-), we will not spend money on new DVD writers.

The new PCs also need a backup facility. We will use the hard disks of my old NAS, by now retired, as backup disks. These disks are IDE disks; too slow for primary use, but since each has a capacity of 500Gb, ok for backup purposes.

Affordable

You would almost forget it, but a PC also need to be affordable. For a start we will assume a focus point of € 500,- per PC. Enough for quality, too little for indulgence :-).

Starting Points

Our starting point will be the desktop-best-buy-guide of September 2013 on Tweakers.net (in Dutch), in particular the basic and mainstream game systems. Game Systems are much like media systems, the main difference being overclocking. We are aiming at a basic-to-main media and / or game system.

This best buy guide provides us with the expertise available at the forums (for a), especially in the discussions concerning the components to choose. From the proposed system we pick the parts we like or choose alternatives that seem more appropriate given more or other information.

A very nice aspect of the Tweakers.net site is that we can directly see what the prices are in a broad spectrum of shops. An alternative source of advice and prices is hardware.info.

Components

Processor

With respect to processor choice, the Tweakers.net site is at the moment just the place to be. There has been a heated discussion concerning the choice between the AMD FX-8320 Black Edition and the Intel Core i5 4670K Boxed Haswell processors. I will explain the difference by motivating my preference.

The AMD processor is a bit dated. Its successor will be launched in the near future. This fact lowers its price to a great value-for-money level: The average performance level of the processors is comparable, but a current combination of processor and mother board is in case of the AMD processor about € 100,- lower. So, would you be willing to sacrifice the “future proof” requirement for € 100,-? I will not.

A number of arguments plead in favor of the Intel processor:

- It is recent; on the Dutch market only since June 2013.

- It is designed to save energy.

- It uses a new socket that we hope will be current for a while, so we might replace the processor by a successor without also having to replace the motherboard (that holds the socket).

- Very importantly: it has an internal graphical processor (igp). This igp is strong enough to run the previous generation of most-resource-hungry games, at not-the-highest-quality level, that is, it is excellent for your daily use. The AMD processor does not have an igp, so you will always have to buy a graphics card – that’s your € 100,- price advantage.

- The Intel processor is tested to have better performance in applications of video processing, so the Intel processor contributes to that requirement.

One final point. The processor proposed by Tweakers’ is of “K” type: suitable for overclocking. Overclocking can damage your processor and other hardware. So, this is not a facility we will hand over to (inquisitive) children. Our choice is therefore the Intel Core i5 4670 Boxed, without the “K”. This saves us some € 10,-.

Mother Board

Tweakers.net proposes the Gigabyte GA-Z87-HD3 mother board. This is a Z87 chipset mother board. For the new Haswell processor there are three different chipsets: Z87 for overclockers, H87: for mainstream systems, B87: with the ‘B’ of budget. So, we don’t want a Z87 board, we want a H87 board, which will (no doubt) be cheaper.

We prefer the ASRock Fatal1ty H87 Performance over the price comparable Gigabyte H87 board. The reason is that the ASRock has a better sound system: newer chip, pre-amplifier for headphones, connector for a surround system amplifier. It has also an newer LAN network chip, and it is a bit cheaper. Compared to the Gigabyte it has less precise control over the cooling fans, but we were not planning to get continued maximum performance from these PCs anyway. I suspect that a comparable H87 Gigabyte board will be a micro ATX board, a very small board. I consider that a disadvantage since it requires extra cooling measures.

The Dutch Hardware.info site has published an extensive evaluation of Haswell motherboards, see it for many more details. Perhaps this same evaluation has been published at other Hardware.info sites as well.

PC Case

At this point I really passed by the Tweakers list. AnandTech.com also reviews PC cases. Their regular guy is fond of the Nanoxia PC cases. Nanoxia is a somewhat high end brand for PC cases. They provide heavy, strong, silent and very good looking cases. And in three colors. Real thorough, sound German engineering.

I really like the lasting, silent and esthetic character of this case. It could easily last for 20 years, hold many successive PCs, and never be the rotten apple of your interior.

