Repository Organization


This paper evaluates techniques for organizing files in a reusable software repository. The ubiquitous hierarchical file system directory structures are useful for organizing information. Traditionally, software developers have used  directories  to organize their software using containment properties of the file system to keep together files belonging to a particular software project. Unfortunately, such an organization, while convenient and familiar, does not promote software reuse across projects. Treating hierarchical directory structures as dependency graphs, although a bit counter-intuitive, allows us to organize source files in a way that keeps them independent from any particular use, and thus usable in other project contexts.


Viewing directory structures as a containment mechanism is a common practice among software developers. Typically, a root directory represents the project that often contain the "main" program entry point. The sub-directories of the project root contain subordinate files, which contain the subroutines invoked by the main program. This technique is probably the result of the programmer thinking about file organization as looking something like the call-graph in a top-down view of a program.

Unfortunatly, due to the hierarchical nature of the filesystem, such an organization precludes other projects from using the same files without first copying the files into the new project. As discussed in my rant on reuse, copying is not reusing, and thus such an organization is inappropriate within a software reuse context.

Furthermore, a call-graph is a Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) structure rather than a simple hierarchical structure since multiple software modules can reference the same subroutine. This is a common organizational flaw, and is probably the result of our familiarity with hierarchical file systems, and our tendency to use that golden hammer as a solution to all of our organizational problems.


If you've read the drivel above, you have probably guessed that I'm leading up to something. Simply stated, the key to software reuse is dependency management. To be used in a context other than its original, a software module must be independent of the original project context. Reusable software has a dependency graph with a Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) structure. That is to say that there are no circular dependencies in reusable software.

As we discussed above, however, the file systems, where our reusable source code resides, are hierarchical. Since a DAG is a more generalized structure, it is not possible to use the hierarchical file system directly. Rather, it is necessary to find a way to at least prevent the file organization from creating dependency restrictions. To do this, we will analyze the dependency properties of hierarchical file systems.

A hierarchical file system is essentially a name space. A file is identified uniquely by specifying its absolute path name. Relative path names are a convenience that limit the namespace scope to a particular sub-tree. Any file or directory contained in another directory is dependent on the directory that contains it. As evidence, consider what happens if you attempt to delete the parent directory of a file. Either a warning is issued, requiring you to delete the contents of the directory first, or the directory and its contents are deleted. Stated again, the content of a directory cannot exist without its directory, and thus the content of the directory is dependent on the directory. Note that this in contrary to the way that software developers typically organize their files, where the sub directories of a project contain files upon which the project depends.

Pathnames in #include Specifications

For various reasons, many C/C++ software organizations refrain from using directory path specifications in "#include" statements. Some of the restrictions (e.g. absolute paths) are reasonable, while others are rooted in history and mythology.

The biggest problem with absolute paths in #include specifications is that they limit the location and number of private build trees, and are thus rightly avoided. For examle, if a developer is to have two views of the same application, with each view having a different version of the same included file, this would be impossible if absolute path-names are used. Yes, if you use the Clearcase virtual file system, this is possible, however, with most other "snapshot" style repositories, this is a significant problem.

It is, however, quite easy for a build environment to support paths that are relative to a single variable root. This is easily done using a common compiler option to specify search paths for include files (e.g. -I /home/mike/sandbox.)

Another reason that pathnames are avoided in #include specifications have to do with the character used for directory seperators. For example, UNIX operating systems use a forward slash '/', Microsoft operating systems use the backward slash '\', and older Apple operating systems use a colon ':'.

With the advent of Apple's OSX series of operating system that are UNIX based, this issue is improving. Even so most compilers for the Apple Macintosh can handle forward slashes as directory separators in #include statements. However, if I recall correctly, at least one Macintosh compiler in the past simply ignored the directory prefix in an #include specification.

The Microsoft operating systems remain one of the largest impediments to compatibility. However, most modern compilers (and arguably all significant modern compilers) are able to work with either forward or backslash separators. The primary exceptions to this rule being in some compilers that are focused on small (e.g. 8-bit), or quite specialized processors. However, any processor supported by the GNU GCC compiler has at least one source of hope. Thus, while I acknowledge that there still exist circumstances in which directory separators are still an issue, I will assert that for common 32-bit processors and even for many 16-bit and 8-bit processors, directory separators in path-names are no longer an issue.

Lets have a look at the what happens if we do not allow pathnames in #include specifications. In this case, at least one of two things must be done.
  1. Copy all header files to a single directory.
  2. Copy all header files to one of a few directories.
  3. Add an option to the compiler command for every directory that has a header file.

First, we could copy all header files to a single location.

Posix/UNIX interfaces and the Linux kernel are two major places where pathnames are used in the source code. For example, #include <sys/types.h> is required for the open system call.

As discussed above, the hierarchical file system is a name-space, which can be useful in maintaining a repository for software reuse.

Organizational Examples

The sections that follow present common useful organizational patterns.

Alternative Interface Implementation

This example of file organization arises from a particular type of abstraction involving simple compile-time binding. It is common, for the purpose of module portability across platforms, for an interface to be defined (e.g. a set of functions and types) and placed in a header file. The interface is then implemented for various other platforms in one or more source (e.g. .c) files.

It is a common practice and mistake to place all of the files for a module in a single directory. However, such an organization leads to an undesirable dependency created by the files being located in the same directory.

There are issues with compiling implementation (.c) files in the same directory with the header file describing the interface. Assume that there is a build file for each directory listing the files to be compiled that is shared by all project clients, for example a makefile in the directory with the sources. If more than one implementation of the interface is located in the directory, how will the build system choose which variant to build and link with the application. Although it may be possible to perform magic in the build environment, such solutions become quickly untenable and will need some amount of customization for each instance.

A better solution is to have the interface header located in one directory, and each alternate implementation located in its own directory. The implementation directories may be located in a sub directory of the interface header file, or in any other directory not in the dependency path of the interface header file (i.e. a parent directory of the interface header file.)

[FIXME: finish this thread]
[mention the notion of "module" with respect to a single directory and reuse]

Creational Interface Segregation

[Make this a separate paper]
This is a rant about the importance of separating the creational interfaces of a module from its operational interfaces.
Forward declared types in the operational interface, actual/concrete types known by the creational interface.