How to avoid includes in headers

I have now written twice about why you should minimize the use of include in header files. As one reader on Reddit politely put it (“crap article”), it is about time I write a post about how to do that.

There is mainly two things you can do:

  1. Reduce the number of headers you include.
  2. Reduce the contents of those headers.

1: Reducing the number of includes

Why do you need includes in the header in the first place? When you compile a file that includes header A, all the names that are used in header A need to be defined. So if header A uses an name defined in header B, header A should include header B (or else anyone who includes A will have to include B as well).

What do I mean by “using” a name then? Basically everything that mentions the name, except as a pointer or reference. Some examples of using a name:

SomeClass f; //Creating an object
some_function(); //Calling a function
class Derived : public SomeClass; //Inheriting from a class

Some examples of mentioning a name but not using it (only needs access to a declaration, not the definition):

SomeClass* f1; //Declaring a variable of pointer type
SomeClass& f2; //Declaring a variable of reference type

As soon as you want to use those though, they must be completely defined:

f1->function(); //Needs definition
f2->member; //Needs definition

Also note that the new type of enum, (enum class) only needs to be declared to be used, as long as you don’t actually mention its value:

SomeEnum e; //Declaring a variable of oldschool enum type needs definition.
SomeEnumClass e; //Declaring a variable of newschool enum type does not need definition...
SomeEnumClass e = SomeEnumClass::VALUE; //...but using a value does.

So given this knowledge, how do we reduce the number of includes in headers?

The first thing to do is to make sure you only include what is necessary to get the header file to compile. If you have a class definition in class.h and the implementation in class.cpp, the latter will typically need includes that are not needed by the header, and so should be put in the cpp. A simple way to check that you don’t have any unnecessary includes is to create an empty cpp file that only includes class.h. If it compiles, all the necessary headers are there. Then you can try commenting out includes in class.h and see which ones actually need to be there. Move the rest down to class.cpp.

The next thing to do is to check whether you actually need access to the definitions, or if a declaration will do. Try commenting out one #include at a time, and checking which names the compiler complains about. Then see if you are actually using that name, or if you are merely holding a pointer or a reference to an object of the type. If so, move the include down to the .cpp file, and add a forward declaration. Here’s an example:

#include "stuff.h"

class Ohlson
    void doThings(Stuff* stuff);

The include stuff.h in not needed, as we never use stuff. Instead, we can use a forward declaration:

class Stuff; //Forward declaration instead of include

class Ohlson
    void doThings(Stuff* stuff);

In the definition of Ohlson::doThings(Stuff* stuff) however (typically in ohlson.cpp), we probably need access to the definition of Stuff and need to include it.

So one of the things that will reduce the number of includes in headers is using pointers/references instead of values. There are other considerations to design as well though, so I would not advocate moving from values to pointers without considering the full picture.

Another thing that helps is to have the definition of functions in the .cpp file instead of the .h file. This however prevents inlining, so again, use caution.

A final technique that could help is the Pimpl Idiom. Briefly explained, instead of keeping your private members in the header, you keep them in a struct in the .cpp file. This means you don’t need access to their definitions in the header file, and can move their respective includes down to the .cpp file as well.

Reducing the content of includes

The other thing you can do to reduce the negative effects of includes in headers, if you cannot avoid them, is to reduce the content of those included headers. Here are some techniques:

C++ supports several paradigms, but a good recommendation for most is to depend on abstractions instead of implementations. In object oriented programming, this is done by programming to interfaces. C++ doesn’t have an explicit interface concept, but a class with only pure virtual methods is the same thing. Interfaces should also be kept small and focused. This means an interface should be very quick to compile, reducing the pain of having it included in many files. You will however still need to recompile all the files that include it when it changes, but the more focused it is, the fewer files will depend on it.

A generalization of the above is to avoid large inheritance hierarchies, even if you aren’t able to only use pure interfaces.

If you absolutely need to include a file in your header, but it is one that you own, you can reduce the content of that file by applying the techniques mentioned in the first part of this article to that file. (This is just section 1 seen from the other side of the table.)

A less straightforward technique is to be a bit clever with your templates. Templates are usually completely defined in header files, meaning that a change in the implementation triggers a recompile of everything that uses that template. There is however ways to move the implementation of templates out of header files, for instance as in this Dr. Dobbs article. C++11’s extern template can also help reduce compilation time. Avoiding the use of templates completely of course also solves the problem, but there was probably a reason why you wanted them in the first place.

One final technique that cannot go unmentioned is precompiled headers. While I don’t like what they do to dependencies, I consider them a necessary evil in medium to large projects to keep compile-times reasonable. Precompiled headers are very well explained in the first link in this paragraph, but here’s a short version: Headers can take a long time to compile. If they also change rarely, it would be nice to be able to cache them, and this it what precompiled headers does. In Visual Studio for instance, you put these includes in a file conventionally called stdafx.h, and then include stdafx.h in all your cpp files instead of the actual headers you need. The compiler then only has to compile them once. Headers from the standard library are typically placed here, and third party headers are also usually a good fit.

Those are the techniques I could think of, but I am sure I missed some. Which are you favourite ones? Which did I miss? Which of them are silly? Please use the comment section below.

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10 thoughts on “How to avoid includes in headers

  1. Interesting read related to this is item 34 ‘Minimize compilation dependencies between files’ in Effective C++ (2nd Edition).

  2. I truly appreciate this post. I have been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You’ve made my day! Thank you again!

  3. I disagree: if I want to include Ohlsen.h in my cpp File, then I have to include stuff.h as well if I want to use the “public” function Ohlsen::doThings …

    To make the API-usage easier I would recommend including stuff.h in Ohlsen.h to avoid also including stuff.h

    1. Good point. For an API it might make sense to have a single (or a few) header file that defines the types used by its interface. I would still do that in dedicated header files though, both to keep it tidy internally in the library, and to avoid exposing unnecessary details, but still provide the simplicity you suggest.

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