The preferred model is the Nanoxia Deep Silence 2. It is smaller than the Deep Silence 1, which we consider an advantage. An alternative would be the Corsair 330R. However, this case is a step back in all aspects (according to AnandTech), and available in any color … as long as its black.

Other Components

The other components we choose following the Tweakers.net list are:

- RAM memory

- Hard disk

- Power Supply

Both Tweakers’ lists suggest the same RAM memory and hard disk. We choose a modular power supply from the suggested alternatives. ‘Modular’ means that you only have the cables you actually use in your PC (instead of all of them: non-modular), which eases cable management within the case a lot (at € 2,50 extra).

Hardware List

Thus we arrive at the following list:

Component Choice Low price (€)
Case Nanoxia Deep Silence 2 (also av. in dark gray and white)

93.00

Case Cooler Packaged with the case (2x)
Mother board ASRock Fatal1ty H87 Performance

91.45

Processor Intel Core i5 4670 Boxed (Haswell)

192.00

Processor Cooler Packaged with the processor
RAM memory Crucial Ballistix Tactical BLT2C4G3D1608ET3LX0CEU

72.50

Power supply Seasonic M12II 520W

56.00

Graphics Card Internal Graphics Processor
Hard disk Seagate Barracuda 7200.14 ST1000DM003, 1TB

53.50

DVD reader / writer Re-use
Wi-Fi Re-use
Bluetooth None
Keyboard Re-use
Mouse Re-use
Display(s) Re-use
Speakers Re-use
power strip (surge protected) Re-use
Windows Re-use
Hard disk for backup Re-use
Total

558.45

Prices tend to fluctuate, so the Total is an approximation. And yes, I admit this Total is a bit higher than the original intention :-).

Kids can optionally add various components such as a (single) powerful graphics card, multiple (two, three) 16:9 displays, advanced audio equipment, up to 32 GB of RAM memory, up to six hard disks (of any size), in a RAID configuration that supports performance or fidelity, or both, Bluetooth, an additional four cooling fans, etc. etc.

The proposed system is not suited for long-lasting extremely high performance, or for use with multiple graphics cards.

CX Reconsidered [2]: MVVM to the Rescue

Tactical implementation of the MVVM pattern will stop CX constructs bleeding through all of your code. In the first installment of this series, I have argued that CX data and threading structures tend to proliferate throughout your program, and that this is both unlike advised & advertised by Microsoft and undesirable because it drives out the far better developed C++ constructs. What we need is development tactics that keep the CX layer as thin as possible. This blog post presents first steps in the development of such tactics aka software development patterns or practices.

The goal is that:

  1. CX is used within specific layers of the design of a program.
  2. Each CX layer has a very limited set responsibilities.
  3. CX can be put to good use for the assigned responsibilities.

This is the second blog post in a series of n about my experiences with CX, and how I intend to use it in working with C++ and Xaml in the context of Windows 8.The table of contents into that series can be found in the first article in this series.

Ok, at the end of part [1] I wrote that next up would be a review of a number of (heated) discussions around the introduction of CX. But I changed my mind. It seems to me that although there is definitely value in a well argued position, there is more value in a working solution. So, let’s take a look at a way to put CX at its proper place.

Advised & Advertised CX Usage Policy

The usage policy for CX is, according to MS employees and documentation, to limit the use of CX to a thin layer at the ABI boundary. See e.g. the first response of Herb Sutter in the discussion after this Build 2011 talk

[ABI: At the lowest level, the Windows Runtime consists of an application binary interface (ABI). The ABI is a binary contract that makes Windows Runtime APIs accessible to multiple programming languages such as JavaScript, the .NET languages, and Microsoft Visual C++. (from the Hilo documentation)]

So, when we are interacting with the environment of a Windows Store application or component, we have to deal with the ABI.

However, there is nothing inherent to CX to enforce the advised & advertised usage policy. In part [1] of this series, it has been argued that it is very hard to ‘escape’ from CX and to restrict CX to a thin ABI interface layer.

