Include guards

In 1996 John Lakos published “Large-Scale C++ Software Design”, a book containing the lessons learned from a large scale C++ project developed at Mentor Graphics.

I want to make it clear that this post is not meant as a criticism of John Lakos or his book. First, I don’t have a copy of the book in front of me so I am working from memory – I might have things wrong. Second, John Lakos was describing his experience at a particular time and place. We are at a different time and place. Among other things, compilers, hard disks, processors, memory and networks have changed enormously over the last 20 years.

One of the lessons Lakos documents involves include guards. A common idiom is for the contents of every header file to be surrounded by include guards:



// Contents of include file go here


Even if the file is #included multiple times it will only be processed once. Since the include guard is entirely internal to the header file this is known as an “internal include guard”. The problem is that a naive compiler will still have to open and read the file every time it is included in a translation unit. If opening a file is slow (perhaps because it is being opened over a network) there is a performance hit even though the contents of the file are not being processed. As a solution to this problem, Lakos suggested using external include guards as well as internal include guards:


#include "myheader.hpp"

The external guards ensure that once myheader.hpp has been processed it doesn’t even have to be opened again. Keep the internal include guards to ensure accuracy but use the external include guards to improve compile performance.

It turns out that some compilers are way ahead of us – they implement the “include guard optimization”. When the compiler parses a header file it looks to see if the include guard idiom is in place. If it is, the compiler notes this fact and then does the equivalent of applying its own external include guards if the file is included a second time. In 1999 a discussion arose on comp.lang.c++.moderated about external include guards vs. internal include guards vs. the include guard optimization (I haven’t been able to track down the original discussion I’m afraid. Google’s Usenet search has me baffled). I decided to run some tests and put up a webpage with my results. Some other C++ programmers ran tests on their systems that allowed me to get results from compilers and systems that I don’t have access to.

The main page is here, if you want to skip straight to the results go here.

There are a few patterns. GCC has had the optimization for a long time, VC++ has never had the optimization (although the results for the latest VC++ compiler are strange – something odd is going on). Watcom had the optimization in the 1990s (incidentally, Watcom lives on as Open Watcom, although it looks like there hasn’t been a release for 4 years).

There are a couple of important points to note. All these tests are doing is testing the include times of a simple header – the header itself is very small so there is almost no time spent processing it. The tests are being run with tens if not hundreds of thousands of includes of the same file – a situation I have never encountered in practice

A few years ago I was on a team that was upset about its compilation times and wanted to look for speedups. Tests showed that the single greatest contributor to our build time was <windows.h>. The solution to that was in 2 parts – include <windows.h> in as few places as possible (and in particular try to keep it out of header files), and use precompiled headers. The include guards didn’t come close to being a problem.

As always, nothing takes the place of running tests on your own codebase, although I would start by measuring the processing time for several commonly used headers – that is far more likely to be the problem than include guards.

Unfortunately making sure we only include the necessary headers is time consuming to do, and even more time consuming to maintain. I have never come up with the perfect solution to this problem – at times I have used imperfect solutions but they have all been inconvenient and required serious amounts of run time.

Finally, John Lakos has a new book coming out in 2015 – Large-Scale C++ Volume I: Process and Architecture. It’ll be interesting to see what he finds to focus on in our current computing environment.

3 thoughts on “Include guards

    • Bob says:

      More cool tools. Thank you.

      The way things are going, any project that doesn’t compile with clang is going to be missing out on a bunch of very useful tools. Perhaps we need a tool that helps us compile projects with clang.

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