Data Oriented C

07 Jan 2011

There’s been a lot of noise (and some light) up in The Twitters about Data Oriented Design. Noel Llopis, Steve Anichini, Mike Acton e.g., Pål-Kristian Engstad, Niklas Frykholm. Christer Ericson, Stefan Boberg, and many others have been having at it.

The points under discussion are well described in those, so I’ll defer to them. Read Pål-Kristian Engstad’s first if you want to get up to speed quickly.

Most often, I find myself hitting one of the extremes. I either want to use something very high-level and script-y (Python, Ruby), or something very low-level (Assembler, C, ???).

The benefit of the high-level of course, is that you might have the functionality magically accomplished for you by a library or language feature. If you’re forced to parse some XML, then generate an image, and POST the result to a server, well, you’re probably going to get it done orders of magnitude sooner in a scripting language.

For in-game where you’re working on code that’s run every frame though, it’s likely that you’re going to need to carefully design the layout of your data.

In C this means focusing on getting all the data to accomplish a particular task together into a (preferably cache-line-sized) chunk, and grouping a bunch of those together. In C++ it naturally means the same thing, but it also means staying true to your inner C programmer and not getting lured by the Sirens’ Song of virtuals up the wazoo.

My thinking is that it would be useful to make a small extension to C (or C++?) that supports this method of thinking about problems. Call it Data Oriented C, a strict superset of C. The goals would be to:

What other goals do you have?

A → A′

The general idea (as espoused by Mike Acton) is that rather than thinking of your program as manipulating a bunch of objects, think of it as transforming data from one form to another, i.e. from A to A′.

I like to think of this as the Unix pipes model, e.g.

cat data | sort | uniq

This is easy to write, easy to test, and easy to understand.

Perhaps we can encourage that by supporting it more directly in the language (off-the-cuff arbitrary syntax):

transform ToWorld
        mat44 local;
        int parent;

        mat44 world;

    operation(int N)
        for (int i = 0; i < N; ++i)
            if (input[i].parent == -1)
                output[i] = input[i].local;
                output[i] = output[input[i].parent] * input[i];

(where transform, input, output, and operation are new keywords.)

Of course, we could extend the syntax or use helper libraries to go wide in the body of the operation. We could also deviate farther from C and add more specialized operation styles eventually. e.g. a map could elide the for loop, and remove the array subscripting replacing input[i] with just in and output[i] with out. That sort of sugar probably doesn’t belong in an early version though.


It might also be useful helpful to support a high-level syntax for composition à la Unix pipes. Plain | is already taken, so perhaps following F# for a |> operator:

SceneNodeCollection nodes;
// ...
nodes |> ToWorld |> Cull |> PrepareForRender;

where ToWorld, Cull, and PrepareForRender are transforms as defined above.

Is this necessary? Or do people generally want to hardcode the transformation compositions, or set them up at runtime based on configuration data?

Having the composition hardcoded allows for some improvements:


Doing Data Oriented C as an extension of a plain C parser wouldn’t too hard, it could probably just be written by hand.

If it’s to be an extension of C++ (probably more palatable for most people), it doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to extend clang to do a source-to-source transformation from Data Oriented C(++) to plain C(++). Realistically, that’s probably a better option for plain C too.


Data Oriented C doesn’t fundamentally do anything magical that you couldn’t do in C (naturally). It’s all about making the default decision be the correct one. It could also make it easier to help out the C compiler, for example by correctly adding __restrict annotations when appropriate.

It seems like this would only be useful if it was designed by and used across a few studios. So, what do you think? What’s the feature you’d like to see removed or added? Is the whole thing even necessary? How would you change it? Twitter, email, or comment below.