The main reason it is hard to escape CX is the approach to developing a native code program that is natural to Visual Studio. This approach is a copy of the approach to developing .Net applications. You choose a project template, which assigns a central position to the user interface, then you add functionality to the program, extending, so to say, the capabilities of the user interface. For Windows 8, MS has introduced this approach also for native code, and they call it working with C++/CX. Point is, it is not C++ at all. Note also that CX is far, far behind to .Net in its development.

Nonetheless, if you start development with a CX Visual Studio project, it is CX that is used to interact with WinRT, and it thus defines the interface to the environment of the program. Because CX defines the periphery of an application, a tendency arises to define the main data structures in CX as well as considering its execution thread, the UI thread, as the main flow of control. We tend to consider the UI thread as the main flow of control because today’s apps are typically architected to react to events in the application’s environment. A consequence of this design is that CX language constructs and data structures tend to proliferate throughout a program, to bleed through all of your code. This proliferation generates a number of problems:

  1. Non portable code. The code cannot be compiled with a non-MS compiler, hence is not fit for use on e.g. IOS or Android platforms.
  2. It drives out the far more developed and richer C++11 language constructs, idioms and data structures.
  3. It drives out the far better .Net developer experience, if we consider CX to be positioned as a native alternative to C# .Net.

So, since CX does not itself enforce the Advised and Advertised Usage Policy of confining CX to a thin ABI interface layer, it is the CX user that carries the burden.

As a CX user, you will need a software pattern that restricts CX to what it is good at (yes, it does have its strengths), and to locations where it is useful. Such restrictions can, of course, be realized by disciplined application of conventions, but here we strive to have structural constructs that support the desired restriction: structural constructs that put a definite end to CX proliferation.

In restricting the use of CX we assume the task to not define the main data structures in CX, and to not run the principle flow of control in CX. We are constructing a generally applicable, patterned approach to developing programs involving one thin ABI interface layer of CX.

Overview of the Solution

In this blog post we propose to implement MVVM as a double layered structure, as depicted in the diagram 1. Yes, layers can be expressed as rectangles (with rounded corners, even) as well.

double layered Design

Diagram 1

As you can see, the core is considered the most important part of an application :-).

Components

In terms of physical components, or types of Visual Studio projects, or types of MS technologies, the proposal is to implement the core in C++, as a static library (or several static libraries); to implement the Interface as a WinRT Runtime Component written in CX; and to define the User Interface in Xaml with ‘code behind’ and other environmental interactions in preferably in C# or, if the situation necessitates the use of native code, in CX.

MVVM

The Model – View – ViewModel pattern will be used to stop the bleeding of CX constructs. Diagram 2 shows an image from the PRISM documentation that provides a very clear idea of the MVVM pattern.

Diagram 2: PRISM interpretation of MVVM

In this article we will use a slight variation of MVVM: We consider the View to cover all of the environmental interactions, not just the GUI.

The MVVM pattern is tactically implemented as follows:

  • The View is realized in the Peripheral layer.
  • The ViewModel is realized in the Core layer.
  • The Model is also realized in the Core layer.

The Interface in Diagram 1 doesn’t have a specific role in the MVVM pattern, it has an implementational role.

Should you like to review the MVVM pattern, you might like to take a look at PRISM or the MVVM Light Toolkit (the historical roots of MVVM are really interesting as well).

The Peripheral Layer

Conforming to MVVM, we keep the Peripheral Layer as thin as possible. There are many different types of environmental interactions, which for now will be conveniently categorized as “The Xaml UI”, and “Other types of Environmental Interactions”.

The Xaml UI

There is always the discussion of how much code to allow in the code behind of an MVVM implementation. Since we really want layers that could contain CX to be thin, we decide two things:

  1. We use as little code in the user interface as possible. We limit the View to presenting data to the user, sending Commands and data to the ViewModel, and responding to events (callbacks) coming from the ViewModel. On the other hand, we allow code that defines interactions between user interface elements only. An example of the latter is opening a file picker when a user has clicked a button.
  2. We make the boundary between the Views on the one hand, and the ViewModels and Models on the other hand an ABI boundary.

Why an ABI boundary between View and ViewModel?

Well:

  1. For data binding and commanding. Any object exposed by a Windows Runtime Component across the ABI to a C# Xaml UI can be a source for data binding (this holds for C#, but not for CX).
  2. As a containment barrier in case a Xaml + CX GUI is used.

