PCL C++ Programming Style Guide

To make sure that all code in PCL is coherent and easily understood by other developers and users, we follow a set of strict rules that everyone should adopt. These rules are not to be broken unless there is a very good reason to do so. Changes to these rules are always possible, but the person proposing and changing a rule will have the unfortunate task to go and apply the rule change to all the existing code.

1. Naming

1.1. Files

All files should be under_scored.

  • Header files have the extension .h

  • Templated implementation files have the extension .hpp

  • Source files have the extension .cpp

1.2. Directories

All directories and subdirectories should be under_scored.

  • Header files should go under include/

  • Templated implementation files should go under include/impl/

  • Source files should go under src/

1.3. Includes

Include statements are made with “quotes” only if the file is in the same directory, in any other case the include statement is made with <chevron_brackets>, e.g.:

#include <pcl/module_name/file_name.h>
#include <pcl/module_name/impl/file_name.hpp>

1.4. Defines & Macros


Include guards are not implemented with defines, instead #pragma once should be used.

// the license

#pragma once

// the code

1.5. Namespaces

Namespaces should be under_scored, e.g.:

namespace pcl_io

1.6. Classes / Structs

Class names (and other type names) should be CamelCased. Exception: if the class name contains a short acronym, the acronym itself should be all capitals. Class and struct names are preferably nouns: PFHEstimation instead of EstimatePFH.

Correct examples:

class ExampleClass;
class PFHEstimation;

1.7. Functions / Methods

Functions and class method names should be camelCased, and arguments are under_scored. Function and method names are preferably verbs, and the name should make clear what it does: checkForErrors() instead of errorCheck(), dumpDataToFile() instead of dataFile().

Correct usage:

applyExample (int example_arg);

1.8. Variables

Variable names should be under_scored.

int my_variable;

1.8.1. Iterators

Iterator variables should indicate what they’re iterating over, e.g.:

std::list<int> pid_list;
std::list<int>::iterator pid_it;

1.8.2. Constants

Constants should be ALL_CAPITALS, e.g.:

const static int MY_CONSTANT = 1000;

1.8.3. Member variables

Variables that are members of a class are under_scored_, with a trailing underscore added, e.g.:

int example_int_;

1.9. Return statements

Return statements should have their values in parentheses, e.g.:

main ()
  return (0);

2. Indentation and Formatting

The standard indentation for each block in PCL is 2 spaces. Under no circumstances, tabs or other spacing measures should be used. PCL uses a variant of the GNU style formatting.

2.1. Namespaces

In both header and implementation files, namespaces are to be explicitly declared, and their contents should not be indented, like clang-format enforces in the Formatting CI job, e.g.:

namespace pcl

class Foo


2.2. Classes

The template parameters of a class should be declared on a different line, e.g.:

template <typename T>
class Foo

2.3. Functions / Methods

The return type of each function declaration must be placed on a different line, e.g.:

bar ();

Same for the implementation/definition, e.g.:

bar ()


Foo::bar ()


template <typename T> void
Foo<T>::bar ()

2.4. Braces

Braces, both open and close, go on their own lines, e.g.:

if (a < b)

Braces can be omitted if the enclosed block is a single-line statement, e.g.:

if (a < b)
  x = 2 * a;

2.5. Spacing

We’ll say it again: the standard indentation for each block in PCL is 2 spaces. We also include a space before the bracketed list of arguments to a function/method, e.g.:

exampleMethod (int example_arg);

Class and struct members are indented by 2 spaces. Access qualifiers (public, private and protected) are put at the indentation level of the class body and members affected by these qualifiers are indented by one more level, i.e. 2 spaces. E.g.:

namespace foo

class Bar
  int i;
    int j;
    baz ();

2.6. Automatic code formatting

We currently use clang-format-10 as the tool for auto-formatting our C++ code. Please note that different versions of clang-format can result in slightly different outputs.

The style rules mentioned in this document are enforced via PCL’s .clang-format file. The style files which were previously distributed should now be considered deprecated.

For the integration of clang-format with various text editors and IDE’s, refer to this page.

Details about the style options used can be found here.

2.6.1. Script usage

PCL also creates a build target ‘format’ to format the whitelisted directories using clang-format.

Command line usage:

$ make format

2.7. Includes

For consistent usage, headers should be included in the following order with alphabetical grouping ensured:

  1. PCL headers

    1. All modular PCL includes, except main includes of common module.


      #include <pcl/common/common.h>
      #include <pcl/simulation/camera.h>
      #include <pcl/ml/dt/decision_forest.h>
    2. The main PCL includes of common module. These are the header files in the pcl/common/include/pcl/ directory.


      #include <pcl/memory.h>
      #include <pcl/pcl_macros.h>
      #include <pcl/point_cloud.h>
  2. Major 3rd-Party components of tests and modules

    1. gtest

    2. boost

    3. Eigen

    4. flann

  3. Major 3rd-Party components of apps

    1. Qt

    2. ui-files

    3. vtk

  4. Minor 3rd-Party components

    1. librealsense

    2. ros/message_filters

    3. opencv/opencv2

    4. tide

    5. thrust

    6. OpenGL, GL & GLUT

  5. C++ standard library headers (alphabetical)

  6. Others

This style can also be enforced via clang-format. For usage instructions, refer 2.6. Automatic code formatting.

3. Structuring

3.1. Classes and API

For most classes in PCL, it is preferred that the interface (all public members) does not contain variables and only two types of methods:

  • The first method type is the get/set type that allows to manipulate the parameters and input data used by the class.

  • The second type of methods is actually performing the class functionality and produces output, e.g. compute, filter, segment.

3.2. Passing arguments

For get/set type methods the following rules apply:

  • If large amounts of data needs to be set (usually the case with input data in PCL) it is preferred to pass a boost shared pointer instead of the actual data.

  • Getters always need to pass exactly the same types as their respective setters and vice versa.

  • For getters, if only one argument needs to be passed this will be done via the return keyword. If two or more arguments need to be passed they will all be passed by reference instead.

For the compute, filter, segment, etc. type methods the following rules apply:

  • The output arguments are preferably non-pointer type, regardless of data size.

  • The output arguments will always be passed by reference.

3.3. Object declaration

3.3.1 Use of auto

  • For Iterators auto must be used as much as possible

  • In all the other cases auto can be used at the author’s discretion

  • Use const auto references by default in range loops. Drop the const if the item needs to be modified.

3.3.2 Type qualifiers of variables

  • Declare variables const when they don’t need to be modified.

  • Use const references whenever you don’t need a copy of the variable.

  • Use of unsigned variables if the value is sure to not go negative by use and by definition of the variable