C++ class header files organization

Some general guidelines:

  • Pair up your interfaces with implementations. If you have foo.cxx, everything defined in there had better be declared in foo.h.
  • Ensure that every header file #includes all other necessary headers or forward-declarations necessary for independent compilation.
  • Resist the temptation to create an “everything” header. They’re always trouble down the road.
  • Put a set of related (and interdependent) functionality into a single file. Java and other environments encourage one-class-per-file. With C++, you often want one set of classes per file. It depends on the structure of your code.
  • Prefer forward declaration over #includes whenever possible. This allows you to break the cyclic header dependencies. Essentially, for cyclical dependencies across separate files, you want a file-dependency graph that looks something like this:
    • A.cxx requires A.h and B.h
    • B.cxx requires A.h and B.h
    • A.h requires B.h
    • B.h is independent (and forward-declares classes defined in A.h)

If your code is intended to be a library consumed by other developers, there are some additional steps that are important to take:

  • If necessary, use the concept of “private headers”. That is, header files that are required by several source files, but never required by the public interface. This could be a file with common inline functions, macros, or internal constants.
  • Separate your public interface from your private implementation at the filesystem level. I tend to use include/ and src/ subdirectories in my C or C++ projects, where include/ has all of my public headers, and src/ has all of my sources. and private headers.

I’d recommend finding a copy of John Lakos’ book Large-Scale C++ Software Design. It’s a pretty hefty book, but if you just skim through some of his discussions on physical architecture, you’ll learn a lot.

Leave a Comment