CX is Not a Good Choice For Xaml UI Code Behind

But that may change over time, of course, so let’s pin it down to “in august 2013″. So what’s wrong with the use of CX in the code behind of a Xaml UI?

  1. Data binding support is rather crude. Data binding in CX requires data binding source classes either to be decorated with the Bindable attribute or implement ICustomPropertyProvider, and have the bindable properties registered as ICustomProperties (see Nish Sivakumar’s implementation). Either requirement makes it extremely impractical (I would like to have written ‘impossible’ here) to data bind to properties exposed by a Windows Runtime Component. So, note that by requiring an ABI barrier between the UI and the ViewModel, we virtually ruled out CX as a possible language for Xaml code behind.
  2. MVVM support is unstable. I have defined several (non trivial) Xaml GUIs with CX as code behind platform, and seen the Xaml designer crash when a ViewModel locater class was inserted as a global resource to provide the DataContext and also data templates were provided to it as resources. On incidental beautifully sunny days the designer would provide an error message saying it could not instantiate some resource.
  3. Asynchronism: the PPL tasks library seems to have a special version for Windows Store applications, and it is rather hard to handle. It also frequently seems to operate not according to its documentation.

An argument to do use native code is performance. But we intend to keep the Views layer a thin layer, with an absolute minimum of functionality, so the performance of this layer will not easily affect general program performance. This is both because it is a minimal layer, and because it is the UI, i.e. it is about sending data about user actions to the core.

So, the performance argument has relatively little weight, and I think we are better off using C# .Net in the Views layer. Just because it supports development so much better. Think e.g. of the support for MVVM itself; there are several, and leading, MVVM frameworks to support you using the pattern for applications of arbitrary complexity.

When using C# in the code behind, one thing we do have to pay attention to though, is marshalling data across the ABI. We want data that crosses the ABI to be copied only if unavoidable or when we like to have a copy instead of the original. In general we want to have pointers (references) copied across the ABI. As we will see (elsewhere) this requires the use of write only data structures, also if we only want to read the data with which the write only data structure is initialized.

A possibly less urgent consideration is that the combination of a Xaml + C# GUI and native Windows Runtime Components is also a way to go on the Windows Phone platform.

Other Types of Environmental Interaction

The above section discusses the case for the Xaml UI – the View. How about the other types of environmental interaction mentioned, like database access, networking, file access, etc. Will you do that in .Net as well?

As a first go, yes. The peripheral layer should be minimal, so in the case of e.g. incoming network data you would like to stream incoming bytes as directly as possible into a buffer controlled by the core, as an unstructured stream of bytes. I think that we can set this up so that C# is used to control the work, but the system (written in native code) is used to do the work, hence performance will not be an issue.

If performance does turn out to be an issue (after measurements and analysis), I would use a native solution. Think of the C++ framework Casablanca, or even a custom solution in CX (indeed!).

The Core Layer

This is where we want to write static libraries of ISO C++11(+) only. Why?

C++11

Personally I happen to like C++ (and the STL), and version 11 more than earlier versions. Apart from that, maximum performance against minimal footprint gets you the most out of available hardware, which enriches user experience and hopefully also reduces (environmentally relevant) power consumption.

ISO: Portable Code

In the second quarter of 2013, some 44.4 million tablets were sold running either iOS, Android or Windows (8), of which 1.8 million are running Windows 8. In the same period, 227.3 million phones were sold running either Android, iOS or Windows Phone (8), of which 8.7 million are running Windows. So, we want to port our precious code to Android and iOS, thus reaching a market of say 271 million devices sold in the previous quarter alone; that’s over a billion in a year :-). And then there is also the PC market, of course, of about 500 million PCs running Windows, and coming to Windows 8 sooner or later.

Library

Putting code in a separate library allows you, among others, to specify the compile switches you need for a specific piece of source code. Using a library will allow us to specify that the compiler must not compile CX: we will not set the /ZW switch (or rather, we will set it to /ZW:nostdlib). So, CX constructs cannot bleed into such a library.

