A refresher of new C coding features for embedded system developers

2 minute read


As embedded system developers, we are often baned to work with archaic vendor compilers and more often than not, to base our work on historic code bases. One of the major flip sides of this is that we do not get to use and slowly lose touch with some of the relatively new and exciting C standard and compiler features. We will look at some of them in this article.

Note you might have to use the --std=c11 flag with your compiler to try out some of these features. I will be using clang throughout this article. Since clang uses an extended version of C11, the explicit flag is not required. To keep things simple, I am not enabling any extra compilation flags unless otherwise specified.

Traditionally the C compiler compiles each file in to an object file and does optimization within these compilation units. Potential cross file optimizations where not visible to the compiler until recently. For a while, the gcc and Clang compilers have been supporting LTO. With LTO, the compiler compiles each file into a source aware annotated object file that has enough information to perform an additional round of optimization at link time. In gcc use the -flto flag to enable this.

data types

Gone are the days where you write long declarations like unsigned long long int . The best way to do this now is to use the standard definitions like int8_t, uint32_t etc. that is offered by stdint.h. But then, this is not very new to embedded system developers since we already had this convention going for a while.

In addition to the fixed length types, there are fast and least types defined in stdint.h spec. Fast types like int_fast8_t or uint_fast32_t guarantees at least x bits of storage while it might upgrade to a larger type if it has faster performance in the platform.least types like uint_least16_t or int_least64_t provides the most compact number of bits to accommodate the request.

The use of char to indicate 8 bit data is frowned upon. You should instead use uint8_t.

For pointer math, stdint.h provides uintptr_t,intptr_t etc. This is in addition to ptrdiff_t from stddef.h

intmax_t/uintmax_t is the safest cast to hold the largest integer that a given platform can hold.

variable declaration

Since C99, you can declare variables right before they are used and not just at the beginning of a file or function. Loop variables can also be defined within the loops scope like:

for(int i=0;i<10;i++){}

Use of this feature makes the code more readable.

the once pragma

Most new compilers lets you place a #pragma once at the top of your (header) file to make sure that the file is included only once so that you do not have to use the header file name definition guard in your files.

array initialization

Arrays can be initialized to known values without having to do memset by using the following :

uint32_t testVector[32]={0};

The same holds true for structures. However, padding bits might not be initialized.

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