5 STL components #letter to friend

Hi YH,

(A blog post, so i won’t spell out your name or email.)

You named 5 STL components. I now feel STL was designed first to provide containers, then algorithms, then iterators, as the 3 main things. In addition, functors and are an efficiency feature. Allocators are an advanced customization tool for those users with special requirement and skill.

To a developer new to c++, iterators aren’t meaningful. In contrast, container has the most visible value and usage — to hold a bunch of objects (or pointers), including nested containers. Most developers would want to use common data structures like arrays, linked lists, sets, lookup tables etc. Unfortunately core c++ provides only fixed arrays. Therefore STL provides parametrized containers to the rescue.

Immediately people would need common operations on these containers, like find, remove, copy, sort, count_if… So STL provides parametrized algorithms on containers. A key design goal is maximum flexibility and re-usability when you mix and match any container with any algorithm. This is hard, even without the stringent requirement of efficiency. It’s so hard that a complete breed of classes were invented — iterators. Numerous authors including STL original developers confirmed that iterator was the glue between containers and STL algorithms.

Among the 3, some are more necessary than others. Ranked in terms of necessity,

1) A container is usable by itself, even without algorithms/iterators. I mean the methods of the container classes, like push_back, get, operator[]
2) However, serious users of containers usually need iterators just to get all the content. This minimal usage need nothing beside the operator++ and operator* .
3) To meet more application requirements, some users write their own loops to do everything, using more features of iterators. So those iterator features are less essential than operator++ and operator* .
4) least necessary are the STL algorithms. They use the full features of iterators.

As an interesting comparison, java’s containers are likewise the most necessary part of the collections framework. Iterators are heavily used but not always needed (except in loops). The non-static methods in Collection.java and static methods in Collections.java are similar to STL algorithms, but are somewhat less used. I for one write lots of loops by myself.

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