Static Library vs. Dynamic Load Library

Static libraries link at compile time, not at run time, hence have a relative performance advantage. Also if you export activatable classes (COM Components such as CX classes) from a static library, they cannot be activated. From a dynamic library, they can, see here. So, CX classes cannot be run from a static library.

Structured Data

We will make sure all main data structures are part of the Core Library. The use of system facilities, such as data transport, will be defined inside the core by C++ constructs, such as ‘pointer to stream’, that are used by the Interface layer to import and export the required data – as streams of primitive types. So, no CX owned main data structures.

Inversion of Control and Dependency Injection

We will expose any functionality only as Inversion of Control (IoC), also known as ‘The Hollywood Principle’: Don’t call us, we’ll call you, either by Dependency Injection (DI) or a Locator Service, see e.g. the articles by Martin Fowler here and here.

If the Core runs on its own thread(s), it is not susceptible to threading issues created by interactions with the Peripheral or Interface Layers (although it might have its own threading issues). We are also in a position to use STL threading; the bleeding of Microsoft threading technology into code we wish to be portable can be halted. So, no CX owned threads in the Core.

The Core and the UI: Ownership issues

We would like the Core library to be as independent as possible. The rationale behind these tactics is that independence from CX precludes having to incorporate CX constructs, either with respect to data or with respect to control. Another advantage may be that the Core’s lifecycle is not controlled from the UI thread, hence no freezing, throttling or killing. Of course, there is also no freezing of the UI.

The core library is already really independent by incorporating the program’s main data structures, by managing its own threads, and by utilizing the IoC pattern. Nevertheless, we can take independence a step further by looking at the ownership of the Core library. Who is the owner, that is: who controls its lifecycle?

The system starts up a Xaml application by calling the main method defined in App.g.hpp (CX) or App.g.i.cs (C#), which then starts up the UI. Usually you then instantiate other classes from the principal UI classes like the App or MainPage classes.

Alternatively you could define your own main method. The Xaml main method is decorated with the DISABLE_XAML_GENERATED_MAIN symbol. If that has been defined the decorated main function will not be used (surprise!). Your main method could instantiate the Core library and provide the UI with a handle, while holding a reference itself in order to control the lifecycle of the Core. The Core and the UI are now completely independent. An example of a system with an alternative main function is the demo application in the WinRT-Wrapper library by Tomas Pecholt. See here (the comment by Tomas) for an introduction to the WinRT-Wrapper.

Less invasive tactics (which I like better) may be to provide the library with a factory that creates the core, holds ownership and provides the UI with a ref counted handle. So, there is no ownership of the Core by the UI or the Interface.

First the Core

Where C# .Net applications start development at the UI, I think development in C++ + Xaml applications should start at the Core library.

The Interface Layer

Mediating between an application and the ABI, i.e. the system, that is where CX can be valuable. The strong point of CX is that it is ‘syntactic sugar’ over WRL constructs; CX reduces the amount of code markedly compared to the WRL. The WRL (the Windows Runtime Library, an ATL analogue), is itself intended to make interactions with the Windows Runtime practical. It has been shown multiple times (see specifically the articles by James McNellis) that CX makes it much more comfortable to interact with the Windows Runtime. If so required there is nevertheless always the possibility to pass by CX and insert some WRL code as demonstrated by James McNellis (see the answer) and here, and Kenny Kerr. As I understand it, CX code is the better choice for the bulk of WinRT interfacing code, but at times, WRL is the better choice for getting the ultimate performance. See the talk and slides by Sridhar Madhugiri at Build 2013

Since this is where CX is really useful, this is the first and foremost layer we want to keep thin. The layer’s responsibilities are (only) to relay data and commands across the ABI from the Peripheral Layer to the Core, vice versa. Of course, with a minimum of copy operations. We will use it, so to speak, to map the interface of the Core Library onto the ABI.

CX Reconsidered [1]: A Thin Layer of CX?

This is the first blog post in a series of n. The posts in this series will discuss opinions about C++/CX (from here on referred to as CX for reasons to be explained later), discuss pros and cons, and propose a meaningful way of working with C++ and Xaml in the context of Windows 8.The table of contents into that series will develop right below this sentence.

