Don’t use fake matrices

In two ancient posts I have talked about arrays in modern C, “don’t be afraid of variably modified types” and  “VLA as function arguments”. Still there seem to be a lot of people that, perhaps just by bad habit, that prefer to use “fake matrices” instead of real matrices in C. Unfortunately among these people are a lot of university teachers that preach that bad parole to their students. I just try to make a list of the advantages of real matrices, here.

First of all, what do I mean by “fake matrices”? These are arrays of pointers that are used to emulate matrices. In the following N is a potentially large value:

double* fakeMatrix[N] = malloc(N*sizeof(double*));
for (size_t i = 0; i < N; ++i) fakeMatrix[i] = malloc(N*sizeof(double));

for (size_t i = 0; i < N; ++i)
    for (size_t j = 0; j < N; ++j)
         fakeMatrix[i][j] = 0.0;

/* Use fakeMatrix for something */

for (size_t i = 0; i < N; ++i) free(fakeMatrix[i]);

We see with the initialization statement that fakeMatrix can indeed be use as a matrix, but its allocation and deallocation are crude and error prone. Before C99, such difficult code was necessary, as soon as N was not a constant but a variable.

Now, here is the equivalent code for real C matrices:

double (*realMatrix)[N] = malloc(sizeof(double[N][N]));

for (size_t i = 0; i < N; ++i)
    for (size_t j = 0; j < N; ++j)
         realMatrix[i][j] = 0.0;

/* Use realMatrix for something */


The advantages:

  • They are conceptually simple

  • The allocated memory is contiguous:

    • The allocation “algorithm” is efficient, in O(1)
    • Memory access is efficient, since there are no gaps between matrix lines
  • One simple allocation and deallocation

    • no need to declare auxiliary functions.
  • The compiler does the calculus of indices.

    • the target of realMatrix[i][j] can be addressed in one go without using indirection.
  • For the fake matrix the idea that all lines of the matrix have the same length is only implicit, the type is underspecified.

  • The allocation method malloc(sizeof(double[N][M])) is clearer

    • compiler even does the computation of the size within the correct type, namely size_t even if the expression N*N (with N wrongly chosen as int) would overflow.