Writing a Better Options Library

Something I find myself doing often is writing small tools that need to take various command line arguments. Many years ago, when I first encountered this problem, I investigated the options (pun intended) and decided I didn’t like any of them - so I wrote my own 1, which was eventually open-sourced by Warwick Warp. At Pattern Analytics we again wrote a similar library. When I started at Allinea I discovered that their internal options library shared some of the concepts I had used previously, I thought it was interesting that people hit on the same problems and work through similar solutions - so I thought I’d write a series about it.

What would we like in an options library?

We can start with the API guidelines, because this is going to be an API that other programmers use.

  • Minimal
  • Complete
  • Clear and simple semantics
  • Intuitive
  • Easy to memorise
  • Readable

For minimal we want to only cover aspects relating to the parsing of command line options, while for completeness we want to ensure we cover all the common use cases and have an interface powerful enough to cope with the more esoteric use cases.

We certainly want an easy-to-memorise interface, as an options library is something likely to be used infrequently compared to the rest of an application, and we will also need it to be readable so that someone looking over the code does not need to be familiar with the library to figure out the options it takes and how they are represented in the code.

There are also a few other aspects to consider. We would like:

  • Minimal dependencies
  • Broad compiler support
  • Permissively licensed
  • Header only

An options library has a broad range of use cases, from simple sample programs all the way to full applications. We do not want to limit these use cases by imposing unnecessary restrictions on the contexts in which the library is supported. Thus, we want a permissive licence that allows us to freely distribute programs that use the library and we want to avoid decisions that greatly restrict the supported platforms or compilers. Finally, header only libraries are the easiest to integrate with existing build systems - although we may want to relax this requirement if we find it to be overly restrictive on our implementation.

We’re going to write our library in C++, so we would also like:

  • Type safety
  • C++11 (and beyond) support where available

What else is out there?

NIH’ing solutions is not usually a good idea if something already exists that can meet your needs - so as a first step we should look at the existing libraries and see if they meet our needs and if not, why not. We can also look for inspiration for the sort of interface we might expose and features we could support.

Boost Program Options

// Declare the supported options.
po::options_description desc("Allowed options");
    ("help", "produce help message")
    ("compression", po::value<int>(), "set compression level")

po::variables_map vm;
po::store(po::parse_command_line(ac, av, desc), vm);

if (vm.count("help")) {
    cout << desc << "\n";
    return 1;

if (vm.count("compression")) {
    cout << "Compression level was set to "
         << vm["compression"].as<int>() << ".\n";
} else {
    cout << "Compression level was not set.\n";

By-and-large this isn’t terrible, it it’s also not the prettiest syntactically. Having to call store, parse_command_line and notify seems cumbersome - are we really going to use the library often enough that we will remember those three steps? It is not even obvious why we need notify, or what store does that parse_command_line couldn’t. If you dig further into the library there seem to be a lot of syntactic quirks that are not the sort of thing I look for in a clean interface. Finally, although the value<int> and as<int> allows us to be type safe it’s not a DRY interface, and mismatches throw at runtime instead of compile time.

On the other hand, Boost Program Options has a permissive licence and broad compiler support. The library isn’t header only, but it doesn’t (appear to) depend on much from the rest of boost so the dependencies are at least minimal.

The Lean Mean C++ Option Parser

#include <iostream>
#include "optionparser.h"

enum  optionIndex { UNKNOWN, HELP, PLUS };
const option::Descriptor usage[] =
  {UNKNOWN, 0,"" , ""    ,option::Arg::None, "USAGE: example [options]\n\n"
                                             "Options:" },
  {HELP,    0,"" , "help",option::Arg::None, "  --help  \tPrint usage and exit." },
  {PLUS,    0,"p", "plus",option::Arg::None, "  --plus, -p  \tIncrement count." },
  {UNKNOWN, 0,"" ,  ""   ,option::Arg::None, "\nExamples:\n"
                                             "  example --unknown -- --this_is_no_option\n"
                                             "  example -unk --plus -ppp file1 file2\n" },

int main(int argc, char* argv[])
  argc-=(argc>0); argv+=(argc>0); // skip program name argv[0] if present
  option::Stats  stats(usage, argc, argv);
  option::Option options[stats.options_max], buffer[stats.buffer_max];
  option::Parser parse(usage, argc, argv, options, buffer);

  if (parse.error())
    return 1;

  if (options[HELP] || argc == 0) {
    option::printUsage(std::cout, usage);
    return 0;

  std::cout << "--plus count: " <<
    options[PLUS].count() << "\n";

  for (option::Option* opt = options[UNKNOWN]; opt; opt = opt->next())
    std::cout << "Unknown option: " << opt->name << "\n";

  for (int i = 0; i < parse.nonOptionsCount(); ++i)
    std::cout << "Non-option #" << i << ": " << parse.nonOption(i) << "\n";

Yeah. That’s not pretty. It is header only though, with zero dependencies. The Lean Mean C++ Option Parser looks very much like C++ written with C in mind - in our library we would prefer a more modern and natural syntax.