Part 1: A Thin Layer of CX? (this post).
Part 2: MVVM to the Rescue.
Part 3: Components on a thread

Introduction

Before Windows 8, I used to develop software in C# .Net for ASP.Net, WPF, and Silverlight, in C++ and some DirectX. What I needed was a better integration of C++, DirectX, and Xaml user interfaces. And low-and-behold, with Windows 8, Microsoft introduces CX. According to MS spokespeople CX is to be used as a thin layer around C++ programs, 99% of the code should be regular ISO C++. The value of the CX layer lies in the ability to cross the ABI (Application Binary Interface). The ABI is what makes it possible for programs written in language A to be used by programs written in language B. By the ABI, CX can also be provided with, among other things, a Xaml UI. Of course I jumped on it, this was exactly what I was looking for!

Now I’ve been writing software in CX (among others) since May 2012. It’s now June 2013, hence it is time to evaluate the experience; for myself, but hopefully this evaluation is of value to other developers too.

Conclusion

Let’s start with the conclusion, and then provide some analysis.

The conclusion is that I truly and intensely dislike CX. In the MS Forums (Fora?) someone wrote that programming the bare WinRT is tedious and rather painful. To me, the same holds for CX as well – although it is meant to relieve just that experience. My aversion for CX brought me to the point that I could not see where CX does come in handy, but thankfully I was able to put myself straight at that point.

What I dislike about CX can be summarized in 3 statements:

1. CX is supposed to be used as a thin layer, but escaping from CX is very hard. Once you start developing your program in it, you are likely forced to keep using it.

2. CX is not C++. That is, practices and idioms that you use with ISO C++11 are, as a rule, not valid for CX. This is why it is being called CX here, its native, but not C++.

3. CX is not C#. The same as above holds for C#, moreover, the developer experience with VS2012 is strongly inferior, as is the support for Xaml interfaces. Community contributions (such as MVVM light for .Net) are minimal.

That is, CX doesn’t meet your expectations as either a C++ developer or a C# developer. nor does it support ‘a thin layer of CX’ – it doesn’t let you go.

So, if you are a .Net developer that would like to author C++, doing CX is not the way to go.

Then there is this nagging question: If CX is meant to be used as only a thin layer around C++ code, then why has MS created the HILO example: a full-blown CX program? To show that CX should not be restricted to a thin layer?

Analysis

Why the aversion? Let’s go over the points in the Conclusion above.

A Thin layer of CX

The intention of a thin layer of CX is OK. It saves you the trouble of having to write code using the WRL (say COM). However, by the way MS has set application templates up that are based on CX, it is hard to restrain CX to a thin layer. A CX application has two powerful assets that bring it everywhere:

1. It defines the outer periphery of the application, that is all contact of the application with the world outside the application is via CX.

2. It runs on the main application thread; the UI thread, so it constitutes the main flow of control of the application.

This is a powerful combination in an application which architecture is to respond to environmental input and some system events. Anything coming from the environment: user input, file contents, network data, and data from files and databases, comes into the system in CX data structures, and on a CX thread.

Restrictions that apply to CX data structures tend to proliferate into user defined data types, and threading restrictions tend to proliferate into user spawned threads. Thus, the CX layer tends to expand. It will not be a thin layer, You will not work in C++, but in CX.

CX is not C++

If you are a C++ developer, you want to code in ISO C++11, not in CX, and certainly not in CX types instead of e.g. STL types. The developer experience of CX is strongly inferior to the C++ experience.

CX is not C#

C# .Net developers are used to a comfortable developer experience. Things tend to ‘just work’ (as they should). With CX, things don’t ‘just work’. Give a C# .Net developer the choice to switch to CX, and he/she will walk away smiling, if not grinning, after a short trial.

So, what happens is that CX hijacks your program, and you will have a hard time to escape. Once caught within CX you will be frustrated because you will be deprived of both the developer experience of both C++ and of C# .Net.

Not all is lost, however. With some architectural maneuvers, we will definitely put CX back in its cage! (But that will be in another installment in this series :-) ).

Next up: How CX was received in the forums (fora).