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Why C Continues to the Preferred Systems Programming Language


Some things, do in fact, last forever. The programming language C, that started decades ago – in 1972 to be precise – is one of them. Many of the world’s greatest products are built using C. Some decades ago, and many others that are being built today. According to the December 2018 Tiobe Index, C holds the number two spot, just after Java.

This is mainly because C can be used to compile a very wide variety of computer platforms and requires programmers to make very few changes to the source code.

Despite the prevalence of other modern, higher-level languages, C continues to stand the test of time, and empower the world as the preferred systems programming language – because of low-level access to memory, and minimal run-time support.

C for Systems Programming

Systems programming, although similar to applications programming, requires developers to create programs that interact with other programs or systems, as opposed to human users.

It requires specific interactions, usually with very specific and sometimes rigid formats. And because of the presence of several non-trivial structures and architectures as well as non-traditional execution models, the need to build specific performance characteristics is crucially important for the programmer.

Read More:What Goes into Choosing the Right Systems Programming Language

Although several languages are being used for systems programming, C is the still the ideal choice, due to its flexibility, efficiency, performance, and closeness to the hardware. Let’s look at some other reasons why C continues to be the preferred systems programming language:

  • Easy to code: One of the biggest reasons why C works so well for systems programming is because it is easy to code. C’s direct 1-1 interaction with machine code means there are no complicated built-in data structures like trees or tables. Since the programmer can see any code and know exactly what it does in the hardware, the entire backend is implemented by the programmer – unlike in other languages where the backend implementation is not necessarily known to the programmer.
  • Low-level language: Another reason for using C for systems programming is its proximity to the operating system. Since most C implementations compile directly to machine code, the programmer has full power over what happens at the machine level. There is no need for an interpreter or compiler. This feature makes C an efficient language for systems programming because low-level resources, such as memory, can be accessed effortlessly.
  • Explicit memory management: Another strong reason why C is so popular for systems programming is the flexibility it offers for memory management. Unlike other programming languages where a garbage collector takes care of memory allocation, C allows programmers to do low-level memory handling themselves, giving them total control over where, when, and how memory is allocated. Programmers can scale down a program and run with a small amount of memory. This is extremely beneficial in today’s digital age, where mobile devices demand that programmers keep memory requirement to a minimum.
  • Flexible structure: Systems programming is never easy, especially while dealing with large chunks of code. However, C’s flexible structure allows programmers to break down the program into multiple blocks of code or functions for execution. So, it is easy to understand and allows free movement of data across the different functions. Programmers can manually copy data to different areas, move bits around, and process data in small amounts. Although this is a tedious process, it is a lot more efficient – both in the usage of RAM and in processing time, which is essential in systems programming.
  • No runtime dependencies: As compared to other languages, C has a very small runtime. And unlike other programming languages, C has absolutely no runtime dependencies. Programs can be run on bare minimum systems like embedded systems. This means programmers can build a C program that runs directly on hardware – without expecting any kind of memory manager or input or output layer. Also, much of the standard library doesn’t require an operating system. Those that do can be implemented minimally by the programmer.
  • Compatibility: C is extremely compatible. Most languages that exist today already have what it takes to interact and communicate with C. This means programmers can develop a library in C using standard calling conventions, and have the confidence that every other language can link to it, in a seamless manner. Any software developed using C#, Java, Perl, Python, or PHP can all link with C libraries without much trouble.
  • High portability: A great aspect of C is that is it a highly portable language. It lies as close to the system as possible while simultaneously providing high-level constructs – there is at least one C compiler for almost every existing architecture. Because portability is directly proportional to how flexible the software is, systems that are developed using C are often extremely flexible. So, for programmers who are able to write portable code in C, the end result is an application that can run on every major platform.

The Language of the Future

Considering how long C has been around, the language doesn’t seem to have an expiry date. It’s closeness to the hardware, explicit memory management feature, flexible structure, compatibility, and portability makes it the ideal choice for low-level development such as operating systems and embedded software.

Read MoreWhat To Look For in Your Systems Programming Partner

The fact that C continues to top the charts, despite the presence of so many programming languages, says a lot for C’s robustness and efficiency. Even after 40 years, the world is running on C. And as far as we can see, C will continue to be the top choice for systems programming.


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