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2013 in the programming language standards’ world

August 29th, 2013 1 comment

Yesterday I was at the British Standards Institute for a meeting of IST/5, the committee responsible for programming languages. Things have been rather quiet since I last wrote about IST/5, 18 months ago. Of course lots of work has been going on (WG21 meetings, C++ Standard, are attracting 100+ people, twice a year, to spend a week trying to reach agreement on new neat features to add; I’m not sure how the ability to send email is faring these days ;-).

Taken as a whole programming languages standards work, at the ISO level, has been in decline over the last 10 years and will probably decline further. IST/5 used to meet for a day four times a year and now meets for half a day twice a year. Chairman of particular language committees, at international and national levels, are retiring and replacements are thin on the ground.

Why is work on programming language standards in decline when there are languages in widespread use that have not been standardised (e.g., Perl and PHP do not have a non-source code specification)?

The answer is low hardware/OS diversity and Open source. These two factors have significantly reduced the size of the programming language market (i.e., there are far fewer people making a living selling compilers and language related tools). In the good old-days any computer company worth its salt had its own cpu and OS, which of course needed its own compiler and the bigger vendors had third parties offering competing compilers; writing a compiler was such a big undertaking that designers of new languages rarely gave the source away under non-commercial terms, even when this happened the effort involved in a port was heroic. These days we have a couple of cpus in widespread use (and unlikely to be replaced anytime soon), a couple of OSs and people are queuing up to hand over the source of the compiler for their latest language. How can a compiler writer earn enough to buy a crust of bread let alone attend an ISO meeting?

Creating an ISO language standard, through the ISO process, requires a huge amount of work (an estimated 62 person years for C99; pdf page 20). In a small market few companies have an incentive to pay for an employee to be involved in the development process. Those few languages that continue to be worked on at the ISO level have niche markets (Fortran has supercomputing and C had embedded systems) or broad support (C and now C++) or lots of consultants wanting to be involved (C++, not so much C these days).

The new ISO language standards are coming from national groups (e.g., Ruby from Japan and ECMAscript from the US) who band together to get the work done for local reasons. Unless there is a falling out between groups in different nations, and lots of money is involved, I don’t see any new language standards being developed within ISO.

Cloning research needs a new mantra

August 22nd, 2013 2 comments

The obvious answer to software engineering researchers who ask why their findings are not applied within industry is that their findings provide no benefits to industry. Anyone who digs into the published research finds that in fact there is lots of potentially useful stuff in there, the problem is that researchers often take too narrow a perspective.

A good example of a research area that is generally ignored by industry but has potential for widespread benefits is software cloning; that is chunks of source code that are duplicated within the same application (a chunk may be as little as five lines or may be more, and the definition of duplicate varies from exactly the same character sequence, through semantic equivalence to chilling out with a certain percentage of lines being the same {with various definitions for ‘same’}). (This is not about duplication of code in multiple versions of the same product, we all know how nasty that can be to maintain).

Researchers regard cloning as bad, while I suspect many developers are neutral on the subject or even in favor of creating and using duplicate code.

Clone research will be ignored by industry while researchers continue to push the mantra “clones are bad”. It just does not gel with industry’s view.

Developers are under pressure to deliver working software; if they can save time by (legally) making use of existing code then there is an immediate benefit to them and their employer. The researchers’ argument is that clones increase maintenance costs (a fault being fixed in one of the duplicates but not the other(s) is often cited as the killer case for all clones being bad). What developers know is that most code is never maintained (e.g., is is rewritten, or never used again or works fine and does not need to be changed).

Do company’s that own software care about it containing clones? They are generally more interested in meeting deadlines and being first to market. If a product is a success it will be worth paying its maintenance costs; why risk spending extra time/money on creating a beautifully written product when most products don’t well well enough to be worth maintaining? If the software is bespoke, for in-house use or by a client, then increased maintenance costs are good for those involved in writing the software (i.e., they get paid to maintain it).

The new clone research mantra should be that clones have benefits and costs, and the research results help increase benefits and decrease costs. How does this increase/decrease work? You’re the researchers, you tell me.

My own experience with clones is that they do sometimes multiply costs (i.e., work has to be done more than once) but overall their creation and use is very cost effective, as for ‘missed’ fault fixes clones are a small subset of this use case.

I have heard of projects where there has been rampant copying, plus minor modification, of code within the project. If such projects fail then the issue is one of project management and control, with cloning being one of the consequences.

The number of clones usually found in a large software system is surprisingly high; . If you want to check out the clones in your own code CCFinder is well worth a look. The most common use for such tools is plagiarism detection.

A local CS reading group

August 9th, 2013 No comments

Paper Cup, a reading group for computer science papers recently started, based about 30 minutes from me I decided to go along to the first meeting to see what it was like.

The paper under discussion was: Dynamo: Amazon’s Highly Available Key-value Store. I don’t know much about databases and and have never written code that uses a key-store, but since the event was hosted by guys at ebay/PayPal I figured there would be somebody in the room who knew what they were talking about.

The idea behind a paper reading group is that everybody agrees to read a paper before the meeting, then turns up at the meeting and discusses it.

The list of authors takes up three lines and their affiliation is simply listed as Amazon.com. As a subject matter outsider who probably reads several hundred papers a year my overall impression was that this paper was relatively information free and was more or less a puff-piece for Amazon. On the other hand it currently has 1,562 citations, a lot more than would be expected for a puff-piece paper published in 2007. I was obviously missing something.

Around 10 people showed up, with a handful sounding very knowledgeable and one person working on a new ‘Dynamo like’ implementation. Several replies to my question of what was so good about this paper, that appeared relatively content free to me, gave the reason that they were inspired by it. Wow, very few scientific papers ever inspire anybody.

The group worked its way through the paper and I tried to nod intelligently at the right time. This is one of those papers that requires lots of reading between the lines, an activity that requires lots of background knowledge and hands-on experience (as an outsider I was only reading the surface text).

I asked if one of the reasons this paper was considered to be important was because it described a commercial implementation rather than a research project. Any design team is much more likely to use techniques outlined in a paper describing a working commercial system than techniques operating in some toy academic environment (papers on Cassandra were appearing at about the same time). I’m not sure the relatively young attendees understood the importance of this point.

The take-away interesting snippet of information: Dynamo gives preference to performance over consistency, if a customer’s shopping basket key-value store becomes inconsistent then information on items added to the basket take precedence over items deleted from the basket (a sensible choice for a retailer such as Amazon).

If you live near west London and are interested in discussing CS paper do join the Paper Cup meetup group, the more the merrier.