#include <string>
#include <iostream>
#include <algorithm>
#include <tclap/CmdLine.h>

int main(int argc, char** argv)

	// Wrap everything in a try block.  Do this every time,
	// because exceptions will be thrown for problems.
	try {

	// Define the command line object, and insert a message
	// that describes the program. The "Command description message"
	// is printed last in the help text. The second argument is the
	// delimiter (usually space) and the last one is the version number.
	// The CmdLine object parses the argv array based on the Arg objects
	// that it contains.
	TCLAP::CmdLine cmd("Command description message", ' ', "0.9");

	// Define a value argument and add it to the command line.
	// A value arg defines a flag and a type of value that it expects,
	// such as "-n Bishop".
	TCLAP::ValueArg<std::string> nameArg("n","name","Name to print",true,"homer","string");

	// Add the argument nameArg to the CmdLine object. The CmdLine object
	// uses this Arg to parse the command line.
	cmd.add( nameArg );

	// Define a switch and add it to the command line.
	// A switch arg is a boolean argument and only defines a flag that
	// indicates true or false.  In this example the SwitchArg adds itself
	// to the CmdLine object as part of the constructor.  This eliminates
	// the need to call the cmd.add() method.  All args have support in
	// their constructors to add themselves directly to the CmdLine object.
	// It doesn't matter which idiom you choose, they accomplish the same thing.
	TCLAP::SwitchArg reverseSwitch("r","reverse","Print name backwards", cmd, false);

	// Parse the argv array.
	cmd.parse( argc, argv );

	// Get the value parsed by each arg.
	std::string name = nameArg.getValue();
	bool reverseName = reverseSwitch.getValue();

	// Do what you intend.
	if ( reverseName )
		std::cout << "My name (spelled backwards) is: " << name << std::endl;
		std::cout << "My name is: " << name << std::endl;

	} catch (TCLAP::ArgException &e)  // catch any exceptions
	{ std::cerr << "error: " << e.error() << " for arg " << e.argId() << std::endl; }

Again, TCLAP is not pretty, but with a permissive licence and header only it at least meets some of our requirements.

If any of these samples look reasonable to you, then by all means grab those libraries - but for now we’ll look for inspiration in some other languages.

Python argsparser

import argparse

parser = argparse.ArgumentParser(description='Process some integers.')
parser.add_argument('integers', metavar='N', type=int, nargs='+',
                    help='an integer for the accumulator')
parser.add_argument('--sum', dest='accumulate', action='store_const',
                    const=sum, default=max,
                    help='sum the integers (default: find the max)')

args = parser.parse_args()

Unlike C++, Python doesn’t offer much in the way of type safety - but the relaxation of certain requirements, combined with named arguments, make for a very readable interface. We define our arguments, we parse our arguments, we use our arguments.

boost::program_options is similar, but Python’s argparse library really reduces the amount of non-essential code to the bear minimum. The naming of the various argument parameters is also essential to the readability - but I would also argue that some of the actions can be difficult to remember and use.

Node yargs

#!/usr/bin/env node

  .usage('$0 <cmd> [args]')
  .command('hello [name]', 'welcome ter yargs!', {
    name: {
      default: 'default name'
  }, function (argv) {
    console.log('hello', argv.name, 'welcome to yargs!')

The beautiful thing about yargs is that if you don’t need any special behaviour you don’t need to remember anything other than that the library is called yargs 2, importing the library is enough to have it parse the arguments and assign them to a hash:

#!/usr/bin/env node
var argv = require('yargs').argv;

if (argv.ships > 3 && argv.distance < 53.5) {
    console.log('Plunder more riffiwobbles!');
} else {
    console.log('Retreat from the xupptumblers!');

the downside is, of course, that the default behaviour offers nothing in the way of validation and can’t generate sensible help messages.

None-the-less, it’s worth keeping in mind that an interface this simple would automatically meet many of the requirements we set out with.

Dramatic Fade to Black

This post has mostly been setting the stage for developing an options library, something I’ll delve into in future posts in this series.

What, that's it?

  1. This used to be on Google code, you can find it in the archive

  2. And who doesn’t like pirate references littered throughout their code? 

Posted on November 23, 2016
Want to see the edit history? Check the source on Github.

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