# Using gsl with argv

February 8, 2017

In the layout utility I need to do a little bit of command line argument processing. When I used argc and argv as I normally would, clang-tidy warned me about a violation of the C++ Core Guidelines. What is the proper way to work with command line arguments and meet the core guidelines?

## The Problem

Here is the original code I wrote for main:

This looks fine (and works), but clang-tidy warns that it the violates cppcoreguidelines-pro-bounds-pointer-arithmetic guideline.

## The solution

The C++ core guidelines indicate that we can use the span type from the GSL library to safely do pointer arithmetic. However, I found quickly that span requires the size of the array it wraps to be known at compile time. That won’t work for argv, as its size is given by argc, and is only known at run time.

The GSL does have a type to handle this though, multi_span. It is like span, but its size can be set at run time. So the main function using the GSL looks like this:

We can construct the multi_span from argv like this, passing its size in its constructor.

Then we can use it like a normal array, with indexing operations. Notice that multi_span has some nice accessors, like last, which returns a new multi_span with only the last n elements. So it is very easy to prune the first two arguments from argv and pass them to the TransformArguments function.

Also, since the multi_span includes the its size, no longer need to pass the number of arguments to TransformArguments, which eliminates the possibility of passing the wrong value.

Not only do span and multi_span help to clean up code, but they also eliminate possible sources of bugs and make the code easier to read. We still get the ability to use array indexers, so we have gained safety and expressiveness without sacrificing anything. C++ Core Guidelines for the win!

## Not so fast, my friend

Did we really make this change without sacrificing anything? I would expect this abstraction should come with some runtime cost.

Here is the assembly code generated for the original version of main, with direct pointer manipulation. The code is 414 lines of assembly, and main itself is 103 lines long.

Here is the source code for the new version of main which uses the GSL multi_span type (I have prepended it with all of the necessary headers from the GSL so that it will compile). This code will compile to 450 lines of assembly, and main is 119 lines long (the code is too large to work with a URL shortener, but you can paste the code from the Gist into Godbolt directly).

So the new code with the GSL is slightly larger. But the cost for the increased expressiveness and safety is surprisingly small. In my opinion, the trade off is warranted.